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[Page 43]

In the Paths of the Fathers

Grandfather Reb Kalman Itzele and Grandmother Esther Kejla

by Zelda Edelsztejn

Translated by Jerrold Landau

In the town of Stawiski, which was known for its rabbis, righteous people, and scholars, there lived about 150 years ago a teacher of children, who was scholarly, righteous, and of pleasant mannerisms. This was Reb Kalman Itzele. His wife Esther Kejla, was a woman of valor, was descended from a family of Admorim (Hassidic leaders) from the city of Wyszogrod, near Warsaw.

As was customary among Torah scholars in those days, the husband would sit in the tents of Torah and the wife would support the family. Esther Kejla excelled in business as well as in the traditional tasks of a woman, such as sewing, weaving, and knitting. Her main business was making head coverings for married women. She had great expertise in the making of head coverings for weekdays, as well as for Sabbaths and festivals. The head coverings for weekdays might have been made from simple linen; however for Sabbaths and festivals, she fashioned them from velvet and silk, often adorned with flowers of crimson and lace. These head coverings had a special name – Chipik. For the High Holy Days, Esther Kejla would make Chipiks of white linen, as it says: “if your sins be like scarlet, they will be turned to white”[1]

Esther Kejla did not only make Chipiks. She also made children's hats, women's aprons, and birthing shirts.

The aprons were made in the same fashion as the head coverings. The weekday aprons were made of simple linen, and the aprons for Sabbaths and festivals were made of black silk, with borders of colored lace, each one made according to the request of the purchaser.

Reb Kalman Itzele and Esther Kejla had two girls and a son named Akiva. The girls, the eldest Liba and the youngest Malka, learned from their mother. Aside from picking up her good traits, they also learned the art of sewing and embroidery, and worked diligently and quickly, to the point where Esther Kejla could give over to them the tasks of preparing the goods, whereas she herself spent most of her time conducting the business. For even though the mother and daughters worked hard, the family made a meager living. When Esther Kejla was freed from the sewing and embroidery, she had the chance to take the merchandise – the handicrafts of her daughters – and travel to the fairs, where she sold her merchandise. This income was able to help sustain the household.

Reb Kalman Itzele did not skimp on his holy work. To his students, who were among the choicest boys of the town, he taught Torah with dedication and faithfulness. Many of them became outstanding Torah scholars. Each evening, when Reb Kalman Itzele concluded his lessons with his students, he would hurry to the Beis Midrash to study with a partner. The two of them were expert and sharp, and they studied with great depth, often continuing their studious deliberations until a late hour of the night.

Esther Kejla waited patiently for her husband to return from the Beis Midrash in order to serve him a warm meal. If he was still not pondering the study portion that he was studying with his partner, they would discuss household affairs, even though he never took an active role in household matters or in the tribulations of child rearing. These types of affairs had always been in the domain of Esther Kejla. He would also turn over the tuition fees he earned from his students to his wife, after taking off the relevant tithes for charity. She would then deal with this money appropriately according to her ability.

One evening, on a long winter evening, when Reb Kalman Itzele concluded the grace after meals, Esther Kejla opened her mouth and said:

“My dear husband, I wish to have you participate in the same work that the Holy One Blessed Be He engages in Himself.”

Reb Kalman Itzele responded: “Why do you ask? I also have an important matter to discuss with you.”

She replied: “You are correct, my husband. You should commence first.”

Reb Kalman Itzele began speaking, and said: “For some time, I have being paying attention to a young man who is studying in the Beis Midrash, who is called by everyone “the diligent Leibele”. This young man is diligent with his studies day and night, and he is also externally like a cedar: strong of body, and handsome.”

Reb Kalman Itzele had not even finished his words, when his wife Esther Kejla interrupted him and said: “Myself as well, when I traveled the last time to the fair in a carriage packed with people, including scholars, I attempted to sit near them in order to hear their words of Torah as well as general conversation, for the general conversation of a scholar is like words of Torah. I heard of them speaking in the praise of the young man, the diligent Reb Leibele, and all of them praised his sharpness and expertise in Torah as well as his pleasant manner among people. At that time, as I heard their words, I also decided, that with the help of G-d, when I returned in peace to my home, I would ask you to make a marriage proposal between our daughter and this excellent young man. Thank G-d, we have an appropriate dowry for her, as befits even wealthy people, and she also excels in her fine character. It is a sign that this matter came from G-d, in that you also came to the same conclusion, and I hope that this praiseworthy young man will agree to be our son-in-law.”

The next day in the Beis Midrash, after the morning prayers, Reb Kalman Itzele approached the marriage broker who deals with the well-to-do families. He requested that he that he speak to the parents of Reb Leibele regarding this match. The marriage broker was a diligent and vigilant man, and that very day he went to the parents of the young man, and proposed the match for their son with the eldest daughter of Reb Kalman Itzele and Esther Kejla.


Reb Leibele and his Wife Liba, and their Children

The parents of Reb Leibele agreed to the match. The contract was drawn up, and after a short time the wedding was celebrated with great glory and fanfare.

