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{Page 126}

Recognition of Awakenings

Translated by Jerrold Landau

{Page 127}

Awakenings in an Alien Land

by Yehuda Grünspan

A. From the Early Days

Only very few memories remain from those peaceful days that preceded the First World War, when the town was still built up. My memories are centered on the precincts of the large Market Square, which was surrounded and closed in by rows of stores from all sides. I particularly remember the large and beautiful store of the “Erer Brothers”… When we returned from cheder, we would often gather around the entrance and glance inside. We would look inside with awe as our eyes beheld its beauty. However, even the brave ones from among us did not dare walk through the entrance. This was due to a few reasons:

  1. the owner of the store went around “bareheaded” [1];
    In the store, they spoke German even to the Jewish and Polish customers;
  2. the main reason: Red carpets were spread out on the floor, and these inspired fear in us, as if they declared: “go around, go around, do not draw near…”
My first memory from those days is connected with the cheder of Reb Shlomo the teacher and Yosele, his teacher's assistant. The portrait is alive and well before us: a group of young children of age four or five making their way slowly along the “Potszina” to the other side of the “Tepper Lane”. For the most part, their noses were not clean. The bottoms of their shirts stick out from their pants in the back, and they have salted bagels spread with butter in their hands. Yosele the teacher's assistant will guide us… Our dear mothers gave us over to the faithful hands of this good-natured man, who was of somewhat dull intellect… We came and went by his command. He recited the “Modeh Ani” prayer with us in the morning, he read with us the “Shema” prayer in the evening, and he reviewed with us the aleph beit during the day – kametz aleph – o, kametz beis – bo, patach shin – sha [2]. He also taught us the vowels and the trop [3] – in short, the entire difficult Torah was taught to us by Shlomo the children's teacher with the help of his pointer and his belt… I do not remember if we were happy in cheder (the nickname of our teacher, “Shlomo Shlep”, which was always on our tongues, perhaps indicated that we might not have been… [4]). However, we were certainly not bored there. This was thanks to the blacksmith shop of the neighboring gentile, for we shared a common courtyard, us brats and the blacksmith's shears (a match from heaven! Is it not? This device was a constant source of pleasure. Not only did it serve for us as a device for practicing our cutting skills – in particular on their holidays when the entire family of the blacksmith went to the “impure place” [5], but it was also a treasure house of all sorts of blacksmith remnants. We filled our pockets with them and tore them to smithereens. It is obvious that this cutting device did not only bring us great joy but also much suffering and pain. The blacksmith would cut very hot iron. He would take what he needed and leave behind the rest. One of us would run to grab the “find”, and the screams reached to the heavens… The Rebbetzin Sarah Gales would hurry to the victim as a redeeming angel and immerse the burnt hand in a pot full of milk to heal it. On such occasions we learned that one places on a wound flowing with blood (i.e. “a cut in the head”) bread and butter and a spider's web; a sure remedy for perplexity and fear was to lick the forehead seven times and after each lick, to spit on the ground; if one is injured in the eye, one removes the upper eyebrow with honey and spits three times upwards, and it is cured… It is obvious that these “first aid” lessons from the Rebbetzin were not part of the official curriculum. Also included among our activities were visits to the homes of newborns. The babies were washed thoroughly (incidentally, we were surprised that Tauba “the chubby”, the daughter of the rabbi, was able to “wash” all of us with one splash of water. We would often be taken by our teacher in the evenings, as we made an orderly procession to the house of a newborn to read the Shema together and with a melody. We were rewarded with sweets and “stars” (a type of pastry). Our joy was great. These evening hours were the most enjoyable times at the cheder of Reb Shlomo the teacher.

During the evening hours… To the west of the courtyard of the cheder, there was a wide pasture (“di lonke”) which was surrounded by rows of tall trees. During the evening hours, it seemed to us young children that the tops of the trees reached to the heavens, that the borders of that field were the “ends of our earth”, and that the redness of the sky was the fire of hell.

With regards to the “hell”, we were correct, for soon enough, hell would open up before us. The fire of the First World War was ignited. The also signified the beginning of the end of our “ends of our earth”. The boundaries of our pasture expanded all the way to Western Europe.

Things transpired with suddenness. On one summery Sabbath afternoon, news spread about the “final train going to the west”. A great panic ensued in the city. Father of blessed memory hastily came home from the Chevra Mishnayot Synagogue. His face exuded deep agony that he had to leave the customary lecture of Reb Leizer Zeldales, and that he had to occupy himself on the Sabbath with things that were forbidden as not being in the spirit of the Sabbath. However when he saw the perplexed face of my mother of blessed memory, he surely remembered the adage of the holy Talmudic sage: “Negate your Torah since it is a time of action” [6].

A few moveable belongings were packed onto a wheelbarrow, and I followed along behind it. The Street of the Train was full of men, women and children covered in sweat and full of panic. The burning sun spread its full light upon the square, shiny tiles. Suddenly, as if to “anger” us, the weather changed and rain began to fall. It was a poor opportunity for the song “a son with a rain, the bride has been born”. The time was not fitting for this, for how can we sing our songs as we were going out to a strange land.

