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[Page 427]

In Mezritsh
{From the book: On the Path to Renewal}[1]

by Yaakov Pat

Translated by Jerrold Landau

There was a big fight in the Beis Midrash in Mezritsh. It broke out when the Maggid delivered his “speech.” This took place three days after Aharon Yidl was arrested, having being reported by Moshel Chazirnik.

Moshel Chazirnik was a wealthy man, a frumak[2], and a pig. He was a manufacturer of pig hair. Aharon Yidl was a simple brush maker in Moshel's factory. He was nothing more than that. On that Saturday night, something took place that had the effect of a match in a barrel of gunpowder. Mezritsh was ripped apart.

Since the Sabbath was the Sabbath, and work was forbidden, the Mezritsh factories operated on Saturday nights [from the time the Sabbath was over] until 12:00 midnight. During the winter, the Saturday night [work hours began] earlier due to the [early onset of] darkness outside. Furthermore, one had to work in accordance with Moshe Chazirnik's clock, which hung in his hall. It was a strange clock: it played tricks. It would be 11:30, and then suddenly move back to 11:15. When it was already 11:45, one would work for the quarter of an hour with the understanding that he, Moshel Chazirnik, would be getting an additional ten minutes of toil. One would look at the clock, and see that it had fallen back by ten minutes.

“If it [time] is burning under your feet, then you want to take money improperly,” sighed Moshel Chazirnik, “It seems that above all, you think it is time to recite the shacharit service.”[3]

Aharon Yidl the brush maker was indeed impatient that night. His wife had already remained [alone] for the second day with their firstborn [child]. Aharon Yidl felt could not bear to remain any longer in the factory. Half the night had already passed, work was supposed to end, but the clock seemed unwilling to strike twelve:

“You might as well give him a good sickness…”, [Aharon Yidl imagined to himself]

[Moshel Chazirnik] was a trickster, like one reciting “Aleinu leshabeiach[4] – from behind, but spitting out the front.

12:30? It could not be earlier. Aharon Yidl snatched a glance at the hallway. He was silent as he opened the door and

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stood in astonishment. Not only his eyes showed amazement, but his whole body, with sleeves rolled up over his dark hands.

Moshel Chazirnik, wearing his housecoat, was standing on a stool near the wall clock, turning back the hands of the clock. He was so immersed in his work that he did not notice Aharon Yidl.

“Reb Moshel, good evening. Why are you not sleeping?…”

“A…? A?… I wanted to see what time it was… How close it is to midnight… The proof is that I, no Jews should know about it, am completely thwarted, indeed completely…”

“And so the clock went backward…,” mocked Aharon Yidl – and it is unclear if he was referring to the clock or to Moshel Chazirnik – “A dog–like[5] sun can, if it does not have the power to move on its own, be given a lesson on how to move…”

He then ascended the stool and struck the clock with his brush maker's rod out of anger. A piece of glass popped out and nicked Moshel Chazirnik in the forehead.

Gevalt!…” he [Chazirnik] shouted.[6]Gevalt!, a thief!… A rogue!… Help!… He stabbed me with a knife!… Save me!…”

The brush makers deserted their brush–making tables, leaving them empty. They came into the hall and saw Reb Moshel still standing on the stool. Along with his shame, there was a trickle of blood on his face. He shouted out with great fury:

“I will have him sent to Siberia!… I will make sure he gets sent to a camp… where a criminal should go!…”

He did not know what more to do. He jumped out the window, pushed himself up [from the ground], and shouted in the streets:

“Police!… Save me!… Rescue me!…

Aharon Yidl did not go home that night. Rather, the police led him to jail.

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On the second Sabbath [following this incident], Reb Getzel the Maggid gave a sermon specifically about this issue in the large Beis Midrash. He asked people to repent. “Thieves are going around the town” [he said], “killing people with knives, it is very, very difficult – such Jews[!] such wealthy people[!]. Does he not have a Master!?[7] Does he think that G–d will be silent? And the police means nothing? Because the murderer wanted to kill a G–d fearing Jew with a knife!…”

The Maggid did not say anything more. The Beis Midrash was “on edge.”

“Maggid, this is a lie!…”

“A false accusation!”

“Shut up, rascals!”

“Hold your mouth, slanderers, blood suckers!”…

Lajzer the Large, with his black beard hanging down, set out for the bima. He jumped onto the bima and shouted at the entire crowd from a spot near the Aron Kodesh [Holy Ark], so that the entire crowd could hear clearly:

“Maggid, you are a tuchis–lecker[8]!

“Is that possible!… What did that coarse youth say! It is a desecration of the Divine Name – it is not appropriate.”

“Rascals!…Show respect!”…

“Let the father of a young child out of jail!”…

“I will send you all!”…

“I will sooner go to hell!”….

“Young ones, hold your mouths!… We will…”

“We will make your hands shorter…”[9]

Someone then banged into someone's beard. Punches and blows flew. The crowd careened sporadically. Finally, a crowd of kapotes[10] gathered around.

They jumped on a bench, and a lectern flew. And another one. Women shouted from the women's section. The fight continued, and people did not know who and where it would reach. The wagon drivers were finally in the middle. The brush makers were fighting with their bare hands[11]. Moshel Chazirnik shouted to his wagon driver:

“Berish, why are you standing, Berish!”

At that moment, someone punched Reb Moshel in the teeth. Blood oozed from his mouth. He shouted with a hoarse voice:

“Save me!… Gevalt!…”

Thankfully the police chief arrived at this moment. The people inside the Beis Midrash were still fighting. The police chief ascended the bima and took out his sword:

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Osady Nazad!” Silence!”…

He set out into the crowd with his sword. He went straight to the brush maker. The tall Yehuda [Aharon Yidl] had a bloody face. He was taller than anyone, so all were able to see his face. Everything became suddenly silent, a silence that could be cut with a knife.

“See it yourself, Yehuda!”…

“See that it is bleeding”…

It became silent in the Beis Midrash. Yehuda's bloodied face looked even larger. It appeared as if blood would also flow from his eyes.

The police chief with his sword approached him directly. The gabbaim looked on.[12]

“And Lajzer!”

