by Chanoch Shechter
Translated by Sidney Lightman
Excerpts from the book Two Towns Reminiscences of Two Destroyed Communities.
Foreword: Dov Sadan. Published by the author, 184 pp.
My father, may his memory be blessed, was a shochet. But he was no ordinary shochet. He was a Torah scholar and learned in the Talmud and the Poskim [Rabbinic authorities and literature on questions of Jewish law], an honest and upright man of distinguished character. He never indulged in profane talk and he never wasted a moment. Everybody liked him and everybody respected him. In his own eyes, however, he was a lowly person, and it happened more than once that he would withdraw in the middle of the Amidah [the 18 Benedictions of daily prayer] because he felt that the prayer leader was waiting for him and he did not want to be a burden to the congregation. His reputation was known far and wide, and he had trained scores of shochetim from other towns. Yeshivah students, including some sent by the Rabbi of Chorostkow, Rabbi David Moshe, may his memory be blessed, also used to come to him for training as shochetim and to receive a certificate of competence. Many used to stay at his home for months, learning not only how to be shochetim and about the laws of shechitah, but also about how to behave and about religious matters. He was kind-hearted, generous and full of charitable works. His house was open to all, and there was not a single meal where there was not at least one visitor present. All of them always felt as if they were in their own home, so welcome did he make them. One day, we had a visitor from a distant town whom we did not know. After he had been with us for a few days, he fell ill and had to take to his bed. He stayed there for six weeks, and gave us an enormous amount of trouble, because he was irascible and pestered us all the time. Nevertheless, we did everything for him and, whenever the doctor came, which he did from time to time, we obeyed his orders scrupulously. We took it in turns to sit by the patient's bedside, day and night, and gave him everything he asked for. Once he began to recover and was out of bed, he convalesced rapidly, and soon looked even healthier than before his illness, because he had a hearty appetite. But, even after he had fully recovered, he showed no signs of wanting to leave. My father, did not say a word to him about it, of course, but sat at table with him as if he were a member of the family.
We, the children, though, were not so restrained, and we asked him outright which town he was thinking of going on to. "I'm thinking of going to Rymalow", he replied. "When?", we asked him. "When there is a coach going from here to there" (the railway did not run near Chorostkow in those days). There was a special place where all the coachmen plying between Chorostkow and Rymalow used to wait for fares, so we asked some of the people who lived near there to keep a lookout for a coach on its way to Rymalow and tell the coachman that there was someone at our house who wanted to go there. A few days later, a coachman called at our house, his whip under his arm, and asked: "Is there someone here who wants to go to Rymalow?" "Yes", we said in chorus. Our visitor, however, said not a word, as if the whole matter were nothing to do with him. When we asked him whether he had heard the question, he said: "Of course I did. I'm not deaf!" Well then, why wasn't he getting ready? "Vos eppes khapp, tchapp, lapp!?" ("What's the hurry, murry, shmurry!?"), he exclaimed irritably. As might be imagined, he stayed on at our house for some time before finally leaving and, after he had gone, we lost no opportunity of asking each other: "Vos eppes khapp, tchapp, lapp!?" So far, I have mentioned only those visitors who had little or nothing in common with my father, simple folk whose names we did not even know.
The word had gone round that they could always be sure of a friendly reception at my father's house, so they used to arrive, each with his bundle and stick, and stay for as long as they liked, although very few took liberties like "Khapp, tchapp, lapp". In addition to these casual visitors, there were others who were invited year after year on a regular basis, some of them, even, twice a year. They were not simply run-of-the-mill people, but celebrities, the sons and grandsons of holy men. Many of them were clever, quick-witted men, who used to talk to my father like friends and companions. We knew them all by name: Yisrael Yehudah Zelositzer; Rabbi Moshe Zeinwills; Big Rabbi Mordechai Lippe; Small Rabbi Mordechai Lippe; Yisrael Leib Kalisher; David Potilitzer, a great scholar who was in charge of the yeshivah students. And there were many more like him and like them, the grandsons and great-grandsons of learned rabbis and Chassidic rebbes: a grandson of the Besht; a grandson of Rabbi Elimelech; a grandson of Rabbi Loni. We knew them all by name. They were received in a totally different manner, and the conversation was about Torah subjects and the Talmud. When these visitors used to tell stories, they were about saints and scholars, and my father, may his memory be blessed, used to spend a long time at table with them, mornings and evenings. My mother, Mariassia, may her memory be blessed, was wise and modest and a wonderful person, and she knew how to run a home. Everything she did, she did willingly. Not only did she not resent visitors, she gave them all a cordial welcome, and took pleasure in preparing meals for them. More than once, when there were a lot of guests, she gave her own portion and her daughters' portions to them. (Apart from the Seder nights, my mother and sisters used to sit at a table of their own in a separate room.)
It should be mentioned at this point that, before my sisters grew up, we had a maid at home, an orphan. I do not remember her name, but I know that my parents married her to a tanner whom everybody knew as "Yossele Gaber". He was rich and successful, and led a happy and contented life. When his wife bore him a son, they were both overjoyed.
