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[Pages 439-440]

The Shtibl[1] of the Belzer Hasidim

by Moyshe Grinberg, Tel Aviv

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

When people write about Chelm, they write about the town with a great history, the town that was rich with institutions, organizations from the far right to the far left, the town that produced prominent personalities from various areas, such as art, politics, science, etc. But this book would be incomplete if it didn't describe, if only briefly, religious Chelm: the town of Hasidim and religious scholars, of many religious institutions, beginning with the great Talmud Torah and yeshiva that served as the first place of learning for a large part of the youth of Chelm and its environs, and the many Hasidic shtiblekh where every Hasidic rebe had his own followers and every Hasidic group had its own particular customs and practices. I will try to write what I can remember about one of these – the shtibl of the Belzer Hasidim.

* * *

The Belzer shtibl stood on Shedletske street, far from the shtiblekh of the other Hasidic groups, like the Kazmirer, Trisher, and Radziner, which were located near the besmedresh and Shul Street. There it seemed as if it had the task of protecting all of the Jewish residents of the neighborhood. The tall Belzer shtibl building with long, wide windows stood out from among the various buildings, tall and low, small and large, where Jews lived. From it you could hear, from early morning to late at night, pleasant voices in prayer, or a nigun [melody] from the khevre shas [Talmud study group] which studied gemora or mishna every day, or you would hear a zemerl [tune], a dance at a celebratory feast or the commemoration of a rebe's yortsayt. [anniversary of death].

Inside, the building was divided. Almost half was devoted to the women's section, which on shabes [Sabbath] and holidays overflowed with women, each of whom had her own permanent seat. In the large men's section, on the eastern wall stood the famous Torah ark, which was renowned for its artistic ornamentation. On the western side the walls were adorned with tall cabinets holding thousands of religious books, old and new, which for many years had remained in the hands of various scholars. Scattered through the pages of the old gemoras were silver white hairs left behind by one or another scholar as he studied, his eyes sparkling as he recounted a story from generations ago.

In winter, two large ovens warmed those who came daily, those for whom the shtibl was a second home. Along the walls were long tables and benches which, with great patience and pleasure, served loyally, daily as well as shabes, the many Hasidim at prayer or study, or eating the third shabes meal or making shabes kiddush.

the elite of the town, the rich Jews, the shabesdike yidn, i.e. the Jews who appeared only on Saturday. This is where we saw Reb Berish Kuper, a fine, upstanding Jew and a man of privilege; Reb Mateseyu Kleyner, who was a great scholar as well as a man of wealth and a great philanthropist; Reb Shloyme Roytman, a man of power and influence, who was close to the rebe, and who was a bal tekie [blower of shofar] during the High Holy Days; Reb Shloyme Yitshok Rozenberg, a man of noble character, who enjoyed best a good debate on a Talmudic question; Reb Berish Landau, a man of religious learning and business who was highly respected and esteemed by others. There was also Reb Yeshue Melamed, an unusually interesting type, whose wealth consisted in his contentment with his lot. A very honorable person and very modest, he always saw the good in people and was a peacemaker. He considered it a sacred obligation to distribute “tobacco” that he had made himself with great skill and taste. He led the morning prayers during the High Holy days and when he sang “hamelekh” everyone trembled in fear. But he never looked joyful. He was unable to father children. And there was Reb Mendele Shmuele Harsh's, who as boys we called the “wicked holy man” because he was always getting angry at us.

On the south side were seated (in accordance with the rule of our sages, “Whoever wishes to be wise will dream,”) men who weren't as wealthy, but were more learned, who would come to the shtibl every day and even several times a day. Here we had great scholars, the very pure, the well known group of Reb Yankev Mordkhe, a great scholar and pure soul who always led the musaf prayer on Rosh Hashone and Yom Kippur; Reb Yudele Stav, an expert in music and an intelligent man; Reb Shmuel Hakatan, who in contrast to his name [“small”] was a great Hasid and scholar; Reb Moyshe Horodler who had adorned the shtibl with his wonderful drawings; Reb Yitshak Yeshaye, a person who was completely uninvolved with worldly matters, of whom it was said that he couldn't distinguish one coin from another; Reb Simkhe Amerikaner (he got the name because his father had lived in America; he himself was a melamed and far from rich). One of his habits was to refrain from speaking until prayers were over and he never called his wife –my mother – by name, not wanting to mention the name of a woman aloud, but instead, when he had to tell her something he would say,

[Pages 441-442]

“tell me,” or “say” and my dear mother, a true saint, took it as a sign of affection.