“In jail…”

Mordechai the Dark ran up to the bima and shouted:

“Nobody should go to work. We are on strike!”

That Saturday night, no brush maker went to work. The entire town of Mezritsh was on strike. It had begun.


Translator and Editor's Footnotes

  1. There is a footnote at the bottom of the page in the original that reads: “Remark: The names in the article are not authentic. The editor.” return
  2. A derogatory term for a sanctimoniously pious person. Note, the name ‘Chazirnik’ means ‘the pig’. return
  3. This is the first of several colloquialisms in this chapter. The factory owner here seems to be saying that if the workers were feeling that it was time to be done with work, then they were somehow cheating the owner. They were so overly–anxious to be done with work, according to the factory owner, that they were feeling like it must be the crack of dawn (when the morning Shacharit service would be held). return
  4. Aleinu is a prayer recited at the end of each of the daily services. One of the verses in the Aleinu reads: “They bow down to emptiness and nothingness, and a god that does not save.” At that point, some people have a custom of spitting. return
  5. There is a play on the Yiddish words here: the word for backward ‘hinterveilechts’ in the previous sentence sounds like dog–like ‘hintisher’ in the current sentence. return
  6. Gevalt – a common Yiddish expression of dismay, meaning “woe”. return
  7. “Does he not have a Master?.” – This is another of several colloquialisms in this chapter that are difficult to translate. return
  8. Literally, a “Brown–noser.” – one who fawns over and grovels before another. return
  9. Another colloquialism, this one suggesting physical violence. return
  10. Kapote – a man's long coat of medieval origin worn especially by male Jews of eastern Europe. “The most widely known garments worn by Jewish men in Poland were the bekeshe and the kapote. The latter, both in name and shape, was derived from the Persian caftan. The kapote was generally made of very expensive cloth, such as velvet or atlas (a glossy silk or satin).” From the Jewish Virtual Library – https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0006_0_05401.html return
  11. A colloquialism suggesting violent hand movement. return
  12. A gabbai is a lay leader who assists during services in the synagogue. It can also signify a trustee of an organization. It is a position of honor. For more information on the history of the gabbai, see https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0007_0_06964.html return


[Page 431]

The Bund in Mezritsh Before the First World War
(Revolutionary Mezritsh)

by Y. Horn of Buenos Aires

Translated by Jerrold Landau

About a half–century ago, the brush workers of Mezritsh were forced to work 17 hours a day. On Thursday, the brush workers would work all through the night, and on Friday until darkness fell. Our fathers used to recount that on Saturday night[1], they had to go to [back] work.

By the time they returned from the workshops on Saturday night, the wife and children would have been asleep for a long time. A small kerosene lamp would be burning in the kitchen, by which the fathers used to eat the cold “meager kasha with potatoes.”

For that hard work, the qualified workers would earn three to four rubles a week. The workers lived a very tiring life –– they barely had the energy to go to the Beis Midrash to listen to a class in their spare time.

From time to time, conflicts and incidents took place in the workshops between the workers and manufacturers. Economic need and enslavement led to pressured situations which found release in the demand for higher wages, fewer working hours, and, primarily, no longer working by the pod[2]. The revolutionary fire first broke out in a few factories, but later it ignited the entire city.

Close to 1,200 workers took to the streets of Mezritsh and began a struggle that spread from that town to all of Russia. The strikes and struggles of the Jewish brush–workers attracted attention [even] outside the country. The brush–workers began to lay the foundations of a professional class movement in Jewish life in Russia. Their struggle was not just about economic need; it also involved a revolutionary, political struggle.

Yankel “Shmegde” related that he and other brush–workers went to the city's Beis Midrash in 1897, and, in front of the open Holy Ark, demanded the establishment of “the organization.” The Mezritsh brush–workers, just like the Jewish brush–workers in Vilna, formed the nucleus of

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the “General Jewish Workers–Organization” (Algemeinem Yiddishen Arbeiter–Bund). The movement grew from that time onward.

A powerful workers' movement swept through the factories. The manufacturers, who held the power, did not want to recognize this. The manufacturers declared several lockouts against the workers, lasting 17 and 24 weeks. The workers and their families suffered terribly, but their fighting spirit was not broken.

The brush–workers suffered sharp political repression: every worker was a candidate for receipt of a “visilke”,[3] and thereafter for deportation to the interior of Russia.

On winter nights, the “blue” Russian gendarmes with their long, green fatigues would wait for an “appropriate moment” to make arrests. “Mikulka”, the city starosta[4], would often tip off the “blue” gendarmes:

“A fire is burning in the workshops, the workers are armed – every ambush smells of death!”

When the brush–workers of Mezritsh secured an eight–hour workday in 1905, the population danced for joy in the streets, and the workers were heard singing, “A new Messiah is coming.”

When all of the other tradesmen would already be at work, the brush workers would still be at home. At 5:00 p.m. in the summer, while the sun was still shining brightly, the brush factories would have already stopped work, the iron locks and bolts placed upon their doors.

Voveh Paker, the pig–hair merchant used to say, “This symbolizes nothing less than that the factories are 'theirs' [the laborers].”

Moishke Wishnia [a bristle–factory owner] would complain bitterly, “The time is not far off when the workers will decide whether or not I will be permitted to enter my own factories.”

It was known in town that the brush–workers in the workshop of Goldele Sztejn “swore” every day “to struggle for freedom and rights” and to overthrow the Czar. A portrait of the Russian Czar holding a comb with a red knot of silk tied to it, hung in a corner of Meir Simcha's factory. When the clock struck five, the “mixers”, who sat together with the tradesmen at a long table, would run to “Berish Kobele” shouting “dalej samodzierzawie” [down with autocracy] and stick a knife into the Czar's face.

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The challenge to the Russian Czar did not only take place in the workshops. Every home was full of “comrades” – the entire city breathed revolution.

Covert meetings in the forest were a “normal” occurrence. The “comrades” conducted large demonstrations in the streets in broad daylight, and carried red flags, fearing nobody.

