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[Pages 503-499]

Chapter 5:

Back Streets

After dashing about the market and the long commercial streets in search of a livelihood, one returned to the back streets.

The area bordering the market, Warsaw and Plock Streets, was the center of the batei midrash (houses of study), synagogues, shtibbles (small Hassidic houses of prayer), heders, the “Talmud Torah” and the Mikveh. All the Jewish institutions, one after the other, were concentrated in the back alleys.

It was here that a Jew came to pray, to study a page of Gemara, a chapter of Mishnah (collection of the Oral Law which is the basis of the Talmud), Ein Ya'akov (collection of legends and homilies from the Talmud, by Rabbi Ya'akov), to hear a maggid (popular preacher, generally itinerant) pour his heart out and express the anguish of his soul in a chapter of Psalms.

Here every individual became a part of the whole. A businessman or a craftsman can work alone or in partnership. But in order to pray, study, and read Psalms, it is better and more advantageous to do so together with other Jews.

From their stores and workshops in the market place, the men came here to find warmth, to draw comfort, to seek solace, and to be together.

On Synagogue Street stood the stone synagogue. Its outer walls were painted red and dark blue, the high wooden doors, brown. The roof rested on gray-white columns. The sun's rays, in all colors of the rainbow, poured in through the stained-glass windows. Birds, animals, and angels, drawn by a naive hand, looked down from the high ceiling as though through a blue mist. Stairs led to the interior of the synagogue, its floor lower than the level of the street.

During the week, except for Jewish or Christian national holidays, no one came to pray. On those special days, Jews assembled here to listen to the sermon delivered by the Rabbi, usually in the presence of government representatives. The cantor Haim-Haikel would sing “Mi Sheberech” and the boys, the anthem for the well being of the Kingdom.

In the years following World War I, the doors of the synagogue would open in honor of known Zionist activists and Jewish representatives in the Sejm (Polish parliament), the anniversary of Herzl's death, and on the first night of Hanukah. People prayed regularly only on Sabbaths and festival days. On such days, in addition to the regular worshippers, Hassidim and Mitnagdim appeared I equal numbers to delight in the singing of Haim-Haikel, the cantor. The synagogue and Synagogue Lane were then full of Jewish men and women dressed in their holiday best.

Some Sabbaths were distinguished for a special, festive joy. On such occasions, a bar-mitzvah boy would be called to the Torah for the first time, a groom would be called up to read on the Sabbath before the wedding, a young bride would be brought to the synagogue on the first Sabbath after her wedding day.

On such Saturdays all the celebrants-members of the family, in-laws, neighbors and friends, came to the synagogue as though to include the entire city in the festivity.

Not only on happy occasions did people come to the synagogue. A Jew's last journey also passed here.

The batei midrash stood like in-laws opposite one another. During the day, the warm, old besmedresh was full of maggidim and darshanim (homiletical interpreters of the Torah), and worshippers reciting Psalms. During the night men sat and studied the Torah. Before sunrise, the craftsmen started the day there by reciting the morning prayer. Then the minyans prayed, one after the other, until the late morning hours.

Young men sat around long tables, open books of Gemara in their hands, immersed in religious study.

Guests and beggars warmed up next to the stove and settled down to sleep.

In front of the entrance, the Hungarian book peddler, “Frozen Tooth,” spread out his wares on tables and benches. Twice a year, this jolly Jew came with bundles of siddurim (daily prayer-book), mahzorim (festival prayer-book), tallitim (prayer shawls worn by male Jews during prayers), tallitim katanim (ritual fringed undergarment worn by orthodox male Jews), phylacteries, and mezuzot (portions of the Pentateuch, encased in a small box and attached to the doorpost of a Jewish home). He was always full of stories, jokes, and gossip accumulated on his journeys throughout Poland.

All day long people were to be found in the old besmedresh. In the daytime boys were taught Bible by the local Rabbi who was from Wolka. In the afternoons and toward evening, craftsmen and simple Jews who themselves did not know how to read, sat there and listened to lessons given by the dayan (judge), Haim-Shmayah. Between Minha (afternoon prayers) and Ma'ariv (evening prayers), itinerant maggidim delivered sermons. After Ma'ariv, when the besmedresh emptied, young men came to study the whole night long.

The besmedresh was surrounded by a large yard. When it was too crowded inside or too hot, people prayed in the yard.