When we arrived at the train station, we found the train cars filled to the brim with no space. Cramped and pressed, we remained outside on the platform between the coaches. There was fear and also excitement – it was our first ride in a train: There were deafening whistles, pillars of smoke and steam, sparks coming out from under the clanging wheels: fields, trees and houses raced backward and speedily disappeared, the world and its contents were in dizzying movement. At the stops, our older brothers would hurry to bring some water or to pick some ripe fruit from the sides of the track. Suddenly the train would start to move and those that were late would succeed, of course, in jumping upon the rear cars. In the meantime, the mothers would sigh over the “loss” of their children. Refugee organizations would greet us with hot cocoa and baskets full of fresh and tasty rolls. We were quite happy with this. Suddenly, a shriek would come out from the midst of the coach: “Oy vey, I am broken, it is with lard!” [7] Suddenly, people would start to spit out and cough… “Foo!” “Oy Vey”. The agony of even the young children who did not yet understand the difference between permitted and forbidden food was great. All at once, the joy ceased. The tender heart brought bad news: “From a gentile… bread of gentiles… not kosher…”

Things changed as time went on. Our return to the town was not like our exit. It was no longer the same town, and there were no longer the same townsfolk. The splendor and glory had departed. The face had changed and the clothing had changed. Some people had cut of their peyos and others shaved off their beards. Some only put away their shtreimel and others cut their cloak in half. In brief: the small town of Dembitz looked at the wide world and was damaged…

{Hebrew text – pp 128-133}

B. In the Cheder

We studied Hebrew with Reb Shlomo the teacher, and Chumash and Rashi with Reb Chaim Yoskis. This cheder left strong impressions on many of us, for it was one of a kind. This cheder had everything… It was on the ground floor (if not below). From the main street, the Kaiser Weg, we went down to it on twelve extremely shaky steps. In the winter, when the high snow covered the steps, the pranksters from among us would sit on metal plates and slide all the way down from the street. They would go directly into the cheder, breaking through the door with the force of their bodies. I should add that this 'beating' of the door caused other beatings, this time from the Rebbi [8]. The cheder room was long and narrow, and it was always gray. However we did not feel this, for we had a great light in our hearts, and we even merited having many hours of happiness. Our prime time of happiness was the time between the Mincha (afternoon) and Maariv (evening) services on the long winter nights. The Rebbi would go out to attend the service and we would make haste to return to the cheder armed with flashlights and food. Incidentally, just as the flashlights differed from each other, the food also differed. Those who had flashlights “purchased in Tarnow” with thick, polished glass and a receptacle for fuel and a wick would bring a nice piece of bread (made from sifted flour) spread with butter or duck fat, a good piece of salted fish, and dried fruit for dessert. Those who had the flashlights designed for candles made by the local glassmaker with simple pieces of glass, brought with them to eat half-dark bread spread with “kornol” (a type of margarine and the head or tail of a salted fish. There were also those who did not have any flashlights at all. They brought with them only a piece of bread made of course flour, and no more. Even with the “class differences”, friendship and brotherhood pervaded; and probably for this reason, the swapping and “barter” took place – three “scratches” of the turnip were exchanged for a bite of the white bread or a dried pear. There were many other similar transactions. Of course, there were also instances of heard-heartedness and selfishness. Someone may have been stubborn and refused to share even a small taste with his friend who was like a brother to him. What would he do? He would quickly lick it on all sides with his tongue, thus preventing others from benefiting from it. However, such not-nice instances were rare, and for the most part, a good spirit pervaded among us. This was particularly true during these desirable times between Mincha and Maariv when the Rebbi was away from the cheder, and the center of activity moved from the study table to the two beds that spanned the length of the wall. These beds spanned all the way from the table to the baker's oven, which was also an integral part of our cheder. It is appropriate to dedicate a few words to these two beds. Ezra, the son of our Rebbi, slept on one of them. On the second one slept the two sons of Chamia “from across the water”, our classmates. During the six weekdays, the cheder room also served as a dormitory for them. During the day, there was nothing on these beds aside from the mattresses, so we saw them as “open” for pranks. We turned them into a “battlefield”. This was particularly the case with the bed of the sons of Chamia, which were set apart because during the nights, fish were drawn from them. You might ask about what fishing had to do with the “battlefield”? This was the way it took place for the most part. After we ate appropriately and satiated ourselves with tasty morsels, we began to deal with the “matter”. Someone from the group was intentionally pushed upon the bed of the “pensioners”, and immediately the sequence of events  [9] began. Right away, the pusher also lay down on the bed, and then the next person, the third, the fourth, etc. until there was a large pile of bodies and winter coats on the bed. We all rolled around, there was laughter and muffled grunts as those underneath made their way to the top of the heap, and those on top made their way to the bottom of the heap. Thus began a long session of “oy”! One could cut the atmosphere with a knife. The “trouble” was reserved for the one with bad luck who would be at the top of the pile at the moment that the Rebbi entered the room and the whippings began. Reb Chaim Yoskis was quite expert at administering whippings. He would whip our fathers on the eve of Yom Kippur at the Beis Midrash of the Hassidim [10]. During my childhood, for some reason, I would enjoy seeing how Reb Alter, for example, or Reb Chaim Alter would bend down and fall on their faces as our Rebbi would whip them with his strap as his mouth enunciates. “And He, being all merciful, forgives transgression…” The whipping in the Beis Midrash was similar to the whipping in the cheder; however here he would do it both above and below, and was not accompanied with the recitation of “And He, being all merciful”.