But their joy was cut short by a terrible tragedy. As was the custom in those days, the baby slept in his parents' bed at night, next to his mother. One night, when she turned over in her sleep, she rolled on to the baby and smothered him. When she awoke and realised that the baby was dead, she gave a terrible cry and fainted dead away. Every night after that, she suffered terrible nightmares and used to wake up screaming and unable to go back to sleep. Soon, she could not sleep at all, and grew steadily weaker. So great was her grief, that she was inconsolable. After a time, she decided to seek advice from a Chassidic rabbi, and went to see the Sassov Rebbe. He told her to mortify herself by fasting and give generously to charity. When this advice did not help, she went to see the Oleisk Rebbe, and then another one and another one. They all gave the same advice as the Sassov Rebbe, although some advised her to fast for longer periods, and some for shorter periods. The more the poor woman fasted, the more she grieved and the more she was tortured by terrible mental images. One day, she could stand it no longer, and came to my father, weeping bitterly. "Reb Avraham", she told him, "I lived in your house for a long time, and you married me to a man, and I had a pleasant life and was happy, thanks be to God. But, because of my sins, this dreadful thing happened and I killed my own son. I have been to see many Chassidic rabbis and done everything they told me, but it has not helped. That is why I am now turning to you, in the hope that you will take me to see the Tchortkov Rebbe, the outstanding rebbe of his generation. I want to pour out my soul before him and tell him of the bitterness in my heart, and then, perhaps, God will have mercy on me, and I will not die before my time".
My father was so moved that he, too wept, turning aside his face so that no one should see and, even though women were not allowed to enter the Tchortkov Rebbe's presence, my father nevertheless promised her that he would take her to see the Tchortkov Rebbe. He kept his promise a short time afterwards, and I want to describe the conversation exactly as I heard it from my father. The saintly old man, Rabbi David Moshe, may his memory be blessed, was seated on his throne, with his collector, Hirschel Rapoport, at his side. My father stood in front of the Rebbe, and the wretched woman stood behind my father. Suddenly, she burst out crying and wailed: "Holy rabbi, I am a wretched woman, for I killed my child. I have already been to see many Chassidic rabbis, and I have done exactly what they told me, but it has not helped to ease my pain and sorrow. My sins have prevailed over me and I cannot sleep. Terrible apparitions afflict my mind and fill me with terror. I cannot endure this situation any longer."
My father told me: "The weeping and lamentations were so strong that we all wept with her. Only the Tchortkov Rebbe was silent, absorbed in his thoughts. Suddenly, looking not at the woman but at Hirschel Rapoport, he asked her: "What did the rebbes say to you?" "They told me to fast and to give generously to charity", she replied, adding: "I have done exactly what they told me to, and I don't feel any better for it at all, holy rabbi." The Rebbe listened to what the woman had to say, and then, as if speaking to himself, remarked: "I don't understand the advice this woman was given. She caused the death of her child unintentionally and must make commensurate repentance to atone for the sin. How could they tell her to mortify herself by fasting, which will sap her strength, thus preventing her from having another child?" Then, looking directly at the woman, he said: "Eat and drink and bear children for the length of your days. Go home in peace and be at peace. God will be blessed with your help. From time to time, donate two or three candles to the synagogue." These words of encouragement lifted her soul and revived her heart. When they left the Rebbe's courtyard, she told my father that she felt as if a heavy stone had fallen from her heart. In due course, the woman gave birth to a son, and all the previous travail and sorrow was forgotten and replaced by joy and gladness.
Two of our best-known and most celebrated guests were Hirschel
Merova and Fertchel Nijhnover. They were both regular visitors to my father's
house and both were zealous Chassidim. Hirschel Merova was a Husyatin
Chassid, while Fertchel was a Tchortkov Chassid. Hirschel had a paunch
and, whenever he visited our house, he always stuffed himself with, in
his own words, half-a-ton of beans and half-a-ton of porridge, apart
from a mass of other vegetables and a loaf of bread. Fertchel, on the
other hand, was a drinker. Brandy was his tipple.
In addition to being a hostel for all the visitors, casual and invited, who flocked there, our house also served as a meeting place for the town's Chassidim. They used to foregather there every Sabbath, festival and secular holiday. My father was the principal speaker, regaling the assembled crowd either with some of his stories or discourses on religious subjects. Songs of praise and Sabbath hymns resounded through the house and its surroundings, sung with great devotion and spiritual yearning. An atmosphere of reverence and holiness pervaded the house, and my father's face beamed with the love of God. My mother used to serve all kinds of desserts, and everyone ate and drank l'Chaim, and everyone felt physical enjoyment and spiritual happiness. Everyone used to go home in high spirits and looking forward to the following Sabbath, when the whole scene would be repeated. The occasions that remain most sharply etched on my mind are the end of the Sabbath after sunset on Saturday evening, and festive Purim meals Sabbath evenings because of the melodies, and festive Purim meals because of what happened at one of them. Every Sabbath evening, there was a special meal for the end of the Sabbath, and my father also used to sing a special song in Aramaic with a haunting melody. So sweet was this melody, that I am sure that the angels also used to incline their ears and listen to it. Many a time have I awoken from Sabbath rest to find that dusk has already fallen, and have heard a still, small voice singing that special Chassidic tune. Oh, there is no one like you, dear, dear father! The great crowd of celebrated people and guests who used to assemble at our house on Sabbaths and festivals, was dwarfed by the press of people who thronged it at Purim. It was filled from end to end with all kinds of people. All the regular guests would be seated round the table and would get down to drinking in earnest, obeying the behest to get so drunk that they could not tell the difference between Mordechai and Haman. At the particular Purim I am talking about, everybody was having a wonderful time and joy was unrestrained, when the door suddenly opened and two gendarmes appeared. "What do you think you are doing, making such a noise at this time of night and disturbing everyone's rest?!" they shouted. "We arrest you in the name of the law!" They seized two of the Chassidim at the table, put handcuffs on them and, turning a deaf ear to the entreaties of the other guests, marched them away to await trial.
