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[Page 286]

Hassidic Biala in Literature

 

Between Two Mountains[1]

by Y. L. Peretz

Translated by Ofra Anson

You must have heard about the Rabbi from Brisk and the Rabbi from Biala. Only few, however, know that the tsaddik from Biala, Rabbi Noah'ke, used to be a devoted student of the Rabbi from Brisk. He studied with him for quite a few years, then he disappeared for several years. After this self–imposed exile, he reappeared in Biala.

He left for the following reason: they studied the Torah, but he felt that it was a dry Torah … They studied, for example, the questions women bring to the rabbis, such as separation of meat and milk, financial laws … Very well! Reuven or Shimon come to settle a dispute according to the religious law, or a servant or a woman come to ask a question – then the learning comes alive, it is related to the lives of people and there is a government in the world. Otherwise, Noah felt that the Torah, that is, the body of the Torah, what is seen from the outside, the shell, the coating, is dry. He felt that it was not the Torah of life! – The Torah has to live. They did not learn Kabala in Brisk. The Rabbi from Brisk was a fanatic “avenger and guard” against it. If anyone touched the Zohar or the Pardes, he used to curse and excommunicate him. Once, he caught somebody with a Kabala book, and he ordered his students to shave off the man's beard like a non–Jew. And what do you think? This poor man lost his mind and became depressed. Moreover, nobody could help him! One does not play around with the Rabbi from Brisk! On the other hand, how could one get away from the Brisk Yeshiva?

He thought about this for a long time.

One night he had a dream. In his dream, the Rabbi from Brisk came to him and said: Get up Noah, I will take you to the lower Garden of Eden[2]. He took him by the hand and led him. They entered a large palace. It had no doors or windows apart from the door through which they entered. Yet, it was full of light. Noah thought that the source of light was the shiny crystal walls.

They went on and on but he could see no end to the palace.

– Hold on to my coat, – said the Rabbi from Brisk – the palace has countless halls, and if you leave me, you will get lost forever…

Noah held on to the Rabbi, and they went on and on. The halls were empty of chairs or any other furniture.

– Nobody sits here – explained the Rabbi from Brisk – you just keep walking and walking. He followed him, each hall was larger and lighter than the previous one, and the walls shining with different colors. Yet they did not meet anybody on their way.

Noah got tired. He was covered with sweat, with cold sweat. He was cold and his eyes were hurting from the permanent shiny light…

Suddenly he felt lonesome. He missed people, he longed for friends, for human beings. But they were all alone in that palace.

– Do not long for anybody – said the Rabbi from Brisk – this palace is just for you and me… One day you too will become the Rabbi from Brisk!

Noah panicked, he held on to a wall in order not fall. The wall burnt his hand, not with fire, but with ice.

– Rabbi – he screamed – the walls are made of ice, not of crystal! Just ice!

The Rabbi from Brisk did not answer.

Rabbi Noah shouted again:

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– Rabbi, take me out of here! I do not want to be alone with you here! I want to be with my people!

After he said that, the Rabbi from Brisk disappeared, and he was alone in the palace.

He did not know the way in or out. The walls imposed cold fear on him. His longing for people, his need to see a human face, be it a shoemaker or a tailor, grew stronger and stronger. He started to cry bitterly.

“God almighty – he begged – take me out of here. I would rather be in hell with other people than be here all alone!”

That moment, a simple Jew arrived, with a red cart–driver belt to his waist and a long whip in his hand. He did not say a word, but took Noah by his sleeve, led him out of the palace, and disappeared. What a dream!

He woke up early in the morning, almost with the first light, and the first thing he wanted to do was to run to the Beth Midrash and solve the dream with his fellow students who spent their night there. Passing through the market, he saw an old carriage, ready to go, a driver standing by its side, a large red belt to his waist, a long whip in his hand, resembling the man who led him out of the palace in his dream.

He was sure it was not a coincidence. He thus approached the driver and asked:

– Where are you going?

– Not your way! – answered the driver quite rudely.

– If you are going – he begged – may I join you?

The driver thought for a while, and then answered:

– Can't you walk? A young man like you cannot walk? Go, on your way!

– And where should I go?

– Your eyes will lead you – answered the driver and turned his back on him – not my business.