All of this took place in the first bed of Shlomoke and Leibke. The second bed served as our “club house for storytelling”. We sat on it and eagerly listened to the stories of Ezra the son. What did he tell us, and what did he not tell us? He would tell us about the spirits and shades; a story about the mischievous girl with an umbrella in her hand who would walk back and forth to the walls of the nunnery; the story of the lazy person who stood with one foot on the roof of the house of Hinda Hauser and with the other foot on the house of Efraim Hakeh, with a pipe in his mouth that reaches to the ground; a story about the shoe merchants who traveled to the fair in Pilzno and brought with them sacks filled with boots. When they arrived at the Pilzno Bridge, one sack fell off the wagon and disappeared under the bridge. We liked in particular to hear the stories of the wonders performed by the Tzadikim of our town, in particular of Rabbi Reuven of blessed memory, who once went out on his shaky wagon with two pairs of horses, and chased away a band of spirits that had taken root in the town with his whip. Another chapter in Ezra's collection revolved around the dead. There were many stories of dead people who knocked on the doors of the members of the Chevra Kadisha (burial society) complaining that their burial shrouds had been exchanged, damaged during deeds of the “do-gooders”, or other such complaints. There was the story of the dead people who worshiped at midnight in the Great Synagogue, which inspired us that night to grab our Tzitzit [11] and recite the Shema prayer with extra intensity. We were not so brazen as to glance with our eyes toward the tall windows of the synagogue, lest we see the worshipping corpses dressed in their white shrouds enwrapped in their tallises. Ezra the son did not only expound about the dead, but also about the living. Living people love treasures, and Ezra loved to tell stories about hidden treasures. In truth, with regard to hidden treasures, I must state that our friend Shaya David (Lisha) was even more expert than even Ezra. There was no item in the world, literally from the horns of buffaloes to the eggs of lice, including of course buttons and letter molds, for which Shaya David did not know the location of their hidden treasure. There are also interesting stories about Beinish and his group. We had a strange pleasure in hearing, for example, how Ezra once found himself at one of the abandoned houses in the town and found Beinish in great trouble. Only after he, Ezra, ran to the store and brought him “ten measures of butter” was Beinish relieved from his trouble. Our small eyes stood out and our mouths were open to drink with thirst more and more from this overflowing fountain. And then suddenly the opportunity passed, for the Rebbi returned.

For one more moment the observer looked around in astonishment until he caught sight of the flame of the oil lantern that was standing on an overturned pot in the middle of the table. However, everything was forgotten very quickly. The mouths of the “holy flock” broke out in the holy chant: “And I, Jacob, even though I am burdening you with my burial”, and continuing on with the voice of victory: “Shimon and Levi are brothers” [12]. With regard to the education of children, what can be compared to these holy feelings which we felt as we studied the Torah portion of Vayechi on a winter night in the cheder of Reb Chaim Yoskis? The study material was comforting to the soul, and therefore even the “day of judgement”, that is to say the exam which took place on Fridays, was not difficult for us. There was also another satisfying time just prior, for in the “Chevra Kadisha Shtibel” the congregation would finish the Psalms of David the son of Jesse every Friday morning. We the cheder children would try to get up early in order to participate at least in the final daily portion and the recital of the “Yehi Ratzon” prayers that are recited after the conclusion of the book of Psalms. I did not know and I still do not know what intention our fathers had when they stayed up all night and cried out with heartrending cries: “and may Your nation of Israel not need help from each other, nor from another nation”. What I did know was that our intention was that the exam should go well and we should not need the support of one another for the “reprimand” or other difficulties. In addition to the Psalms, we made sure to kiss the mezuzah three times upon leaving the Shtibel and to say with great devotion: “Our Father, our King, may this hour be a time of mercy and a fortuitous time before You” [13]. If that was not sufficient, we employed the smoke of the tall chimney of the factory of Uncle Notele in order to make predictions. If the smoke goes straight up, it was a sign that the “doctor is good” (Shaya David nicknamed the exam on Chumash and Rashi – “asentirung” [14]). If the smoke bent to the sides, Heaven forbid, then “it is bitter”.

As a small consolation for the times of “fear” on Fridays, the large baker's stove played a significant role in the cheder in which we studied. How good was it, after we succeeded in the exam, to stand in front of the lit stove and look inside as the flames lapped up the frozen, wet sticks of wood, as the water boils and becomes red, and suddenly the sound of breaking as the as a shower of sparks spread out in all directions. How fortunate were we when the Rebbetzin Lea Yoskis would come to our assistance to serve us a piece of honey pastry or some other delicacy. However, our greatest pleasure from this oven came during the days between Purim and Passover. Our joy was double at that time. This was “for G-d and for the people”. We studied the Song of Songs with great enthusiasm [15]. “Song” – the song which King Solomon sung. We also studied the Passover Haggadah. “Kadesh” – when the father comes home from the synagogue on Passover night, he puts on his kittel and rinses out the cups. Then he sits down in a reclining position and recites the Kiddush. “Urchatz” – we wash the hands and do not make the usual benediction upon washing, since this washing is not followed by the meal. [16]. This was the portion for G-d. The portion for us was even more enjoyable. For two or three weeks before Pesach, our Rebbi used to rent out his stove to various homeowners, and every family baked their matzos with the help of their friends and acquaintances. The matzo shmurah was baked first thing in the morning, and then the regular matzo was baked throughout the day or in the evening. One could discern the status of the family baking by the hours of baking. Of course, the more prominent people baked their matzos earlier and the poorer people later, as was customary. In any case, the cheder was very busy at that time, and our assistance was greatly needed. The jealousy of the children of the nearby cheders was very deep, for only we had the merit of turning ourselves during those two weeks into “hewers of wood and drawers of water” literally. It was our duty to bring in firewood from the woodshed in the yard in order to fuel the oven, as well as to draw the “mayim shelanu” [17] and bring it in. We were also responsible for scrubbing the rolling pins and baking pans, and pouring the water for those who were kneading the dough. On occasion, we had even more success, as the person who was responsible for making the perforations in the matzos (der shtupler) would permit us to make the perforations and put it in the oven, as we shouted out loud: “hurry, put a matzo in the oven!”… Is it any wonder that the children of the other cheders were jealous of us?