The police shot and wounded people, but nobody stirred from their place. On the same day, the “Birszje” at the Briken Beis Midrash [the brick beis midrash] was filled with people, and the workers, as well as a few bourgeois sinners, addressed the crowd.

The Bund ordered the shops to close. The police ordered them to open, and drove out the “comrades.” From time to time, soldiers came around, besieged the city, and deported dozens of youth to Siedlce but this did not frighten them. The “organization” was a holy matter, for which the “comrades” were prepared to suffer or even give their lives.

“Of what value is such an impoverished, dark life, devoid of rights?” – Berishel Lachtshes complained to the workers. Chaim “Katzle”, a brush–worker, gave him nine rubles, his entire wages for the week, for the right to raise the “organization's” flag.

Indeed, of what worth was money if the comrades were prepared to give their lives for the revolution?

On one occasion, a horse dealer from Warsaw named Itchke visited the city. The organization in Warsaw had identified Itchke as an agent of the police, and sought a pretext to make things unpleasant for him, for he had been involved in a large court case in which dozens of people had been imprisoned. The “lot” fell upon Mezritsh.

The Mezritsh comrades planned every last detail. When Itchke, the [police] agent, sat down for dinner in the home of Moshe Konioch, two young men entered and asked if he was Itchke. He answered affirmatively. When Itchke rose from his place at the table, the two young men stabbed him. The master of the house and his wife “Tall Hinda” were immobilized with fear, and began to scream. One of the two young men turned and said:

“Reb Moshe, you did not see anything!”

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One of the young men immediately fled the city, and the other, along with hundreds of other people, watched as the police removed the body of “Itchke Shpian” [Itchke the Spy] from Mezritsh.

“Who among the revolutionaries was afraid?”

Tall Kiva used to say, “Why should one be afraid? The workers can cast off their fetters and go out into the world.”

The working youth in town dreamed of a [post–revolutionary] new world – one with nicer homes, cleaner family life, and the ecstasy of romance. Most importantly, the individual would be strengthened. [These] new individuals would pave the way for a new humanity.

In the interim, Reb Lejzer Beinish held lectures in the Beis Midrash on the topic of the Land of Israel, and also explained that he was registered for the Zionist congresses. The “S.S.”[5] conducted a well–attended discussion in Reb Sender's Beis Midrash. Akiva Reinwejn, Chaim Shlomo Garber's son, called upon the Mezritsh brush–workers to sign up for the S. S. idea. Near the Holy Ark in the Great Beis Midrash, the renowned preacher Simcha Kahane, a Jew with a black beard who had gained prominence in Russia for his fine speeches, stood and delivered a lecture.

The membership of the Bund organization was summoned to the Great Beis Midrash. The Beis Midrash was full of Jews every evening. The preacher stood, singing out his lecture, depicting Jacob our Forefather as the symbol of the Jewish people, referring to the midrash, “Jacob our forefather did not die.”[6]

Suddenly, a voice was heard from the bima:

“No, Reb Maggid, Jacob our Forefather did die!”

The audience was electrified, and suddenly a young man with an earnest voice appeared, and began speaking to and debating with the preacher.

The Bundist B. Wladek then spoke about Socialism in such a persuasive manner that the preacher could find no words with which to respond. The preacher ripped open his shirt, bared his naked breast, and shouted out, “So shoot me, I will not abandon my G–d!”.

The audience trembled, but stood and listened to Wladek's speech about Socialism.

Wladek's [public] challenge to the preacher Kahane, which took place in the Great Beis Midrash in 1905, endured as a significant historical event.

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At certain times, mothers were embarrassed that their children were involved with the “comrades”, and feared lest their daughters be taken in by the concept of “new family life.” Nonetheless, during the years of the revolutionary uprising, they felt pride that their children were nothing to be sneezed at.

Kivale the Small, Kiva the Tall, the Kroll, Sanieh Moris, Yankel Shmegde, Chaya Shols, “Malia Reb Mottel's”, Basha Lea, Sruleke Pleites, and dozens of others were the pride of the workers, and of the entire town.

The words of both Kivas were [considered] holy. Kiva the Small and Kiva the Tall were not only different in their physical build, but they also held different ideologies. They had different understandings of Jewish issues, and land and world problems, and they offered different answers to these questions [in discussions within] the Jewish workers' movement. Both Kivas held prominent positions in the Mezritsh workers' organization. Both were true “princes of the cellar”.[7]

They both came from poor workers' homes, and over the years, both rose to become leaders of the professional and political movements of the city. They both left for America during the difficult, bitter, reactionary years following 1905. The aura of their names endured, however. Like the Kivas, Sanieh Moris, and Yankel “Shmegde” also led strikes. Legends circulated about how the strikes began and ended.

During the years of the revolutionary uprising, many wealthy children came to the workers' movement, but they did not remain for long. They quit during the first difficult moments, leaving only the workers in the political movement.

During the years when Kivale the Small had already been in America for a long time,, a box was found, buried in the ground in the area “behind the canal” where Kivale had lived. Inside the box were the rectangular brass insignia of the Bund organization, The Economic Doctrines of Karl Marx[8], the minutes of the early meetings, and a small booklet about strikes.

A “final word” about Kiva the Tall was brought from America to Mezritsh by his “girlfriend” Basha Lea, who had gone [to America] for a release of bonds[9]. When Basha Lea returned from New York, the town buzzed once again with talk of Kiva the Tall, whose lungs had been damaged in a Czarist prison, leading to his premature death in New York.

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mie436.jpg Rabbi Gliksberg
The leaders of the Mezritsh workers movement from 1904 until 1910

In the photo, among others: Akiva Elenzweig (Kiva the Small), Kiva the Tall, Basha Leah Kamelman,
Shmuel Moshe Milstein (“The Kroll”), Berish Ponoszelec (Lachtshes), Moshe Czepelinski, Barsztenbiner (Julius' son)

 

[Page 437]

In the later years, “The Kroll” also arrived as a guest from New York. He searched for signs of the “old days.” He remained in the large library for many days. At every gathering, he delivered a lecture about the “fifth year” mentioning names, citing events, and almost crying with joy. He thought of the up–and–coming young Bundists and Communists as his own children.

