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The Sabbath in Stawiski

by Rabbi Chaim Leib Bernsztejn
(Memories from my childhood)

Translated by Jerrold Landau

        The Holy One Blessed Be He gave a precious gift to the Jewish people – the Sabbath. This gift was accepted by the entire nation with great joy. The joy of the Sabbath was particularly great in the Jewish towns.

        There were two things for which a Jew was willing to mortgage half of his house: to pay tuition costs to the teacher and to prepare for the Sabbath in honor and glory.

        The Jew basked in the splendor of the Sabbath for all the days of the week. Until Tuesday, he still felt the sweet taste of the past Sabbath, and from Wednesday he already started to prepare himself to greet the coming Sabbath. On Thursday, provisions for the Sabbath were already taking place in the house, such as baking, cooking, cleaning, putting things in order, and spreading fresh sand on the floor. On Friday morning, when you went out to the Jewish street, it was already perfumed with the aroma of the Sabbath delicacies coming out of every house.

        The preparations for the Sabbath were like preparations for a wedding. On Friday afternoon, fathers and their children streamed to the bathhouse. In their hands were a pail and a broom made of twigs, and a bundle of white sheets. This was all in honor of the Sabbath.

        Mothers washed their young children hurriedly. They shampooed their heads and dressed them in their Sabbath clothes. They did this all in haste, so they would not be G-d forbid late in greeting the glorious Sabbath.

        As the sun was setting, Reb Yoel David, the Shamash (sexton) of the Great Synagogue appeared on the Jewish street with his thick cane. In a joyous and festive voice he declared: “Jews, prepare yourselves to come to the synagogue!” As soon as his low voice was heard, the shopkeepers closed their stores and the artisans closed their workshops. The Jewish population began to prepare themselves to greet the Sabbath queen.

        The first stop of Reb Yoel David was in the vicinity of the bathhouse. It is impossible to describe the flurry and confusion that took place that overtook the bathers at that moment. From there, he continued along other streets of the town, declaring that the holy Sabbath was about to arrive. He went from one end of town to the other.

        As magic, the weekday worries and concerns were set aside as if they never existed. The holy Sabbath had arrived. Fathers and their children, attired in their Sabbath clothes and with splendorous faces streamed in joy to the synagogues and Beit Midrashes to welcome the Sabbath queen.

        In the large Beis Midrash where the rabbi of the town and the important people of the town worshipped; in the high synagogue which had a splendid holy ark; in the two Beis Midrashes of Chevra Kass the scholars worshipped; and in the Talmud Torah where the ordinary people worshipped – all of them were lit up with candelabras. Candles were burning in the old bronze chandeliers and spreading bright light. The Jews who came in joy clearly felt the additional soul, which filled every place with light and joy. The Jews welcomed the Sabbath queen with song and jubilation.

        What was the situation in the Jewish home? It was clean, orderly, decorated and sparkling. It spread its light and warmth to the environment. A white tablecloth was spread on the table. Two braided challah loaves were covered with the Sabbath challah cover. The flames of the candles were dancing from the candelabras. The mother had recited the blessing on them. They spread the beams of the mystery of the Sabbath to all corners of the home. The Sabbath delicacies were giving off their pleasant aroma and whetting the appetite.

        The father returned from the synagogue and blessed the household with a hearty “Shabbat Shalom” (“Peaceful Sabbath”). The children lined up and waited for the blessing of the father. With eyes exuding devotion, the father placed his hand upon the children and blessed them with the traditional blessing: “May G-d make you like Efraim and Menashe, Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah”.

        When he finished blessing the children, the father walked around the house and greeting the angels of peace that accompanied him from the synagogue back to his family with “Shalom Aleichem”. He then recited “Eishet Chayil Mi Yimtzah”[1].

        And the mother – who could recognize her? She no longer had to worry about the housework. She had abandoned the worry and concerns of the burden of housework. The signs of toil and fatigue were hidden away. The smell of pickled foods and pitch that accompanied her all week were forgotten.

        The mother sat down satisfied, beaming, and glorious in the modesty of her Sabbath attire. In her hands was the “Korban Mincha” prayer book, and her lips silently whispered the Sabbath prayers and supplications. She exuded an inner complacency, and thanks to the Blessed G-d. She gazed at her husband and young children who were sitting around the table as “Olive saplings” [2].

        After her husband recited Kiddush over the wine and washed his hands, the tasty Sabbath delicacies were served to all of those at the table. Between each course the father sung the Sabbath hymns, and the children accompanied him with their young sweet voices, as a choir.

        It was the holy Sabbath today, and in every Jewish home, the Divine presence dwells…

Translator's Footnotes:

  1. Jewish tradition states that angels accompany a man home from the synagogue on Sabbath evenings. The “Shalom Aleichem” hymn is sung welcoming these angels. The “Eishet Chayil” hymn, in praise of the Jewish women, is then sung. It is taken from the final chapter of the Book of Proverbs, verses 10-31. Return

  3. A reference from Psalm, 128. Return


The Rabbi and the Cantor by Pesach Kaplan of blessed memory

(A bit of family chronicles)

by Avraham the son of Isser Chalofowicz of blessed memory

Translated by Jerrold Landau

        The cantor Binyamin Noach looked around the town and suddenly felt somewhat of a feeling of strangeness and not being at home. It seems as if the same Jews are conducting themselves a bit strangely. They are not Hassidim, they worship in the Ashkenaz prayer mode [1], they study a page of Talmud, they speak Yiddish in a non-obscure manner as in deep Poland – however they have an accent and intonation of words that is different than that of Lithuania. There is a sweetness in their mouths when they chant with the melody, and their dry and sharp expression exudes a sort of coldness and distance. There was nobody in the entire town who spoke with a hardened Lithuanian Yiddish, and he himself felt as if he was lost somewhere on an island. He had no friends or acquaintances here. He felt alone and lonely.