Our cheder was able to arouse jealousy not only during the time of the baking of matzos. At other times of year as well our cheder had it attractions. This was thanks to the manifold occupations of the Rebbetzin Lea Yoskis. For example, a few weeks before Chanukah, our cheder room was filled with the noisy quacking of ducks. This let us know that the time for the preparation of duck fat for Passover was at hand. The Rebbetzin did a great favor for us in that the skinning and cutting up of the slaughtered ducks took place at the edge of our table. This was an excellent practical lesson in anatomy for those of us who would eventually study “Yoreh Deah” [18]. At this time, we all tried to have some benefit from the organs and limbs that were placed beside us. If the Rebbetzin removed her attention for a moment from the “operating table” one of us brats would snatch a crop or a throat and put it into his neighbor's pocket. However when he noticed that the Rebbetzin was looking for it, he would quickly return the lost object. I already mentioned the status differences that existed in our cheder. Indeed, with the extra insights that we gleaned from this work of the Rebbetzin, we were able to distinguish between for types of purchasers. First there were the well to do people who would purchase whole, fat ducks. Then there were the simpler folk who would purchase skinned ducks that were missing certain limbs. Next were the “women” who satisfied themselves with the limbs and giblets – this was also “in honor of the Sabbath”. Finally there were the poorer people who ended up with the leftovers, primarily the heads, intestines, etc. Furthermore, we learned how to classify the purchasers of fish in honor of the Sabbath. We could differentiate between those who ate carp and pike; those who purchased whitefish, sole, and tench; and those who satisfied themselves with sprats and even simpler fish.

During the summer, we enjoyed another of the occupations of Lea Yoskis. She would make raspberry syrup. The Rebbetzin needed our help for this. This is how the syrup was made: after we removed the stems from the raspberries, we put them into cloth bags, and squeezed the juice with our hands. We did this work very eagerly, for there was a double or triple reward for our labors. First of all, we were free from our studies. Secondly, there was the leftover fruit, which we sucked dry and then made into “balls” that we left out to dry in the sun. This was in lieu of gumballs that we did not have during our youth. However, from this “sweet” there was also “bitterness” when our fathers recognized from the redness of our hands “the hands of Esau” that the “voice of Jacob” was stilled in the tents of Torah [19]. They placed their hands “the hands of Jacob” upon us. It should be known that during that era, our fathers took many opportunities to fulfill the verse “he who spares the rod spoils the child” [20]. The fault did not lie with us, however, but with the river. That is to say, the river that separated our cheder from the cheder of Rabbi Lisha, and which was a source of enjoyment to us all. It was, however, also a place of serious problems on occasion. Its two banks were created, literally from the six days of creation, to serve as excellent toboggan hills in the winter. It was divided up so that we brats “the children who study Chumash and Rashi” would get the lower left bank, and the students of Rabbi Lisha, the “students of Talmud” would get the high right bank. We would sit on metal sheets, and when they were not available we would use only our pants, and slide down. The others, the older children, would slide on ordinary boards, but in order to irritate us, they would refer to them with honor as sleds. There was also a division on the ice. There were two areas, one narrow one for us beginners; and a longer one smoothed out, for the “experts”. There were often collisions and bruised faces. Worst of all, if the ice broke, we would get our shoes and pants wet. Then there was grief and woe, trembling in the bones as the knees banged together. The only choice was to go home or back to the cheder. That is to say: woe from my father or woe from the Rebbi. If such an “immersion” took place during the summer, whether due to slipping while crossing via the rocks in the river or whether due to being pushed on purpose, the solution was simpler: it was possible to stand in the clothing of Adam and Eve under the tall bridge as the clothes dried in the sun. This bridge would hide our “shame” to a large degree. However, once in a while, it itself would be the cause of embarrassment. This would be the case if one of the reckless people would stand on top of the bridge, and prove, by means of “making a bow” to the innocent people standing below that what was written in “pitum haktoret” was applicable for them [21]. Of course the matter became known to the Rebbi, and the misdeeds of this mischievous person was turned on his face; however this was a small comfort for the victim of the embarrassment. “Accidents” of this sort were obviously quite rare, and for the most part, the river was for us a source of enjoyment and fun. How good was it to jump from the banks into the river! Near the bathhouse, the water was deep and it was possible to swim, do somersaults, splash around in the turbulent water and hunt for fish (for the most part, these were tadpole and leeches; and occasion we would catch actual small fish, however these caused us only distress, for they were without scales – that is to say it was impossible to take them for they were not kosher, and it was it distressed us to put them back).

