By Zalman Shazar [former President of the State of Israel]
Translated by Harvey Spitzer
This time I will tell about a storm which passed through the heart of my small town in the days of my childhood, a storm of short duration and great upheaval. Every time I remember it, my heart trembles just as the whole town trembled then. And the storm was a dispute over the rabbinate.
The way the small town treated every matter pertaining to the rabbinate of our town was unique. It is true that the small town itself did not stand out as a place of Torah learning. The people of our town knew that the residents of the adjacent towns surpassed them in this respect. The large higher level Yeshiva was not located in our town but rather in closeby Mir and the rabbi of the Chassidim was in nearby Koidanov. Koidanov was located on the banks of the Neiman River and its inhabitants were occupied with the markets in its vicinity and the railway station next to it. However, our small town was a town which honored Torah and which felt humble in the presence of Torah students. A boy who was late arriving at the nearby Yeshiva for the start of the school year had to remain outside, or a boy who turned sour inside the Yeshiva and was removed from it, or an eminent married man who wanted to leave his wife and children so that he could devote his time to studying Torah and sought a place for his seclusion, or a young scholar who was considering rabbinic ordination and whose friends distracted him from his studiesall these Steibtz would gather within its synagogues and take care of the days, warm itself in their light and from them, put together a cadre of teachers to teach the superior among the children of Steibtz. And the town took much pride in the chain of rabbis who dwelled there. Deep in their hearts the townspeople could not explain why they merited that specifically their rabbis would be chosen for the honor of the praises of the other communities. However, as soon as they had the privilege they were blessed, and out of humility and pride, they called the rabbis by the names of the communities where they last served: The Moscow Rabbi (or The Preacher from Vilna), Reb Teveli from Minsk, and Rabbi Benyamin from Jerusalem, for all of them succeeded in acquiring the position of chief rabbi in these communities after serving in the rabbinate in my small town. And in my days the elders of our small town would tell with pride and great secrecy that in the small town's cemetery in the old one which was in the Shulhoif which was more than 400 years old, and the new one which was outside the townnot one rabbi from the community was buried there because they were all kidnapped in their lifetime for service in splendid communities.
However, the old rabbi who served in the rabbinate when I was a child was not one who sought honor or went after prestige and he occupied the seat of the rabbinate in this small town of ours for some 20 consecutive years. And the rabbi was an eminent scholar and great zealot and expounder of Scripture and author who was admired by the town rabbi of Mir, who used to send him the young yeshiva scholars to receive their ordination from him as well. However, the important people in the town were not pleased with him, and there were sometimes different and changing reasons for this. Some people would say: He is prone to anger and insults people. And others would say: He is zealous and not popular among young people. And all of them would say: His wife was sickly and stingy and there is no way to enter into conversation with him about the affairs of the town. And he himself they secretly related stopped enjoying serving in the rabbinate and longed to return to the days when he was engaged in business and was not dependent on the opinions of others.
Meanwhile the small town got bigger, fires broke out in the adjacent small towns and our small town was built up from their ruins. Chassidim came in and the rabbi objected. Zionists arose and the rabbi was a salient anti Zionist. In short, domestic peace came to an end in the small town and the first public conversations which I recall in my childhood in the synagogue between mincha and ma'ariv on the Sabbaths in the small shtibel during the Torah reading and on Fridays when the beadles paid a visit to the homes of the townspeople with charity boxes in their hands these conversations referred to the matter of the dissatisfaction of the important people in the town with the rabbi and the rabbi's dissatisfaction with the community, and the derision increased, each person according to his style and his principles.
Until one day the old rabbi went to visit his rich sons and decided not to return to his small town. He left his position and stayed there to finish his book which his sons published after his death with much honor, and the small town remained available for those seeking the seat of the rabbinate.
For about a whole year the small town was concerned with the praises which people sang about it: from all directions people descended on it Rabbis, matchmakers, fathersinlaw of praiseworthy yeshiva students all picked up their pens to write about it. This one acquired accommodation in this inn and that one in another lodging. One of them preached in the old synagogue and the other in the new synagogue and the third entrenched himself in the study hall for craftsmen which was in Yurzdika [Street]. Important synagogue members remembered their erudite ordained relatives who wanted to be honored in their small town. Sonsinlaw who were outstanding in the country became known to the rabbis of the adjacent small towns. The head of the yeshiva himself sent the greatest of his emissaries to explore the town for him for one of the prodigies of his yeshiva. All of a sudden some great preacher showed up who captivated the hearts of all the craftsmen and they decided to crown him as rabbi, to the anger of all the rich people of the town and the elderly influential members of the synagogues. The elderly plucked up courage and filled the breach. A quarrel broke out between the study halls and the old age homes and between the various important synagogue members according to their origins and styles. These wanted a scholar and an old man and those wanted a preacher and a young man. These wanted a Chassid and those wanted a Zionist. And those enjoyed the actual bustle and tumult and the competition, between he who increased income, he who gave many sermons and he who showed much interest in the small town.
Until the rumors spread that the famous and glorious rabbi from the town of Ch which was in the district of M had agreed to come to our small town and serve in our rabbinate.
I did not know the source of this gladdening rumor, or who was the first to bring the news. However, I remember that it immediately silenced all the mischievous and disrespectful hubbub. It was recounted that Gershon the Builder made one more final attempt to gather the craftsmen into the small study hall and to sign the document from the rabbinate for his favorite preacher, but no signer could be found. His followers turned to him to anger him: Gershon, you sign!!, but he did not dare to raise a hand to sign. And since then, the matter of the rival rabbi was annulled. However, Gershon the Builder acquired the nickname Gershon, you sign in the small town, for himself and for his sons after him forever.
Important members of the community went to the town of Ch and brought the longed for rabbi the document from the rabbinate written on parchment with the signatures of all the gabbays of the synagogue and they returned and joyfully announced that the rabbi would arrive in the small town well before Passover.