For two or three years, the young couple was supported by Liba's parents, and then they went out on their own. Liba was like her mother. She took upon herself the yoke of livelihood, so that her husband could continue his uninterrupted occupation with Torah.

Reb Leibele had gained a reputation as being great in Torah. Some of the important and wealthy householders approached him and asked him to teach their children Talmud and commentaries, on the condition that he would not take on too many students. In return, they promised to be generous with their tuition payments, so that he would be able to support his family with honor. Reb Leibele, whose entire interest was in the study and spreading of Torah, agreed to this condition, and for all his days he taught young men up to their point of marriage.

Liba bore eleven children, but only two girls survived: Zelda and Dina. When Zelda reached marriageable age, her parents decided to marry her off to a young man who would be able to bear the burdens of livelihood, so that their refined and pampered daughter would be freed of the yoke of livelihood.

In Stawiski, there was a scholar, Reb Yekutiel, who died before his time. His wife Chana supported the family by selling earthenware vessels. They had two sons and two daughters. Yitzchak Tzvi was the eldest. Yitzchak Tzvi was diligent in his Torah studies, and he had the reputation of being one of the geniuses of the Beis Midrash students. When he turned seventeen, Reb Leibele looked toward him and chose him as a husband for his daughter Zelda.

The young man Yitzchak Tzvi, aside from his wide knowledge of Talmud and legal responsa, also excelled in Hebrew writing and grammar, and his style was clear and pure.

After the wedding, Yitzchak Tzvi was not supported by his father-in-law, as was customary in those days; but rather, he invested his dowry money in the cotton and pig hair business. He would send the merchandise to Lipsia (Leipzig) in Germany. His fortune was good, he succeeded in his business, and after a short time, he became wealthy.

When he reached the age of 21, he had to appear before the army committee regarding Russian army service. Since he did not want to serve the Czar for six consecutive years, he had to give over all of his money and property as redemption.

When he was exempted from Russian army duty, worries of livelihood overtook him. In order to begin any enterprise he needed a sum of money, which he did not possess since he gave over all of his money to pay the bribe to the army. His wife Zelda stood at his right side, and she took off her expensive jewelry and gave them over to her husband. Yitzchak Tzvi gave the jewelry as a pledge to the lender, and with the money he borrowed, he began business again. He went to the marketplace and bought all types of merchandise. However, his fortune was not good this time, and he almost lost all of his money. Yitzchak Tzvi walked around worried and crushed, and once again, his wife Zelda came to his aid. She bought a bag of flour and started to bake bread for sale. She sustained her household in a meager fashion; however, the children never wanted for bread.

After some time, a hide tanning workshop opened up in Stawiski, and Yitzchak Tzvi, who was expert in this profession from his earlier business, was offered a job in this factory for a fitting salary. Yitzchak Tzvi hoped that now he would be able to live in peace and dedicate himself over to his household. However, one day, his beloved wife took ill suddenly, and before he could bring a doctor from Lomza (in those days, there was no doctor in Stawiski), Zelda passed away when she was only thirty years old.

Yitzchak Tzvi was left with four young children, three boys and a girl. The oldest Ezriel Zelig Noach was only ten years old when his mother died.

Yitzchak Tzvi worked for many years in that factory. He amassed an appropriate amount of money and attempted to try his luck in business again. This time, he set up a partnership with an established merchant who cheated him. After a short time, he left his business denuded and without anything. After his business failures, he turned to teaching. He was barely able to meet his needs, and he lived in poverty and want until the end of his days.


My Revered Father Reb Ezriel Zelig Noach Koszlowski of holy blessed memory

My holy father was born in Stawiski in the year 5627 (1867) to his father Reb Yitzchak Tzvi and his mother Zelda. As related above, he was ten years old when his mother died. He studied in the Talmud Torah of Lomza with Reb Baruch Obelbeker until he was thirteen years old. There, he began to write Torah novella on the Talmudic tractate Avoda Zarah [2] which served as the first material for his book “Levush Adanim”.

When he reached the age of Bar Mitzvah, he left his father and wandered afar, to a place of Torah in the city of Szczuczyn. He was shy, and he was not brazen enough to turn to the famous Yeshivas, even though he would have been able to be accepted in a high Yeshiva due to his vast knowledge of Talmud and Jewish law. He lamented this all his life, and applied to himself the adage: “The shy person does not learn”[3].

After much wandering, he arrived at his desired destination of Szczuczyn. He went to visit a distant relative of his father. They received him graciously and offered him some food – a plate of grits and bread – and they also invited him to spend the night.

A few days passed in this manner. One day, when he returned from the Beis Midrash after the morning service, they did not invite him for breakfast. It became clear that they also subsisted on meager means, and the paltry meal that they served him was kept from their own mouths.

He returned to the Beis Midrash, took a Gemara and engrossed himself in study. He sat all day and did not eat. That day, he subsisted on water alone. The next day, after the morning prayers, he sat down to study, as he was wont. In order to distract himself from the hunger that was afflicting him, he tried to concentrate on what he was studying. He continued in that manner until the afternoon. Suddenly, weakness overtook him. His head became dizzy and a cold sweat covered his face. He nearly fainted.