There were only two people who were not happy with our frolicking in the water: one was Junio, the stoker of the bathhouse. He was a tall, lean gentile who was as thin as a lulav, quiet and goodhearted. He suffered greatly when he saw the water, which he came to draw for the bathhouse, dirty and filthy. Nevertheless, he never told us off nor laid a hand on us. The second one was “the fat kashke”, Mrs. Lorenc, for we disturbed her ducks and swans in the waters of the river, or we used them as targets for our slingshots. Mrs. Lorenc obtained the nickname “fat kashke” from our friend Pinchas Wolf (“Tshop”) when she caught him once and began to go through his pockets to search for the ammunition, and he began to shout in a crying voice: “Shokai, Shokai, ti grobe (fat) kashke, ya nia mam protza…”

In general, these two or three Christian families who were neighbors of the cheders and Beis Midrashes were “in exile” among us. To their credit, they bore their suffering, which must have been quite great, for they were obliged to hear day and night the sounds of singing and prayers. However, on occasion a duck wearily came back to Mrs. Lorenc' yard with a broken wing or leg. The patience of this gentile ran out, and she went to the cheder to complain. Then, we were in exile. However, G-d prepared the medicine before the plague, and the distraught Polish women said to our Rebbi something like this: “Juzs dobze, prashe pani, ja mu dalem glowe wu bzszoch – a head in the book…” With her smile, it was obvious that she was somewhat assuaged by the beatings which were administered to us. There is only one thing, which is a mystery to this day: how did our Rebbi, with his minimal fluency in the vernacular, know how many whippings to administer in accordance with the severity of the crime? (We knew the level of his knowledge of the vernacular from his statement to the woodcutter: “vi kodem kol rombtshe, maia Lea poshla lashuk, achar kach maia Lea zaplatshe” [22]). In truth, it seemed that he did not know how to set the right number, but rather used the adage: “whomever does more is praiseworthy” [23].

When we graduated from the cheder of Reb Chaim Yoskis, we transferred to the cheder of Rabbi Lisha to study Talmud. Even though he was blind, he succeeded in teaching us one page of Talmud each week and in instilling his fear into us. He had an exceptional sense of hearing. Not one secret was hidden from him. If one of use tried to disappear from the study table for even a few moments, he would immediately sense that the person's voice was missing from the chorus of study, and an interrogation would begin: “Yidel, where are you?” Or, he would go outside, wave his hand and threaten, shouting loudly into space: “Moshe, do you think that I told you that you should leave!”, “Mottel, tonight, your father will know!”, “Remember Mottele!”. Of course, these threats worked immediately. We quickly surrounded him, and even before he could return to the cheder, we already were sitting around the table like innocent lambs, not knowing what the Rebbi wanted from us. At that time, the Rebbi would stand aback from us, massage his hunched back with his fist, and say: “Nu, say already!” For the Rebbi certainly knew what he wanted from us. He wanted to instill sadism in us. Perhaps it was natural that we, eight or nine year old brats, would arouse the ire of our Rebbi on occasion. One afternoon during on a hot summer day in Tammuz, Chaitza, the only daughter of the Rebbi, a girl of marriageable age, very refined and intelligent, was sitting on her bed for many hours without moving, with her back toward us and her face to the wall. Her strange position instigated the mischievous boys among us, who began to throw cherry pits at her. The first few hit her and she did not move. However when it began to bother her, she moved her head a bit toward us and said: “Daddy, the youngsters are throwing”. As soon as the complaint left her lips, her mother Perla began to curse: “we should throw them high and low, such apostates!” This was the manner of Perla (it was strictly forbidden to call her Rebbetzin). She bore her suffering quietly. If a hat flew onto the boiling pot over which she was stooped and filled the room with smoke; if a piece of gum or kutzuk [24] which was placed on the pots gave off an odor; if a pot of waste was turned over “by accident” – she quietly overlooked all of these. However when Chaitza who “would not hurt a fly on the wall” complained at all about the youth (we were eight or nine year olds!), Perla immediately began cursing. Once her mouth was opened, the stream continued like a waterfall. All in all, Perla was a good woman. She witnessed many of our pranks, and she knew our secrets and did not tell. When one of us brats tied a kite tail on the back of the Rebbi's long cloak and ignited it, we began to shout: “Rebbi, the Rebbi is burning!” We hurried to extinguish the burning papers. Or in the evening, we would study a verse from the Early Prophets (in general, we did not learn much Nach [25]) without much enthusiasm, for we had spent an entire day in the cheder, and we were anxious for freedom, for fresh air, for a dip in the Wislok River, or at least to be able to play a bit of “kampes” or “Reitshul” before Mincha and Maariv. However Rabbi Lisha did not skimp on his labor and would not free us as long as there was any sunlight coming in from the windows. We found pretexts. Someone would slowly steal out and cover the window slowly with his coat, as we inside would begin to say that it is getting dark, and shortly the time of Maariv would arrive. The trick worked and we were freed about a quarter of an hour before dismissal time. Later that night our fathers would punish us, for Rabbi Lisha made certain to find them all in the Beis Midrashes or Shtibels and to complain to them about the neglect of Torah that we had caused. It is evident that Rabbi Lisha did not cheat on his work. He was one of the better teachers who knew how to explain a page of Talmud appropriately. As opposed to the other teachers, he rarely had to resort to other methods, such as stories about the wonders and signs of the angels and Tzadikim, etc. One should not deduce from here that we knew no time of relaxation in this cheder. On the contrary, we had times of relaxation in the spirit of mitzvah. Rabbi Lisha's side trade was as a cantor – in our Beis Midrash, the “Frosten Beis Midrash”, during the year and on the High Holy Days in the neighboring villages. He was part of the clergy of our city, and he would participate in most of the weddings, circumcisions, and other joyous occasions. He would recite some of the blessings, and receive an honorable stipend for his services. These “joyous occasions of mitzvahs” were indeed fitting of their name, for they would make use students happy, in that they were the only time off that we would have. These occasions improved the lot of those among us (such as Archi Brik, Moshe Shochet, Shlomo Kalb and others) who already wore a long black cloak and hat. For the Rebbi would always choose those boys to accompany him to the joyous occasion. He did not neglect the rest of us completely. The Rebbi would take council with Benno, the son of a well-to-do merchant, in financial matters. He would return from the festivities hastily, and without changing from his festive clothes, he would immediately pick up the lesson and make up what we missed during his absence. Since his sense of hearing was exceptional, and he would hear every word that we uttered, he would simultaneously feel his pockets and count his “honorarium” item by item. He was not able to always make out the value of the paper money, so he had to quietly take council with his “faithful” one and ask. If the amount of the bill was large, our Rebbi would quickly hide the bill, apparently out of fear of the evil eye, and also to protect it from the eyes of his wife Perla, for she was always led to believe that her husband earned his livelihood with difficulty. She would work hard always until a late hour of the night, sewing and plucking feathers in order to earn some money to make up the shortfall. Perla certainly was not lazy in her husband's home. She should be remembered for good, for she looked after her house well and it was always tidy, even though the entire house was one room. This room included our cheder. When we got older we read “The Miser” by Moliere, and we saw in it a picture of our Rebbi, stooped over the chest that nobody else would touch. In our childhood imagination, it was filled with treasures. We felt sorry for Perla and her difficult lot. In any case, these memories certainly do not affect the feelings of respect and reverence that we had for our blind Rebbi, Rabbi Lisha of blessed memory.