The Hasidic group described above was known for its solidarity. A happy occasion for one was a happy occasion for all and if, God forbid, something bad happened, everyone sympathized, everyone helped. Together they celebrated, for example, a maleve malke [end of shabes ceremony] and their devotion to each other was great. Their faith in God was constant; they never had any grievances to the Almighty, even though they lived in great poverty they accepted his will and when their bodily or spiritual pain became intolerable, their best advice was to go see the rebe in Belz, give the rebe a kvitl [written request] pour out the pain in your heart. Year in, year out, they would visit the rebe three or four times a year, and each time would return home completely changed, satisfied and joyful, having received the rebe's blessing.

* * *

Although all the Hasidic groups officially lived together peacefully, there was a certain separation that went as far as arrogance between the Belzer and the other groups in Chelm. The Belzers took no position on political matters. When there were elections to the sjem [Polish legislature] they received directives from “above,” i.e. from Belz, and as is known these followed the rule, “Follow the law of the land…” One had to vote for the Christians and in fact there were actually Polish deputies seated in the sjem who were elected by the Belzer Hasidim. At a time when the other Hasidic groups had taken a different position, and had gotten closer to Jewish political organizations, only the Belzer considered every political organization as “treyf.” Even the Agudah [ultra Orthodox group] was alien to them. Mizrahi [Zionist Orthodox] was heretical and if one of the Hasidic boys got “infected” [with Zionism] he lost his seat in the shtibl. Zionism was like chometz at Passover, not to be seen.

* * *

No matter how difficult their daily lives were, their spiritual life was wholly satisfying. The holy Sabbath was compensation for their suffering during the six week days. On that day they found the most interesting and meaningful aspects of life. On Friday nights and Saturday mornings or on a holiday the Belzer Hasidim and their shtibl took on a completely different appearance – joy and happiness shone on everyone's faces and a great shining light poured from the windows and illuminated all of Shedletske Street.

Friday afternoon, after going to the mikve [ritual bath] in order to greet the Sabbath in cleanliness, they dressed in shabes clothing–beautiful silk caftans and velvet hats. (The custom of wearing the shtrayml [large fur hat] like the Belzer Hasidim in Galicia and the Gerer and other Hasidim was not adopted by the Belzer in Chelm). In the shtibl they recited Lecha Dodi and their ardor was so great that it seemed like everything was singing along – the walls, the books, everything rejoiced to great the guest, the holy shabes.

Saturday morning before prayers the tables were filled with various study groups. At one such group they studied the daf yomi; at another table with older people, they studied perek mishanyes; at a third one could hear a pleasant melody, someone singing the sedre of the week, two bibles and one translation.”

On the south side near the door was Reb Chaim Yosl whose specialty was reciting psalms. He was an honest simple Jew for whom anything more than psalms was foreign, and he was in seventh heaven when he stood at the pulpit and could recite psalms with the congregation. And so, not thinking about day to day worries they studied and later prayed with great joy and enthusiasm, feeling the true taste of life and the spiritual pleasure of the great gift of the holy Sabbath.

But they couldn't always avoid weekday worry on the Sabbath. The shtibl had various expenses and almost always had a deficit. Not able to employ the normal means of requiring a monthly contribution from the Hasidim, the gabes [administrators] created a unique method to collect money from the congregation, and in fact on the Sabbath. When the prayers ended, the gabes closed the exit doors and blocked them with tables, and everyone was required to leave behind his prayer shawl. It didn't help to complain; everyone, rich and poor


Reb Pinye Meyer Geltshes (Pinkhes Tenenboym) a Belzer Hasid

[Pages 443-444]

had to comply. In this manner, they collected dozens of prayer shawls, and the Hasidim, requiring the shawls for prayer the next day, were obliged to redeem them after the end of Sabbath or early the next morning. It was more difficult to do this with those Hasidim who had another, “weekday,” prayer shawl.

The height of joy and emotion was reached at the third Sabbath meal on Saturday evening. The sun had long set. Darkness reigned in the shtibl but that didn't interfere with the meal. All the Hasidim sat around the tables, each taking a small piece of challah. Reb Shmuel Hakatan had a custom of distributing pieces of fish. Everyone, in the dark, took his portion in hand and imagined he was partaking of Leviathan [legendary giant fish that will be eaten after the coming of the Messiah]. Slowly we sang all the Sabbath melodies. Each singer knew which melody belonged to him and as soon as one melody ended, another began, until “Dror Yikve” [He grants release] which belonged to my father, Reb Simkhe Amerikaner.