I remember the day the rabbi came as if it were yesterday.
It was in the winter. Snow covered the roads. The train arrived at the station which was a half an hour away from the town, before evening. The shopkeepers closed their stores while it was still daylight and the important people of the town went out to welcome their rabbi. Those in the procession included rich and poor, Chassidim and Misnagdim, people from the markets and people from the Shulhoif and those who lived in Yurzdika Street, the town elderly and the ritual slaughterers, and the teachers, all led by the Seven Town Worthies. And with them were all the townsfolk: they and their wives and children. The wagon drivers of the town squabbled among themselveswhich one of them would have the privilege of driving the new town rabbi. And when the procession reached the flour mill, which was located between the railroad station and the small town, the hottempered among the craftsmen of the town jumped off and wanted to unharness the horses and lead the sled with their own hands. The rabbi refused to be dominated and got off the sled and walked at the head of the convoy, he, the elderly rabbi, at the head, with his soninlaw the young prodigy, and the rabbi's wife and sons and daughters and the whole town behind them, old and young, women and children walked from the station to Minsk Street and from Minsk Street through the entire market place, straight to the old synagogue.
Was the plan known in advance or was it obvious that they would first bring the rabbi to the synagogue? However, when we arrived at the Shulhoif, the yard was already full to overflowing. They came from the adjacent villages and the nearby small towns. The elderly and the ill who did not have the strength to go out to the railway station, who had hurried there, had to take the book stands from among the benches out of the synagogue through the open windows in order to make room, and when the rabbi arrived, the people in the synagogue roared: Welcome! A kind of path was cleared by itself between the members of the crowded congregation and like an army general at the head of his troops, the elderly rabbi marched confidently straight to the platform, went up the steps, took the prayer shawl from the trembling hands of the old beadle, kissed the curtain over the Holy Ark with awe, turned his radiant face to the excited congregation which was waiting for his words, and with a young and clear voice began reading from the weekly Torah portion: Moreover, thou (Moses) shall provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating unjust gain, and they shall judge the people, as though the written portion had been written specifically for this occasion. He began to explain with illuminating festive clarity, the essence of each and every quality mentioned in the verse, and which is required precisely today of every rabbi in Israel, and to what degree the success of all of them together is dependent on it, if the community itself also wants to be God's own treasured people as is written further in the same weekly portion: And you will be to me a kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation. The crowded and happy community listened to the words of the chosen shepherd and saw itself ready and about to merit entry into this heavy and precious yoke.
And then something terrible and frightening suddenly occurred: behind the platform, in a place where the crowding had increased to its maximum, a burning oil lamp fell from the ceilingand a fire broke out. There was confusion and a panicstricken flight. The rabbi did not finish his speech and the congregation burst through the windows and doors and broke windowpanes. Within a minute the congregation turned into an alarmed flock. They put out the fire and no disasters occurred. However, the festivities were discontinued and the incident was like an omen.
And from then, some special thread of very noble solemnity and hidden anxiety was spread over the rabbinate of the esteemed rabbi. The townspeople knew that this time it was as if they had attained their full wish and the man of their dreams was brought down to them from heaven. However, who would be a guarantor for them if indeed they were deserving of all the honor which they merited, and whether there was no one who was jealous of them and is about to take revenge for the fact that they were perhaps too emboldened in elevating the holiness?
At the same period of time that the rabbi occupied the seat of the rabbinate, everyone in the small town felt the honor of Torah from him. During that short time, the small town quieted down from all the contention. Even the audacious ones and complainers who were among those in revolt now sat at the feet of the new rabbi. That year the collectors of donations for purchasing Maot Hitim brought in twice as much. The residents of the villages streamed from far off to ask the rabbi questions. The matter of honorary management of the new synagogue which had caused trouble from the time the synagogue was builtwas settled as though by itself. And on the Sabbath in the late afternoon, after the afternoon prayer service, when the old rabbi went out for a stroll towards the river, tall and slim, with a velvet wrap on his shoulders and his long white beard reaching down to his silk sash, lighting up the way, and with him was his soninlaw, with black hair and a stern glance, and the elderly, important town personalities were with them, the rabbi walking calmly in front of them with majesty and kindness, saying something, lingering somewhat, smiling at someone and walking for the enjoyment of the Sabbaththe ordinary town residents and their wives would hold their breath on the other side of the windows facing the street, wondering how privileged they were to see this.
On account of the rabbi's frailty, his young soninlaw who was dependent on his support, would preach in his place in the synagogue and also taught a class in the study hall for the town learners. He, the rabbi, would preach only twice a year and even then his words were short and spoken calmly, but his words were heard and cast dread on transgressors and slanderers, and when the synagogue officials of the community found out that the rabbi's old apartment was harming his health, they went into debt and built a house for the rabbi, the likes of which had never been before in our community, and when the town worthies found out that the rabbi's wife was complaining about the low rent they raised the korabaka.
And the small town would have been able to dwell in tranquility and enjoy the splendor of the honor of Torah had the tranquility not been removed from the whole community and had the evil not reached the houses of our small town.
And indeed those good days did not last and suddenly the rumors spread
|The railway station in winter|
by word of mouth that war had broken out between Russia and Japan and the Home Guard would be called to the front. The Jews of Russia together with all seekers of freedom in the country knew very well that there was no hope of being freed from the Czar's subjugation except after a serious defeat on the battlefield. And the days were days of disturbances which were after Homel and Zhitomir. On that very same night, dozens of young scholars who were from the worthy families of the town and who were obligated to serve in the army picked themselves up and moved to America.