I was already in bed, asleep, and the noise woke me. I was
absolutely terrified, and my mother, who had rushed to my bedside, could not calm
me. I was trembling with fear, and all the women in the house advised
my mother to pour wax onto a plate held above my head, because wax was
a proven remedy for fright. Without thinking twice, my mother found
some wax, the remains of a Yom Kippur [Day of Atonement] candle, and
did what the women had suggested. Two hours later, a different picture
of the incident with the gendarmes emerged. The whole affair had
apparently been a joke, a Purim prank. Four tipsy Chassidim appeared
at our house, singing at the tops of their voices. Two of them were the
ones who had been arrested, and the other two were the "gendarmes" who
had arrested them. The "gendarmes" had simply dressed up for Purim and
had fooled us all. One was Nossan Karpil Shternberg, the brother of
the Tchortkov Rebbe's first collector, Hirschel Shternberg. I cannot
remember the name of the other one, but he was also a Tchortkov
Chassid. Everybody knew Nossan Karpil, because he was extremely
knowledgeable about medicines, and used to treat the poor of the town
for nothing. Every gendarme in the town knew him, too, and they were
all on friendly terms with him. That was how he had been able to
borrow two of their uniforms and play his Purim prank. The next day, Shushan
Purim, was even jollier, because that was the custom in those days.
Three friends, all Chassidim Aryeh Broinshtein, a relative of ours,
Mordechai Feinshtein, and Shmuel Yitzchak Friedmann used to climb
onto a horse and ride through the town, collecting alms to buy matzot,
wine and food for Pesach for the poor [Pesach is only a month after
Purim]. When the trio had finished, they used to come to our house,
which was, of course, full of people, and the people were full, too
of drink. I can remember how my brother, Mordechai, was put on that
same horse one Purim, with a number of Chassidim holding him, so that
he should not fall off, and taken round the streets like his namesake
at the time of Ahasuerus and Queen Esther. Chassidim sang and danced
round him as he clip-clopped along, to such effect that even the horse
began to dance. My father's beaming face was a sight to behold. Anyone
who has never seen rejoicing like that, does not know what the word
That was what my father's house was like, and that was what my father's character was like. He could have had a contented life, had it not been for the trouble his partners caused him. There were always two shochetim in Chorostkow, which is the way it should be, because two are better than one. While one does the slaughtering, the other can busy himself with charitable works. But, in my father's case, the trouble was that he could not rely on his partners, because neither of them was suitable for the job in any way. At the beginning of his career, my father's partner was Reb Shimshon and, at the end of his career, Reb Yossel. Reb Shimshon had only a smattering of religious knowledge, but he could at least leaf through the Shulchan Aruch [sixteenth-century codification of Jewish religious law recognised by Orthodox Jews all over the world], although he had no idea of where to find a specific topic. Reb Yossel was a complete and utter ignoramus, stupid, and a boor into the bargain. Reb Shimshon fancied himself as a scholar and sometimes clashed with my father over the laws of kashrut. On one occasion, my father got into a dispute with the local rabbi because of him.
What happened was that Reb Shimshon slaughtered a cow and said that he had not found any blemish in the animal's lungs and it was therefore kosher. My father, who was an acknowledged expert on every aspect of kashrut and was recognised as such by the rabbi, was doubtful, and wanted to declare the animal treif [not kosher]. In the past, his decision had always been accepted without demur, and none of his rulings hade ever been referred to the rabbi. This time, however, when the butchers heard that my father was going to declare the animal treif, they asked the local rabbi to give a ruling. After all, what did they have to lose? The local rabbi at the time was Rabbi Zvi Teumim, may his memory be blessed, who had published a book of responsa about kashrut many years before, while my father was still in training. At any rate, my father, Shimshon and one of the butchers went to see Rabbi Teumim. Shimshon told him that he had found nothing wrong with the cow's lungs when he had put his hands inside the carcass, and it was only later, when the lungs had been taken out, that he had found something untoward. Even then, he had still been minded to declare the animal kosher. The Rabbi then asked my father what he thought. When he said he considered the animal to be treif, the Rabbi began looking through the Shulchan Aruch, because, although he had been swayed by what Shimshon had said and wanted to find some way of declaring the animal kosher. That was the beginning of the dispute between the Rabbi and my father. My father went and got the lungs and showed them to the Rabbi, but he still wanted to declare the animal kosher. My father was totally convinced that the animal was not kosher, but he could see that he was not going to be able to persuade the Rabbi to change his mind. He therefore suggested that the matter should go before the Preacher of Brod, Rabbi Shlomo Kluger, an authority on the laws governing the lungs of slaughtered animals. If Rabbi Kluger ruled that the animal was kosher, said my father, he personally would pay for any damage that had been caused and would also pay any fine imposed on him by Rabbi Teumim, however large. Rabbi Teumim grew angry at this and exclaimed: "I say that this animal is kosher. How dare you contradict me! As for the Preacher of Brod, I may write to him." Very aggrieved, my father went round to every synagogue and prayer hall and announced loudly: "There is a dispute about the kashrut of an animal slaughtered here today. The rabbi is inclined to declare it kosher, while I say that it is absolutely treif. Do not eat it, if you care about your soul". The result was that nobody bought any of the meat from the disputed animal. My father, meanwhile, did not set foot inside the Rabbi's house and did not know whether he had written to Rabbi Kluger or not.