We grew more enthusiastic by the minute, rejoicing in the Sabbath Queen, and we, the holy sheep, joyously accompanied the singers and the songs carried far. Later, very late, well after stars had appeared in the sky and the last singers had ended with Shir Hamayles [Song of Ascents], a ray of light suddenly illuminated the shtibl and those around the tables were forcibly wrested away from the exalted world of the Sabbath.

Sabbath was over; its departure was a great sorrow even though it would soon come again. Right after Havdalah [ceremony ending Sabbath] the scholars' group began to prepare for melave malke. This was much more intimate; each person contributed a few cents, enough to provide bread and herring, and if there was any money left, one of the women would cook up a dish of groats. And a group of Jews, having shed the trappings of the world, enthusiastically sang songs about the Sabath and told stories about Hasidic rebes, and engaged in serious discussions interpreting current or past events. Well after midnight, the singing of Ish Hasid [devoted man] accompanied the departure of the Sabbath Queen.

* * *

Today this corner of Chelm is filled with sorrow. No longer do you hear the melodies of the chanting of gemora or psalms. There are no longer any Jews in the street, or in the entire town. They have been shot, burned, buried alive. No one even had a Jewish burial. That tall building, the Belzer shtibl, is dark, empty, ruined, the thousands of books it held burnt, not a trace of them remains.

Jews, pure souls, who strived the entire year to do right between man and man and even more between man and God, Jews who were careful a whole year not to fall into bad habits, who sinned perhaps once in the year and yet on Yom Kippur beat their breasts and said, “ashamu, bagadnu, gazalnu [we have sinned, betrayed, robbed.]” It was a lie, a big lie, when they wept during the prayer, “we have sinned among nations.” They – they are more sinful than other people? More sinful than those sinners and beasts, the murderers of six million Jews, old and young, woman and children, who are the true sinners?

And how sad that it was precisely on the holiday Shavuot, the day of the giving of the Torah, that the martyrs of our town were led by the Nazis, with the help of the Poles, to their murder in the woods, and never returned.

Translator's footnote

  1. small Hasidic house of worship return


(author unknown)

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

My town!
Everyone who remembers you
has to smile
because of the folktales about the Jewish life
that was once lived in you.
But when I remember you,
my town, I remember only suffering
and endless pain.
How could it be otherwise?
Your rabbi, renowned for his wisdom,
driven barefoot on a winter day,
the blood dripping from his face
onto the glistening snow,
his splendid gray beard
spread out by the sharp wind;
the rejoicing of the Christians
as they looked on.
Your old rabbi, ordered to dance,
remained in one spot,
began to recite “Pour out your wrath”
word by word.
Then the old man began to feel
that death would be his fate
and with “Shema Yisroel” he honored God.
But a line of bullets
cut off his prayer and his life.
The holy man was left lying
On the snow covered street.
The snow fell thickly
from the gloomy sky
and covered him
like a white shroud.
Chelm mourned its aged rabbi
And the congregation felt
that the final hour had come.
A short time passed
and all was destroyed.
Where Jewish life once had bloomed
Only earth and ashes remained.

[Pages 445-446]

A Page of Memories
(pictures, lives and personalities, 1897–1917)

By B.Binshtok

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

The town lies buried in a deep, dry, dazzling white snow. Although a crackling frost has persisted for several weeks, life and activity continue as normal. Paths and roads of trodden snow connect the city streets and alleys just as if someone had laid them out in advance.

Workers, poor people, wagon drivers, and porters keep warm in cheap quilted jackets, altered military overcoats, patched jackets, worn lambskin coats belted with rope, fur and padded hats, shawls around their necks and hoods covering their ears, and on their feet voylikes or boots wrapped in rags instead of galoshes. Poor women and girls are dressed in quilted skirts, cowls, a shawl on top of a bonnet or shaytl [wig], a big shawl over their shoulders, and tall laced shoes or men's boots.

Young people as well as rich shopkeepers and merchants and their families wear nice modern clothing, elegant fur coats with matching hats, high laced up shoes with full– or half–length “Petersburg” galoshes.