        Quickly, he realized that also his sole friend and protector, the rabbi Reb Leibele, himself does not sit securely on his seat, for he is surrounded by detractors.

        Why was it like this? Binyamin Noach perhaps understood the reason. However, he never talked about it subsequently.

        Reb Leibel was a great scholar, well versed in Talmud and halachic decisions, and pious without any ulterior motives. Until this day, one can find at the home of his grandson in Bialystok Reb Yaakov Meir Rakowski the Talmud from which he studied. The margins are annotated with his glosses, written in minute letters, which attest to his great breadth and depth of knowledge. However, the modern ways overtook his family. His son Avtcha (Avraham Abba Rakowski), who at that time was a young man in his father's home, studied Bible and grammar, peered into little books [2], and was known as being a Maskil. The rabbi himself loved the cantor for his lovely, flowery letters, which shone a light into his intimate inclinations.

        From cut off words that he heard from the congregants during the time of prayers, Binyamin Noach realized that a cold atmosphere prevailed around the rabbi, and at times it seemed to him as if they were quietly plotting against Reb Leibele…

        Jews of the small towns (shtetls) would often love to talk quietly and secretly, looking around to see that nobody was listening. It was close to the Prussian border, and in the town, they often used to talk about the Prussian towns of Elk (Lyk) and Johannisburg, delivering greetings from the other side. At that time, after the failure of the uprising, the flow of Polish youth across the border strengthened, and the Jews probably had regarding this enough to exchange secrets about… However, in the town, “Obizdszikes” [[3] would wander about, the ones with green belts, who had a habit of looking a person in the eye and eliciting a shiver with their glance. Binyamin Noach already noticed this in the first days, and therefore he probably didn't pay attention to this, so he thought that they were telling secrets about the rabbi, and thought that they were also against him, the new cantor and shochet, he kept his distance…

        The cantor continued with his singing, and was ready for his “debut” on the first High Holy Days. He selected a few young helpers and sang with them a few pieces. He gave a special “job” to the base, Feivel the doctor, a tall, yellowish young man with long, threadbare eyebrows. In every melody, he had to interject his heavy “bom bom bom” or “tom tom tom”. The cantor took great pleasure when he would sit in his house in the evenings around the with the young singers, as he held the tune with his hum, and hear that outside the window there gathered a crowd of curious people who were engaged in cheerful conversation. He was certain that he would excel in the synagogue on the holidays.

        Indeed, that was the way it was. During his Musaf [4] renditions a strange sort of intimacy prevailed between him and the crowd. All restraint disappeared. Jews worshipped with heartfelt devotion [5], and the cantor created that mood.

        However on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, right after the service, something took place that felt as if a thunderbolt fell upon his head.

        As the cantor and his singers were finishing the singing of “Hayom Teamtzeinu” [6], as the members of the congregation were removing the tallises from over their heads and placing them back over their shoulders [7] and looked about with excited faces, Yankel the soldier ascended the bima (prayer leader's lectern). He was a tall Jew with a wild, black beard, and a brass plate over his heart. He ordered the shamash Berl Velvel to knock with a board upon the pad, and then, holding a paper in his hand, declared that this was an decree from the governor of Lomza. The content of the decree was as follows: the authorities obtained trustworthy reports that the rabbi, Leib Rakowski, had secretly become involved with the Polish “Miaczenikes” [8], and therefore he was ordered to leave the city voluntarily within 24 hours. Otherwise he would be bound in chains and put into jail.

        A storm broke out in the synagogue. Reb Leibele, who worshipped in his own nook near the Holy Ark, was immediately surrounded by friends, including also Binyamin Noach the cantor. Other worshippers stood in groups and conversed. An oppressive secret hovered over all the murmuring. Slowly, everyone separated and the cantor, who was tired from the rendition of Musaf, felt his knees buckling under him, and felt as if the ground was tottering beneath him…

        For the next year in town, they did not cease to talk about that bizarre event. Children heard about it from their mothers, and one told it over to another. Later, the story as clarified as follows: That same night Reb Leibele packed up and left town along with his family, and the next day, on the Fast of Gedalya [9], it was verified that the entire story with the governor's document was a pretext by several members of the community, leaders of Hassidic circles, who wanted to get rid of the rabbi. They chose to do this by frightening him with a concocted order from the authorities…

        Binyamin Noach felt as if he had been shot from beneath. His sole refuge was gone, and what would be with he himself? Who knows what those same Jews are capable of doing to him?

        In the coming days it became clear that his fear was not for naught. On the intermediate days of Sukkot a meeting of the gabbaim (trustees) took place regarding a new rabbi and also regarding kashruth.

        With regards to the latter question, the gabbaim decided that one shochet who also works as a cantor is not sufficient. Therefore they certified as a second shochet a young Hassidic man, Reb Leizer from Radzilow. Therefore, both shochtim would slaughter together, one opposite the other, and he must not hold the slaughterer's knife [10]

        After the decision was taken, they sent for the new cantor Binyamin Noach, and told him to sign a note that he agrees that there will be a second shochet, and that he would go together with the new shochet to the slaughterhouse and slaughter only under his supervision.

        Bent and broken, Binyamin Noach signed the note, as if he was signing a verdict.