Some months later, my father went to Tchortkov to see the Rebbe. His route lay through Kupiczinze and, when the coachman made a two-hour stop there, my father went to see a friend of his who lived there, Reb Chaim Hirsch, who was also a shochet and also very learned in the Torah. As soon as my father entered Reb Hirsch's house, Reb Hirsch asked him about the dispute with Rabbi Teumim. "How do you know about it? Who told you?" my father asked. "From a new book by Rabbi Kluger that I saw on a bookstall outside the synagogue", Reb Hirsch replied. "If you hurry, you will still find him there." So Rabbi Teumim must have written to the Preacher of Brod. My father dashed off to the synagogue and bought a copy of the book. Sure enough, it contained the reply of the Preacher of Brod to Rabbi Teumim's letter. "I am amazed that you could have committed such an error", he wrote, "because it was clear even from what Reb Shimshon told you that Reb Avraham was right and that the animal was treif." On his return home from Tchortkov, my father kept this to himself and resolved to go and see Rabbi Teumim. On the eve of Yom Kippur, my father was going up the steps on the North side of the synagogue, when he came face to face with the Rabbi, who had climbed the steps on the South side. They wished each other well over the Fast and a good New Year, and that was the end of their dispute.
Shimshon the Shochet died, and so, shortly afterwards, did Rabbi Teumim. Rabbi Yaakov Barbash, may his memory be blessed, was appointed in Rabbi Teumim's place, and Reb Yossel succeeded Shimshon. Some people say that he did not come of his own accord and he was not asked to come by anyone in Chorostkow, but was abandoned by the Oleisk Rebbe when he visited the town, because the Rebbe wanted to get rid of him. Yossel first went to the Husyatin Rebbe's Synagogue and ingratiated himself with the Chassidim there, and then went to the artisans' prayer hall and got them on his side, and that is how he became a shochet in Chorostkow. He caused my father endless trouble, because he not only knew very little about the laws of shechitah, but was also irresponsible and, if a butcher asked him to declare meat kosher, he would do so without hesitation, even if it was not. My father was horrified, and he made sure that he accompanied Yossel whenever he went to the abattoir. But matters were not as bad as they might have been, because Yossel respected my father and did as he was told. Naturally enough, the butchers would rather have had Yossel inspect the meat on his own, so they used to rush into the synagogue when my father was praying, and ask him to come to the abattoir at once, knowing that my father always took his time over his prayers and hoping that he would insist on finishing praying before coming to the abattoir, by which time Yossel would have inspected the meat on his own and, of course, pronounced it kosher whether it was or not. But my father used to interrupt his prayers and go to the abattoir straightaway, because he knew that everyone, especially the ultra-Orthodox, relied on him and would not eat any meat that he had not inspected and passed. This situation began to weigh heavily on my father, and he began seriously considering giving up his job. But my mother, may her memory be blessed, said to him: "And what will we live on? And what about the children?" Not knowing what to do, my father travelled to Husyatin in secret and went to see the Rebbe there, Rabbi Mordechai, the son of Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin, may his memory be blessed. My father told him the whole story and asked what he should do. Rabbi Mordechai arranged for my father to come and see him again, this time bringing Yossel with him and wrote out a ruling, which they both signed, that neither should go to the abattoir on his own. The Rebbe did this on purpose, so as not to shame Yossel. From then onwards, Yossel's hands were tied. He had to wait until my father had finished praying before going to the abattoir. Nobody, apart from Yossel and my father, including the butchers, knew why. The arrangement worked very well and lasted for a long time. But although my father's troubles were over as far as Yossel was concerned, he was plagued by new ones because of Yossel's son, and they created turmoil in the town, especially among the Tchortkov Chassidim. My father had four sons and three daughters. I shall write about the sons at length later on but, as far as the daughters are concerned, I shall give now the information that is necessary in connection with what happened. The eldest daughter my eldest sister was called Zvia, the next one, Freda, and the youngest, Yehudit. My father married Zvia to Ephraim Dreimer, a highly respected man from Trembowla. The couple lived with us for a number of years, and Ephraim learnt how to be a shochet from my father. When Ephraim had qualified, he got a job in Kidirinitze, and he and Zvia moved there. Although their income was limited, they followed my parents' example and kept open house, inviting poor people home for meals and helping to collect for charity.
Freda married a man called Moshe Gaber, from the village of Kossov, near Tchortkov. Like Zvia, Freda and her husband lived with us, and my father trained Moshe as a shochet, too. Moshe's idea was to continue living with us and take over from my father when he grew too old to continue. But when Yossel got to hear of this, he became jealous and asked my father to train his son, Meyer, to become a shochet as well. My father agreed and began training them together. But, whereas Moshe was intelligent and learnt everything my father taught him very quickly, Meyer was stupid and could not grasp the simplest things. After a short time, Moshe went to the local rabbi, Rabbi Barbash, and obtained a certificate of competence, while Meyer struggled on. My father continued trying to train him for a whole year, and then, even though he had learnt virtually nothing, Moshe, too, went to see Rabbi Barbash, hoping to gain a certificate. The rabbi, seeing that Meyer was an incompetent, stupid fool, sent for Yossel and told him that, in his opinion, Meyer was not suited to be a shochet and should train for a different occupation. Yossel immediately went to the Husyatin Chassidic synagogue and told his supporters that the Rabbi had refused to give his son a certificate of competence. Some of them went to Rabbi Barbash and asked him why, and he told them that he had examined Meyer and found that he knew absolutely nothing. Why had he given Moshe, Reb Avraham's son-in-law, a certificate then? Because Moshe had passed the examination and had proved that he was fit to be a shochet. But the Husyatin Chassidim were not satisfied with the rabbi's answers. If Yossel could not have an assistant, Avraham could not either, they declared, and a bitter dispute broke out. The Tchortkov Chassidim were furious about the insult to Moshe, who could not go to the abattoir to help my father and had to sit at home all day. Some of them went to Tchortkov and asked the Rebbe to write to the Husyatin Chassidim, telling them to call off their boycott of Moshe. Rabbi David Moshe, may his memory be blessed, ordered his collector, Hirschel Rapoport, to write to the residents of our town in general and to the Husyatin Chassidim in particular. The letter read more or less as follows: "To the people of the town and to the Husyatin Chassidim: The rabbi bestows blessing upon you all. He has instructed me to turn to you with a request that, for the sake of peace, you should bring this baseless dispute to an end. It is the holy Rabbi's opinion that both young men, Moshe, the son-in-law of Reb Avraham, and Meyer, the son of Reb Yossel, should go and see the rabbi of another town and be examined by him, and that his decision should be binding upon all".