His neighbor on the bench, Reb Tovia, noticed the whiteness of his face and asked him: “Young boy, why are you so pale? Your face is not like it was on previous days. Tell me the truth, did you eat today?”

Ezriel Zelig answered him: “I did not even eat yesterday.”

He said: “Arise, make haste to Reb Yosef who lives at the corner of the marketplace, and is in charge of the charitable fund. If there are any kopecks left in his box, he will certainly give them to you and you can buy some food.”

On weak legs, the boy ran to the house of Reb Yosef, however to his dismay, the box was empty.

When he left the house of Reb Yosef, a very strange and interesting thing occurred. A woman, who owned a textile store, sat in her store eating lunch. There was a loaf of bread next to her, on the table. A dog ran into the store, grabbed the bread with his teeth, and escaped without the storeowner noticing.

Two men who were passing by in the street began to chase after the dog in order to remove the bread from his mouth. When the dog reached the alley between the two synagogues, Ezriel Zelig appeared on the other side of the alley. The dog stopped, dropped the loaf of bread, and disappeared.

Ezriel Zelig was so engrossed in his thoughts that he did not see what happened next to him. In the meantime, the two Jews who chased after the dog asked him: “Young boy, did you not see that a dog tossed a loaf of bread at your feet?” He answered: “No, I don't have any bread…”

The two Jews said: “It is appropriate to give it over to the Yeshiva boy, and we will merit in the good deed (mitzvah).”

Ezriel Zelig heard their words and said: “If you do not find the owner of the loaf of bread and you want to give it to a Yeshiva boy, give it to me, for I am also a student of the Beis Midrash.”

The Jews said: “You are correct, we now realize that the dog was the emissary to feed you bread.”

He saw this as a wonderful thing, and from that day, Ezriel Zelig was no longer hungry.

Ezriel Zelig studied for a few years in the Beis Midrash of Szczuczyn. He was very diligent, and became an expert in the Talmud and its commentaries, both in breadth and depth. The thirteen-year-old boy grew up to be a tall, thin man. When he had satiated himself with Talmud and was ready to appear before great sages, he decided to travel to the famous Yeshiva of Volozhyn. However “there are many thoughts in the heart of man, but the will of G-d will prevail” [4]. He suddenly became ill with a severe intestinal disease, and had to forgo his desire to study in Volozhyn.

Once again, it was Reb Tovia who saved him from his straits. He brought him to the doctor. After examining him, the doctor ordered him to go to a place where the air was good and clear, to the pine forest. Through the intercession of Rev Tovia, Ezriel Zelig was hired as a teacher and spiritual leader in a village where there were about fifteen Jewish families.

The village was about ten kilometers from Szczuczyn, and the route to it was through the forest. The travel through the forest already had its positive influence on Ezriel Zelig.

Ezriel Zelig reached the village near the evening, and even before he descended from the carriage, the villagers surrounded him and greeted him with honor and affection.

Ezriel Zelig refused to be put up in a private house, and requested that the villagers arrange a place for him in the Beis Midrash. His desire was fulfilled. In a gathering of the villagers that took place, they decided that each one of them would provide for his needs for a week according to a rotation system. They would bring his food, including a hot dish, directly to the Beis Midrash.

Under the influence of good, fresh, food and clear air, he quickly regained his strength and recovered. He filled his role as teacher and spiritual leader with faithfulness. Every day, toward evening, between the afternoon and evening services, all those who attended the Beis Midrash studied Ein Yaakov [5]with him. On Sabbaths, he expounded the weekly Torah and prophetic portion (Haftarah).

The working, G-d fearing villagers revered and honored their young teacher and called him “Rabbi”. His sermons in the village served as a good experience for the days to come, when he became well known as a preacher. The notes that he took on the weekly prophetic portion served as a basis for his book “Ein Tzofim”.

After he recovered and regained his strength completely, he decided to travel to his birthplace Stawiski to visit his father and his family, whom he had not seen for many years.

After he visited his father, he decided to again fulfill the adage “exile yourself to a place of Torah”[3]. This time, he chose the city of Augustow, 80 kilometers from Stawiski. The choice of Augustow was due to the following two reasons:

  1. Friends and relatives of his lived there;
  2. The city was surrounded by thick forests and the air of the forests was necessary for the maintenance of his health, even though he had been completely cured.
In Augustow, he established his place of study in the synagogue that was known as Yetke Kloiz, which had previously been called the Hassidishe Kloiz due to the fact that its founders and worshippers were Hassidim.

Reb Ezriel Zelig wanted to live in peace and occupy himself in Torah; however the tribulations of the Russian army came upon him. He was called to appear for army induction examinations. He was sure that he would be freed since he was the firstborn male in the family, for according to Russian law, firstborn males and only children benefit from special privileges. If the quota of draftees was filled, firstborn males and only children are freed from the army.

Since Ezriel Zelig had the necessary qualifications to be freed, he made no effort at all to free himself through other means… To his bad luck, when he presented himself before the army medical examiners, he was found to be fit for service. All efforts to exempt himself were for naught.