        They later chose Rabbi Meir Noach Lewin as the rabbi. He later became the town preacher in Vilna, and many years later, a rabbi in New York, America.

Translator's Footnotes:

  1. There are various styles of prayer structures or modes, depending upon the community. The main division is between Ashkenaz (European / Germanic), and Sepharad (Spanish / North African / Middle Eastern). The Hassidic prayer mode is called Nussach Sephard, which bears some similarity to the true Sephardic prayer mode, even though it is European (this is due to the fact that is based on the prayer mode of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria of Safed, in the Land of Israel, who was a precursor to Hassidism). There are many more nuances that I can mention in a brief footnote. Return
  2. Seemingly an inference to modern books. The term here for books 'sfarimlech' seems to have a mildly derogatory tone to it. Return
  3. I am unsure of the meaning of this word. Probably some sort of local ruffian gang. Return
  4. The latter part of the Sabbath and festival morning service, which is conducted with special pomp and circumstance on the High Holy Days. Return
  5. The word really means “a sense of being broken”, reflecting the humility and broken heart that is supposed to be felt during the prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Return
  6. “Strengthen us today”, a hymn at the end of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Musaf service. Return
  7. It is customary to wear the tallis (prayer shawl) over the head at various parts of the prayer service. Some people do it more, some less, and others not at all – depending on custom. Return
  8. Possibly the Mencheniks, a Russian minority party at the time in opposition to the Bolsheviks. Return
  9. The day after Rosh Hashanah is one of the 4 minor fast days of the year, the fast of Gedalya, commemorating the murder of Gedalya the son of Achikam, the governor of the Kingdom of Judah installed after the destruction of the first death. With the murder of Gedalya, the remaining Jews of the land fled, and the destruction was complete. Return
  10. The exact meaning of this phrase is unclear. It may be incomplete, with the word 'alone' missing from the end. It seems to impose some form of slaughtering restriction on Binyamin Noach. Return


“Tefilla Zaka” [1] in Poryte

by Avraham the son of Isser Chalofowicz of blessed memory

        On the highway between Stawiski and Kolno, about five kilometers from Stawiski, the village of Poryte spreads out for about 1.5 kilometers along the two sides of the road. About 10-12 Jewish families lived there. The Jews of Poryte were engaged in various trades. Some of them earned their livelihood from labor, others from business, and a few tilled the soil. From a spiritual viewpoint, they were part of the Jewish community of Stawiski. If a boy was born, he would be brought into the covenant of Abraham by a mohel from Stawiski; if someone had to slaughter a chicken, he would bring it to the shochet in Stawiski; if there was a question of kashruth or a Torah litigation case, they would turn to the rabbi of Stawiski; if a woman required ritual immersion [2], she would fulfil this commandment in the mikva of Stawiski.

        It seems to me, if I am not mistaken, that if the Jews in the city were living in exile, the exile of the village Jews was sevenfold more severe. At least the former lived with their co-religionists in their own area of town; whereas the villager lived in the heart of exile, that is to say, the exile pervaded literally in his own house.

        In the following lines, I wish to describe an event that took place on the eve of Yom Kippur 5675 (1914) in the village of Poryte. I was eight years old. The matter began with the outbreak of the First World War, on Thursday, two days prior to the Sabbath of Chazon [3]. A fair took place in Kolno every Thursday, and on that Thursday, at 6:00 p.m., decrees of the Kaiser were posted. The background was red and the letters black. These decrees informed the population that war had broken out between Russia and Germany, and that all of the reserve soldiers up to the age of forty were required to present themselves on the Sabbath of Chazon at the enlistment center in Lomza. The confusion and screaming in town were very great. However, it seemed to me that the cries of my grandmother Tzipa were the greatest of all, for of her four sons, three were required to go out to a war whose causes and meaning were strange and unknown to her. They told her about some crown prince who had been murdered, whose name she had never heard before, and of whose existence she was unaware.

        The marketplace emptied out speedily. The gentiles and merchants who had come to the fair fled while they still could. Only the residents of Kolno remained, and the sounds of the weeping and wailing of my grandmother grew greater from moment to moment.

        The border with Germany was speedily shut, and the Jews of Kolno who conducted business with Germany and were present there on the day of the outbreak of the war were stuck in Prussia. These included my eighty-year-old grandfather, Reb Moshe Zeev of blessed memory. The next day, on Friday at 3:00 p.m., approximately ten wagons appeared in the outskirts of the town, and all of the enlisted Jews up to age forty were transported to the enlistment station in Lomza. They traveled on Friday in order to prevent the desecration of the Sabbath. The screaming and weeping at the time of parting was literally heartbreaking. My grandmother Tzipa was spared the pangs of parting since her three sons who were enlisted were not in Kolno. My father Isser was not in Poryte. Uncle Pesach lived in Finland and had to enlist in his place of residence. Uncle Shaul was serving in the army at the time.

        That Sabbath eve was particularly sad and full of fear for the future. On Saturday morning, representatives of the government appeared in the buildings of the liquor monopolies and confiscated the products. All of the reserve soldiers up to age forty were enlisted from the neighboring villages. Some with song and others with weeping, they were transported in covered wagons to the darkness, to Lomza.