That same night there began a great emigration of Jews from our small town to countries across the ocean. And this was the emigration, prior to which only a few solitary Jews had left Steibtz, and from that time on until the start of the First World War, which saved thousands of souls and which established a landsmanshaft in the United States and which today numbers more members than the number that remained in the small town where they were buried alive on a day of great slaughter, a day or two after the Day of Atonement in the year 5703/1942.
And on that same night no one knew that they (the yeshiva students) were leaving. However, how would they hide this from their beloved rabbi and how would they leave on their dangerous way without receiving a blessing from him? It was later recounted in the town that the dear yeshiva students had awakened the rabbi from his sleep in the middle of the night and that he sighed bitterly and granted them his faithful blessing for their desperate journey.
The next morning it was Sunday of the week when the Torah portion Chayei Sara is readsomething quite out of the ordinary happened in our small town: Old man Volfke , who was about 90 years old, a simple Jew who used to sit in the synagogue saying psalms, passed away. The news spread that the rabbi himself wanted to eulogize him and that the eulogy would take place in the heart of the Shulhoif. The whole town was apprehensive and astonished. What did the dear rabbi see that made him want to give credit to the deceased with what no other deceased person merited in our small town from the time that the rabbi had come to serve there?
The townspeople streamed to the funeral just as they had streamed to welcome the rabbi. The entire Shulhoif was full to overflowing. Pallbearers put the body of the deceased down in the middle of the yard between the synagogue and the rabbi's new house. The rabbi placed himself next to the coffin in his full height with his long black coat cut in half by his sash, and with his white shiny beard coming down to his sash and, so he would not catch a cold, God forbid, the rabbi's wife wrapped a thick woolen red scarf around his neck and he, solemn in his mourning and in deep sorrow, stood among his community, head and shoulders above the rest, sighed bitterly and began and said ( I was standing next to him, a lad, and I swallowed all his words which are still etched in my memory as when they were spoken) approximately like this in the words of his eulogy:
The holy Torah relates in the weekly portion: And the life of Sarah was a hundred and twenty and seven years: these were the years of the life of Sarah and Sarah died and Abraham came to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her. Aren't these words beyond our comprehension? Why did Abraham want to mourn so much and also lament and also weep? Was Sarah young in years? Was not she worthy of having a long life and dying at an old age? And was not it decreed on every person of flesh and blood to come from dust and return to dust? Ma'i kuli ha'i?
And in order to explain this marvel to you, my teachers and masters, and to explain properly why this word and to weep (in Hebrew Vaivkota) is written with vowels, I will draw you an analogy.
And in a voice of dejection and heartfelt sorrow which penetrated the depths of the hearts of all the listeners, he added and said while raising his right hand over his whole congregation which was in suspense for the words coming out of his mouth:
With what may this be compared? A rich Jew, a man of learning, of noble birth, suffered a reversal of fortune and became poor. What did his only daughter who was dear and tender do to save her beloved parents from the disgrace of hunger and bankruptcy, Heaven forbid? She agreed to marry a wealthy villager, uncouth and stout, who had attained a position of importance. The tender girl sat in her father in law's home among strangers, as if she were surrounded by hostile neighbors. She couldn't write to her father and tell him the afflictions of her heartlest she upset him further because, on account of his poverty, he brought all this bitter exile on her, and to complain to her husband and her mother in law, how much more so was it forbidden for her to complain to them lest they add more reasons for their complaining about her. She forced herself to suppress her weeping, stopped her tears and bore the pain of her insult in silence. Sometime later, a wayfarer who was familiar with her father's house when her father held a high rank in society happened to come to her new place and his pity was greatly stirred when he saw her suffering and silently bearing her pain. He went and bought her a Book of Psalms as a gift. He said to himself: May this be a covering for her sorrow. The unfortunate girl will read the hymns of King David and pour out her tears on them. People will see and say: The Book of Psalms is what has aroused her tears and she will surely weep over her distress which is as great as the sea. Maybe it will make her life easieryou, dear deceased old man, were worthy of living to a ripe old age of one hundred twenty and seven years. There is no reason to weep over your death. Yet, my dear and beloved brothers, our distress is as great as the sea and our mouth is locked and we must not weep. You, who grew up reading psalms praiseworthy are you who served as the Book of Psalms for us today. May your death be a covering for our mourning! Brothers, let us weep, let us pour out our tears together and it will surely be thought that we are mourning over your death, and we will weep over the fear of things to come, alas! and we will cry out to our God, perhaps He will have pity and save us.
And saying this, he sighed bitterly, a Jewish sigh, deep and long, a sigh breaking body and soul. Somewhat pale, he removed his woolen scarf from his sweating neck and sank slowly to the floor of the Shulhoif. We, who stood near him, said: Surely he intends to carry out the custom of the yeshiva regarding mourning in honor of the deceased, and we were very surprised.
This act seemed quite exaggerated to us, for was not the deceased just a simple Jew in the final analysis? However, both the sadness in the rabbi's eyes and the depth of his sigh did not leave any doubt that his mourning was surely very deep. We tried to bow down after him like the custom, but he was completely pale. He sank down, lay on his back, and did not get up again
Call the doctor!!
The rabbi has fainted!!
Like a group of mothers stooping over a young child who fainted before their eyes, the entire community leaped forward to save their wonderful rabbi who had only just before brought everyone to participate in his great sigh. They lifted him carefully and carried him above the heads of the whole community just as the Hebrews had carried the Ark of the Lord's Covenant in earlier times. In holy silence, they brought him into the new house which the community had just dedicated in joy and with pride. Jewish and Polish doctors were summoned. In anxious expectation, the stunned public stood there in silence, crowded together next to the verandah. A few minutes passed and the wailing of the widowed rabbi's wife and the orphaned children broke out from within the rabbi's house.
From the time I knew my small town, I had never seen it so pure in the holiness of its sorrow and so unified in the pain of its shared love as on that inspiring and uplifting and uniting day of the tragedy.