When the time of his induction drew near, he went to Stawiski to bid farewell to the rabbi of the town, Reb Chaim Leib the famous Tzadik. At the time of his parting, Reb Chaim Leib said to him: “Don't worry my son, I am sure that everything will be for the good. G-d will help you, and salvation will come soon.”

The induction camp was in Lomza. From there, the draftees were sent to various places in the breadth of Russia. Ezriel Zelig was sent to Poltava.

After a difficult journey that lasted for several weeks, he arrived in Poltava with the rest of the inductees.

He was fortunate in that the commander of his regiment as well as of his squadron were both liberal men. Unlike most of the Russian army captains, they were free of the venom of anti-Semitism. Furthermore, the secretary of the squadron was a Jewish young man, who was a Chabad Hassid, married with two children. They quickly became friends, and the secretary helped and supported the new recruit at all times. During their free time, the two of them would discuss Torah, Hassidism, and character improvement.

With the help of the Chabad Hassid, Ezriel Zelig was given the opportunity to eat his meals with other Jews, and in such a manner he was able to refrain from eating the army food. He received a hot meal every day from the Poltava community, including on Sabbaths and festivals.

However, the immunity did not last forever. Ezriel Zelig's fortunes took a turn for the worse, and both the captain of the regiment and of the squadron were switched. Instead of liberal captains, others came who were reactionary Jew haters. At first, he had permission to leave the barracks on Sabbaths and festivals in order to partake of his Sabbath and festival meals with the Jews. The new commanders revoked this privilege, and Ezriel Zelig was forced to subsist on hard bread and water in order to avoid defiling himself by eating non-Kosher food. His situation was difficult, and at times it seemed as if he could not take it any more; however he always remembered the parting blessing of the rabbi and Gaon of Stawiski, and he did not despair.

One evening, he went out for guard duty. He took up his position with his gun over his shoulder, and uttered chapters of Psalms with great devotion. Suddenly, he heard a voice calling to him:

“Soldier Koszlowski, you are free. Tomorrow, you travel home.”

“Blessed is He who frees the prisoners” was the response of Ezriel Zelig.

On what merit was he freed? It was the law in the Russian army that on occasion they would cast lots among those who had the credentials for being freed. This time, Reb Ezriel Zelig won the lottery.

He served in the army for five months in total.

When he was freed from the army, Ezriel Zelig returned to Augustow. There he married Sara, the daughter of Reb Yehuda. Reb Yehuda owned a large hide workshop. After his wedding, he continued to diligently study Torah, and his wife opened a store for shoe products. After some time, he joined the Kolel for married men [6]in Eishyshok, which was founded by the Gaon Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan, the Rabbi of Kovno [7] He spent four years there. He only returned to his home and family for festivals.

Even though he was great in Torah and had rabbinic ordination, he never agreed to accept a position of a rabbi. Nevertheless, after some time, when the judge of the rabbinical court of the city died, after much urging he agreed to serve as rabbinical judge. When the rabbi of the city, Rabbi Kasriel Nathan, died, the running of the entire community fell to him.

During the Second World War, the holy community of Augustow was wiped out by the Nazis along with other Jewish communities in Europe. On December 8, 1943, the remnants of the Jewish community were sent out to be murdered. Men, women, and children were sent by train to the gas chambers of Treblinka.

In the stifling cars of the death train, the last group of Jews of Augustow was squished in, surrounding their old, beloved rabbi, who trusted in the mercy of G-d until the last moment. Being close to him was their final comfort. His strength ran out, and he died on the train.

May G-d avenge his death.


Stock certificate of the Peoples Bank in Stawiski in name of Rabbi Szymon Kac (Katz)


The children's health colony sponsored by the organization Santos


Kaminski, of blessed memory. A refugee from Russia in the first World War, served in education in Stawiski


Translator's Footnotes:
  1. A verse from the Book of Jeremiah, which is often quoted in the High Holy Day liturgy, and is the source of the custom of wearing of white on those days. Return
  2. The Talmudic tractate dealing with laws regarding the prohibition of idol worship. Return
  3. A statement in the Mishnaic Tractate of Ethics of the Fathers (Pirke Avot). Return
  4. A quote from the Book of Psalms. Return
  5. A compendium of the Aggadaic (story like as opposed to legalistic) sections of the Talmud. Return
  6. A Kolel is a high level Yeshiva for married men who continue their studies after their marriage. Return
  7. This is Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spector. Incidentally, the rabbinical school of Yeshiva University in New York is named after him. Return

[Page 50]

Pesach Kaplan[1]

The material about Pesach Kaplan
was collected and compiled by Mr. Moshe Cynowicz

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Pesach Kaplan was born in Stawiski in 1870, where his father Reb Binyamin Nachum was a cantor and shochet. Reb Binyamin Nachum was a great-grandson of Reb Kasriel, the Torah reader at the synagogue of the Vilna Gaon. Like the diligent students of that era, he studied in the cheders of Stawiski for twelve years. In the 13th year, his father left the town of Stawiski and traveled around as a cantor and a preacher, until he settled in Gorodishche in the Kiev Gubernia. Between the age of thirteen and seventeen, Pesach studied in the Yeshivas of Korycin, Ruszczany, and Zelwa. Pesach arrived in Warsaw in 5647 (1887), where his father took on the position of cantor at Reichman's synagogue.