Rabi Noah understood, and went into exile. Some years later, he was found in Biala (I am not telling you how he got there, although the story would leave you speechless). I myself arrived in Biala about a year later. Rabbi Yehiel invited me to be a teacher in his home.

I was not sure I wanted to take on this job. You should know that Rabbi Yehiel was extremely rich, unbelievably rich. Each of his daughters had a dowry of a thousand gold coins and his children married into the most distinguished rabbinical families. Indeed, his youngest daughter–in–law was the daughter of the Rabbi from Brisk. You see, if the Rabbi and the other in–laws were Mithnagdim [to the Hassidic movement, O.A.], then Rabbi Yehiel must be one too. I, on the other hand, am a Hassid of the Rabbi from Biala… How can I integrate into such home?

On the other hand, I was attracted to Biala. If I take the job, I will be close to my Rabbi, live in the same town, which is not to be sneezed at! I considered all possibilities, and decided to go.

Rabbi Yehiel himself, I found, was a simple man. I bet his heart was with the Hassidim. He was not a scholar, and when the Rabbi from Brisk was discussing a religious matter, he looked at him as a rooster looks at people. He did not mind that I was a Hassid of the Rabbi from Biala, though he himself was a Mithnaged. When I told the family something I had heard from my Rabbi, he supposedly yawned, but I could see that his ears opened. His son, the son–in–law of the Rabbi from Brisk, on the other hand, wrinkled his forehead, looked at me with a mixture of anger and humor, but never argued with me. In general, he did not speak much.

One day, it was time for Rabbi Yehiel's daughter in law, the daughter of the Rabbi from Brisk, to have a child. All women are at risk when giving birth, but she was in greater risk than most. Her father, you remember, had ordered to shave the beard of a student who held a book he did not approve of. The tsaddikim punished him – he had no male descendants: his two sons died within 5–6 years and his three daughters had only girls. Moreover, his daughters had difficult deliveries, and almost died at each birth. Everybody knew that this was the result of the curse of the tsaddikim. He himself, however, with his bright eyes, failed to see it. Alternatively, it was possible that he refused to see it. He continued to hold on to his objections – with excommunications and violence.

I was very sorry for his daughter Gitl. First, she was a human being. Second, she was a kosher Jewish soul. She was the purest person in the world.

She made sure that all poor brides would have a proper wedding, such a delicate creature! Yet, she was going to die because of her father's intolerance! I started using all I had to convince the family to send to the Rabbi from Biala some redemption or at least a pleading note.

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With whom should I talk?

I tried to talk with the son in law of the Rabbi from Brisk. I knew he loved his wife dearly, they did not hide their feelings. One could see their love in their movements and their facial expressions. Yet, he was the son in law of the Rabbi from Brisk! He spat, kept walking, and left me standing with my mouth open.

I went to Rabbi Yehiel himself, but he said: she is the daughter of the Rabbi from Brisk; I cannot do anything against his will, even if my life depended on it. I tried with his wife – a decent woman, but very simple – who answered me: if my husband orders me, I will send the Rabbi from Biala my best festive coif and expensive earrings. Without my husband's agreement – I send nothing. Not a penny.

– And a note? What harm could a small letter cause?

– Nothing behind my husband's back! – Tell me yourself how should a good wife behave, and leave me alone. She walked away hiding her tears. Her mother's heart already sensed the risk…

I ran myself to the Rabbi from Biala as I heard the first scream.

– What can I Do? – Asked my Rabbi – I will pray for her!

– Rabbi, give me something for the poor woman. A note, a coin, a small cameo, whatever…

– Heaven forbid, said the Rabbi, it can make things worse. All these work only for those who believe in them. These people have no faith…

What could I do? It was the first day of Succoth, she was having a difficult delivery, and I could help her. I decided to stay with the Rabbi from Biala and every now and then, I looked at him, begging, hoping he would change his mind.

The severity of the situation was clear, three days in labor! They did what they could: women cried in the synagogue, graves were measured in the cemetery, thousands of candles were lit in the synagogue and the Beith Midrashim, charity was donated… All cupboards in Rabbi Yehiel's home were open to the public, a mountain of coins were put on the table for the poor to come and take what they wanted and however much they wanted.

My heart broke.