The little town stood like a community of orphaned children exalted in the depths of its shock. On that very day everyone forgot the cares of his life. The stores did not open and the stoves were not heated. Even the study hall stood empty. Not a business and not a house. No Torah and no prayers. In the streets, within the Shulhoif and near the rabbi's house, the whole community crowded together and formed groups, gripped with the greatness of orphanhood and it was all with despondent grief. I swear if I did not see Hershel Moshe, the old man, who was the town bath attendant aged about 70, holding his two side locks in the palms of his hand and knocking his head against the wall in the synagogue. I saw Ahraleh the wagon driver, whose mouth was always full of oaths, standing cleansed in sorrow among us, gaping and swallowing his tears like a baby and Rebbe, constantly irritable and all red, Reb Bunia The Teacher, standing pale as a ghost and without any spirit of life. And also Shumel Tunik himself, the town hero, president of the fire fighters organization, falling onto the parapet of the rabbi's house like a person whose whole fleet had sunk to the depths.
For indeed the splendor of the small town and its anchor had plunged to the depths. Then the whole town knew who and what its rabbi was to them. Then every complete ignoramus felt what the honor of Torah was. Then every lad knew towards what to raise his soul, if his desire was the love of his people.
The funeral was set for the next morning. Residents from the adjacent villages and towns started streaming in to pay their last respects to the esteemed rabbi. As the day came to its end, the voices of those reciting psalms began to be heard in the study hall as though someone remembered how to discharge the burden of holy sorrow.
The recitation of psalms did not stop all night in the study hall, filled with people and in respectful sorrow.
In the morning, a terrible rumor was heard passing by word of mouth that the rabbi's wife was delaying the funeral. She demanded that the community give her young soninlaw, who was dependent on her support, a letter from the rabbinate offering him the position of town rabbi and if not she would not let the deceased be buried. Although her soninlaw was a prodigy in Talmudic knowledge, he had not yet served in the rabbinate. And the small town was distinguished in its chain of great rabbis. How then could it let itself be a footstool for a novice rabbi?
Like a poisonous snake this evil rumor made its way among the cracks of the public and broke into all the homes and lanes. The little town was stunned by the burning insult which was about to be brought upon them and suddenly the insult prevailed over the sorrow and completely drove it away.
The water came and put out the fire.
What?? Will the rabbi's wife take control of us and tell us what to do? Were we sold as slaves to her? Was it not enough that we flayed our skin to grant her the best of everything?
And when that venomous green snake burst forth no heart could withstand it. The fire of pride and stubborn wrangling ignited easily, and the demon of dispute which was running wild descended to take revenge on every day of holiness and sorrow. Its running amok was cruel and revengeful. It was a double share.
That very same elderly bath attendant who, last night, was ensconced in purifying mourning, turned into a monster. And the irritable Rebbe, who yesterday was as pale as a ghost, now had a face as red as a beet.
What?? That leech wants to get rich? What do we have to do with her? Let her go back to the place she came from and we will find ourselves a rabbi who is befitting of our honor.
What?! She won't let us take out the deceased for burial? Don't give in! !?? Salt him!
And the stores opened. They were opened with force and the weekday life was brought in again. The important members of the town remembered their relatives, the rabbis whom they sought last year to bring merit to their town and weren't successful. The innkeepers remembered the hustle and bustle of the elections season. The old parties broke out of their hiding places. In one day the voters arose from their camps and a warning plan glimmered in the eyes of the rabbinical matchmakers.
No, we won't give her soninlaw the official written request from the rabbinate to be the town rabbi!!
In vain the peace seekers ran back and forth from the rabbi's wife's house to the homes of the gabbays and the Seven Town Worthies. In vain they moralized and demanded satisfaction from the insults committed against the honor of the Torah, but everyone turned a deaf ear.
The horror went on for two days in a row. The rabbi's corpse was lying in the rabbi's wife's house as if it were not at all the same dear cadaver which the assembly of the ultraorthodox admirers had carried the day before. The dispute descended upon the town and swept everything away. The power of dispute prevailed over the dear heritage of our traditions.
And on the third day shepherds were summoned from afar: Seven rabbis came to extract the small town from its backsliding. There came R' Eliah Baruch, old head of the nearby Mir Yeshiva (head of the metivtah head of the yeshiva) there came Reb Leizer, the young rabbi, soninlaw of the famous great rabbi, who occupied the seat of his late fatherinlaw in Minsk; there came the rabbi and author from Nesvizh, whose name is well known; there came the rabbi and preacher from adjacent Sverznie; there came my uncle, the wealthy man and leader, Reb Shmuel Shlomo Horovitz, a certified teacher, whose forests encircled the town and who had considerable influence on the residents of the town. These rabbis were summoned from distant regions to rescue the honor of Torah which was desecrated and the peace which was ravaged and to restore the small town which had run amok to its former shores.
And only on the evening of the third day following the passing of the rabbi was a compromise reached. The rabbis made a decision which the sides accepted and carried out.
The official document from the rabbinate was given before the funeral, not to the young soninlaw who had not yet served in the rabbinate, but instead to a soninlaw who was older than him who had already served in the position of town rabbi for many years in a distant town and whom the seven rabbis attested to as being a great rabbi among the Jewish people.
And with the close of the day, eulogies were delivered in the cemetery by the seven shepherds who were summoned from all sides to fight against the demon of a dispute which descended on the community and treated it harshly. They fought it and got the better of it.