* * *

The night of the third candle of Khanike was a big holiday in the alcove where Reb Shimen Yankev and Marmerivtshe lived. Their only son Shloymele, a thin and sallow but lively little boy was turning three and preparing to go to heder [religious school for young children]. He is a fearful child and cries a lot. Once, when he was very sick, they got the rabbi to agree and “sold” him [symbolically] to Brayndele “the cat” [to fool the Angel of Death]; may it never happen again. Brayndele was called “the cat” because she would open other people's food cupboards in the middle of the night to get something to eat for her little fatherless children. She lived in the basement of Froyim Kore's house near the old bath house on Seminarski Street. Marmerivtshe used to keep her cupboards unlocked on purpose every Friday night, leaving a piece of fish, some challah, or some rolls for Brayndele.

Today, the night of the third candle, Marmerivtshe is radiant and happy. She is getting her little boy ready to go to heder. She hugs and kisses him, straightening his talis kotn [fringed undergarment], tidies his 8–cornered hat and curls his thin little payes [side locks]with her moistened finger.

Shloymele knew a bit about heder. He knew that today he would turn three and would start going there to learn Torah. Many weeks ago his father began to prepare him for this sacred beginning. Every evening after prayers, Shimen returned home from his hard job on the ramp of the train station, and right after supper he would take the boy on his lap, open a large prayer book and point with a pocket pointer, while singing a poignant tune: “This is how a little boy learns Torah. Say it again, my dear child, alef and bet and giml.” Shloymele liked the sweet singing and sang out loudly, “alef, bet, diml [sic].”

Shimen Yankev also lived in the basement of Froyim Kore's building. They called him “Kore” because he was rich, the landlord of a building. He was a miser and heartless and inhumane; he would hit people. Shimen Yankev was ten years younger and the second husband of Marmerivtshe. She had run away from her first husband of ten years, Pinkhes Shelishtshekh, and her nasty mother–in–law. Although there were only 3 people in the family, there was a lot of work to get done. They had their own house, horses, a cow, chickens, a large establishment. That would have been tolerable if not for the mother in law, an old, sick and angry woman. She would torment Marmerivtshe constantly, cursed her viciously, calling her a dismal, barren woman and caused her great heartache. Marmerivtshe had had no children with Pinkhes.

When Shloymele started to walk, Marmerivtshe would take him by the hand and stroll over to Moyshele Palievshi's store, where Pinkhes used to load his wagon.

It was already 1 P.M. Reb Shmuel Ber, one of seven subtenants who lived in alcoves on the other side of Shimen Yankev's “Spanish wall,” came home to eat lunch. He wondered why Shloymele had not yet gone to heder. “It's so late already,” he announced. Little Shloymele felt very guilty and ashamed by Reb Shimen Ber's remark and asked his mother, “When will I go to heder and learn Torah for real, Mother? At that moment the door opened and Moyshe Shloymele Hirzhe's – the belfer [teacher's assistant] – entered. He was wearing a nice padded overcoat with an astrakhan collar and an astrakhan hat pulled over his ears, and high boots with full, deep galoshes. In his hand he held a basket full of little pots from which you could smell fresh cooked lunches for the children in heder. It wasn't long

[Pages 447-448]

before Shloymele was dressed and wrapped in a shawl. The belfer took him and carried him under his arm the quite short distance to Shloymele Hirzh, the teacher of beginners in heder.

Shloymele Hirzh's heder was in his own house, a sunken ruin that had been that way for many years. The main entrance was from a little alley behind the slaughterhouse. Behind the house was an area where the children played in summer. A garbage bin stood next to the fence with a gate that led to Seminarska Street. Along the west side of the house was the brick wall of the seminary where the future Orthodox priests of Russia studied and prepared to be God's emissaries and spiritual leaders for the people of Russia.

When they came in, the belfer unwrapped Shloymele's shawl and presented him to the rebe [teacher]: “Shloymele Shimen Yankev Marmerivitshe's!” Shloymele Hirzh was a broad boned man of average height, with a broad, full face with a short, thin gray beard. He was wearing boots with high, wide bootlegs, where his cotton trousers were hiding themselves along with his leggings; a dirty white undershirt over his big woolen tales kotn; and a yarmulke on his head.

Shloymele Hirzh bent down, patted Shloymele on the head and was about to say something to him when the door opened wide and a cold wind rushed in, along with a woman carrying a chicken. This was a neighbor, a tenant of Pinyele Yosele Beker, who lived on the other side of a wall of the heder.