After we finished the cheder of Rabbi Lisha, we moved on to study Talmud and commentaries with Reb Yosef Parker and with the “teacher of Przeworsk”. With this transition, most of our antics ceased. for we were now “Gemara youths” (ten years old!), and these types of antics were no longer appropriate for us. Furthermore, these new cheders were not the same as the previous ones. Our first Rebbis were natural teachers; however Reb Yosef Parker was actually a merchant of fowl and eggs. Since he was a small-scale merchant and a great scholar, he opened up a cheder, and the teaching fees were a supplement to his income. Therefore, he chose a small number of students from well to do homes (the Siedliskers, Shaul Taffet, Avraham Kanner, Shlomo Fischler, Chaim Schneps and others). Some were intelligent and diligent, and others were such that their fathers “were able to permit themselves” that their sons be considered among the intelligent and diligent ones. Along with myself, Itzu and Ansheli Taub of the new city studied with me. I would go to their house every morning, so that we could walk together to the old city, to the cheder, which was some distance from our homes. It was not easy at all to awaken Itzu from beneath his warm blankets at 5:00 a.m. (Incidentally, even at such an early hour in the morning, I was overtaken by jealousy: their blankets were of excellent quality - in our home we had no similar blankets – they were colored and inscribed with the inscription: “Good Morning”. There were also many coins in the blankets, as a good omen for riches.) Then, at that time when even the early morning risers were not up yet, we set out toward the old city. Even though we walked together as a threesome and attempted to portray ourselves as brave and strong, we were greatly afraid along the route. This was particularly due to a tall priest, dressed in black, who would be walking from the rectory to the monastery for the morning prayers, and he was reciting his prayers along the way. At such an early hour, with deep darkness still pervading, he would seem to us as someone of unsound mind muttering to himself. We used all of the good omens, we circled out buttons, we exposed our fringes, we recited three times the verse “you shall surely consider it an abomination” [26], and we spat perhaps nine times. Mainly, we began to run as we made an arc around “the statue of the saints” in front of the courthouse, for even it appeared to us at that hour to be waving toward us and threatening us with its raised hand. We were very happy when we arrived at the cheder. These encounters with the powers of “impurity” during the early morning were very unpleasant to us, and we attempted to forget these events by immersing ourselves in a page of holy Talmud. Our Rebbi helped us greatly in this, for he would leave the study of Tosafot [27] for the early hours of the morning “when the mind is still clear”. With his explanations, he often succeeded in arousing joy in us when we would be able to master a certain difficult Tosafot, and this would help us forget about the world at large. The lessons with Reb Yosef Parker were very focused, and they were lacking entirely in stories and other time wasters. The few antics which we permitted ourselves at that time did not take place within the walls of the cheder. They took place outside of the field of vision of our Rebbi. I only remember two of these types of antics: the “battles” between the “czarkses” and the “boszniaks”, that is to say between those from the new city and those from the old city. How did these “battles” take place? In general, we got along in a brotherly and friendly manner, and right now, I cannot think of any reason that caused the contention. Nevertheless, this type of battle broke out on occasion, and we “the czarkses” who were the smaller group were always on the losing side. I only remember celebrating “victory” once. This was as we were being hotly pursued through light mud in one of the well-known marshy areas of our town which was called “a roshtshine”, and Shlomo Fishchler fell down flat on his whole body. This fall ended the battle. The boszniaks not only stopped chasing us, but they also called us back to help their “commander” clean himself up. Our friend Shlomo at that time needed a great deal of help and words of comfort. We cleaned him up and comforted him. Only one of us did not lift a finger to help and did not offer any words of comfort – this was Itzu, of course, who spent the entire time stifling his laughter at seeing our friends “dressed up”. Seeing the “commander” in this type of situation could only cause one to laugh or cry. Itzu laughed.

We put on performances in the attic of the home of Shaul Taffet. The admission fee to the first row was two buttons, and to the second row, one button. Whoever purchased one ticket was allowed to bring his younger brother. We prepared the performance a short time before the first members of the audience arrived. The costumes were prepared very hastily, and they were very simple: we turned our coats, hats, or lining inside out, and wore the visors of our caps facing the back of our necks. We were “robbers” from our earliest youth. The show ended in discord, and the victor would lie prone on top of the victim. The screen would then drop, and everything would be okay. Entry to and exit from the “theater” were a big problem – at least for the writer of these lines. This was the way we entered: from the back of the Taffet house, we would climb up and reach a small shaky roof. On it there would be standing, miraculously actually, a ladder from which we would go up to the attic. Why should I lie? I trembled as a lulav as I entered and left. If everything went peacefully, it was only because “G-d protects the foolhardy” [28]. When the era of our studies with Reb Yosef Parker ended, the era of the “theater” in the attic of Reb Efraim Taffet also ended.