        My mother Rivka was in Poryte with four young children. I and my brother Yisraelka studied in Kolno with Yudel Nachum the Talmud teacher. We lived in the home of grandmother and grandfather. According to my mother's strategic military understanding, my brother and myself were in greater danger than our enlisted father was, since Kolno was closer to the German border. Therefore, on Sunday morning, the day that Tisha Beov was observed, my mother hurried to Kolno as fast as a disturbed bird whose nest is endangered and who does not know the fate of her nestlings. When she found us in a normal situation, she was placated and began to plan what to do. Finally, she reached the decision that myself, my brother Yisraelke and grandmother Tzipa must leave Kolno for Poryte, which was a bit farther from the border.

        The war became a reality. The enlisted soldiers went along all of the routes towards the border. The Jews were particularly afraid. The Russians accused them of spying, and many, in particular the Jews of the border regions, were exiled to Siberia.

        With the enlistment of my father, mother remained with six children and five rubles in her pocket. Yet, we had to live! My mother and grandmother began to bake baked goods out of white wheat in order to sustain the family. We children would sell the baked goods to the soldiers, and that is how the family earned its livelihood. After some time, news reached us from father that he was being sent to the front. Uncle Shaul had already been there for some time.

        The Days of Awe approached. As usual, prayer leaders from Stawiski were invited to Poryte – Nota Mendel as the leader of Shacharit and Michael Goldkirsz as the leader of Musaf. The well-to-do Jews from the nearby area – Alter of Poryte, Avrahamel of Rostki and Meir of Zaskrodzie, who were owners of flour mills, as well as a few families of Dzierzrbia and the Jews of Poryte, arranged a minyan (prayer group) in the Rostki flourmill, since this was the central spot of the entire region. On the Days of Awe, the flourmill was converted into a small synagogue. Three Torah scrolls were brought, and the aliyas [4] were distributed in a democratic fashion among the worshippers, without discrimination.

        The two days of Rosh Hashanah passed as usual, almost without change from prior to the war. The only family that stood out was ours, since father, who had been drafted, was absent. The weeping and screams of my mother and grandmother ascended Heavenward from the women's area. However, on Yom Kippur, the heartrending weeping of daughters of Alter of Poryte was heard as well, since the Russians imprisoned their father on the eve of Yom Kippur. He was the richest and most honorable Jew in the village of Poryte. They tied him to the tail of a horse with a long rope and dragged him to an unknown place.

        During the Ten Days of Penitence [5], the German army conquered the villages, however the Russians chased them out two days later. On the morning of the eve of Yom Kippur, as we returned from the morning prayers at the Rostki flourmill, we saw an infantry division next to the flourmill of Poryte. The Jews of Poryte spread out in all directions in order to avoid the soldiers; however Alter of Poryte and his family, having no choice, continued onwards towards their house. I was accompanying them by chance, since I had no fear of the soldiers due to my business dealings with them…

        When we were near the mill, the captain asked: “Who is the owner?” Alter answered that he is the owner. The captain immediately began to beat him on the head with a whip, as he shouted very loudly: “Despised Jew, you brought Germans to Germany, do you not know that they are our enemies?” Without waiting for an answer, he asked his soldiers: “Who volunteers to transport him?” Immediately, five soldiers came out of the line.

        The wailing and screaming of the family were to no avail. They took Alter, and tied him with to the tail of a horse with a long rope. Four soldiers walked two by two on each side. They dragged him to some unknown place. It is easy to imaging the feelings of despair that afflicted the Jews of the village and the entire region on that eve of Yom Kippur. In addition, a rumor spread that a similar fate was in store for all of the Jews.

        The time of Kol Nidre came and went. The public recitation of Kol Nidre was incalculable. My G-d fearing mother, as she was reciting the blessing over the candles after the final meal, wept so much that I felt that all of the wellsprings of tears that had been stored up throughout the long Jewish exile had opened. She was not content that my brother and myself, two young Jewish boys, would stay at home on the night of Kol Nidre, so she sent us to our neighbor Yankel of Poryte to say Kol Nidre and to recite the evening service of Yom Kippur together with him. She told us that we should direct our prayers, not only for the merit of our father at the front, but for all of the Jewish people who are in great danger [6].

        Yankel of Poryte, a Jew whose long white beard flowed over his robes, dressed in his kittel [7] appeared to me as the High Priest at the time of his service. When we arrived at his house, there was still a bit of light outside, and the time to recite Kol Nidre arrived. As was customary, he sat down to recite Tefilla Zaka. Fifty years have passed since that Kol Nidre night, and I can still hear the echoes in my ears of the gloomy, heartrending whisper in which Reb Yankel recited Tefilla Zaka. Similarly, I cannot forget the morning of that Yom Kippur eve, when they dragged Alter of Poryte away in such a cruel manner, tied to the tail of a donkey.

        Yom Kippur night passed in peace. The next morning, the Jews of the village were not content to worship privately on the holiest day of the year, not being able to pour out the bitterness of their hearts together to the One and Only who was able to help. One by one, they streamed to the impromptu synagogue. The morning service (Shacharit) went as usual, but during the Musaf service, during the recitation of the Unetane Tokef prayer [8], the prayer leader and the entire congregation together with him broke out in bitter weeping, as they pleaded with the Creator of the world to have mercy upon his people of Israel and to open up the gates of mercy. The weeping and wailing from the women's section reached to the heights of the Heavens.

        A few weeks later, thanks to various actions that were taken in this regard, Alter was freed and returned to Poryte. We all believed that Alter was freed thanks to the merit of the prayers that came out of the depths of our hearts on that Yom Kippur, and reached the Throne of Glory.

        Alter died in 1929, and was brought to eternal repose in the cemetery of Stawiski.