– Rabbi, I said, it is written: “Charity protects from death”.

He answered: The Rabbi from Brisk may come.

That moment Rabbi Yehiel came in! He ignored the Rabbi, grabbed me by the collar, and said:

– A carriage it waiting outside, go and bring the Rabbi from Brisk… He should see with his own eyes what is going on….

I could see that Yehiel understood the situation. He looked so bad, the dead looked better then him…

I drove and thought to myself that if the Rabbi from Brisk came, something should come out of it. We should try to make some sort of peace, not between the Rabbi from Biala and the Rabbi from Brisk, they had no dispute, but between both sides, the Hassidim and the Mithnogdim… When he comes, he will see with his own eyes…

Yet, heaven was against me. As I left Biala a terrible storm started. The sky darkened, a horrible wind blew, and it seemed to come from all directions at the same time. This is when Christians cross themselves and say that it is going to be a difficult ride. The driver showed me the sky with his whip… The wind grew stronger and tore the clouds as if they were made of paper, the clouds were blown one after the other and some became like towers of ice in a river. I felt three and four floors of clouds over my head. At the beginning, I was not even worried. I am not afraid of getting wet, and thunderstorms do not disturb me. The driver begged me to go back to Biala, but I was determined to get the Rabbi from Brisk.

I knew I was taking a risk, but I heard cries of a woman giving birth in the wind, I heard the knuckles of the Rabbi's son in law cracking in the falling rain; I saw Rabbi Yehiel's face getting darker, his burning eyes losing their vitality. Go, go, I said, and we kept going.

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It was pouring. We were hit by the rain from above and the horses' shoes splashed us from underneath. The road was covered in rainwater, we were almost swimming. We lost our way, but held on.

I arrived with the Rabbi from Brisk on the day of Hosanna Raba. The truth is that the storm stopped as he got into the cart. The clouds broke off, and the sun came through the dark sky. We entered Biala dry and calm. Even the driver said in his own language – a Rabbi is a Rabbi.

We went in. The women fell on him like locusts, crying bitterly. I could not hear the woman in labor from the other room, either because of the noise made by the crying women, or because she was too weak to groan. Rabbi Yehiel did not even see us, he stood with his forehead in the window's glass. He must have had a headache.

The Rabbi's son in law too did not turn to greet us. He faced the wall, and I could see he was trembling and his head hitting the wall.

I could not stand it. I felt that the sorrow and the fear surrounding me, getting closer and closer. I was getting cold, body and soul.

The Rabbi from Brisk was a strong, tall man. He was charismatic, full of authority, like a king. He had a long white beard, divided in two, one end tucked in his belt, the other rested on it.

His thick, white eyebrows covered half of his face. When he raised his eyebrows and one could see his eyes, the women almost fainted. He shouted like a lion: enough women

Then, in a soft voice, he asked:

– Where is my daughter?

He went in, and I stayed, thinking to myself: he is so different from the Rabbi from Biala! He raises fear with his eyes, eyebrows, and his voice. The Rabbi of Biala on the other hand looked at you with warm, good eyes, in such a calm way, straight to the heart; his look is soft, and his voice is extremely sweet, it wraps the heart, lightly and calmly caresses it… He does not raise fear but induces love. One's heart goes after him, and the soul wants to merge with his… Like a summer bird flying to heaven… and here – horror and fear! He went into the room to his daughter who was in labor!

I feared for her. I ran to the Rabbi from Biala. He greeted me immediately at his door with a smile.

– Did you see the honor of the Torah? – He asked – the pure honor of the Torah.

I calmed myself down, seeing his good smile.

* * *

Indeed, everything went fine. A baby boy was born on Shmini Atzereth, on Simhath Torah the Rabbi from Brisk discussed Torah issues at the dinner table. The truth was that I wanted it differently, I wanted a happy, lively, celebration like the one they have with the Rabbi from Biala. I was afraid to say anything, because I was the tenth in the Minyan, and we were going to do the blessings.