At every intimate gathering, he would remember to mention that while on his way to Mezritsh, he had met Malia Reb Mottel's in Paris. Upon seeing him, he wept like a young child.

“Many, many girls came to us from wealthy homes, from homes with painted floors,” The Kroll used to say, “Those who remained in the movement, became members of the Socialist Land Party when they got older – such as Malia Reb Mottel's did.”

Many of “Der Kroll's” friends from that time still lived in the city. The familiar ones were Yankel Shmegde and Sanieh Moris. The former was still a member in the brush–workers' union, and was very active in the Bund movement. Sanieh Moris was in the opposition. Sanieh Moris was still full of thunder and desire for struggle. The police often arrested him for Communist activity.

On one occasion, Aharon David “Kroll” sat down at the table together with Yankel Shmegde and Sanieh Moris and once again sang in a loud voice, “We are breaking, we are breaking the iron wall.”

*

There were individuals who remained stuck in their epoch and could not enter the new times. They talked differently, they sang different [songs], and, most importantly, they understood everything from that point of view. The strikes, struggles, idealism, and revolutionary impetus were all “from those [the old] times”, when they struggled with the “blue gendarmes” and with the old–time pig–bristle merchants.

Aharon David “Kroll” belonged to those who were stuck in the “fifth year,” constructing “political agendas” at meetings in the midst of the forest. If, Heaven forbid, somebody's funeral were to take place, the deceased was to be taken in a chep.[10]

“Kroll” could not grasp the fact that after his departure for America, Mezritsh continued to struggle, conducted strikes, hungered, endured lockouts, created a sick fund, founded libraries, organized workers from all the trades, and renewed the

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political organization. In truth, that “fifth year” had left its mark on everybody's soul, but life, ignited by fire of that time, did not stand still.

The pain [caused by those struggles] lessened with time; when the large majority wearied [of the struggles], and cheered themselves up with Artsybashev's Sanin[11], focusing only on that.

A new fire arose from the ashes of the revolutionary epoch, which took in large groups of the Jewish youth who worked in the brush factories and sought a connection to the Bundist movement. They became the fresh, young blood of revolutionary Mezritsh.

Young brush–workers banded together. Mottel “Balnik”; Michalke Fisher's three older sons Feivel, Shmuel Itzel and Moshe Noteh; Berke; Yossel the hen–buyer; Shoyele; “Mottel Chaya the Yellow”; Mordechai “Shvitshke”; Hershel the Loszicer; and Leml “Yossel Grine's” – they opened a Jewish workers' library with new books which were purchased by a member of the youth group. The voice of the new Jewish Socialist worker was heard [again] from that library in working and revolutionary Mezritsh. This took place on the eve of the World War in 1914.


Translator and Translation Editor's Footnotes

  1. Written here in a jargon form as “Shabeistzunachts”. return
  2. Pod – A Russian unit of measure. return
  3. Visilke – This term likely means some sort of police summons or writ of deportation. return
  4. The Yiddish word is ‘Starshi’, likely has the same meaning as Starosta: an official leadership position in a Slavic country. return
  5. This probably refers to the organization Socjalistyczni Syjonisci –– the Socialist Zionists [Party]. It does not refer to the Nazi usage of that abbreviation. return
  6. This story also appears in the article on page 58, with some variations. return
  7. Likely referring to the underground status of the movement. return
  8. The Economic Doctrines of Karl Marx – a book by philosopher and journalist Karl Kautsky, the “Pope of Marxism”. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karl_Kautsky return
  9. Chalitza is literally the biblical concept of the ceremony of release from a levirate marriage obligation. Here, it is likely used in the more general sense of a release from a commitment. return
  10. This seems to refer to the need to conduct the funeral in an undercover fashion. return
  11. A Russian novel. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanin_%28novel%29 return


[Page 439]

Episodes from Mezritsh

by Meir Edelbaum

Translated by Jerrold Landau

 

1. The Dispute about the Next–to–Last Rabbi

In my book, The Jewish City of Mezritsh, I often discuss various issues relating to the history of the Mezritsh community in the name of my father Reb Yechiel the Shochet[1], of blessed memory.

I emphasize there that what I am relating is not merely a story, or an incident not based on actual facts and happenings. My father was an actual eyewitness, had heard from my grandfather who was an eyewitness, or heard from other reliable witnesses who described things that they had seen and events that took place in their lives.

My father, of blessed memory, also told about the dispute that broke out in the year 5655 – 1894. Not only was he an eyewitness, but his father Rabbi Moshe Tzvi was also deeply engaged in that dispute, which was conducted with words, and not, Heaven forbid, with hands – as was unfortunately the case in many Jewish communities of Poland and Russia until the downfall of Polish Jewry. The second–to–last rabbi of Mezritsh, Rabbi David Nachman Szapira, of blessed memory, the only son of the renown and universally respected Gaon Rabbi Yisrael Isser Szapira[2], who died in the year 5655 – 1894, was deeply involved in the dispute. (See M. Edelbaum, The Jewish City of Mezritsh, pp. 329–331.)

Despite the fact that Mezritsh was not among the very large cities, it was known in the Russian Kingdom of that time. It was a city of Torah and greatness, a city of ample livelihood with wealthy householders, great Torah scholars and heartwarming, fine, regular toiling Jews. The rabbinate of Mezritsh was no less renown. The local rabbis were known as great in Torah and as righteous people. It is no wonder that the city notables searched for rabbis that were great scholars and of some renown to embellish the rabbinate of their city. Many great rabbis vied to become the rabbi of Mezritsh.

After the death of Rabbi Yisrael Isser, who had served as the rabbi of the city for 26 years, from 1868 until 1894, sides were formed in Mezritsh. Rabbi Yisrael Isser indeed left behind a worthy heir, his only son Rabbi Berele, who was already a rabbi in the nearby town of Konstantynow near Siemiatycze. Rabbi Berele was a great expert in Torah, a fine young man who followed his father's path. However, the opponents wanted a rabbi with a name,

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a rabbi who was not only an expert in Talmud and halachic decisors – for that they had in Rabbi Yisrael Isser's heir – but also in worldly affairs. They wanted a rabbi who was suitable for a city such as Mezritsh, where there were large–scale businesses, and the monetary disputes were certainly not small. They found only one fault with Rabbi Berl[3] – he was very young, with little experience in leading a large city, and scanty knowledge of worldly matters. The “pnei” as they were called[4] were seeking a renowned rabbi who would be able to fill the place of the late rabbi.