During those years, he was overtaken by the Haskalah [2]winds. He read Hebrew literature, and studied German, Russian, and a little English on his own. When he was nineteen years old, he wrote his first article in Hamelitz. From Warsaw, he went to Bialystok, where he was a Hebrew teacher for several years. While living in Bialystok, he wrote many articles in the Warsaw “Hatzefirah” newspaper. He was a fighter for the Hebrew language, and an active member of the “Lovers of the Hebrew Language” organization.

In 1904, he published his first Yiddish poem, “Di Velgerke” (“The Vagabond”) in the Petersberger Teg. After that, he often wrote in the Yiddish newspapers “Teg” and “Friend”, and later in “Heint” and “Moment”. In the year 1914, he edited “Das Bialystoker Vort”, which was at first a weekly and later a daily newspaper. After the First World War, he founded the “Das Neie Leben” (“The New Life”) newspaper in Bialystok. This was one of the best provincial newspapers in Poland. Almost every day, he wrote columns, reviews, commentaries, and works of fiction. Among everything else, he wrote memoirs of his birthplace of Stawiski. These articles were published under the name “Chranik Family”, and a few are published in this book.

Kaplan was also a lover of music, and translated a “Song Book” into Yiddish – which was a collection of classical songs with music of Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Schumann. He also published such books in Hebrew, “Sefer Hazemirot” and “Shirei Zimrah”. He composed songs for Jewish children's homes, and composed his first Hebrew songs called “Nevel Asor”. He also translated from German, Russian, and Hebrew. Pesach Kaplan edited the Bialystok Jewish newspaper “Unzer Leben” until his death during the Second World War.

Translator's Footnotes:
  1. Pesach Kaplan (1870-1943) was the founder and president of the Jewish People's Party. He was a correspondent for the American Jewish Daily Forward. He died in the Bialystok ghetto in 1943. Return
  2. Haskalah (literally enlightenment) refers to the opening up of traditional European Jewish life to modernity during the 18th century and beyond. This was often accompanied by a break with traditional Orthodoxy. Adherents to the Haskalah are called Maskilim (singular, Maskil). Return

[Pages 51-53]

Long Forgotten Images

by Pesach Kaplan

Translated by Yael Chaver

As I am travelling in my current town, sitting on a bus, looking out at long, narrow, blinding white highways, I close my eyes for a while and, like magic, long forgotten images of my native town come to mind.

Rachel Leahke's image comes up, who ran off with Antek the sheketz (gentile). The previous day, her father beat her with a rope for talking to the sheketz. Despite the fact that it was the Sabbath, the rabbi, the Tzadik, permitted horses and wagons to be hitched up in order to look for her. Saving a Jewish child from apostasy was considered to be a matter of life and death, and therefore pushed aside the Sabbath. Approximately a week later, they found her in Lomza and brought her back home.

She was locked up in her home for a month. Afterwards, when she went out on the street, the entire shtetl would stand by the windows and stare with curiosity at her proud, princess-like gait.

About a half year later, the entire shtetl danced at her high-class wedding with a young man from Bialystok.

* * *

The Tzadik Reb Chaim Leib arrived as rabbi of Stawiski on one bright, warm day in Elul [1]. Everybody went outside the shtetl to greet him. People went by foot for a distance of four vorst [2] until the station. When the rabbi's coach arrived, they lead him into the station for a brief rest. The appearance of his tall figure, with blond hair covered with a sable streimel, as he looked over a crowd of several hundred people, still remains before my eyes. The procession into the town was solemn. The musicians accompanied the procession with joyous music.

Now it was the first night of Rosh Hashanah. We prayed the festive evening service. The rabbi stood for a long time reciting the Shmone Esrei [3]. The entire congregation had already gone home, and the rabbi was still reciting the Shmone Esrei. When we had already finished eating, someone told us that the Tzadik was still in the middle of the Shmone Esrei. Tzadok the Shamash (sexton) remained in the synagogue and waited. We stood away from the synagogue, and saw how the tall figure was bowed down, twisting around, as he was lost in a river of tears. The synagogue was full of curiosity. The rabbi remained reciting the Shmone Esrei for almost two hours…

The Tzadik conducted the rabbinate with a high hand. People were afraid of him.

Matia died. He was a tall, yellow Jew with a white face. He did not obey the rabbi, and did not guard the excise payments. He threatened that the town would lose a portion of its livelihood through this. The Tzadik warned Matia one time, and a second time. When Matia feigned ignorance, he was excommunicated in the synagogue to the light of black candles.

I remember how Matia went about town, actually like a corpse. Nobody would talk to him. People would leave his four cubits. His face grew more pallid by the day. He did not hold out for more than a month, and he submitted. He died a short time later.