Translator's Footnotes:

  1. Tefilla Zaka (the Prayer of Merit) is a long, confessional prayer recited in private prior to the Kol Nidre service at the beginning of Yom Kippur. Return
  2. This refers to the ritual immersion at the conclusion of the 'nidda' period, the period of time that includes the menstrual cycle and the seven following days. A couple is not permitted to engage in marital relations until the wife immerses in the ritual bath (mikva) at the conclusion of this period of time. This tends to be a monthly immersion, although it varies with the length of the menstrual cycle. Return
  3. The Sabbath of Chazon is the Sabbath immediately prior to Tisha Beov, the fast of the 9th of Av that marks the day of the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem and many other calamities throughout the ages. This is always the Sabbath that the Torah portion of Devarim is read, and is about seven weeks prior to Rosh Hashanah. In Jewish tradition, it is considered to be no coincidence that the First World War (which in a sense set the stage for the Second World War) broke out in close proximity to Tisha Beov. Indeed in that year, Shabbat Chazon itself was Tisha Beov (when Tisha Beov, the 9th of Av, falls on the Sabbath, the observance of the fast is postponed to Sunday). Thus, the first world war did indeed break out in immediate proximity to Tisha Beov. Return
  4. The honors of being called up to the reading of the Torah. Return
  5. The days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, inclusive. Return
  6. The two youngsters were probably two young to make the long trek to the synagogue in Rostki. The neighbor was probably two old and frail to do so. Return
  7. A white cloak worn during the prayers of Yom Kippur. Return
  8. A prayer that describes the holiness of the days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It contains the statement: “On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: how many shall pass away and how many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die, who in a timely fashion and who in an untimely fashion, who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by wild animal…” Return



by Nechemia Lewinowicz

(Memories from Childhood)

        Pale pictures of my town of Stawiski prior to the First World War arise in sections. The poverty was great, and the life of toil was the lot of the Jews in the city – a subject about which we can write a great deal, but here is not the appropriate place. Therefore, I will describe only a few isolated incidents that are guarded well in my memory, events that thrilled the hearts of children and filled them with joy and sweet longing.

        I recall the joy and emotions that stirred our hearts at the time of the preparations for the holiday of Passover; the longing and thrill of a new set of clothing that was being sewn in honor of the holiday, a new pair shoes with squeaky soles and a new hat – all of these were moments of inestimable joy within the poverty that pervaded in town. There was great effort to remove the chometz and to “bring in” the Passover [1] the joyous, clean, and sparkling festival – this also added moments of joy and happiness for the children, who shared the burden of the cleaning and polishing efforts, the purging of the dishes, the removal of books from the closets and placing them on the long table, which exposed them to the fresh spring air as they were aired out by leafing through the pages. I remember the volumes of the Talmud and Chovat Halevavot [2], dear holy books that our father of blessed memory purchased with boundless love and sparse coins, the fruits of toil, sweat, and the steadfastness of heart.

        The preparations for the baking of the matzos – where is the ink to describe this? They began with long discussions regarding the price of the flour, an endeavor that was generally fraught with frustration. Once the flour was purchased, the preparations for the baking began. The baking was a collective endeavor. It is interesting that in this regard, they used the modern American manufacturing methodology – albeit for reasons of religion – of dividing up the tasks to different people. Each person had his job. He who kneaded the dough did not pour water into the flour, and he who perforated the matzos did not do another task, etc.

        The most famous of the matzo bakers in our town was Shalom the melamed (teacher) of blessed memory. He was also an excellent Torah reader, and blessed with a sharp sense of humor. Regarding his many daughters, he would explain the verse: “I am weary of my life because of the daughters of Chet” [3]. (There is a play on words here, for the letter Chet has the numeric value of 8.) This was the style of humor that circulated in our town, originating from Reb Shalom, who was an interesting, multi-faceted personality.

        We had two grandmothers: One was from Stawiski, the mother of our mother, who was known as “Itka Chaya Leahs”. Her many grandchildren were called by her name – “The grandson or granddaughter of Itka Chaya Leahs”). Our second grandmother, the mother of our father, lived in the town of Wasosz near Szczuczyn. The two grandmothers were different in their character and temperament. The common denominator between them was that both of them were stronger than their husbands, our grandfathers. I remember the grandmothers very well, but the image of the grandfathers is clouded in my memory. As were most of the women in that era, our grandmothers were very prolific, and bestowed upon us a bounty of aunts, uncles and cousins.

        We had many uncles. Two of them were named Chaim. One of them, Chaim Kabakowicz of Stawiski, and the other was Chaim Lewinowicz of Wasosz. They had the same name, but were different in character. Uncle Chaim Kabakowicz, who was closer to us because he lived in our neighborhood, was known in town as “Chaim Kasztan” (chestnut) on account of the chestnut color of his hair. He was tall, proud, and solid backed and he loved life. His wife, Aunt Miriam, was an exemplary housewife. Her house was the cleanest and shiniest of all of the houses in the neighborhood. We children used to enjoy visiting the house of Aunt Miriam.

        Uncle Chaim, in partnership with his firstborn son Yankel Nissel, conducted business with Prussia. That is to say, they would purchase grain from the Polish landowners and neighboring farmers and export it to Germany. Due to their contact with the world at large, their status of life was higher than that which was customary in the town.

        Uncle Chaim was known as a joker, and his tricks elicited waves of laughter. He would have fun at the expense of the schlemiels [4] and the fools, who were not spared from his sharpened tongue. A lazy person merited a special nickname: “the prachownik”, that is to say “the working person”.