Rabbis from near and far traveled to the funeral. Among them was the Brisker Rav, Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik[5], who was also one of the chief eulogizers. He quickly injected a tone that raised the question of the replacement, and he recommended that the son of the deceased be given the position.

A portion of the householders among the simple folk, and especially the Hasidim of the city, took his side. Even though they were a small minority, the Hasidim had important Jews in their community – scholars and also some people of means. The Hasidim felt that Rabbi Berele was fit to take his father's place for several reasons. First, as has been noted, Rabbi Berele was a great expert in Talmud and halachic decisors. Second, he was pious and a proper “disciple of his fathers” – the son of his father and the scion of a great rabbinical family. Hasidim believed strongly in the tradition that a son must travel to where his father travelled, with respect to Tzadikim and Hasidic Rebbes.[6]

One of the chief activists on that side [of the rabbinical selection dispute] was my grandfather, my father's father Rabbi Moshe Tzvi HaLevi the Shochet[1], of blessed memory. First, he was a very close friend of Rabbi Yisrael Isser, and he held strongly with him. The rabbi in turn held strongly with regard to my grandfather's scholarship. (My grandfather had a photographic memory. It was sufficient for him to leaf through a book in order to know it from beginning to end. He had a wonderful and straightforward intellect.) Rabbi Yisrael Isser would show my grandfather the response that he was preparing to send out in advance.[7] At times, he would ask my grandfather to write to someone who would stubbornly question the rabbi's responsum. In the week when my grandfather served as the chief shochet in the slaughterhouse, and a question arose about the laws of shechita, Rabbi Yisrael Isser refrained from issuing a decision. He believed that my grandfather himself should respond to the question. In addition to this, my grandfather represented the office of the rabbi of Komarówka when he was a shochet there.

My grandfather did not only honor Rabbi Yisrael Isser for his scholarship,

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for there was no shortage of scholars in that generation, but even more for his righteousness and uprightness in all matters. Since he was a frequent visitor to the rabbi, he also naturally had an opportunity to get to know Rabbi Berele, and witness his scholarship and uprightness. Therefore my grandfather felt that it would be unfair to seek a rabbi from elsewhere when the deceased had left behind such a worthy replacement. This was also the wish of the deceased rabbi. All of the Hasidim agreed with my grandfather's opinion.

Rabbi Chaim Brisker [Soloveitchik] found my grandfather to be a person upon whom he could depend. He also enlisted the help of my father of blessed memory, then still a young man – today one would indeed call him a youngster – and drew him very close. Rabbi Chaim asked my father, of blessed memory, to be in touch with him and inform him about the progress on the selection of the rabbi of the city.

As I have said, many rabbis sharpened their teeth over the rabbinical seat of Mezritsh, especially since they were seeking as rabbi of the city one of the giants of the generation, a scholar, a good orator, someone who was expert in worldly affairs and had a knowledge of worldly education.

One rabbinical candidate (we avoid mentioning his name on account of his honor and the honor of his well–known family) possessed those rare qualifications. He had great rabbinic experience: he had already served as rabbi in three large cities, among them Moscow. (After the expulsion from Moscow[8], he settled in nearby Biala, where he married the wealthy widow Tyla, the daughter of the prominent Biala resident Reb Yitzchak Shachor.) The rabbi had felt uncomfortable in the Hasidic town where he had settled after the deportation from Moscow, and was seeking broader horizons, and especially a Misnagdish[9] city. The Mezritsh rabbinate impressed him.

That candidate arrived in Mezritsh, where he was received with great honor. His name spread. Everyone came to hear his lectures, and he was greatly accepted by everyone in all strata of the community, especially among the scholars, and in particular by those who knew him from Volozhin, and were connected with the house and family of the Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner whose great–grandchild he was. They may have even attended his classes, for he had been a Rosh Yeshiva in Volozhin for a brief period. The Maskilim[10] were also in favor of him, because he understood worldly issues. The simple folk felt the same, because he was an imposing figure and a fine orator. In one word: they felt that he should become the rabbi.

[Page 442]

Father of blessed memory explained, “When I saw that things were going askew, I immediately informed Rabbi Chaim [Soloveitchik], who came at once to Mezritsh. A meeting of the fine Jews, scholars, and wealthy people was immediately called in a private home. Reb Chaim used to wear a customary Jewish hat instead of the rabbinical hat, the “kapelosh”, and that is how he came to Mezritsh. The pnei ha'ir[4] requested that he exchange his hat for a rabbinical hat, but he refused.

Reb Chaim said to my father, “Particularly in Brisk, I must wear a kapelosh, because Brisk does not support me. However, there is a demand upon me from Mezritsh, which has no more than 10,000 poor people, without taking into account the wealthy people.”[11] Rabbi Chaim's speech was not without effect. It had a powerful effect upon the leaders of Mezritsh. Rabbi Chaim's intercession on behalf of Rabbi Berl, and his opposition to the candidate who was his own uncle left a great impression. Rabbi Chaim, the Gaon of his time[2], regarded the rabbinate of Mezritsh differently. To him, it was a moral as well as a social question. He felt that his uncle had acted improperly. That is how Rabbi Chaim was able to alter the will of the leaders of the community and the pnei ha'ir.

The dispute ended with the acceptance of Rabbi Berele as the rabbi. The opponents made peace with the election and with the new rabbi. Some continued the dispute for some time and only recognized Rabbi Berl as the head of the rabbinical court, but later they also recognized him as the rabbi.

Rabbi Berele occupied the Mezritsh rabbinical seat for almost 30 years, and earned a great deal of respect and rabbinical prestige.