Translated by Harvey Spitzer
A. Between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur
The sound of the ram's horn burst forth from all the synagogues at the start of the month of Elul as if to declare The Day of Judgment is drawing near; come and scrutinize your actions. However, no discernible change occurred in the life of the Jews of our town: Life went on in its normal course just as it did all year long. Only here and there was it possible to notice a change in peoples' behavior. For example, the usual oath, Upon my life! (In Yiddish, I should live so!) was changed to Just as it is now Elul throughout the world, and the meaning of this saying was Behold! I will not lie before the Day of Judgment. A more noticeable change took place during the days when slichos are recited when the assistant sexton of the study hall, Rabbi Zvi Porat, would, at the beginning of the third watch of the night, knock on the window of each house or on the wall of the house with a wooden hammer: Come to the slichos prayers! The people became more serious and more self aware. The storekeepers, who were tied to their stores in the late afternoon and couldn't always go to the synagogue for mincha or ma'ariv afternoon and evening services asked their wives to replace them and they went to pray.
The atmosphere of the Day of Judgment prevailed on Rosh HaShana with the prayer U'Netana Tokef, which included the question Who will live and who will die? and even those who didn't understand the meaning of the words felt their impact and began to worry about the results of the Day of Judgment. People became more serious and more centered in themselves with the thought of Who will live and who will die? boring into their brains all the time. In order to sweeten the decree of judgment, people began to spend more time in the synagogue. Many people joined the vatikim (old-timer) worshipers, who went to the synagogue while it was still dark so that they could begin praying immediately with the break of day or, according to the law, from the time one can distinguish between blue and white and after the service they were able to stay a certain time some studying a page of Gemara or a chapter of Mishnayos themselves, or some reciting a few psalms. Also between mincha and ma'ariv, hardly anyone left the synagogue, and those who did not study by themselves crowded together next to the tables at which Father of blessed memory and the assistant ritual slaughterer, Rabbi Shlomo Lieberman of blessed memory, taught Ein Ya'akov. The preparations for the Day of Judgment also found expression in the ceremony of Ha-kaporos. Even Father's house did not skip this and they tried their best to make sure there was a chicken for everyone in the family.
Families with many children performed the slaughtering of the kaporos earlier. About three days before the Day of Atonement the big fair of the slaughtering of chickens for kaporos had already begun: Father, of blessed memory, my brother Aharon may his blood be avenged! Rabbi Shlomo and his son Yaakov, of blessed memory their hands were incessantly at work slaughtering the chickens. Mr. Isaac Shenkman studied the laws of ritual slaughtering with my father. He was a nice man with many friends, who later moved to Swerznie where he opened a medical commodities business. He too was brought into partnership as a helping hand. The climax of the concentration of pre-holiday activity was on the Eve of the Day of Atonement. At the morning prayer service, preparations had already begun for the Day of Atonement with the nullification of vows ceremony, and this is the order of the nullification: According to the law, a person is obligated to fulfill his vows. Only a court comprised of at least three judges can dissolve a vow and release him from his responsibility. Therefore, a person asks three men to sit as a court and, in their presence, reads the formula for the annulment of vows from a book and the three judges likewise reply according to the accepted formula that they thereby annul his vows and afterwards he too sits as a member of the court, etc.
The mincha service began at 1:00 pm. When one minyan finished, the second minyan began. It would proceed in this way until 3:00 pm. The mincha prayer, unlike the morning service, contained a section from the Yom Kippur service. There were some men who, after the mincha service, stretched out on the floor and the sexton gave them 40 lashes minus one in their honor (to spare the men humiliation from receiving the prescribed number of 40 lashes). No one was absent from the public prayer service on Yom Kippur Eve. The gabbays would then collect all the debts owed to the synagogue, and the income was sufficient to cover all the expenses until the following Yom Kippur Eve. Every society, such as Bikur Cholim or Gemilus Chasidim, etc. sent their representatives with bowls to collect their donations, and those who came to the synagogue contributed as much as they could. Also the committee of Chovevei Tzion, or as it was called, the Odessa Committee, was represented at the table. Reb Chaim Lusterman sat beside that bowl in the large study hall, and Alter Yosselevitz, the teacher, in the small study hall.
They returned home from the synagogue with serious faces for the meal before the start of the Fast, which was eaten without any everyday conversation. The atmosphere of the Day of Judgment prevailed in the house and we were all tense. After the meal we all big and small went up to father for his blessing. He was dressed in a white kittel and was very moved, with an expression of grave concern on his face. He spread his hands over our heads and silently mumbled a long blessing. Mother stood across from him leaning over the candles (which she was about to light or had just lit), her eyes flowing with tears, with a request to her husband that the fruit of her womb, her beloved ones, be inscribed for a good life. This festive and serious moment is deeply engraved in my soul. Despite the many years which have gone by since then, I still remember it as though it were only yesterday.
When we left the house to go to the synagogue, the feeling was as though the dread of the Day of Judgment was hovering in the air and approaching. The street was filled with people streaming to the synagogue. Each one was immersed in his thoughts and worries and even though they had walked together for years, they didn't talk to one another.
The synagogue also changed its form. Memorial candles were inserted in a sandbox to the right of the table. Hay was spread on the floor and a scent of the field still emitted from it. This was done so that the worshipers, who were not wearing shoes, could stand without fear of catching a cold and also because it was easier to stand on the hay than on the floor. Most of the worshipers wore white kittels with their prayer shawls over them. Before the Kol Nidrei prayer, each and every person recited the Tefillah Zakkah. The climax of all the tension was reached when two Torah scrolls were removed from the Holy Ark and two honorable members of the congregation stood next to the cantor one to his right and one to his left and he began: Al daat hamakom, etc.
When he started chanting the Kol Nidrei prayer, the weeping of our mothers reached us from the women's section. In their tears they found relief from their worries because of the Day of Judgment. Their weeping complemented the spiritual awakening of the men which prevailed in the synagogue.