“Excuse me, Reb Shayale, may you live to see the Messiah, tell me if this chicken has an egg, it keeps flying around my room.” Shloymel Hirzh took the chicken, which was squawking loudly, blew into it somewhere, stuck in his finger, scrunched up his eyes and stretched out his mouth. “Yes, she has an egg,” he announced the good news. “You should have great nakhes from your children,” the woman shouted joyfully, taking back the chicken, and she left the room.

Shloymele and all the children in the heder had looked on eagerly and greatly enjoyed the scene with the chicken.

Shloymele Hirzh's heder consisted of one large room with two windows which almost lay on the ground. A large table stood in front of the windows with chairs on both sides and a long high bench facing the windows. On the table lay pieces of bread, challah, bagels or pletzls, dry or smeared with butter, prune preserves or schmaltz, which the children had left over. The belfer would stave off his hunger with these pieces; the remainder was fed to the hens, geese and ducks which the rebe's wife raised to sell.

The three year old children sat on several very low, long benches and played with their own fingers, their caftans or their tales kotns. Other children sat on the floor and napped. On the other side of the room stood two high beds where one or two hens would often be sitting. When a hen would break out in song ––”kop–kop–kop” – Shloymele Hirzh, very pleased, would hide the egg, take the hen off the bed and put it in the storage space under the chimney opposite the beds. A large barrel of water stood by the chimney, near the narrow door where there was also a bucket and a broom.

Shloymele Hirzh, as soon as he was done with the woman with the chicken, picked up Shloymele and sat him on the high bench, near the table, in a row with several other children, ready to start studying. The rebe kept each child at the prayer book for two to four minutes. When it was Shloymele's turn, the rebe tenderly took his chin and guided it so that his eyes would focus directly on the alef–beys. The rebe then sang in his hoarse voice, “A little boy says alef. And what is this? A beys! And this? A giml.” Shloymele sang out in his thin little voice: “Alef! Beys! Giml!” The rebe again sang, pleased that his pupil was able to learn, “That's how a boy studies Torah,” and ended, very prosaically, “when your children are as old as me, they should know as much as you, Shloymele.”

Shloymele's father did not rely solely on the rebe. Every night after supper he studied alef–beys with the child. Thus the child made exceptional progress, so that by the week of Passover his mother took him out of Shloymele Hirzh's heder and signed him up with Reb Shaye Kozak.”[Cossack], the traf [second stage of learning to read] melamed [teacher]. At Reb Shaye's every child had to hit the mark; if not Shaye Kozak would poke his fingers at their bottoms. Shaye Kozak's heder was on the same street, several steps from Shloymele Hirzh, behind the ritual slaughterers. It was also in the rebe's own house, a half–sunken ruin, with two low windows looking onto the street.

Shaye Kozak had to put up with a lot of trouble from his building; that is, not from the building itself, but from the area across the street, opposite the house, which didn't belong to him. Every Monday and Thursday [idiom., very often] the police would come and drag him off to jail for nothing.

There were two different schools of thought in Chelm about why he was called Kozak. Some people said it was because he was tall, had an elongated, sorrowful face, a long sparse grey beard, long limbs, and a hernia; and he coughed, snorted

[Pages 449-450]

and wheezed – like a Cossack. Others held that it was because of his wife, who was a shrew, a scoundrel, a Cossack. Shaye Kozak was terrified of his wife. Whenever something bad happened, he would call on her, relying on her to take care of it. To support this theory, they told the following story in Chelm:

One lovely summer Sabbath morning, when they were reciting the blessing for Rosh Khoydesh [new moon] Elul, Shaye Kozak was coming home from prayers, walking sedately, with his hands gracefully clasped behind him, when he encountered his son and rebuked him: “Goy! Why are you running? What's your hurry? You got to shul late, you goy. Your mother, the witch, is praying at the third minyen [prayer group] and around 1 P.M. she'll bring home someone's cold, sour Sabbath stew, may her bones ache. Why are you rushing?”

Berating his son and cursing his wife, Shaye Kozak arrived home and what he saw caused the poor fellow to almost faint. This is what had happened. While he had been in shul, several Christians had arrived, bringing blocks of wood and boards, and after digging a ditch near his door they began constructing a “Gate of Triumph,” because Tsar Nikolai was supposed to come to Chelm for the big holiday that occurred at this time of year when thousands of peasants from near and far Russia would gather in Chelm in order to drink the holy water from the well on the hill.

When Shaye Kozak, who already had enough worries, saw this he became very angry and began to shout in Russian: “This is my Sabbath! This is my place!” And to his son he said in Yiddish: “Stay here and I'll go get your mother.”