No one willingly looked into a fenced-off corner some where near the entrance. This was where the tahara (purification) was performed and where the black hearse stood.

On the other side of the synagogue was the cold Zionist besmedresh. Here prayers were said only three times a day. Here study of the Torah did not have the same flavor as in the old and warm besmedresh.

The Mlawa Yeshiva (Talmudical academy) had once been housed here.

The Hassidim presented a different picture. In their house of prayer, they prayed, studied, and discussed various matters. There one could ask the advice of Reb Tuvia and Reb Itchkeh, bare one's soul, and receive help and comfort. Before prayers, Avrum, the lachrymose, red-eyed synagogue attendant, put up water for tea. Little Ovadia sold egg biscuits, honey cakes, herring, and wine.

On memorial days for the dead, prayers would be followed by wine and honey cake and mutual wishes of long life. When Saturday drew to a close, at the third Sabbath meal (“Shaleh-Siddes”), the men sat together in the synagogue at a meager table of challah and herring. The sad melodies, full of deep longing and devotion, were breath taking. Soft shadows blurred the barriers between one person and the next. All those gathered around the table became one entity, dissociated from the entire world and freed of all material concerns. Here in the shtibbl they found refuge and shelter from their homes. At the table, that looked like an ancient altar, they poured out their hearts, full of sorrow and longing for the departing Sabbath from which they did not want to part. Outside it was already pitch dark, the city was immersed in secularity. The Hassidim began the Havdalah. Only after the Havdalah did they start to prepare for Melaveh Malka.

For the Hassid, the shtibbl, the small house of prayer, was home.

There were many Hassidic houses of prayer in town - the Ciechanowite, the Neisztut, the Radzyminite, the Strykowite, and the Novominskovite. The Gur Hassidim and the Alexandrower Hassidim had large houses of prayer. These two Hassidic groups were as hostile to one another as water and fire. The Gur shtibbl was on Mikveh Square and later, moved near to Shoemakers Street; the Alexandrower shtibbl was in a small alley parallel to Synagogue Street. In both these houses of prayer one could worship whenever one desired. Hassidim, young and old, addressed one another with the familiar “you” (you-singular). There was no ezrat nashim (women's section in the synagogue). There was a strong feeling of male comradeship in all the Hassidic houses of prayer. The rehabilitation of a faltering Hassid was not unusual.

The Alexandrower house of prayer was in a huge building that was divided into two parts. The doors were always wide open. At the entrance there was a large barrel to which a copper water-jug was attached by a chain. The Hassidim made little use of it. They just dipped their hands in the barrel and sprinkled the water on the entrance wall.

Moshe Sofer lived right next to the Alexandrower house of prayer. The sanctity of writing volumes of Torah, tefillin and mezuzot, was reflected in his face. Even on weekdays he wore a silk caftan and a felt hat. Several times a day he underwent tevilah (ritual immersion). Nights he recited “tikun hatzot” (midnight prayers for the restoration of the Temple). His home was always full of poor guests.

In the Gur house of prayer more studying was done. Every day, between prayers, the congregation was taught either by the dayan Haim-Shmayah or by Mendel Wolf Koppeh. The Gur Hassidim Podgrayerver and Pinhas Mondri were forceful in their public activity, Shayah Mondri was haughty.

The Gur Hassidim were very zealous and far more militant than the Alexandrower Hassidim. The city well remembered the great dispute that went on for many years over the reception afforded some visiting Rabbi. In later years, the Gur Hassidim stormed the building in which the Hebrew gymnasium was housed and made it into a “Talmud Torah.” The Gur Hassidim went en masse to capture the building, ready to sacrifice their lives, if necessary. Their aim was to take over all the public institutions and to rule them with an iron hand.

For a certain time, a Rabbi lived within the city itself. The craftsmen, especially Issar the Shoemaker, basked in his warmth. The artisans' Rabbi, who some years later became famous throughout the Diaspora and was known as Shapira, the Rabbi of Plock, was not held in great regard by the community.

In the first years of Poland's emancipation, a military court pronounced a sentence of death on this blameless and innocent artisan Rabbi for allegedly spying for the Red Army.

This legal murder shocked Jews all over the world. Only the condemned man remained calm as wrapped in his tallith he went to his death. His last words were, “I am prepared to be a scapegoat for the good of the Jewish people.”

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