Only about twenty-six hours had gone by since we walked to the synagogue for the Kol Nidrei prayer, tense and grasped with dread and fear. When the concluding Ne'ilah service came to an end, the spiritual state of the worshipers changed unrecognizably. The expression of sorrow which was spread over the peoples' faces changed and was replaced by tranquility and calm. The Jewish hereditary optimism which gave encouragement to the people during the long years of exile when distress harassed its society did not let the Jewish people despair of finding good and redemption. This optimism brought faith and trust in the belief that the congregation's prayers were accepted and that the worshipers were inscribed and sealed for a good life and peace. The appearance of the street also seemed to change. The moon in its renewal shed its soft, tender light as if hinting at a renewed life.
Despite the 26 hour fast, we didn't hurry to go home to eat, but rather stopped to sanctify the moon in its renewal and thus carry out the first commandment of the coming year.
When Yom Kippur is over, the ultra-orthodox charedim have the custom of inserting a peg into the place where they intend to erect their sukkah. In Steibtz the charedim, who would go out to survey the condition of the sukkah, changed this custom because most of the sukkahs in Steibtz were in permanent buildings which constituted part of the house. These structures, or some of them, served for the most part as store rooms all year long. In these store rooms were found a food cabinet or household utensils which were not in everyday use. The roof of this part of the house was separate from the rest of the parts of the roof and installed in such a way that you could open it with a pole which was inserted into the tight hinge of the roof or by pulling ropes on a roller operated by an internal pole which pushed the roof open. After Yom Kippur they would clear out the utensils from this section creating a decent form for it by sticking white paper on the walls or they would hang curtains on all the walls. They opened the roof and with a covering of branches or other temporary covering, a perfectly valid sukkah was obtained. This sukkah had several advantages over the rest of the sukkahs in the towns:
C. Simchas Torah
In the countries of the Diaspora, Shmini Atzeres which according to the law is a holiday unto itself occurred on the second day of the conclusion of the Sukkos festival. Consequently, one was obligated to sit in the sukkah on Shmini Atzeres. Some people would go into their sukkas when they returned home from the synagogue after mussaf in order to make a blessing over the wine or to have a cracker or some other light snack and, when saying May it be Your will, that just as I had the privilege of sitting in this sukkah, so may I merit next year to sit in the sukkah made of the skin of the Leviatan. They completed their obligation of sitting in the sukkah.
Those who were more exact in their observance would also eat lunch in the sukkah.
There was one person who found it difficult as it were to part from his sukkah. This was Reb Yehudah Rubashov, father of Zalman Shazar, later the President of the State of Israel, who continued to stay in his sukkah until the evening. The chassidim began their hakafos the night of Shmini Atzeres and for them the day served as both Simchas Torah and Succos and therefore his sukkah was steeped in joy on Shmini Atzeres as many chassidim gathered together in his sukkah to sing You, You chose us, which burst forth from his sukkah until it was time to go to the ma'ariv service of Simchas Torah.
Just as on the night of Kol Nidrei, the synagogues were packed with worshipers. The change was only in the atmosphere. Instead of dread and fear, an atmosphere of joy prevailed, a festive atmosphere. The gabbays and the sextons increased the joy of Simchas Torah. The gabbay of the large study hall, Rabbi Dovid- Lieb Sirkin and the head sexton, Rabbi Yehudah-Lib Stolovitzki the Scribe vacated their place to Reb Yosef Kushnir the Baker. And the gabbay of the new study hall, Rabbi Avraham Malbin and the sexton, Reb Nissan, who was called Compot, gave up their places to Reb Simcha Zalman Akon (Simcha Zalman the Carpenter). Although both differed in their outer appearance, the former short and stout and the latter tall and thin, they performed their role successfully and when they said something humorous, they helped instill the feeling of joy in the hearts of the worshipers. In order to emphasize the difference in the importance of their roles, they wore top hats, when usually only the town rabbi wore a top hat on the holidays. What a wonderful sight it was seeing the gabbays for Simchas Torah and the rabbi, both with long white beards and wearing top hats, standing next to one another and the former would hand the rabbi a Torah scroll and honor him with the first hakafah. Both gabbays for Simchas Torah performed their roles with pride. If one of the gabbays wanted to give instructions, they discussed it immediately in anger: Now you are not the gabbay! On the night the holiday was sanctified, they called more than the usual three men up to the reading of the Torah. Every section of the Torah starting with B'reshis to Zos HaBracha, which contained a blessing, was divided separately. These aliyahs were called geder, but I don't know the source of this name. And so there was a geder Vayicholu, a geder Vayiten lecha, etc. Unlike on every Sabbath during the year, the aliyahs were not sold for gold pieces but rather for liters of candles. This was before there was electricity in Steibtz and candles were very important in the synagogue. They sang Be Happy and Rejoice on Simchas Torah between geder and geder just as they did between one hakafah and another, and it was done this way until the end of the prayer service.
The next day the gabbays for Simchas Torah continued in their roles, but the wives of the gabbays also had a job. On that day, it was customary for each man to be called up to the reading of the Torah. In order not to embarrass anyone who didn't have money, they didn't sell aliyahs, but they called up all the worshipers except for the Chasan Torah and the Chasan B'raishis which were sold as honors. The gabbays would give a slice of honey cake (hanik lekach) the splendid handiwork of Naomi Kushnir, the baker to all those called up to the Torah reading. At the conclusion of the mussaf prayer, when they reached Ayn Kaylokaynu, the gabbays for Simchas Torah began to sing in Yiddish Nito aza Gott vi unzerer and the congregation would respond Ayn
Kaylokaynu and they proceeded in this way until they reached You are our God. And there was also a change in the recitation of Adon Olam and the congregation would respond with Chai Hu (He is my God) Who reigns Chai Hu, and it was done in this way until the last verse, God is for me and I won't fear.