With our Rabbi Yosef Parker, the roles of householder, merchant and teacher were all rolled together in one personality. On the other hand, with Rabbi Blaustein, who was known as the Przeworsker teacher, the role of “children's teacher” was not prominent in his personality. His externals exuded honor and the etiquette of an important householder. The learning with him, which consisted of Talmud, Tosafot, and the commentaries of the Maharsha, was completely learning for its own sake, and the only breaks were the moments when the Rabbi prepared for himself a half a cigarette. He did this with a sense of importance, as if he was offering incense. In his presence, we did not even wink with our eyelashes. We did not misbehave, for the entire surroundings exuded seriousness and refinement. The natural and necessary diversions for children of that age were satisfied by the rabbi himself, as he interspersed the learning with stories from the lives of our sages, rabbinical legends relevant to the time of the year or even – especially during the months of Elul – the study of the melodies of prayer. This was in a tune slightly different than we were used to, but it was very pleasant, as our rabbi used to serve as a prayer leader on the High Holy Days in one of the small neighboring communities. Once, after returned home after the festival, he caught a cold on the journey that developed into a serious case of pneumonia. He died suddenly. His death deeply saddened us, for we honored and loved our “Przeworsker teacher”. Until this day I see it as a great thing that I merited to be among those who participated in his burial.

If the two latter cheders were different in style from the first ones, the cheder of Reb Hirsch David was completely different than all the rest. The mouths of the various detractors and maligners of the “cheder” in the Diaspora in general would be immediately shut if they had only seen this cheder. It was literally the Garden of Eden: it had many fruit tries, a large vegetable field and at the edge a flowing stream. There were goats that we could care for during our free time, and the warm goat milk improved our health. The study itself took place in the summer under the open sky in the shade of thick trees. The content included a great deal of bible with the commentary of the Malbim, Ein Yaakov [29], grammar and a bit of Hebrew. When we came into the cheder of Reb Hirsch David he was already elderly. The hair of his face and his peyos were already white as snow, and his eyesight was quite weak. He would bring the book he was reading from close to his left eye and read diagonally. It was always a wonder to us how even with his myopia he was able to discern all of our mischief, and with a heavy punch from three fingers (his thumb and pointer finger were always holding a pinch of snuff) he was able to immediately return us to the good path. Despite his advanced age, he was healthy, he had an erect posture, and he was wide boned. His appearance was more like a large-scale farm owner than a teacher of children. In terms of his character traits, he was pleasant, perhaps slightly proud, and extremely knowledgeable. For who in our town could compare to him with regard to the knowledge of the Hebrew language and grammar? He particularly had a great understanding of the liturgical poetry, those prayers that we knew how to chant but were difficult to understand. Without any doubt, Reb Hirsch was the first to awaken within us an interest in the Hebrew language, which we later supplemented with “courses in culture”, which we were only able to take with much tribulation.

Why were there tribulations? In the meantime, new things were happening in the city. Several important householders (Reb Hirsch Taub, Reb Yisrael Chaim Schiff, Reuveli Naftalczes and others) founded the “Talmud Torah Organization” headed by a principal, who was from outside the city. (He looked a bit like Chanan from “The Dybbuk”.) He was a great scholar and also a zealot. He knew how to gather around him other zealots, such as Mendele Reich, and was able to act as a buffer against the group of “apostates”, which was also founded at that time. This group sponsored “Tarbut” courses in the Hebrew language under the direction of our honorable teacher Mr. Avraham Weinberg, who lives today with us in Israel. The means of battle were variegated. There would be public gatherings in the Great Synagogue where Rabbi Shmuel of holy blessed memory would deliver a lecture warning about the dangers lurking in the educating of the young generation. In his lecture, he would compare us, the orthodox children for whom the dangers of the “Hebrew School” were lurking, to a young sapling that was liable to become bent over as long as it was still small. His voice, saturated in anguish, apparently moved the hearts of his listeners, for his words were accompanied by sighs, which came primarily from the women's section. In the Beis Midrashes they attempted to prevent those fathers whose children went to the Tarbut courses from serving as prayer leaders on the days that they observed yahrzeit [30], or from being called to the Torah. These types of activities were accompanied by disputes and mutual accusations in matters of spirituality and business. The main sanction, which was also suffered by this writer, was being banned from the Talmud Torah. On one occasion, the powerful trustees of the Talmud Torah were forced to give in. One of them threatened Shulek Morgenlender (my brother Shimon, who headed at that time the “Jugend” organization, drafted him into the “battleground”) by threatening him that he would publicly expose the deeds that he did when he served in the Austrian army. Reb Yisrael Chaim Schiff was overwhelmed by the warnings and threats from his wife that she would not permit him to enter the threshold of his house unless he would not stop acting as “G-d's policeman”. (My mother of blessed memory drafted Malka Schiff, even though she was not at all happy with the “Hebrew School”. However, she was quite perplexed: How could it be that they would expel her son from the Talmud Torah? Such a thing cannot take place!) Therefore, I was allowed back in to the Talmud Torah. However at the end of the semester, I and some of my friends wanted to study in the spacious and illuminated cheder, upon whose walls there were pictures of animals, plants, fruit, workers, and various work tools. We wished to study from an illustrated book (“Sfateinu”, volume I). Jampi was the new teacher. He had an enthusiastic smile and a unique expression which rung in my ears like a constant refrain. He was a teacher who, immediately upon arriving to our city, attracted a group around him who never heard a word in any language from him other than Hebrew. (When I heard for the first time, after many years, his vivacious Yiddish, his honor increased even more in my eyes. Only then did I understand the unusual success of Mr. Weinberg in instilling the Hebrew language to members of our city.) Thus, we were distanced from the Talmud Torah and our studies in cheder terminated. However the blessed memories of our rabbis is still with us. May their souls be bound in the bonds of everlasting life.