 

2. Clergy and Observant Jews Run to the Movie Theater.

Today this is no longer news. Today, one can see young men with yarmulkes and women with covered heads sitting in the movie theater, becoming increasingly nervous as the love scenes play before them on the screen, but their faces do not blush from shame. They can also tell the intimate histories of all the film stars. Certainly, today there are also pious Jews who would not cross the threshold of a movie theater, but they are a small minority.

Today, this is no longer news, but in the days that I am discussing here, a Jew with a beard, or even an ordinary Jew who worshipped three times a day would never go to a movie theater to see any sort of film.

[Page 443]

Incidentally, kino[12] itself was a very strange word in those days, even for the average citizen in larger cities. Yankele Rishe's (Silverberg) was one of those people with an entrepreneurial spirit. Yankele Rishe's was a chess player of great renown, a great card player, someone who knew about life, and a businessman. He came up with the idea that a movie theater would be a good business in Mezritsh.

His calculation was as follows: First, of all the towns in Poland, Mezritsh was ripe for an “Illusion” – as movie theaters were called at that time. Second, Mezritshers knew something about “Illusions.” They were world travelers. They had traveled to Warsaw and other large cities outside of the country, and to Russia. They had certainly visited movie theaters, a fact which could be proven by the fact that upon their return, they would talk about “Zhiva–Abrazi” – that is, vivid pictures that they had seen. Third, Mezritsh was not fanatically religious; one could even say, (it should not befall us), that there were those who were not observant at all. The workers were already revolutionaries, and a large number permitted themselves to go out into the streets with uncovered heads, carried on romances, etc. Since the city had a great deal of economic activity, and there were a lot of theater lovers, and people who generally loved the good life, the chances of success were good.

In 1913, Yankele Rishe's opened the movie theater in Moshe Maler's brick house that was on the way to Kasztelene Street.

I do not know if he did well, but I do know that one film brought in a great deal of income. Everyone, including Orthodox Jews, literally ran to the film. Perhaps even a few Hasidim came, and how many Hasidim did Mezritsh have? – perhaps several hundred. They were not of great significance, and did not play any role in Yankele Rishe's calculations. If their families did go, it was because the women and children did not heed their warnings.[13]

Once, posters appeared on the wall announcing the sensational news that “The Life of the Jews in the Land of Israel” would be playing. There were many Zionists in town. Even the Bundists who did not believe in “Herzl's State” felt that the Land of Israel was, after all, the Land of Israel. The mere mention of the Land of Israel caused a throb in the heart. Today, which Jew, secular or religious, would not want to see the Western Wall, or Rachel's Tomb – the holiness and scenery of the Holy Land? As has already been said, Yankele Rishe's was a good businessman. He understood that in order to attract the orthodox people, he would have to put on special shows that would be appropriate for men as well as for

[Page 444]

for women, so that the orthodox people of both sexes would not have to restrain themselves. They could come, sit comfortably in his movie theater, and watch a film about Jewish life in the Land of Israel.

He indeed planned well. Jews came from everywhere: not just ordinary Jews, but also members of the clergy… Reb Baruch Meir Rozenblum, the founder of Yesod Hama'alah[14], beamed with joy – such a holiday, that they were showing [a film about] the Land of Israel! So it was that everybody came to the movie theater to see the movie. For them, it was almost like a trip to the Land of Israel.

I think that the film showed the old and the new of the Land of Israel. It portrayed old Jerusalem and the Western Wall where Jews worshipped. It showed their strange costumes and turbans, formal hats with wide brims, striped frocks, and white, linen socks. Almost all of them were rabbis. That is how they appeared to my young eyes. We saw Jaffa, and the colonies with their colonists who were regular Jews: Jews with beards and peyos[15] riding on donkeys, as well as modern Jewish men and women. It showed the first Hebrew high school “Herzliya” in the new city of Tel Aviv, which had been founded around that time. Like Reb Shmuel Jawerbaum's son Yosef, who was studying at “Herzliya” then, many had shaved their beards and peyos. He was seen among the “Herzliya” students as they were playing sports.

In one word: The ambience of the Land of Israel came to permeate all the Jews of the city [of Mezritsh, as a result of the film]. Was this a small thing? It was almost as if they were in the land of Israel. Everybody was talking about life in the Land of Israel, which was portrayed with such idealized beauty, a Land of milk and honey. The film played for weeks. I saw it several times. The city came under the influence of the Land of Israel. Many women shed tears of joy.

As the film was being shown, the musicians Mendel, Yentshe and others played a sweet melody that I have not forgotten to this day, after so many years.

 

3. The Common Folk Elect a Representative…

That which I am about to describe here played itself out in 1913, on the eve of the First World War. I was then a child, close to Bar Mitzvah age, and therefore did not know the qualifications and traits that were required of a person in order to become a communal representative. However, I already knew well that one did not have to be the finest Jew in town, nor its greatest scholar, nor even its wealthiest person. The proof was that the

[Page 445]

very wealthy people were not the representatives in the city, neither were they its greatest scholars.

That year, Reb Avraham Yosel (Szulman) became a communal representative. Avraham Yosel was a fine Jew. He had a wine business: he himself produced and sold the wine. When Friday would come, Jews would go to him to purchase wine for kiddush. There were other winemakers in town, such as Moshe (Chava's) Tiszel, who had a large wine cellar. He not only made wine, but also imported wine from Bessarabia and other places. He was a fine householder in the city, certainly much wealthier, more intelligent, and even more scholarly than Avraham Yosel. There were also winemakers who were wealthier than Avraham Yosel, but he was one of the most popular people in the city.

First, he came from an old, honorable, and scholarly family in the city. He himself was not learned, but neither was he a coarse person. He had a talent for speaking. He helped reorganize the Linat Tzedek Society, which used to help the sick, send people to spend the night with the sick when necessary, administer first aid, and send poor Jews to the hospital. (As is known, the Jews of Mezritsh had a very fine hospital. When the hospital was modernized in later years, it was called Hekdesh in the lexicon of the Jews of Mezritsh.) He involved himself in working as a feldscher[16], would medicate a tooth without expecting any payment, was always prepared to help a Jew in need, and even got involved in going to the authorities, who naturally accepted bribes. Poor people would also obtain wine, on occasion, for free. On the Sabbath, Jews would go to him to drink a glass of warm drink. In short, Reb Avraham Yosel was a Jew who exuded love.