When the letter was read out to the assembled Husyatin Chassidim,
one of them, an insolent, rude, Right-wing member of the sect called
Hirsch K. jumped to his feet. Snatching the letter out of the hand of the man
who was reading it, he shouted angrily: "What business does the Rabbi
of Tchortkov have to write a letter like that to the town of
Chorostkow? Husyatin is the Government's administrative centre. That's
where the instructions should have come from. If Moshe, the son-in-law
of Avraham, dares to go to the abattoir, he will have his legs cut
off!" When the Tchortkov Chassidim heard about this, they were greatly
enraged, not only because of what had been said, but also because
Hirsch K's fellow Chassidim had not rebuked him. The dispute might
have gone on for a very long time, had it not been for two strange events.
Soon after the business with the letter, Hirsch K. felt an itch below
his right knee. He scratched it so hard, that he scratched off a small
patch of skin. His leg immediately became inflamed and extremely
painful. Dr Orhahn, a local Jewish doctor, was called in and, after
examining the patient, said his condition was not good and he would
have to take him to Vienna for treatment. They boarded the next
available express but, before the train arrived at its destination,
Hirsch K. died. A short time after this, Meyer developed a cataract in
his eye, and everybody realised that the hand of God had wrought these
things. The dispute petered out, and Moshe began going to the abattoir
with my father. Nobody said a word against him.
Now I shall begin telling the story of my father's sons. As I mentioned earlier, he had four. The eldest was Mordechai; the second, David; the third, myself, Chanoch Henach, and the fourth, Asher. My father brought us all up the same way on Torah and Yiddishkeit. We started with infant teachers, and then, when we grew older, went on to Gemara teachers. My father paid for the lessons every month, exactly on time. If he did not have the money when it became due, he used to borrow it. As soon as we were old enough, we began studying Gemara at the synagogue with the other youths, and soon made friends among our respective age groups. At this stage, we really began applying ourselves to the study of the Bible, the Mishnah, the Gemara, Rashi's commentaries and the annotations to the Talmud, and we all vied with one another and got up early in the morning to go to the beit hamidrash. As the saying goes, when scholars vie, wisdom mounts. Every evening, when he had finished his work, our father used to come to the synagogue and, before he began his own studies, we used to report to him on what we had studied that day and the way we had studied it, because he was very precise and used to go into everything very deeply.
Some of the youths who studied at the beit hamidrash used to do so very superficially, and father cautioned us against this. When we reported to him on what we had studied on any given day, he always checked to see that we had understood what we had learnt. If we had, he was very happy, but if we had not, we received a tongue-lashing and were punished. Now I shall begin the story of David, my elder brother and father's second son. He was a fine fellow, and my father delighted in him, because God had blessed him with a wonderful memory and great intelligence, and everything he learned from his rabbi and from my father, as well as by his own efforts, was locked away in that brain of his. He was at the beit hamidrash night and day, and was one of the favourite students there. He also used to study with the rabbi and was among his favourite students, also, because he grasped everything so quickly. He stood out among his fellow students, because he was never superficial. He loved to probe the depths of meaning of everything he studied and to understand everything completely, as he had been taught to do by our father.
One day, a pious grandson of the Besht came to our town and visited the synagogue, where he made contact with the young men studying at the beit hamidrash there. They felt honoured and paid him great respect, collecting alms for him from the rich men of the town and from the congregation as well. The Besht's grandson, for his part, spoke to them about religious topics and told them stories about the Besht and other Chassidic rebbes. One day, he told them that his father had told him that, if a man visited the mikveh [ritual bath] every day for ninety days, and did so willingly, he would acquire a good memory and would remember everything he had learnt for ever. The youths listened to what he had to say, but none of them thought of doing anything about it none that is, except my brother, David. Without further ado, he began going to the mikveh every day. He continued to do so when Winter came, with snow and ice and freezing cold. So cold was the water in the mikveh, that even the most pious and observant Jews in the town did not go and immerse themselves, because it was so dangerous. David did not care, however, and went along to the mikveh, intending to strip, as usual, and immerse himself. When he got there, he found Jatzky, the non-Jewish attendant at the municipal baths, barring his way. Not a single Jew had visited the mikveh that day, because the water was really icy, Jatzky told David, and nobody would be allowed to immerse himself. David tried to persuade him to allow him in, but Jatzky was adamant, and that was that. David gave up trying to go to the mikveh every single day for ninety days.