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Translator's Footnotes:

  1. I.e. he did not wear the skullcap or hat worn by Orthodox Jews. Return
  2. Various letters of the Hebrew alphabet along with their vowel sounds. Return
  3. The musical cantillation of the scriptures. Return
  4. Shlep meant to pull or tug, and when used as a nickname for a person, it meanssomeone who just drags along. Return
  5. A derogatory Jewish term for the church. Return
  6. This is a derivation from a verse in the book of Psalms (Psalm 119) – “Itistime to do something for G-d, for they have negated Your Torah”. TheTalmudicinterpretation changes the ordering of the phrases to mean that “if it is atime to do something for G-d, you should negate the Torah” i.e. that therearetimes of extreme societal urgency that make it incumbent to temporarily negateparts of the Torah. In Jewish law, this interpretation is to be used verycautiously, as it is fraught with obvious dangers. Return
  7. Oy Vey (literally Oh! Woe!) is a well-known Yiddish expression of anguish. Lard, being from pig fat, is not kosher. Return
  8. Rebbi here is the term used for the teacher. Return
  9. The Hebrew word here is “Chad Gadya”, a reference to the final songof theSeder ceremony, which lists a chain reaction of events, starting with a fatherpurchasing a young goat, and progressing to the cat eating the goat, etc. (muchlike the nursery rhyme “This is the House that Jack built”). Return
  10. There is a custom of administering symbolic whippings on the afternoon of theeve of Yom Kippur, as a form of penance. This whipping would take place on theback – which explains the reference below that in the cheder, the whipping tookplace both above and below. Return
  11. The four cornered fringed garment worn as an undergarment. Return
  12. Various exegetical quotes from the Torah portion of Vayechi, the last portionof Bereshit (Genesis), which is generally read in the middle of the winter. Return
  13. A section of the Avinu Malkeinu prayer recited on fast days and during the tendays between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Return
  14. Asentirung has the connotation of 'military conscription' obviously referring to the difficulty of the exam Return
  15. The Song of Songs is read in the synagogue during Passover. Return
  16. The Seder ceremony is divided into fifteen sections, the first two being Kadesh (reciting the Kiddush – the prayer over wine inaugurating the festival), and Urchatz (washing the hands). Kittel is a white cloak worn during the Seder andon the High Holy Days. Matzo shmurah (literally 'guarded matzo') is baked with special halachic stringencies, and is meant to be used specifically for the Seder, although extremely pious people will use it throughout Passover. Return
  17. Matzo shmura is baked with “mayim shelanu”, which literally means “water that has remained (overnight)”. The water is drawn the previous day, and remains overnight so that it will be at an optimal temperature the next morning for thebaking of matzo. This is prescribed in the Code of Jewish Law. Return
  18. Yoreh Deah is one of the four sections of the Code of Jewish Law. A large partof it deals with the laws of kashrut, including the technicalities of ritual slaughter, and the various conditions and lesions that can render an animal notkosher. Return
  19. A reference to the section in Genesis where Isaac was about to bless Jacob (dressed up as Esau), and he said “the voice is the voice of Jacob, and the hands are the hands of Esau”. Exegetically, the “voice of Jacob” refers to the study of Torah, and the “hands of Esau” refer to involvement inworldlyaffairs. Return
  20. A verse from the book of Proverbs. Return
  21. I am not sure as to what the bow stands for. Pitum Haktoret is a prayer that lists the components of the incense offering that was offered in the Temple. I do not understand the innuendo intended here – although the Pitum Haktoret prayer does make mention that one does not bring urine into the temple due tothe honor of the temple. It is possible that there is a hint here to urinatingoff the bridge. Return
  22. This sentence is a mixture of Hebrew, Yiddish and Polish, obviously proving that the Rebbi was not fluent in Polish. Return
  23. A statement from the Passover Haggadah, describing that one who spends moretime telling the story of the Exodus of Egypt is praiseworthy. Return
  24. I am not sure what this means. Return
  25. Nach (Neviim and Ketuvim), the Prophets and Writings, are the latter two of the three sections of the Bible. The first part is the Torah itself. The Early Prophets include the historical books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. Return
  26. A verse from Deuteronomy commanding the abhorrence of anything connected to idol worship. Return
  27. One of the principal commentaries that appears on a Talmud folio, the other main commentary being Rashi. Tosafot (literally, additions), is a compendium of commentaries written by a variety of commentators, several of whom were Rashi's grandchildren. Return
  28. A quote from the book of Psalms. Return
  29. The Malbim is one of the latter commentators on the bible. Ein Yaakov is acompendium of the homiletic (aggadaic) material of the Talmud. Return
  30. It is a custom, considered meritorious for the soul of the departed, to serveas the prayer leader on the anniversary of a parent's death (yahrzeit). Return

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