* * *

Now, I will discuss the personality of Akiva Aharon Leizers. He was a young man with black, curly hair, a white, clear face, and shiny boots. He was a scholar, and the son-in-law of a wealthy man. He would go to the neighbor to drink milk from the cow every morning and evening. People would shake their heads about his outbursts; he is only a guest in the world…

I went with the entire town to his funeral. I went to worship in the house of mourning for the entire Shiva period [4]. I noticed that the young widow, Reizl went around with a big belly… A few months later, Reizl gave birth. I went to the recitations of Shir Hamaalot [5]. The newborn child was given the name Akiva the son of Akiva.

This was the famous chess player Akiba Rubinstein.

* * *

Life in the town was poor, gloomy, monotonous, and cut off from the outside world. At that time, we still lived under old-fashioned conditions. A bit of refreshment and excitement would come through the city from time to time when border guards would appear suddenly for a search. On one occasion, they circled the town, and nobody was allowed to enter or leave. They conducted a rigorous house to house search. It was a Friday, when we children were free from cheder. I ran, along with my friends, behind the soldiers, and was therefore present when they tore out the large floorboards of the Great Synagogue and found the large cellar where they kept the sheimos [6]. There was no other contraband. For us children, this was a spectacle; however the hearts of so many Jews were filled with terror! Finally, the cordon was lifted, and they left in shame, without being able to take any trophy with them.


The Stawiski market


-- -- -- Once upon a time, I stood there by the river, looking out over the alabaster-clear water flowing over the white pebbles. This water had been flowing for perhaps thousands of years, and yet did not was away the sand…

Thus do long gone images fly by in my memory, images of the dead and fallen. They once more live and thrive as I bring myself near to my shtetl.

Translator's Footnotes:
  1. Elul is the Hebrew month that falls in August / September. It is the month prior to Rosh Hashanah. Return
  2. An obsolete Russian unit of distance. Return
  3. The 'Shmone Esrei', literally 'eighteen', meaning 'eighteen benedictions, is the fundamental part of any prayer service. During Shacharit (morning service), Mincha (the afternoon service), and Mussf (the additional service of Sabbaths, New Moons and Festivals) it is recited silently by the congregation and then repeated by the prayer leader. At Maariv (the evening service), it is only recited silently by the congregation, and not repeated. Particularly pious people, and especially Hassidic Rebbes, recite this silent prayer very slowly and intently, taking a long time. Generally the congregation waits for them to conclude before continuing with the service, but if they take an especially long time, the service might continue while they are still reciting this prayer. Incidentally, the prayer never has eighteen benedictions. On weekdays, it has nineteen, as an additional one was added in the first century of the Common Era. On Sabbaths and festivals, there are only seven benedictions (except for Rosh Hashanah Musaf, were there are nine). Yet, the name 'Shmone Esrei' is still the term used for this prayer on all occasions. Alternatively, and more accurately, it is known as the 'Amida' (i.e. the standing prayer). Return
  4. Shiva (literally seven) is the seven-day mourning period for direct relatives following the funeral. Return
  5. Sections of Psalms recited on various occasions, including before a bris (circumcision) ceremony. Return
  6. Sheimos (literally 'names', a reference to names of G-d), are holy objects and books that have become worn out and unusable. It is forbidden to throw these out, so they are collected in certain places, and on occasion buried in a cemetery. Return

[Page 54]

Visit to Stawiski

by Pesach Kaplan of blessed memory

Translated by Yael Chaver


From childhood, after which I never saw my birthplace Stawiski, it would appear to me in a strange expressionist vision: a long line, in the back as straight as a violin string, in the front bellying out; above the large belly a high bosom, then a small straight neck topped by a head.

The line is the straight road from Grajewo to Lomza that cuts through the shtetl. The belly in front – the rounded marketplace. The bosom – the church, from which two massive Gothic domes rose like two breasts, and so on up to the protective wall on the Lomza road – the head of the shtetl.

How lovely the brook along the Grajewo road seemed, in my imaginary vision, with its clear gurgling rivulets. Where I and the other boys, my friends, would stand under the bridge, stirring up the water with pebbles, while sneaking a look at the bare legs of the shiksas who came to do their laundry on the rocks there, rubbing and beating their linens...

And further along the way, the six walls: tiny, whitish, in a straight line, that hid the mysterious secrets and the goyim in their houses, pigs in their stalls. And the two paths that started from there: on the right – to the landowner's courtyard, and on the left – to the mill.

The area beyond the walls was considered out of town; we children were permitted to take a trip there only on Lag B'Omer, or some other vacation day.

On the other side of town, along the Lomza road, the last stop for us kids was the post office. Beyond that – far away from town – was the cemetery, where we would go only on Tisha B'Av or for a large funeral. Yes, we knew that the Sabbath Pale extended further, as far as the Lomza wood with its wonderful rock on which Napoleon spent a night with a landowner's wife... But I never went that far on my own, never saw that rock.

Often, in later years, I would remember the mysterious small cemetery in the middle of town: a fenced plot, four by four, next to a house, where according to legend a bride and her groom were buried after they both died on the day of the wedding. When this happened, who they were, we never knew. But our childish hearts would tremble with suppressed fear whenever we happened to pass by, especially in the evening, when the shtetl was sunk in profound darkness.