Life was not always easy for him financially, but in those years specifically he felt that his business was stonger. Perhaps he had a bit of money, and he loved communal matters – so why should he not become a communal representative?

Avraham Yosel understood that the well–to–do and honorable householders, the wealthy, and pnei of the city would not vote for him. His popularity aside, he did not sufficiently represent them, so he decided to become the candidate of the common folk.

His wine shop was in the market. In the weeks prior to the elections, his shop took on a fair–like atmosphere. The porters, market sitters, wagon drivers, and ordinary Jews would have a drink with Avraham Yosel. They would get a glass of tea, and often stop into his shop. Since we were

[Page 446]

neighbors and close acquaintances, I would often go there, and be literally taken up by the election fever.

Finally, the great day arrived. The district representative, under whose supervision the community tax collectors would conduct the vote, arrived in Mezritsh. At night, the elections took place in the large Beis Midrash.

Avraham Yosel worked and sweated an entire day. The common folk were very prepared to vote for their candidate. I do not recall how I arrived in the women's gallery. Probably Mother, of blessed memory, took me along. I was personally very strongly captivated by the elections. Naturally, I was a great supporter of Avraham Yosel, who loved me very much and, incidentally, always gave me a glass of wine to drink. Since my mother's place in the Beis Midrash was near one of the grotto windows, I was able to see everything that was taking place.

I remember it as if it was yesterday: the large Beis Midrash was lit up. All the bright lights were on. The Beis Midrash was full of Jews. (Thousands of Jews would gather in the Beis Midrash during a meeting.) The pnei as well as the veritable master, the district representative, sat next the Holy Ark. My head was spinning – perhaps from too much noise, perhaps from the late hour – for at that time I would still go to bed early – or perhaps for other reasons. I do not recall the election procedure. Perhaps that was because I did not understand the matter at the time. I recall very clearly, however, that Avraham Yosel became a representative.

Who could be compared to him and his family in their joy? He was the hero of the day…

Meanwhile, it became known in the city that the new governor was arriving in Mezritsh from Lublin (until then, Mezritsh was a part of the Siedlce Guberniya. When the Guberniya was annulled, Mezritsh became a part of the Lublin Guberniya). Avraham Yosel, the newly elected representative, began to raise a commotion.

First, they had to make sure that the reception would be prepared appropriately. In truth, the city council and the official Ziemski, who wanted to be based in Mezritsh instead of the small town of Radzyn where the powiat (district seat) was located, issued a warning that the gutters were becoming calcified with lime. The cobblestones in front of the houses were cleaned, and the gates, wherever they were located, were painted. Mezritsh was indeed a Jewish city with many thousands of workers and toilers. They

[Page 447]

had to make sure that the cantor would sing the appropriate prayers with a choir. (When I was young I was in the choir. We stood in the gallery in front of the Holy Ark, and we all wore small talises.[17] This was certainly a novelty in Mezritsh, an influence of the merchants of Leipzig who saw this in the German synagogues.) Householders were told to place candelabra with lit candles in the windows that faced the street. Avraham Yosel made a fuss and was very busy. One thing, however, caused him grief: he did not own a “tzilinder” hat[18]. He wanted to receive the governor while wearing a tzilinder and a cape.

In truth, there were Jews who wore tzilinder hats in the city: Reb Nachum Szejnman used the wear a tzilinder on the Sabbath. The elderly Jakobson, a manufacturer of cigarette wrappers and a great scholar, as well as his son, the communal representative Reb Yaakov (Yankele) Pesza Rivka's Gelbert and others also wore tzilinders, but from where could Avram Yosel get a tzilinder in time? Avraham Yosel did not stand still. He appeared in a tzilinder and a cape at the reception. With his stately form and impressive figure, he was without doubt the main attraction of the Jewish delegation that received the governor.

His honor did not last long, however. The war broke out. These were new times and new circumstances. Avraham Yosel “made” money even under the Germans, but he became a poor man under the Poles. He left for New York during the 1920s, where he became the rabbi of a small synagogue in Brooklyn.

I met him only once when I went to New York during the time of the Second World War. I promised to visit him, but misfortune overtook him in the meantime. He was thrown out of a car and had to have a foot amputated. His lively body, which had always been in motion, could not hold up, and he passed away – certainly not in a happy spirit. He missed Mezritsh, and its Jews. He died as a stranger in a strange place.


Translator and Translation Editor's Footnotes

  1. Shochet – Hebrew for ritual slaughterer. This is a person who slaughters and inspects cattle and fowl in the ritually prescribed manner for kosher consumption. Shechita is the ritual slaughtering of an animal. return
  2. Gaon – an honorific title meaning “wise man”. In medieval and modern Hebrew – genius. The leaders of the rabbinical academies (589–1040) at Sura and Pumbedita were referred to as Gaon. return
  3. The names Berl and Berele are used interchangeably by the author. Both names refer to Rabbit Berele Isser the son of Mezritsh's deceased rabbi , R. Yisrael Isser. return
  4. Pnei – A term referring to “pnei ha'ir” (literally – faces of the city) – the town notables, who often got their way in communal politics. return
  5. For more information on R. Chaim Soloveitchik, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaim_Soloveitchik return
  6. Hasidim would often travel to spend the Jewish Holidays with their Rebbe, to locations that their fathers had frequented. return
  7. Responsa – are a rabbi's written answers/decisions/rulings to questions of law posed to him by other rabbis or notables. return
  8. Most Jews were expelled from Moscow in 1891. For additional information see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Jews_in_Russia return
  9. Misnagdish – meaning non–Hasidic. For more information on the misnagdim and their disputes with the Hasidim, see https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/hasidim_&_mitnagdim.html return
  10. Maskilim – Maskilim were members of the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment movement. For more information on the Haskalah, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haskalah return
  11. This is a difficult series of sentences. It is not clear what the relationship might be between wearing the traditional rabbinical hat, the kapelosh, in contradistinction to the traditional Jewish had, and what this had to do with financial support, whether in Mezritsh or in Soloveitchik's town, Brisk. return
  12. Kino – The term for a movie theater. return
  13. their warnings” – probably refers to the warnings of the male heads of household who advised their wives and children against going to the movies. return
  14. Yesod Hama'alah – a town in Israel on the shores of Lake Hula founded in 1883 by emigres from Russian Poland, among them 20 families from Mezritsh. For more on Mezritsh and Yesod Hama'alah, see pp. 81–82 and 104–123 of this Yizkor Book return
  15. Peyos – (also pronounced pe'ot) – sidelocks worn by Orthodox men and boys in observance of the commandment not to “round off the side–growth” of the head (Leviticus 19:27). return
  16. Feldscher – A term for a “barber surgeon” or a medic. return
  17. Talises – the plural of tallis (also pronounced tallit) – the Jewish prayer shawl. return
  18. Tzilinder” – referring to a fancy, tall top hat that was in vogue especially among the upper classes, politicians, diplomats and businessmen at the time. See the article in Hebrew Wikipedia http://he.wikipedia.org/wiki/כובע_צילינדר return