When he was barely five years old, Shloymele began to study chumesh [first five books of the Bible]. The entire membership of the society hakhnose kale [aid for indigent brides], with whom Shimen Yankev prayed, was invited to celebrate the event. People crammed into Shimen Yankev's alcove. Shloymele looked like a tiny little Jewish man, dressed in a cut–down caftan with a belt, a silk 8–cornered hat and a velvet yarmulke. His face was pale, adorned by two long, curled payes.

After cake and whiskey and good hot noodles, the melamed, Reb Itshe Sheyfeles, stood up and called for silence. You could hear a pin drop as they began.

Itshe Sheyfeles asked, “What are you studying, little boy?” Shloymele didn't answer, but displayed the middle finger of his right hand.

Itshe Sheyfeles asked, “Ha! You're studying a finger?”

Shloymele: “No!”

“So what are you studying?”

“I'm studying the third book of Va'aykre.”

“What does Va'aykre mean?”

“And he called.”

“Who called?”

“And God called to Moyshe Rabeynu.”

Shloymele didn't study long with Itshe Sheyfeles, because it was hard for Shimen Yankev to pay tuition. At five, Shloymele entered the middle class of the Talmud Torah, where poor children paid a small amount of tuition or even none. The Talmud Torah in Chelm had three classes: beginners up to chumash; ivre [reading] up to beginning gemora [Talmud]; and gemora up to tanakh [entire Jewish bible].

Reb Shmuel Hersh, a nervous, sickly, nasty man, was the teacher for the first class. He spoke Yiddish with an accent of the Volin region. He held the children in fear, calling each one “Mama's little baby.”

Shmuel Hersh's classroom was one large room with six windows. It had a long narrow table with two long benches for the children. At one end sat Shmuel Hersh, and at the other the belfer. There were 50–60 children who studied in the heder. The children sat on long low benches or on the floor. In the summer the children played in an area in front of the building. The heder also had several high modern school desks – usually unoccupied –– where Leybl Lerer gave lessons and taught the poor children to read and write Yiddish and Russian. These desks were there because they were required by Russian law governing schools. The Talmud Torah was a legalized state institution and everything had to be done according to law. It would happen that when the head of the city education committee came to inspect the conditions there, the children would run out, warning others, because the number of children exceeded the lawful limit. Only 8 or 10 children would remain in the classroom, and they sat at the modern desks. Reb Shmuel Hersh and the gabe [administrator]of the Talmud Torah, Reb Nisn, or one of the other teachers would go every Thursday to the town offices to collect the weekly subsidy for the Talmud Torah.

Shloymele started with the second class, with Reb Borekh the chumash melamed and when he turned 8 he went on to study with Reb Moyshe Libivner, the gemora melamed, the highest level teacher. Moyshe Libivner was a Trisker Hasid and a tidy man, well versed in his subject. He had three daughters and one son, Yitskhok, who sold lottery tickets. He talked people into buying tickets for the lottery of the Gerer Rebe in Warsaw.

Shimen Yankev, the hard working laborer, had great faith in the lottery and every year he would lose

[Pages 451-452]

some money playing. If, with God's help, Shimen Yankev won a stake in the game he was in seventh heaven. In such a case – which occurred only once or twice in his life, he treated himself by buying a drink of brandy and a whole wheat roll from Moyshe Pondrik, who kept his wares inside his coat and sold them at the entrance to the synagogue. He was a very poor man, but cheerful. He would make faces and screw up his pug nose. At weddings he would disguise himself as a rabbi, joke around and sing a song from “The Seven Wives.” The crowd would sing along, laughing until they cried. This is the first stanza of the song:

My first wife Trane
was quite a noble lady.
She cooked and baked
made stew and chopped fish.
She was a nasty gossip
and she would tell lies.
And before she'd finished
cooking a spoonful of food
she'd eat up more than half of it.
A glutton, woe to her.

And the audience would sing along: “A glutton, woe to her.”

Chelm had other such merry–makers, like Motl Tuvies. He used to conduct the first shabes blessings on Friday night. When there was a wedding on Friday night (often in the synagogue courtyard, without musicians) he would sing to the bride and groom and lead the in–laws in a “mitzvah dance” like this.

Who am I singing about?
Reb Chaim Kirer has come to grace the wedding
Sing a freylekhs [kind of dance] for the groom's side

And the audience would sing: “tay ray ti di di di”


Here comes Aunt Beyle Yone
Aunt Beyle Yone, shush, now, shush
Everyone falls for her
Let's sing a freylekhs for the bride's side.