After the service, the gabbays would make a party for the important worshipers, which was called Lekach un Branfan, although they didn't only serve liquor and cake but other kinds of tasty items as well. And here the Simchas Torah service ended for the men, but not so for the women. Not only did they not enjoy all the festivity, but they had even more bother when their husbands arrived home late for lunch and the wives had to re-heat the food. Their part in the holiday joy was this after lunch they would stream to the synagogue to kiss the Torah scrolls. This ceremony was called In God's Name (Tzu Gott's nomen). This was the only time the women did not go to the women's section but rather to the men's place and it was there that the Torah scrolls were passed to them and the ladies would lean over to kiss them.
This custom went on until the First World War although there was less and less enthusiasm with each passing year, especially when Rabbi Yosef Kushnir and Rabbi Simcha Zalman Akun passed away and their replacements did not bring the same excitement to the ceremony and perhaps this was because there was no internal happiness. What a pity that this ideal passed by never to return!
Our ancestors said: As soon as the month of Adar comes in, our joy increases. The impact of this saying was lovely for the community in general but there were those for whom the joy of Haman's defeat (celebrated on was withdrawn because of their worry about preparation for Passover, which was on the way and because of the expenses involved, and in any case life wasn't easy. Along with the holiday came the Spring, and in addition to all the expenses of the holiday for purchasing matzos and wine, those whose shoes wore out and whose clothes got old had to find additional sources of income to cover their special expenses. And the sole source of income was baking matzos. Since in Steibtz, as in most of these small towns, there were no factories for baking matzos, the matzos were baked in private homes by groups called Artel a Russian word indicating a group of people working in partnership. In the heart of these people gnawed the question of whether there would be a place of work for them and whether the home owner in whose house matzos were baked had already filled the quota for workers. And there were only four Artels: 1) Etta, wife of Moshe Berkovitz the Wagon Driver, who knew the entire book of Psalms by heart and who would mumble psalms sitting on the platform as he traveled between towns. 2) Mordecai Tzirolnik, called Moteh son of Zaltzikh, on Post Office Street, who bought Rabbi Liberman's - may his blood be avenged! - lot of land after the First World War. 3) Dov Kharkhurim, who lived on the White Church Street. 4) Yosef Tunik, the butcher next to the bath house.
The houses in which the matzos were baked were not different from other houses. Only the oven was bigger than those in other homes. All the houses in Steibtz as in other small towns were built in the following form:
The width of the house faced the street with its length along the length of the plot. The plots were small and therefore the houses were built on the border of the width of the plot so that only 3 spans separated the house from the neighbor's lot. These 3 spans were called kafizh meaning an area where water leaked from the roof so that it would not fall into another's plot, and as the result of this construction, there was a wall without windows in every house. The house was divided in half by a wall of boards in its width. The room next to the sealed wall served as a bedroom in which there were two beds with a narrow space between them. Behind the beds stood a chest called a commode, in which there were 3 drawers along all of its width for keeping bed linen, tablecloths, etc. Above them were two small drawers for small things. This room was divided in half lengthwise in unequal parts and this created a smaller room without a window. The room was bordered on one side by the bedroom and on the other side
|Baking Matzos in the house of Leibel Aginsky (Shasha's son)|
with a Russian oven used for cooking and baking. The room on the side of the yard served as a dining room and living room. This room too was usually divided in half in its width, with the part bordering on the entrance serving as a kitchen. The houses in which the matzos were baked were not bigger than the rest of the houses. During the time of baking matzos, which went on from the Sunday after Purim until the 11th or 12th of the month of Nissan, the whole house was dedicated to baking matzos. The owners sought a temporary place to live. And this shows the work of the Artel: In the dining room they dismantled 2 boards which were polished very well for rolling the dough, with the women rollers standing on both sides. Next to the kitchen, beside the oven, stood a table on which a tin board was laid out for those perforating the matzos and from there the matzos were transferred to the oven. In the kitchen stood a chest or some other receptacle for the matzos that were taken out of the oven. In the bedroom there was a bag of flour belonging to the person whose matzos had been ordered and were being baked that very day. The lady kneading the dough sat in this room with two children helping her one handed her flour and the other water. She would knead the dough in a copper bowl and after every one or two portions of kneading, she took a different bowl and her helpers cleaned the previous one. Only the sealed room remained in possession of the landlord, who could rest there an hour or two. The matzos were baked from flour belonging to the owner of the matzos and the customer paid a baking fee of from 1.80 to 2.0 rubles for a pod (16 kg) of flour. This amount was divided among all the workers in the Artel in accordance with their effort and with the deduction of the amount agreed upon for the house owner, who not only handed his house over into the possession of the Artel, but who also wooed customers and tried to guarantee full employment.
There were also families for whom it was hard to pay the baking fees. The baking amounted to about 10 rubles for a family with many children. A family would subsist on this amount for an entire month. These families joined 5 or 6 other families and baked matzos in partnership in one of the houses of the group. Each of the families would provide equal working power. The family would bring heating wood for baking the matzos. There were also those whose situation was very poor. These families received support in private from the Kimcha d'Pischa and there were matzos and 4 cups of wine on the table at the seder night in every home.
Yehezkhel Ben Moshe (Plaksin)
Translated by Ann Belinsky
|There once was Steibtz, and it is no longer
The pain and the catastrophe are enormous.
Her inhabitants were a blessing to all
Scholars of the Law, traders and artisans.
Once there were five synagogues in Steibtz
Yedidia the Shoemaker organized midnight prayers
Shmuel Tunik had a bound raft
The mayors are remembered for the good
In a foreign country a memorial was erected
by Gershon Rabinovitz, Kibbutz Na'an
Translated by Ann Belinsky
A small town near the border, where we grew up, and spent the young and beautiful years of our lives. Here Steibtz passes before my eyes, with its streets inhabited by Jews: Yurzdika, the street of white sand blessed with children, Vilna Street (Vilenska) and others. Here lived the wagon drivers, the builders and the carpenters. In these streets, the meeting places of the youth movements could be found, where the members were preparing for hachsharah and aliyah, to build their lives anew and to realize Herzl's vision: to build the country of the Jews the State of Israel. Steibtz was a pleasant little town. The Jews of Steibtz loved the Land of Israel and contributed generously to building the land. The town sent loyal sons, the first pioneers to the Land of Israel.