[Page 448]

Avraham Reyzen's Visit to Mezritsh

by Y. Horn

Translated by Jerrold Landau

It was decided to bring the famous Jewish poet Avraham Reyzen[1] to Mezritsh in the first years of the 20th century.

It was a simple thing to talk about – but bringing him? How would one accomplish this? From where would one obtain the permission to give him the possibility of speaking? During those years, the Russian authorities made great difficulties. The town elder, the short Mikulka, did not want to hear about this [idea]. A plan was hatched: there was a library in town whose director was a Jewish doctor, a certain Rozenblum, who had the rank of an officer in the Russian Army. The directors of the library, who sympathized with the workers circles in those days, decided to invite Avraham Reyzen to Mezritsh.

I am not able to [adequately] relate what happened in the city. The city took on a festive air as soon as it became known that Reyzen was coming. People began to read his books with fervor. The library directors began to prepare for a reading, a reception, and a banquet.

Young and old, poor and rich, all ran to hear Reyzen. People applauded what he had to say. Reyzen was young at that time, and he sparkled with ideas and wit. A storm of applause broke out when he said:

“At one time, women gave over their gold and silver so that a god could be created – today they give everything away for a bit of gold.”[2]

A banquet took place at night at which Reyzen presented his book to the girl who served as the librarian of the city library. This impressed everyone, especially when they found out that the title page was inscribed as follows: “To a fine Jewish daughter, thank you – Avraham Reyzen.”

And now the real story begins.

As a continuation to the story of the book presentation, we must relate that they did not stop singing Reyzen's songs for the entire day in the brush factories. They sang “Hulyet, Hulyet” [Be Merry, Be Merry][3] in Wysznia's large factory.

“Why are you singing so much today?”

[Page 449]

shouted the nervous foreman, “Are you not tired of singing the same thing?”

“The poet who composed this song is coming to [visit] us,” answered the delegate of the factory with pride as he removed his apron. Then all the brush–workers in the factory began singing, as if it were a holy oath, “Hulyet, Hulyet, evil winds, freedom will spread throughout the world.”

Now back to the beginning: After Reyzen's departure, the entire city could not forget the fact that Reyzen had given the girl a book with such an inscription.

There were many who doubted, so the boys and girls felt the need to see Reyzen's inscription [with their own eyes].

Later, all of them claimed:

“She is indeed a lovely girl… The poet has understanding and he understands people. The girl felt happy. And who among the simple lads in the city would know how to talk with her?”

That girl began to feel very special. She dressed differently, and even walked differently.

She covered the book with a beautiful, red silk cover, decorated with a large, silk bow. To her, this was the finest and holiest of her possessions.

She spent every evening in the library exchanging books for the readers. Later she did not let any of the suitors accompany her home.

There was a large picture of Reyzen among the pictures in the library, and all of his works were on the bookshelves.

Years passed, and the librarian grew older. A strange thing happened: all of her girlfriends had their own homes; all had become wives.

She was not lacking suitors, but she did not want to give her hand to anybody. She could not marry Baruch the son of the Tall One because he did not have a refined soul. Blumberg was brutish – in search of a wife. Thus she rejected one [suitor] after another and remained single.

Her hair grew grey, her older friends had settled down before her eyes; but above all, she dreamed of a poetic soul. She wept at night in the quiet of her house, and all the despairing thoughts were directed toward Reyzen, thanks to whom she had become a different person – however one could not say this often.

[Page 450]

People saw clearly how she was suffering from loneliness. She sat near the window on fine evenings, and stuck her head out to see what was going on outside – this was how she spent her time.

Men who were already marrying off children used to talk among themselves about how beautiful she had once been.

“You know, the poet Reyzen inscribed a book to her!” [they would say].

Years later, one could still see the girl going to the library in the evenings, at five or six o'clock. After the large city library closed, however, she sat, old and alone, in her house.

What finally happened to her?

She married a widower, left the city, and became a shopkeeper in a new town.

Among her belongings, she took along the only relic of her youth – the book that Avraham Reyzen had inscribed to her with his signature.


Translator and Translation Editor's Footnotes

  1. Avraham Reyzen (1876 – 1953) was a Yiddish writer, poet and editor, and the elder brother of theYiddishist Zalman Reyzen. For more information, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avrom_Reyzen return
  2. This seems to be a reference to Exodus 32:2–4, where, in Moses' absence from the community (he is atop Mount Sinai obtaining the tablets of the 10 Commandments from G–d), the women bring their gold to Moses' brother Aaron to create the Golden Calf, a false god.
       Ex. 32:2 Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.”
       Ex. 32:3 And all the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron.
       Ex. 32:4 This he took from them and cast in a mold, and made it into a molten calf. And they exclaimed, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” return
  3. Hulyet, Hulyet” – a Yiddish song by Mordekhai Gebirtig. Reyzen apparently changed the words and made it a labor song. For Gebirtig's Yiddish lyrics and English translation, see: http://zemerl.com/cgi–bin/print.pl?title=Hulyet%2C+Hulyet%2C+Kinderlekh return

 

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