Here is another story. This one, too, concerns a grandson of the Besht who came to the synagogue and made friends with the youths studying in the beit hamidrash. This particular grandson was a great scholar, and delighted in discussing the Torah with them. During one of these discussions, he told them that there was a great yeshivah in the Hungarian town of Sighet with hundreds of students, many of whom were outstanding and, by the time they had completed their studies, would have become expert in the Talmud and the Rabbinic literature on questions of halachah [Jewish religious law] and would be qualified to give instruction in these subjects. Furthermore, the Besht's grandson added, all students completing their studies at the Sighet yeshivah had expert knowledge not only of the halachah, but also the Aggadah [homiletic passages in the Rabbinic literature], because the yeshivah was of a very high standard and was supervised by scholars of the highest calibre. All the students there were supported by the congregation. As with the tale of the mikveh, all the youths in the Chassidic synagogue of Chorostkow listened to what the Besht's grandson had to say, and none of them except David had the slightest intention of doing anything about it. David was ambitious. He wanted to become a rabbi and teacher and hoped that, one day, he would become a regional rabbi and make a great reputation for himself. Thus, it did not take long for him to decide that he wanted to become a student at the yeshivah in Sighet. But wanting is one thing and actually doing is another. The fare to Sighet, food and other necessities for the journey, clothes and so on, would cost a great deal of money. David confided in me and asked me to give him my support and help him. He made me swear not to reveal his secret to our parents, and threatened all kinds of dire punishment if I did. How on earth could I help him? I asked. What could I possibly do? "Well", he said, "Father sends you to the bank every week with money to repay the loan from Baron de Hirsch. This week and next week, give me the money instead. Father won't look in the bank book to see whether you have paid in the money or not". I was too frightened not to agree. One fine morning, David woke me and we crept outside. I went with him part of the way to Kupiczinze, where the nearest railway station was, and then we embraced and took our leave of each other. I returned home with sadness and a beating heart. When my father got up, he thought that David was at the beit hamidrash, as usual, but when lunchtime came and there was no sign of him, there was consternation. My father went from synagogue to synagogue and prayer hall to prayer hall looking for him, while my mother went down to the river bank. As for me, I sat in a corner and cried, and it did not occur to my parents to ask me if I knew where David was. Although I could see that they were very distressed, I was afraid to reveal what I knew, in case I would be punished for not having told them earlier.
Two days later, somebody from the town came to our house and told my parents that he had been on his way to Kupiczinze two days earlier and had seen David and me walking along the road which led there. Then the questioning began and so did the beating. I was forced to tell the whole story, and when I was asked why I had not done so before, I explained that David had sworn me to silence and had frightened me into obeying his dictates. Tears began running down my father's cheeks, tears of joy that his son was alive and well, and tears of sorrow that he had left his parents and his home without their permission, to travel to a foreign country. Soon, the whole town knew what had happened and how upset my parents were, and I was full of remorse at the trouble and sorrow I had caused them. Meanwhile, David had arrived in the town of Nadvorna. In the early evening, between Minchah and Ma'ariv, he went into one of the Chassidic synagogues, where young men and old were sitting and studying Torah, and joined in their discussions. There was a rich man among them whose attention was caught by David, who really was a good-looking boy, with his ringleted side curls and his pleasant ways. The rich man took a liking to him and asked him where he had come from and where he was going. When David told him that he was on his way from Chorostkow to Sighet to enrol in the yeshivah, because his soul thirsted for Torah knowledge, the man said: "Listen, I have a son of about your age. He sits and studies practically the whole day, but he has no friends and is lonely. Why don't you remain here and study with him? I have many, many books of all kinds, and I'll give you both a room to yourselves, so you will be able to study without interruption. You will have all your meals with us, and I will see to it that you lack for nothing".
The idea appealed to David, and he agreed.
One day, a man from Chorostkow, David Leib Arnish, a wise,
scholarly and very learned man, was in Nadvorna on business, when he saw my
brother in the street. He knew what had happened, of course, and how
unhappy my parents were about it, but pretended not to, and said to
David in feigned surprise: "Hallo, what are you doing here, David?" My
brother was evasive and tried to change the subject, but Reb Arnish
would not be put off. "David, you are coming home with me!" he said.
"Quickly, get your things together, and do as I tell you. I know
everything. Your father misses you, and here you are in Nadvorna,
curling your hair. What you have done is just a childish prank. Enough
of it! You were not short of anything at home, and yet you ran away.
Look how many books there are in all the batei hamidrash and in your
father's house. Aren't they enough for you? Did you think that your
great father would be happy about your running away from home to go to
yeshivah? Come with me, David, and I'll take you home, because I am
not leaving here without you." David was so taken aback that he did not
know what to say, so he did what he was told and went back to
Chorostkow with Reb Arnish, who brought him to our house. My father
and mother were overjoyed to have David back again, and they behaved
towards him as if nothing untoward had happened. They did not even ask
him where he had been or what he had been doing, but had to give David
a report about everything that had happened after he had left. He went
back to the synagogue and resumed his studies where he had left off,
and I, too, began going there to study. Our youngest brother, Asher,
who was about thirteen years old at the time and had not yet reached
the stage where he could study on his own, was like David, in that he
was highly intelligent, learned things very quickly and had a very
retentive memory. On the day of his Barmitzvah, my parents prepared a
celebratory meal, as was my father's custom. An hour or so before
everyone sat down at the table, David and I took Asher into a separate
room and taught him the Rabbinic commentary on one of the positive
commandments. He grasped it straightaway and, when he addressed the
guests at the meal afterwards, repeated it word for word without a
single error. My father was very pleased and proud.