        Uncle Chaim had children from his first and second wives. Wonderful Aunt Miriam raised the orphans from the first wife with the same dedication that she raised her own children. In order to remove any sign of difference between the first and second groups of children, they all called her “aunt” instead of “mother”. I remember Aunt Miriam as one of the most noble of the women of Stawiski.

        Of all of the children of Uncle Chaim, only three that immigrated to the United States survived. All of the rest, sons, daughters and grandchildren, perished during the Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis.

        Uncle Chaim of Wasosz was an entirely different character. We would wait impatiently for his visit to us on every Chol Hamoed of Passover [5]. He was tall, handsome, ruddy cheeked and red lipped, and his face always had a heartwarming smile. Without doubt, all of the girls in town loved him. He dressed impeccably, clean and shiny. We children were very proud of Uncle Chaim, and we were sure that Uncle Chaim was the most handsome of all of the uncles in town.

        Out of six children, one son Yehoshua was literally saved from the conflagration. (The oldest is alive in Argentina.) He was serving as a soldier in the Polish army at the outbreak of the war. When Poland was conquered, he went to Vilna and from there to the Land of Israel. Here, he fell in the War of Independence at Gush Etzion.

        Regarding the Passover Seder and the holiday in general, it seems to me that there is nothing to add. Here, I wish to tell of one event that is etched in my memory from the days of my childhood. One of the closest friends of our father of blessed memory was Reb Gedalia Goelman of blessed memory. Reb Gedalia, who was an emissary of one of the Yeshivas of Poland, was away from home for most of the year. However, he would return home for Passover in order to celebrate the festival with his family. To us children, Reb Gedalia was a greatly beloved and desired guest. He was a jolly Jew, and spread his good spirit to his surroundings. Furthermore, he would always bring a present to our family for the holiday, a very pleasant present for which we awaited impatiently. He would bring a quarter of a liter of grapes. Each child would receive 2-3 grapes. After the blessing of “Shehecheyanu” [6] the great experience of holding the grape in the mouth would take place. It was hard for me to swallow such a wonderful present – a round, sweet grape, the fruit of a far-off land, which in addition came from the generous hand of Reb Gedalia, who brought with him the aroma of the wide world when he returned from afar to the small town, as well as the aroma of grapes and oranges. In order to lengthen the experience, I held the grape in my mouth for a period of time and did not chew it, until the warmth of the mouth overcame the will and the grape was chewed and swallowed. I am not ashamed to confess that my disappointment was great when the sweet-sour grape was chewed up and was no more, for now I would have to wait an entire year in order to merit a tasty, beautiful, splendid, appealing grape!

        The center of “the celestial Stawiski” [7]] was, in my opinion, the large Beis Midrash. There my father Reb Mendel of blessed memory shook off the dust of the bakery and turned into a new man. There, in the Beis Midrash, Reb Mendel turned again into the brilliant student of the famous Mir Yeshiva. Around the table of the “Magen Avraham” [8] study group was Reb Velvel Zak, the leader of the group. If my memory serves me correctly, the Magen Avraham study group was the spiritual height of Stawiski, a part of the celestial Stawiski.

        Prior to the First World War, practically all of the Jews of our town were Orthodox, observant of the commandments, taking care to worship three times a day – Shacharit (the Morning Service), Mincha (the Afternoon Service), and Maariv (the Evening Service). If that was the case every day, on Sabbaths and festivals it was moreso. With regard to that group, who I refer to as the Celestial Stawiski, they had special privileges, such as: receiving the “eighth aliya” on the Sabbath, reciting “Maftir Yonah” at Mincha of Yom Kippur [9], and those who knew how to lead services in a pleasant fashion would have the privilege of leading the services in the large Beis Midrash on the High Holidays – someone for Shacharit and someone for Musaf, not to speak of Kol Nidre and Neila.

        Reb Velvel Zak, the father of my childhood friend Aharon Leizer, was ordained as a rabbi. However, like our father of blessed memory whose inclination was to occupy himself only in Torah but was forced to be a baker in order to sustain his family, Reb Velvel, the great scholar, saw the need to do business in a store that sold metal objects. In truth, his righteous wife Rivka, the mother of my friend Aharon Leizer, conducted the business. She became known for her great abilities.

        The image of Rivka Zak is etched in my mind as a woman who exemplified the best of Jewish traits. One would never hear a bad word from her about anyone. She was a modest woman, almost bashful. The honor of every person was dear to her. It once happened that Chaim Zebulon Bramzon, a young, strong man, opened up a business in metal objects, and the livelihood of Reb Velvel was impacted in a significant fashion. One of the women of Stawiski who admired the Zak family once cursed Chaim Zebulon in the presence of Rivka. This refined and righteous woman literally trembled from the words, and with tears in her eyes urged that woman not to spew forth venom about any Jewish person. It is forbidden – she said, as she placed the palm of her hand on the mouth of that woman so that she would not sin with her lips.

        The way of life of the Jewish of Stawiski had very little influence upon the Polish population. In that era, the G-d of Israel still ruled all aspects of Jewish life, and the cultural and ethical level of the Jews was incalculably greater than that of their Polish neighbors. I remember very well Friday afternoons towards evening, when the shamash (sexton) quickly spread through town, declaring “it is time to go to the synagogue”! Every word echoed in the air and reached all corners of the town. This was the time that the mundane disappeared, and the Sabbath queen drew near.

        My mother of blessed memory hurried to place the last pots of hot foods into the large oven. She wiped the sweat off of her face with her apron, and gave to the Good L-rd that the cooking had come to an end.