Shloymele started to earn money while he was still studying with Moyshe Libivner at the Talmud Torah. On Purim, he went around performing with the Purim players and delivered shalekhmones [gifts of food]. Before Passover he measured flour for matzo baking, and worked his way up to the point where at the age of 11 he was a skilled kneader and quite a good oven tender. Before Passover poor people in Chelm worked making matzo. Women and girls got blisters and calluses rolling out the dough and couldn't move during Passover. The kneaders, rollers and oven tenders slept through the first seder. They were glad that they could make money and didn't have to ask for aid from the community, something that the poor of Chelm really hated to do.

Late on Friday, Marmerivtshe told Shloymele to go the “vinegar maker” and buy four groshens worth of wine in honor of the Sabbath; she told him not to forget to first rinse the bottle at the pump. The vinegar maker, a man with swollen cheeks, would walk around the large, tall barrels which the water carriers filled with fresh water from the market place pump. His wife, a short stout woman drew wine from the barrels. On a Friday late afternoon, the store was crowded, mostly with children, who, like Shayale, had been given a 10 groshen coin and instructed to ask for 4 groshens worth of wine and to get 6 groshens change. In the rush, Shayele asked for 6 groshens worth of wine and wound up with the original 10 groshen coin as well. As soon as the Sabbath was over, Marmeritvtshe returned the 10 groshen coin to the vinegar maker, even though she always complained that the wine was watery and didn't taste good.

* * *

Marmerivtshe had given birth to 13 children but only three had lived. Child mortality was very high in Chelm despite the fact that the town had so many institutions of higher learning that produced highly educated people – doctors, priests, technicians. This demonstrated how isolated and backward Jewish life was in the town.

Shimen Yankev sought additional sources of income so as to be able to pay tuition for Shloymele, who ws a good student. He worked for the landlord Tankhen Kashemakher, in whose “house” lived 8 families in alcoves separated from each other by Spanish walls, except for Khatskele Shuster who had his cobbler's workshop in the front room near the door, as well as place for “a wife and a bed” near the shared chimney. Shimen Yankev was responsible for supplying the lodgers with water and with wood to heat the oven for baking and to cook the Sabbath stew, and had to see to it that the “piekalik” [receptacle for hot coals above the stove] kept the Sabbath chickory coffee warm.

The piekalik once almost caused Shloymele's death. This is the story. Shloymele had crept onto his Spanish wall and was able to reach the ceiling, which was crumbling with age

[Pages 453-454]

so that pieces of plaster hung down like a fringe. Shloymele noticed a sparkling, round piece of plaster hanging down from the ceiling and took it down, cleaned it off, and revealed a 40 groshen silver coin. It seems that someone in the attic had lost the coin and stepping on it had pushed it into the surface of the ceiling. Shloymele told no one about this windfall. It happened on a winter “short Friday.” Shloymele spent two groshen to buy candies from Yankl Penzik and four groshens to buy pumpkin seeds, which he stuffed into two pockets of his padded coat. He kept the remaining 34 groshens in his vest pocket, in 2, 6 and 10 groshen coins.

He prayed with his father in the little shul and didn't tell about the money. After the Friday night meal, Marmerivtshe would throw anything that came to hand over the piekalik to insulate it so that the chickory would stay warm. She took Shloymele's padded coat and threw it on top, and the pumpkin seeds spilled out onto the floor; it looked like a whole sack of seeds had spilled.

Marmerivtshe became suspicious and began questioning Shloymele: “Where did you get so many pumpkin seeds?” “I bought them at the market.” “Where did you get the money?” she asked, putting her arm around him. At that moment she heard the clanking of the coins in his vest. She took the child into their alcove, took off his vest, and shook it out onto the table. The copper coins made such a loud noise that everyone in the house was startled. Marmerivtshe cried, “Money on the Sabbath!” She delivered several strong slaps, asking “where did you get so much money?”

All the lodgers gathered around the piekelik and looked at the pumpkin seeds in amazement. Each one suspected that Shloymele had stolen from him. Shimen Yankev, who had looked on in a daze, felt ashamed. He pulled the leather belt from his trousers and began beating the child, yelling, “Tell me, where did you get the money?” Shloymele wept, poor boy, and with arms outstretched sought his mother's protection. The neighbors joined in shouting, “Where did you get the money?” Shloymele finally said, “I found it.” “Where did you find it?” the entire group yelled. “I found it in the ceiling,” Shloymele said, crying bitterly. But here Shloymele made a grave error. Shimen Yankev was completely stunned by this answer. And he continued to beat him with the belt, shouting, ”In the ceiling! You non–Jew! Money on the Sabbath! And a liar to boot!”