My father died on the seventh night of Pesach some two years later, in 1897. He had conducted the first Seder with great joy and extraordinary zeal and, when we reached the song which begins: "The Pesach ceremony has come to an end", he got up from the table and danced with all his sons. There was so much jollity that Mother, who had dozed off, woke up and applauded. Even though every Seder in all the years that had gone before had been conducted with reverence and devotion, and in a spirit of joyfulness, we all felt that there was something special about that particular Seder, although none of us imagined that it would be the last time we would all dance together. Early the next morning, my father went to the mikveh, as was his wont, immersed himself, came home, said the morning blessings and went to the synagogue for Shacharit. When he returned home, he asked my mother to prepare the bed for him, because he did not feel well. That night, he conducted the second Seder from his bed. The following morning, we sent for the doctor. His prognosis was not good so, on the first intermediate day of Pesach, we sent a telegram to Mordechai in Futik, asking him to come home. People were in and out of the house all day, asking how Reb Avraham was. His illness grew worse, and the doctors said that he had become as weak as a year-old baby. Nevertheless, he did not cease reciting prayers the whole time. Worried relatives and friends gathered at the house, and I remember one relative, Aryeh Broinshtein, may his memory be blessed, a nephew of my father's, constantly pacing up and down, his head bowed and tears streaming down his cheeks. Pinchas Hochmann, a Chorostkow man, drank a l'Chaim to my father: "L'Chaim, Reb Avraham. May it be God's will that you make a speedy recovery, rise from your bed and go to the abattoir once again".
Father replied: "Is that the aim? I haven't prepared anything in this world yet".
On the fourth intermediate day of Pesach, I stood at my father's bedside and held the Siddur [prayer book] for him while he recited prayers the whole day. I remember that my tears fell on it as he prayed in a whisper, and all of us could hear his voice growing steadily weaker. Towards evening, he suddenly began to feel stronger. He sat up in bed, asked for the bedpan, passed water and washed his hands. Then he put on a night shirt and lay down, whispering all the time. We listened closely and realised that he was praying: "Blessed be the Lord when we arise, for in Thy hands are the souls of the living and the dead..." As he said the words: "Into Thy hands I commit my spirit", his soul left his body. The news of his passing spread through the town like wildfire, and everyone came to the house from the synagogues, where they had been reciting the evening service. The house was soon packed to bursting, and hundreds more people stood outside. The house was full of people all night, while we sat round our mother with bowed heads. She was a very wise woman and a learned one, but not a single word passed her lips all that night. At dawn, however, when my father's body was lifted out of the bed and laid on the floor according to custom, my mother went and sat on the floor beside it and told us to gather round her. Then she said: "Children, children, do you realise whom we have lost?" We all burst into heartrending sobs. My mother inclined her head towards my father's and said: "Avraham, remember your promise to me". After a time, we asked her what the promise had been. She told us that, from the time Father was still a very young man, he had been accustomed to get up in the early hours of the morning to recite prayers and study the Torah, and she had always got up with him, lit the stove and prepared something hot for him to eat. She had done this because she had asked, and he had promised, that, in the world to come, he would give her a portion of the merit he had gained from his Torah study and his prayers. The Chevrah Kadisha came, followed by groups of ultra-Orthodox and Torah scholars. Moshe Winter, a Husyatin Chassid and a great Torah scholar, who had been one of my father's opponents during the dispute between Moshe and Meyer, took up position at the entrance to the house and, with tears streaming down his cheeks, refused to let anyone enter who had not first immersed himself in the mikveh because, he said, such a person was not fit to perform the task of preparing the sacred body of Avraham the Shochet for burial. Everyone in the town, from great to small, men and women alike, came to pay their respects to our father.
When we returned home after the funeral, relatives and friends came with us, bringing food for the mourners' meal and, also, wine and spirits, because it was still Pesach, and they stayed on to comfort us, sitting there in silence. After a while, one of them rose to his feet and drank a l'Chaim and then stretched out his hand to my eldest brother. "Mordechai, your father is dead", he said. "The crown of our head is fallen, so you, Mordechai must take his place as the shochet in our town". Mordechai did not go back to Futik, but stayed on in Chorostkow. His first wife having died, he married again. His second wife was the daughter of the patrician Tarnopol philanthropist, David Marmor, a respected Torah scholar from a highly reputable family. Mordechai's son by his first wife remained with her parents in Futik, and they brought him up together with their own son, who had been born to them late in life. Mordechai brought his new wife, Chayah, from Tarnopol and took over our father's post, giving a portion of his pay to our mother. Our brother-in-law, Moshe, together with his wife, Freda, our sister, and their children, went back to his parents in Kossov, while Yehudit, who had become engaged to Shmelke Frantsioz, from Tarnopol, while our father was still alive, married him and went to live in Tarnopol. Now, there were just we three brothers at home with our mother. David was twenty-one, I was nineteen, and Asher was fifteen. The changed circumstances at home led to a change in David's feelings and ambitions, and he began to harbour secret thoughts of leaving Chorostkow and going to Czernowitz to enrol at a college there and study science. He obtained all the necessary papers and received a promise of financial support from a highly placed person. All he had to do now was pack his things and go. At this point he told our mother what he intended to do. She responded by telling him that, if he were to leave home and go away, it would take years off her life and she would die before her time. It was as if our mother had pierced his heart with a dagger. David, who had always been emotional, was deeply upset, because he loved our mother with all his being. He went away and got all the papers he had obtained with so much effort and difficulty, and tore them up in front of her. But it was only his body which remained at home. His mind and thoughts