        If you wish to know what was the most valuable merchandise to the Jews of Stawiski – it was torah. At the age of ten or eleven, the boys would be sent off to different cities to study in Yeshivas. There they would “eat the days” [10] with families who valued Torah students. They would prepare themselves to serve in the rabbinate or in other professions connected to the Jewish way of life, in the same manner that Jewish parents today send their children to universities to study free professions. As I have already stated, the spiritual life was centered around the large Beis Midrash, the Great Synagogue and the Hassidic shtibels. The most important “bank” to them was in the upper spheres, where all Jews gathered great and small mitzvahs (commandments) for the World to Come.

        The main source of livelihood of the Jews was from doing business with the farmers of the nearby villages. The most important day was Thursday, the market day. The market took place in the large square in the center of the city. The Catholic Church rose up from one side of the square. From its midst, the “holy mother” and her godly son looked upon those who believed in them, with the hope that they would leave in peace the sons of the nation from whose bosom they emerged. However, their hope was in vain. With their “eyes”, they saw how their believers afflicted the Jews of Stawiski with cruel and unusual deaths.

        My town of Stawiski, you no longer exist. Your memory has been erased from under the heavens of G-d. They razed the synagogue and large Beis Midrash to the ground. The graves of the great rabbis of Stawiski have been ploughed over; the cemetery has become a pastureland. The “holy mother” and her son – who was born as a Jew and died as a Jew – witnessed from the windows of the Catholic church how their believers from amongst the Polish nation, adorned with crosses, went out and murdered the Jews of Stawiski, and they are silent. Perhaps they shed a tear? Perhaps they wept silently when nobody who hear, just as the Divine Presence weeps at the bitter fate of the six million Jews, the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob [11].

Miami, Florida

Translator's Footnotes:

  1. Chometz is leavened food that is prohibited from being eaten on Passover. This sentence probably refers to the changeover of dishes and cooking vessels from the year round chometz dishes to the special Passover dishes that never came in contact with chometz. Some dishes that are used year round can be cleaned or 'purged' for Passover (the halachic details of this being beyond the scope of this footnote). The removal of books refers to the checking of books that might have been brought to the table during the year for particles of bread. Return
  2. A medieval volume on Jewish thought by Rabbi Bachia Ibn Paquda. Return
  3. A verse from Genesis, where Rebecca describes to Isaac that she is tired of the Hittite women (daughters of Chet), and would prefer if Jacob marry someone from her own family. The word Chet (Hittite) is a homonym for the eighth letter of the alphabet, that has the numeric value of 8 (each Hebrew letter has an associated numeric value). Return
  4. A well-known Hebrew / Yiddish term for a good for nothing or an inept person. Return
  5. Chol Hamoed is the term for the intermediate, non-festival days of Passover and Sukkot, between the first and last festival days. Return
  6. Shehecheyanu (Who kept us in life to this time) is the blessing made upon eating a new fruit which has not been partaken of for a period of time. It is also made at other occasions. Return
  7. A term for the spiritual side of Stawiski. The term comes from the “the celestial Jerusalem”, which is the heavenly, spiritual Jerusalem that is supposed to exist along with the “earthly Jerusalem”. Return
  8. The Magen Avraham is one of the commentators on the Code of Jewish Law. Return
  9. There are seven aliyas on the Sabbath morning. Additional aliyas are allowed to be added. If one additional aliya is added, it is called Acharon, and this is what the eighth aliya is referring to. Maftir Yonah is the reading of the Book of Jonah during the afternoon service of Yom Kippur. Return
  10. This refers to the Yeshiva students taking their meals on a daily rotation basis at different host homes. Return
  11. The animate references to the statues of the “holy mother” and son here are not meant to literally attribute life to the statues and images, but rather to illustrate a graphic point about the behavior of those that believe in them. Return


What Hassidim Are Capable Of

by Puah Rakowski of blessed memory

(A chapter from her book “Memories of a Jewish Revolutionary”)

Translated by Jerrold Landau

        My grandfather Reb Leibele Rakowski was then (in 1873) the rabbi in Stawiski, which is in the Lomza Gubernia.

        My grandfather was a great Misnaged (opponent of Hassidism)… He hated Hassidim deeply, and they, the Hassidim, caused him broiling troubles. In Stawiski, for example, where he was the rabbi, on one Friday – my grandfather was then still a young man at the time – they put nails with the points up in the bath that was prepared for the rabbi.

        Fortunately, had a sick child at home, and therefore he did not leave the house that day, so he had no need of that bath.

        After this story, grandfather went to Plock, where he was a rabbi for a full 17 years, even though he always wanted to get away from there due to the standard battles between the Misnagdim and Hassidim.

        After Plock, he accepted the rabbinical seat in Mstsislaw (in Yiddish Amtchislav, in the Smolensk Gubernia.)

Between Mincha and Maariv

by Rabbi Chaim Leib Bernsztejn

Translated by Jerrold Landau

        I left Stawiski at a young age, but my memories of it are among the best and most beautiful in my memory. It was a city of Torah, service and good deeds[1]., and it was famous for its rabbis, gaonim and tzadikim, starting with Reb Chaim Leib the Great, and including Rabbi Yehoshua Lang, Rabbi Doborcki, Rabbi Remilgoski, until the last of its rabbis, Rabbi Wasserman of holy blessed memory, who perished in the Holocaust.

        The large Beis Midrash, replete with its erudite scholars and students, stands before the eyes of my spirit as if it is real. At one table, they studied the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) with its commentators: the Shach, the Taz and the Sema[2].. At another table they studied Talmud; at a third table, near the oven, the simple folk studied Ein Yaakov[3].; and in a special room on the side was the fortress of “the common folk” – the Tehillim group[4]..