What can I tell you? If the Torah is an ocean, the Rabbi from Brisk is the whale in that sea. With one movement, he swims through ten Masachoth. With another he swims through Shas and Poskim. He splashes, boils, raises waves – as if he was the sea itself. My head was spinning, but I was still not satisfied. I felt that I did not experience the real joy of the holiday. I was daydreaming, but the noise at the table brought me back. I saw that everybody was sweating, but I was cold as ice. I knew that at the Rabbi from Biala was a warm, there was light, they discuss a different Torah… Each word is uttered with love and devotion… Angels fly in the house, their white, large wings are heard and felt. I wished I was there, but could not leave.

Suddenly, the Rabbi from Brisk asked:

– What kind of rabbi do you have here?

– One by the name of Noah – someone answered.

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”One by the name of Noah”! My heart broke. Flattery! Flattery!

– Does he have supper–natural power? – He kept asking.

– Few, we are not interested… The women tell us sometimes…

– He takes money for that…

Why did they tell the truth? That he took little money but handed out a lot of charity.

The Rabbi from Brisk thought for a while and asked:

– Can he study?

– They say that he is a very prominent scholar.

– Where is he from?

Nobody knew, and I had to answer. A small conversation started between him and me.

– Noah, did he leave in Brisk in the past? He asked me.

– If the Rabbi was in Brisk? I think he was.

– Ah, you are one of his Hassidim! I felt he looked at me as if I was a spider.

He turned around to face the others, and said:

– I once had a student named Noah…He was quite smart, but the other side appealed to him. I warned him once, twice, and I wanted to warn him the third time, but he disappeared. Could this be the same Noah?

– Who knows?

He started to describe him: thin, short, black beard, black curled sideburns, and soft, thoughtful, vice.

– It is very possible that this is the same Noah. Said the people.

We started with the blessings. When we had finished, the unbelievable happened. The Rabbi from Brisk got up, called me to a corner, and whispered, Take me to your Rabbi, my former student. Make sure nobody knows!

I did as he wished. In the middle of the way, however, I startled:

– Rabbi, what is the purpose of your visit? I asked.

He answered simply:

– During the blessing, I was thinking that actually I judged him without hearing his side… I want to see with my own eyes. May be – he added – with God's help, I will rescue one of my former students.

– You know – he added jokingly – if your Rabbi is the same Noah that studied with me, he can be one the biggest scholars, even become the Rabbi from Brisk one day!

I was afraid.

* * *

And the two mountains met. I wonder how I survived it.

On Simhath Torah, the Rabbi from Biala used to send his Hassidim to take a walk in town. He himself sat his porch, to watch them and enjoy.

Biala was not as big as it is now. It was a small town. The houses were small and low, except for the synagogue and the learning house of the Rabbi. From his porch, however, the Rabbi could see the whole town lying beneath him, with the mountains in the east and the river on the west…

He sat and looked, and saw a few Hassidim walking quietly. He started to sing a tune, they heard him, and went on their way singing. Groups were passing by; they went out of town, all singing. Singing with devotion, a real Simhath Torah… The Rabbi himself did not leave the porch.

Suddenly, the Rabbi heard different footsteps. He got up, and saw the Rabbi from Brisk

– Welcome Rabbi! – He said modestly with his sweet voice.

– Thank you Noah! – answered the Rabbi from Brisk.

– Come in Rabbi, have a seat!

The Rabbi from Brisk sat, and the Rabbi from Biala stood in front of him.

– Tell me Noah! – Said the Rabbi from Brisk lifting his eyebrows – why did you run away from my Yeshiva? What did you miss there?

– I was missing some air to breathe, Rabbi – Noah answered. I felt I was suffocating. I could not catch my breath.

– How come? What are you telling me Noah?

– It was not me, my soul needed more air, more space – explained Noah softly.

– Why Noah?

– Your Torah, Rabbi, is pure law! It has no mercy in it! No grace! Moreover, it has no joy, not enough free space… It is made of iron and copper, it has iron laws… It is elaborated, deep, but only for a talented minority!…

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The Rabbi from Brisk said nothing, and the Rabbi from Biala continued: Tell me, what do you have to offer to the people who cannot study? For the lumberjack, for the butcher, for the worker, for the simple people? Especially, what do you have for those who have sinned? For the non–scholars?

The Rabbi from Brisk kept quiet, as if he did not understand anything that been said. The Rabbi from Biala went on with his sweet voice:

– Excuse me Rabbi, but I have to tell you the truth… Your Torah was hard, hard and dry, because you are the body of the Torah, not its soul.