were already far away from Chorostkow, the town of his birth. He lost all his old diligence and assiduity and, on top of this, Rabbi Barbash, with whom he used to study every day at one time, died, and nobody came to take his place. Meanwhile, our mother fell ill and became bedridden, and we three brothers looked after her, sitting by her bedside every evening. She grew weaker by the hour and finally died on the night of 15 Tevet 5659 . David and I were sitting at her bedside, as usual. David had dozed off, but I was wide awake. Suddenly, she took my hand in hers, squeezed it and breathed her last. We buried her the following day, and returned home desolate in spirit. Both our parents had left us. We were orphans now. David was the most deeply depressed of us all, and his thoughts turned once again to leaving Chorostkow. Then people began talking about appointing a rabbi to succeed Rabbi Barbash, and another dispute broke out. The Husyatin Chassidim wanted whoever was eventually appointed to be a member of their sect, while the Tchortkov Chassidim wanted him to be a member of theirs. As for the ordinary worshippers of Chorostkow, all they wanted was an outstanding scholar, a religious leader they could be proud of, and they were not in the least interested in whether he turned out to be a Chassid or not. The dispute dragged on for some time, but a compromise was worked out in the end, under which each side would bring its candidate to the synagogue, where he would preach a test sermon, and the one whose sermon was preferred would be appointed rabbi of the town. The Husyatin candidate was Rabbi Chanina Lipa Meizlish, the son-in-law of a well-known, wealthy resident of Czestochowa, Reb Chanoch Henach. He preached a lengthy sermon, mostly from notes, but it did not appeal to many people, and everyone said they wanted to hear the Tchortkov candidate the following Shabbat, to see what he was like. The Tchortkov candidate was actually the sect's Rebbe, Rabbi Meshulam Rota, a young man who had been famous as a child prodigy. He was known as "The Prodigy of Milnitza", because he had married the daughter of a well-known rich man who lived in that town, Shimshon Shteinholz. He was the son of Reb Shimon Rota, may his memory be blessed, who lived in Kolomia at that time, and the great-grandson of the great Rabbi Zvi Nachmann Epstein, may his memory be blessed, the head of the Kolomia rabbinical court. Young Rabbi Rota came to our town and was received with honour and respect. As soon as he arrived, he distributed notes and a list of references in connection with his sermon, to every synagogue and prayer hall in Chorostkow, where they were studied avidly. Everybody was impressed by their erudition and scholarliness, and by Rabbi Rota's profound and wide-ranging knowledge. At the same time, all the Talmudists, especially those who were opposed to him, studied his notes and references closely and prepared to go on the attack with all kinds of questions, hoping to back him into a corner and defeat him. But it was they who were defeated because, even before Shabbat on Friday night, in fact he proved beyond any shadow of a doubt that he was without equal in knowledge and expertise. The synagogue was packed with Chassidim from every part of the town, and hundreds more stood outside. They could hear every word that was spoken in the synagogue, because all the windows were open, so they were able not only to follow the service, but to hear the young rabbi's Torah discourse, which lasted until midnight. Everyone went home afterwards uplifted and in good spirits. At noon on Shabbat, Rabbi Rota rose and stood by the Ark, with a Bible in his hand, and began his sermon. He spoke for six hours without a note, showing his mastery of the Talmud and the Rabbinic authorities, and dealing with topics which nobody in the town had ever heard discussed before. On Saturday night, after the Sabbath had ended, the leaders of the town eld a meeting and decided unanimously that there was no need to look any further for a rabbi. The next morning, Sunday, they would give Rabbi Rota written confirmation of his appointment as Rabbi of Chorostkow. The crowds standing outside hailed the decision, but the Husyatin Chassidim remained adamant. They wanted their candidate to be appointed. Since no rabbi from outside Chorostkow wanted to intervene to try to resolve the deadlock, especially if this might involve prejudicing the position of Rabbi Rota in any way, the Husyatiners put forward a "compromise" candidate, a Chorostkow man called Berish Winter. Even as a small child, this Berish Winter fellow had had a reputation for unruliness and, by the time he had reached his teens, he was so arrogant and conceited that nobody wanted to be friends with him. The youths studying at the beit hamidrash called him "Mad Berish" and would have nothing to do with him. When he was a little older, his father, Yossel Winter, married him off to the daughter of a fanatical Husyatin Chassid. After the wedding, the bride's father travelled to Husyatin to pay his respects to the Rebbe, and took his son-in-law with him. Afterwards, Berish told his father-in-law that he should not go and see the Rebbe again, because the Rebbe had not treated him, Berish, with the respect due to a Talmud scholar like himself. >From then onwards, Berish's father-in-law regarded him with suspicion. As time went by, relations grew steadily more strained, until Berish and his wife divorced and Berish returned to his father's house. There, he locked himself away in a room and studied day and night, avoiding all contact with anybody. He stayed in that room like that for ten years. During that time, he applied for and obtained a certificate of competence as a rabbi, but could not find anywhere which would take him on. Then the Husyatin Chassidim of Chorostkow turned to him and began calling him "Rabbi", even though they had scorned and mocked him up to that point, because of what he had said to his former father-in-law about their Rebbe.
The dispute grew more bitter from day to day, and went on for
years, and the three of us, David, myself and Asher, were drawn into it.
However, when David saw that it was dragging on without an end in
sight, he decided to leave Chorostkow. Packing his belongings, he went
off to Czernowitz, where he enrolled at a business college. Asher
followed him soon afterwards. I stayed on in Chorostkow. I did not
think about the future or worry about what tomorrow might bring.
Instead, I decided to continue with my studies and intensify them, and
I became a pupil of Rabbi Meshulam Rota. Even though I could not spend
as much time with him as I wished, because of the dispute, he set
aside a number of hours late at night for me. At this period, I was almost
the only eligible bachelor in Chorostkow, and the matchmakers began to
make me the focus of their attentions.
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