        Fluttering before the eyes of my spirit is the Great Synagogue, four stories high, with thick walls and square pillars. The pinnacle of its glory was the Holy Ark, made of fine craftsmanship, known throughout the entire area for its splendor and glory.

        On the right hand was the room of Chevra Kass (The purchasers of books)[5]., where the people who would debate as well as those who studied individually would congregate. On the second side was the Talmud Torah. A precious Jew by the name of Muncki would teach and expound before the common folk from the book “Menorat Hamaor”. All of the tables were filled up, with no space, as the Jews would toil and drink with thirst the sweet words of the expounder. At times, due to the great weariness from the toil of the day, the eyes would close…

{Photo page 256 – The Holy Ark in the Great Synagogue.}

        I remember that, as evening approached, between Mincha and Maariv, all of the Jews of the town would leave their pursuits, including the tailor, the shoemaker, the wagon driver and the shopkeeper, the well-to-do and the poor – all of them shook off their concerns, as they made way to the synagogue or the Beis Midrash to spend an hour in pleasant pursuits. One would study a page of Talmud, another a chapter of Mishna, someone else the homilies of Ein Yaakov, and those who did not study recited Psalms in a group or privately. Everyone did what he could according to his level, and according the group that was fitting for him. Scholars and simple folk refreshed themselves and restored their souls during this time. If there would be a lecture by a rabbi or a preacher that evening – the enjoyment would be multiplied.

        Along the streets that led from the marketplace to the synagogue, primarily on the alley near “Shia P.”, groups of people streamed in one direction – toward the synagogue. How wonderful was this sight!

        As has been said, Stawiski excelled in its Torah and service. There are two implications to the word “service” – the service of the Creator and regular work. Stawiski was a city of laborers, of whom can be said “You shall eat your bread by the sweat of your brow”[6].. Everyone worked hard, and sustained their families through the work of their hands. They earned an honest and proper living.

        And the last is the dearest: good deeds. In Stawiski, individuals and the community took interest in the well being of their fellow. Various organizations existed to offer aid to the needy: The Talmud Torah, Hachnasas Orchim (insuring that guests were taken care of), Somech Noflim (sustaining those who had fallen), Gemillus Chessed (offering assistance), Matan Beseter (giving of charity in secret), etc.

        There was an interesting and characteristic situation in Stawiski: almost all of the bakers were men of stature: Reb Chuna the gabbai of the large Beis Midrash; Reb Mendel the Baal Shacharis[7].; Reb Yaakov Chatzkel the gabbai of the Chevra Kass; Reb Shalom the shofar blower; Reb Matel the gabbai of the Talmud Torah, Reb Meir Katz the cereal maker, and others. It is worthwhile to make mention of Reb Yosel Shaya (my Rebbi), Reb Moshe Leib, Reb Gadalia Goelman, Reb Akiva – all of whom were Baalei Mussaf[8]., Reb Zawel, and Meizner the water-man – all of whom were expert teachers and outstanding and important people.

        It was not only the elderly and the adults who occupied themselves with Torah. Many of the youth left the city to places of Torah. They studied in the Yeshiva in nearby Lomza, as well as places farther away. They even reached far off Slobodka[9].. During the Yeshiva breaks in the months of Nissan and Tishrei, when the students came home to Stawiski for the festivals[10]., the benches of the large Beis Midrash would be filled with the Yeshiva students, and the sweet hum of Talmud study would fill the hall of the Beis Midrash.

        All of this once was and is now no longer. The Amalekite Nazis[11]. and our Polish neighbors destroyed and murdered everything. Oh would it be that we, the survivors of the sword, should merit to see the fulfillment of the words of the Torah: “Unto Me is vengeance and recompense, at the time that they shall stumble, for the time of their punishment is near, as vengeance shall be visited upon your enemies, and the Land shall atone for the people!”[12]..

Translator's Footnotes:

  1. These three attributes, Torah, (divine) service and good deeds, are mentioned in the chapters of Pirke Avot (the Chapters of the Fathers, a Mishnaic tractate dealing with moral adages) as three pillars upon which the world stands. Return
  2. Three well-known commentators on the Shulchan Aruch. Their commentaries appear on the folios of the work, on the sides and below the main text. Return
  3. A book of excerpts of the homiletic (aggadaic) material of the Talmud. Return
  4. A group of people, who were not at the scholarly level to study the deeper works, who spent their time reciting chapters of Psalms (Tehillim). The meaning here is that, what they lacked in their scholarship, they made up in their piety. Return
  5. A group of people who raised funds to purchase holy books. Kass (an acronym with the letters kuf and samech), stands for Keniat Sefarim – the purchase of books. Return
  6. A quote from the book of Genesis, where G-d tells Adam after the expulsion from the Garden of Eden that he must earn his bread with the sweat of his brow. Return
  7. The leader of the morning services (shacharis) on the High Holy Days. Return
  8. The leaders of the Mussaf (additional) service on the High Holy Days. Return
  9. One of the most illustrious Yeshivas of the time. Slobodka is a suburb of Kovno (now Kaunas) Lithuania. Return
  10. Nissan being the month in which Passover falls, and Tishrei being the month of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. Return
  11. A reference to the biblical tribe of Amalek, the first tribe who attacked the Israelites as they left Egypt, and considered from then on to be the paradigm of anti-Semitism. Return
  12. The final verse of the farewell song of Moses (Haazinu) near the end of the book of Deuteronomy. Return

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