– The soul? – asked the Rabbi from Brisk, scratching his forehead.

– Of course! Your Torah, Rabbi, is only for the scholarly minority. Yet, the Torah should be for everybody! The Shechina should rest on us all!

– And your Torah, Noah?

– Do you want to see, Rabbi?

– To see? Torah?

– Come, Rabbi, I will show you. I will show you the joy, the joy that shines from every Jew.

The Rabbi from Brisk did not move.

– Please Rabbi, come with me. It is not far.

He took him by the sleeve, and I followed them quietly.

– You can follow us – He told me – You, too, will see today. The Rabbi from Brisk and yourself will see a real Simhath Torah.

I saw the same Simhath Torah I saw the previous years, but I saw it in a different way. Through a veil.

A large, wide sky – almost to infinity, and blue, so blue it was a pleasure to the eyes. In the sky, the light was white, nearly silver, clouds flew across, and one could see how they danced with the people, in honor of the Torah. The town underneath put on a green dress, a dark, lively, green, and it seemed that the greenery was dancing, hugging, and kissing.

Groups of Hassidim walked around in the green. Their coats, those made of silk and those made of cotton, shone like mirrors. The hems of the festive clothes brushed against the dancing green, making a joyful holiday. All the Hassidim looked up to the Rabbi's porch with thirsty eyes, absorbing inspiration from the Rabbi's shining face, and sang higher and higher, brighter and brighter, sacred tunes…

Each group sang its own tune. In the open air, however, the tunes mixed, and the Rabbi on his porch heard one, rich, melody. The sky sang, the wheels sang, the earth sang. The entire world sang.

God almighty, I thought, this is so sweet, I am going to melt.

Suddenly, the Rabbi from Brisk said sharply – It is time to pray Minhah! – And everything disappeared.

Silence. I felt I fell from heaven, and I saw what I have seen every year. A simple sky above, simple grass underneath. Hassidim walked around in poor, torn, clothes that have seen better days… The tunes were broken, unrelated pieces… I looked at my Rabbi – and his face was dark.

* * *

They parted, remaining opponents as before. The Rabbi from Brisk went home, and did not change his attitude.

Yet, the meeting had some effect after all. The Rabbi from Brisk stopped chasing after the Rabbi from Biala.

Translator's footnotes

  1. The two mountains are the Rabbi from Brisk and the Rabi from Biala. O.A. Return
  2. According to Jewish tradition, there are two gardens of Eden: a lower and a higher. The lower is an earthly paradise with luxurious vegetation, to be enjoyed by the spirits of those who followed all the religious laws; the higher, the celestial, is where the immortal souls of the righteous who learned Torah rest. O.A. Return


[Page 292]

The Silent Man From Wurk

by Y. Opatoshu New York

Translated by Ofra Anson

This is the last story Opatoshu (Yosef Opatovski) published in “The Daily Morning Journal” a few days before he died.

The Jews of Wurk could not remember such a cold month of Shvat as there was in 1859. It was so cold, that the water in the houses froze. On Shvat 15, when they went to pray in the synagogue, frozen birds were glued to the fences.

Late in the afternoon, a Minyan Hassidim went to the prayer house of Mendele, the Rabbi from Wurk. Some sat there and learned, others stood and exchanged stories about the former Rabbi from Wurk, the late Rabbi Yitzhak. The young janitor prepared the Rabbi's table, which was covered with a white table cloth. He put on the table dates, carobs, figs, and wine.

By the wide opening under the tiled roof, stood an old, gray, Aba, who had also served the former Rabbi of Wurk. Although he hardly knew the prayers, he learnt the janitor's work from Rabbi Yitzhak. Rabbi Mendele from Kock once asked Rabbi Yitzhak: “Why did you take on such an ignorant janitor?” Rabbi Yitzhak from Wurk answered: “If I had taken on a scholar, he would have become ignorant over time. So it is better to take an ignorant person who will at least learn scholarly expressions”.

Old Aba brought in some wood, to warm the prayer house for Shvat 15 dinner. He said in a hearty voice:

“– – – Do not pray, do not study, but do not upset God”.