Marmerivtshe could no longer tolerate the situation and took the child under her wing. Shloymele sobbed and became feverish. His mother sat by his bed all night in the dark. He got so sick that he almost died.

Shimen Yankev and Marmerivtshe were like thousands of other parents. They were very devoted to and loved their children. But if a child violated one of the essential laws, such as the sanctity of the Sabbath, or committed theft, etc. then the foundation was shaken and there was no place for sentiment. In addition to parents, the melameds beat them furiously. It is certain that the teacher's state of health and mood were significant factors in punishing the children, which happened with and without the parents' knowledge.

There was another story involving Shloymele. At the time he was studying with the great private gemora teacher Reb Shloyme Woslewitsker (from a shtetl near Chelm). He was a Trisker Hasid in his forties, thin and straight as a ruler, with a short yellowish beard. He walked lightly, quietly, barley touching the ground and leaning a bit to the side. The Chelm police chief in those days, who wore a corset and very fitted clothing, also walked leaning bit to the side. Shloyme Woslewitsker smoked cigarettes that he rolled himself. He had long hands and long bony fingers. His heder was in the same alley as that of Shloymele Herzh, next door to a family that made paper purses, using a paste to which they added sand, which made the purses heavy.

The heder consisted of one small narrow room with two windows. On one side of the table stood a bed–bench and on the other sides long benches where 10–12 students and the rebe sat crowded together. Two beds stood opposite the chimney, and a small barrel of water and a broom and a pail stood by the door. The rebe didn't have a wife, but he had a grown daughter and a grown–up only son, Shayale. The rebe's middle daughter, Sore, was as pretty as a picture and sold soda water on Lubliner Street. Sadly she left Chelm for Lublin because of shame over an unhappy love affair, and she did there at a young age.

The first cinema came to Chelm and set up in one of the shops in the ringplatz in winter, around Khanike. People were talking about the great wonders you saw there. All the boys from Shloyme Woslewitsker's heder agreed that on Khanike, when they didn't have to attend heder at night, they would all go to the cinema with the Khanike gelt that they

[Pages 455-456]

would receive. They bought tickets and each held onto his own ticket. Shloyme would look at his when no one could see. His had the number 40 printed on a blue cardboard square. The number was rubbed off a bit and Shloyme filled it in with a pencil so that it became a very distinct number 40. When Shloymele arrived at the cinema the man at the door thought the ticket was false. He tweaked Shloymele's ears and threw him out with such force that he fell on the snowy sidewalk.

A lodger of Shimen Yankev saw how Shloymele was thrown out into the snow and told Marmerivtshe. When Shloymele returned home, saddened by this mishap, he got hit by his mother for “wanting to go to the circus.” But that was just the beginning. The next day in heder, Shloyme Woslewitsker whipped the boys one after the other. It was a regular bloody pogrom. You wouldn't have recognized the peaceful, soft–treading rebe. Like a wild animal he attacked his students and hit them wherever he could. Yosel Froyim Kores got away and with a stone broke several window panes of the heder. Several boys did not come back to the heder after that morning. Who knows? Maybe the blows that they used to deliver in those days was the “charm” that caused Chelm to raise so many prominent intellectuals and socially conscious people.

* * *

Summertime, when the splendid colors of the sun made Shloymele restless and upset, his father took him after the Sabbath nap to shul to recite psalms. Shloymele found himself in a very difficult situation. On one side, he saw before him the old yellowed cloth covered Book of Psalms, the cantor at the pulpit drawling out the verses with a sad melody and the echoing recital by the congregation. On the other side, the symphony of the sun through the high stained glass windows called to him. Shloymele could not resist the strong pull; he snuck out from under his father's arm and ran out of the synagogue, even though he was certain he would be smacked for that.

The winters in Chelm would start early, right after Sukkot. Snow, blizzards, great cold lasted until just before Passover. The summers were very lovely, mild and pleasant. The early morning, evening and nights were splendid, beautiful and enchanting.

Every day of the week, like every holiday, had its own special charm and beauty.


Girl students from the Beis Yakov school
A celebration of the enlargement and renovation of the Chelm synagogue.
In the center is a row of rabbis, dozers [community officials] social activists, the synagogue committee and others.)


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