To the right of the center, in a small alley, the large, cold, walled synagogue loomed like a giant, like a large, stern mother in the middle of a gang of small children – the low wooden houses. Next to the synagogue – the large walled Bet Midrash, where the finest property owners in town would pray and study. Profound mystery surrounded a gravestone, with an inscription that was rubbed off, right up against the Bet Midrash. How did a gravestone come to be next to the Bet Midrash? What had been inscribed on it? No one knew; it was a secret that was passed down the generations and remained a secret.


A fair in the shtetl


On the cold winter Sabbath mornings, when the whole town was smothered in a thick darkness, I would creep, with my father and several other Jews, to the synagogue courtyard. Thick beams of bright light streamed through the large synagogue windows, and carried the study melodies of dozens of people studying Torah. I have never forgotten that beautiful picture.

And just as the synagogue was the giant among the hunched houses, there was one human giant among the hunched souls: Aaron-Leyzer the wealthy, whose treasure came to seventy-five thousand rubles, and who had been in Eretz-Yisroel three times.


This was how I came to the shtetl. Not longing for the bygone pictures, but with a romantic imagination that bewitched me... Falling straight into the arms of quivering young lives and fresh problems, I was drawn to the old days as to an old mother.

I came to the synagogue courtyard through a small alley. The large old synagogue stood shabbily, its plaster falling off. I marvel at its size: how observant the shtetl must have been if, over a hundred years ago, they built a synagogue for a thousand worshipers.

In the courtyard I encountered a monument from a new, strange civilization: a nicely enclosed pump with an iron pipe, from which water flowed constantly without stopping. The enclosure wall was inscribed: “An artesian pump, in memory of the German occupation during the last war.”

Jews take a reviving drink here, and if necessary – stick their hands under the pipe before going in to pray – a sink, as it were...

I go into the vestibule. I want to go right, towards the small “Bookbuyers” Bet Midrash, where I used to spend days and nights studying Talmud, but I hear the sound of prayers from there. I turn left to the small “Psalms Group” synagogue, where my father used to chant in front of everyone. It's empty. I stand alone, looking at the old “mizrach” next to the cantor's desk. and my heart trembles. I seem to see the hunched, downcast craftsmen sitting there, and my father's Torah chant floats above them. But the craftsmen are now called artisans, and last night they organized the theatrical performance of the Radzilow “troupe.”

...I'm in the large synagogue. I stand before the cantor's desk as though beaten. It seems to me that I am once again an eight-year-old boy, standing here on Rosh Hashana hidden in my father's large tallis; he is praying emotionally, with heart-rending sighs, leading my pointing finger through his large Machzor.

Yes, it's the same desk. Everything has been preserved, frozen, as in the fairytale.

The Shames [1] leads me to a bench on the eastern side and shows me:

“Do you see this knife-cut? It was made by a boy, Eli Zelig, forty years ago. Now he's a rich American. A year ago he came to visit; when he saw the scratch, he dissolved in tears...”

And here I was in the “Bookbuyers” synagogue. Here is the table where I studied. The same table. Thick, unsmoothed, unpainted, with traces of wax. Why don't I feel the same impulse to weep as Eli Zelig did? The Shames tells me that the table is ninety years old; a Jewish village storekeeper moved to town and donated the table to the small Bet Midrash. I'm thinking that this might be a museum piece, but here they could have set a nicer, newer table.

I'm swamped by a sea of memories. Right here is where Reb Yisroel-Yankel the arbitrator used to sit; when he prayed, he would shake his broad beard strangely, right and left. Further along is the place of Leybel, Shepsel's son, who would catch me between his legs hold me fast while pushing me away with his hand: “Go, why are you standing here?” Some game. And this was the seat of the melamed  [2] , Reb Yankev-Zev, who, when I was leaving, followed the carriage and begged that I should not be taken away among the goyim, because I might curdle...

And the old Shames is the son of my Hebrew teacher, Moyshe-Mordkhe, who in later years would always appear to me like a handsome patriarch, with a white beard and soft, loving eyes. The son resembles the father like two drops of water, but an air of misery hangs over him. Too bad I'm not an American and can't give him a dollar.

In the large Bet Midrash I stand by the door. Apparently this is still the finest place in town. This is where the privileged and the scholars pray. But what a strange prayer! Several minyans of Jews dash back and forth, tallises on their shoulders, constantly talking with each other as though this were a market. Was it like this in the old days? Who remembers? Unrecognized, I leave quietly.

Now I was in the cemetery. The same as in the old days: here is a nice gravestone with colored letters that stab one's eyes. Who lies here? A simple, poor woman, who has a rich son in America.

A second gravestone, larger than the first but plainer, stands over the grave of a Tsaddik.  [3] Why not granite, or marble? Why is there no structure over it? The town decided that, just as the Tsadiks of earlier times had no structures over their graves, he, too did not need one. Apparently, they feared him more during his lifetime...

A group of young scholars was in the cemetery with me; as we strolled between the rows of graves we talked about modern Jewish movements, about Jewish culture. Standing beside the Tsadik's grave, one summed up his thoughts: “Without Zionism it's not worth being a Jew.”