It is difficult to come to terms with the bitter fact that we are engaged in erecting a monument to the Jews of Steibtz.
I remember the meetings in the Great Synagogue, the enthusiastic speeches about Zionism, and woe to any member of the Bund who interrupted with tzvishenruf (heckling). For some reason, the Bundists did not understand, or more correctly did not want to understand, that the people of Israel had a right and it was also necessary, to have a corner of their own.
I remember that on a summer's Sabbath day in Steibtz, we would leave the houses to breathe fresh air, in the shade of the farmers' barns [shyeren]. We would lie on the green undergrowth and enjoy the smell of the hay, some would read a book, others would play a game, or just converse.
Here is the lovely Niemen River, long and wide. Most of the Jews of Steibtz, led by the youth, would spread out along the length of the Niemen. On one side the women, and on the other side the men. From there, the joy of young lives could be heard.
Small children would splash in the sunlit water and their parents stood by, deriving much pleasure. Who does not remember the bridge as evening approached! Here the Jews of Steibtz would stroll: whole families, friends, small children, enjoying the good weather. Here the finest youth would meet. Here they would arrange activities here were the boats of the Gentiles. We would hire them to row on the Niemen, and sing songs and play music until after midnight. Songs from the Land of Israel would echo all over Steibtz.
Images of dear Jews, sons of Steibtz, pass before me. Hirshel Kumak, a communal worker, young, with a bubbling personality, full of energy and keen to act and to help with the heart of a Jewish Zionist ... Here is Velvel Tunik, eminent and good hearted with his handsome little golden beard. He too helped many. Before I made aliyah to the Land of Israel, I turned to him with a request to serve as a guarantor for me, for a loan of a banknote from the Bank of Steibtz. I promised him that I would return the money the minute I arrived in the Land of Israel, and his answer was so warm, the debt of a Jewish heart, the heart of a father: Mein kind, if you cannot return it to me, it is not terrible, so there will be a Jew in the Land of Israel on my account. Send my regards to my son and go in peace. We always remember him as a Jew who is dear to us. It is a shame that you did not manage to come and be with us on the soil of Israel that you loved so much and hoped to see.
Martyrs of Steibtz, your memory will always be with us.
|Zeev (Velvel) Tunik|
Tamar Amarant (Rabinovitz)
Translated by Ann Belinsky
I would like to recall my many branched family, which was cut down in the days of the Holocaust. I see a large house, in a wide street known in Polish as Shruka. We lived for several years in this house - 5 children (3 girls and 2 boys), father and mother. Father was always concerned with his business. In the town he was called Der Rezervarnik, that is to say, he had a container of oil at the end of the street, which bordered the railway line. Via an underground pipe, the oil was transferred from a special railway car to this container. Father would always record the debts that people owed him, in his large books.
I loved the evening of Sabbath in our house. My parents were not so orthodox, but the Sabbath was evident and felt as in a pious Jewish home. The house was clean, polished, sparkling, mother's eyes smiled opposite the candles and expressed goodness and generosity.
Father would look over all his precious belongings, his five children, dining at the big table, erect, clean and enjoying the splendor of Shabbat.
I always said: Mother, look, the angel is hovering above us in the house. And mother said: The angel hovers everywhere where peace exists The smell of stuffed fish filled the whole house. After the meal, when the table was emptied of the Sabbath delicacies, Father would take out a book from the large bookcase and read us a story. His quiet voice was heard in the large room, his forehead became un-creased from its worry lines, his eyes looked at us with pleasure, and by the way he also checked if we were listening. He enjoyed our laughter and our understanding and encouraged us to explain how we understood the previous story. Each one gave his opinion. Sometimes he laughed and corrected us, sometimes he said: Well, well, so! And he would finish the story, which was always interesting, with a joke.
Finally, he would turn to us quietly: Well children, who is washing dishes tonight? Mother would get up first. Jokingly, Father would move the dishes and we competed between ourselves, who would help Mother. Despite his tiredness, he would always be ready to help Mother in small household chores. And this example educated us to relate with honor to our parents.
Mother didn't receive our help willingly. Go, children to study, to read these were her words.
The neighbors would say to her: Eizka, ir hut gebentshte kinder (You have blessed children). Mother would smile and answer: I only wish that they will be healthy.
On Saturday night Father would take the Heiynt newspaper, point at an article and say Well, children, whoever translates this article to good Hebrew will get a prize! We would sit down - 2 girls and a boy (the older ones) and sweat over it, helped by a dictionary. A bar of chocolate, a good word and heartwarming laughter smiled on the winner. The prize did indeed charm us.
In ways such as these, he (Father) knew how to arouse in us the wish and desire to learn and deepen our knowledge of the Hebrew language.
The lovely relationship and respect that our mother showed us, educated us not only to love our parents, but also to honor and to admire them. We knew to tell our parents about everything that bothered us, and Mother with her good smile and her clear eyes knew how to quiet every pain in our childhood. After we had told our mother about an imagined or real failure, the thing seemed, in our eyes, much easier and simpler.
Where are you, my wonderful parents?!
In their life they were never separated, and only the cruel death separated them. You, my dear father, fell in the Riga Ghetto in Latvia, when leaving on a journey related to your many businesses, and you, my dear mother, your delicate soul went up in flames in the Rakov Synagogue, together with all the martyrs of the town.
May this brief article serve as a memorial candle for your dear souls till the end of my life.
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