Fifty years later I found a totally different shtetl.

The shtetl had suffered two large fires over the years. Its old wooden houses had vanished in smoke, and in their place stood nice, neat walls, or even wooden houses, but handsome and new, pulsating with life. The shtetl hadn't grown, certainly it hadn't become richer, but culture had turned it into a beggar woman with ornaments. The long line to the right of the road had been overlaid with a new asphalt sidewalk, electric light smiles out of the windows, and the market is drenched in electric light, giving it a big-city look.

There is no trace of many of the Jews I used to know; barely anyone remembers them. The city council has several Jewish members, and there is a Jewish deputy mayor. There is a Jewish community organization; a man named Shapira is its secretary. The young students have ignore the community's culture. Most of them are influenced by radical Zionism. I was told that there are Bundists in the shtetl, but they have neither organization nor influence.

When the sun set, young couples sat on the sidewalk, short-haired girls in short dresses, clean-shaven young men wearing pressed suits. The sidewalk was crowded with strolling young people, exuding life and joy.

I stood there, fascinated, and thought:

“My beloved home shtetl, how you have grown younger, prettier, and larger!”

Translator's Footnotes:
  1. Shames is the sexton in the synagogue. Return
  2. Melamed is a teacher. Return
  3. Tsaddik is a pious person in general; especially, the leader of a Hassidic group. [Tzaddik – "righteous one" is a term of moral stature rather than scholarship; and is perhaps best known as the title of Hassidic leaders.] Return

[Page 58]


by Azriel Liberman of blessed memory

Translated by Jerrold Landau


Our city recently endured two fires. Many houses were burnt and two people were killed. Many families, who up to this point were supporters of fire victims from near and far, were left bereft of anything, and their eyes looked towards the help of generous people. The chief volunteers of this exalted enterprise were the following: the postmaster, the town physician, the pharmacist, the secretary of the government office, and Reb M. Z. Bramzon. All of them, with the exception of the latter, are citizens of the city. To our dismay, members of our community do not wish to join in the activities of this honorable organization, which has been designated to keep watch over the wellbeing and peace of the city.

For how long will the citizens of our city not learn their lesson? They should pay attention to the fact that, had there already been an organized fire brigade, the tragedy of two fires that caused two deaths would not have happened. People of means here have sealed their ears to the words of the above mentioned volunteers, who knock at their doors daily to ask them to give their donation to the coffers of this enterprise, while nobody takes heed. There is not even one person from amongst the young people numbered among the members of this enterprise. Is this not an embarrassment to you, all of you upright people!

The educational situation here is in complete disarray. There is no properly organized school, and there is no qualified teacher to educate our children in the ways of intelligence and knowledge. It would be fitting if the local Zionists take this breech into their hands, and found a school that runs in accordance with the spirit of the times.

The contribution to the army in our town ended in the best possible manner. All of the young people came on the designated day. Many of the holders of the higher lots returned clean to their homes.

Here I have opportunity to bless the following donors in the name of the members of our community: Reb Y. Kajmowicz, Reb M. Z. Witriol, and Reb Y. G. Morus – natives of our town who live in New York, America. They sent in their appropriate donations for the maintenance of the synagogue and the Talmud Torah fund. May G-d bless them.

Hatzefirah, December 1900


Zionism in our town is going strong! This is despite the spirit of the holy ones and the Hassidim [1] of whom we have no shortage of in our town, and who never miss and opportunity to speak negatively and arrogantly against he Zionist idea. They spew out fire and brimstone about the Zionist leaders, even going so far as to claim that it is permitted to uproot the entire Torah and to desecrate the Sabbath in public in order to oppose Zionism. This is just as one zealot of this ilk did, when he ran every Sabbath eve shortly before sunset to chase the people out of the bathhouse, the storekeepers from their stores, and the fisherman from the marketplace. In the synagogue, prior to the service of welcoming the Sabbath, a certain policeman read a “proclamation” from the rabbis and Gaonim in support of the activists. Furthermore, he was so brazen as to say in the name of the community and the congregation that the rabbis who signed the “proclamation” were like the ten sons of Haman [2]… May dust fall in his mouth! However the Zionists do not pay attention to such low and disgraceful people, and they get stronger every day. They sold many shares and gathered many shekels. They also founded a group to study Talmud every day. One of the Zionists who is capable of doing so teaches a class on “Ein Yaakov” every day, where he spices the Zionist idea with the works of our sages. He wins over the hearts of all his listeners with the sweetness of his lips.

Rabbi L. Lipkin, the head of the rabbinical court of Kottingen, was chosen as the rabbi of our community. May he be blessed in his arrival.

Printed in Hamelitz, 10 Iyar 5661, Number 40 (March 16, 1901)

Translator's Footnotes:
  1. A note of sarcasm, with a derogatory tone, is detected in these two terms. The terms in used in Hebrew are “those who make things holy”, and “those who make things Hassidic.” Return
  2. This is a reference to the sons of Haman, the viceroy who wished to destroy the Jewish people in the book of Esther. Return

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