Here and there, a Hassid who was in the middle of learning, or a Hassid who was praying, caught the tune and joined in quietly:

– “Do not upset the Father in heaven”.

Just then, a carriage stopped at the Rabbi's yard, and Rabbi Berish from Biala stepped out. Berish was a great scholar, and one of the most important Wurk Hassidim. Berish himself already had few Hassidim. He belonged to both the Wurker and the Kock Hassidim. Because of the frost, he entered the Beith Hamidrsh half dead. Old Aba greeted him with a bottle of spirits:

– It is like a fire outside, right?

– Really dangerous, – said Berish and cleaned drops of ice from his beard and sideburns. He took a second glass of spirit and said to Aba: – Tell the Rabbi that I need to see him right away.

The Hassidim, who considered Berish some sort of a Rabbi, surrounded him, and with a lot of respect asked him what was the matter.

– We need to pray for Rabbi Medele from Kock who is lying on his death–bed.

– Wai, wai – – –

The janitor returned, taking small quick steps, and called Berish to the Rabbi.

Berish went to the sink and washed his hands for a long time. He put the towel old Aba gave him across his eyes.

”The Wurker's courtyard is like home, it smells like mother and father, like old cherry wine. Kock, on the other hand, is always in a rush, restless, fearful.

Rabbi Berish traveled between the two courtyards. How can he bring some Kock to Wurk? Rabbi Yitzhak from Wurk had two sons. The first, Jacob David, was a big scholar, and devoted a lot of his time to study. The younger, Menachem Mendel, did not study, he liked horses, he got friendly with cart drivers, and the Hassidim of Wurk did not approve of his behavior. Rabbi Yitzhak, however, liked him. After Mendele got married, he surrounded himself with the smartest and finest young men, a sort of a “guard” that he headed.

With this “guard, he walked in the in the fields and the forest, ate all his meals, and kept all their activity a secret. The people used to murmur, “What are they doing there? What are their big secrets?” Even Berish from Biala, who at that point was already very close to Rabbi Ytzhak from Wurk, could not stop whispering: “Why doesn't Mendel study? Why does he waste his days and nights?”

Came Shavuot. After the festive meal, the Hassidim came to Beith Hamidrsh for Tikkun Hatzot (”Midnight Rectification”, O.A.) and when they started to study, it was almost dawn. Berish from Biala saw Mendele and his gang entering the market and followed them. They went into a wine cellar, and he went after them. They put on their Tallit, prayed the Morning Prayers and sat down to drink some wine. Berish saw all this from his hiding place.

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After they had each had two glasses of wine, Mendel said to his “guard”:

– Do you know what a Jew should do? A Jew has to do three things: Scream silently, dance in a standing position, and when he begs on his knees, do it proudly. When he had finished all his gang bowed their heads, put it on the table and cried. Rabbi Berish from Biala was sure that these smart youngsters filled their glasses with their tears.

This is what young Mendel brought from Kock to Wurk.

That Shavuot, Rabbi Berish from Biala became a Hassid of Mendel, and remained his Hassid until Mendel passed away.

When Rabbi Berish came to the chamber of the Rabbi from Wurk, the Rabbi came forward to greet him. The Rabbi was forty years old, Berish was seventy–three. The Rabbi had dark eyes, a black beard and sideburns and pale skin. He looked like his own father, whom the children used to call “Black Yitzhak”. Rabbi Berish from Biala had blue eyes, a light blond beard and sideburns, and transparent skin. The room seemed to light up when he came in.

They greeted each other, and looked in each other's eyes, which were full of tears as if both understood simultaneously that the days of the Rabbi from Kock were numbered. The Rabbi's eyes asked:

– Rabbi Itche Meir is in Kock?

– It has been two weeks now.

The Rabbi closed his eyes.

– When did it happen? Yesterday? The day before? He did not want to become a Rabbi after his father's death. People think he is a Tsaddik, one who fears God and never talks. The Rabbi frowned and said:

– Did you come to tell me that the Hassidim want to make you their new Rabbi? Remember, we are accountable for every Hassid that comes to us; also remember that when a Tsaddik carries out God's will, people hearts are attracted to him.

The Rabbi held the hand of Berish from Biala in his, and kept silent.

And Berish from Biala? He was in Kock. A week after Shavuot Rabbi Mendel from Wurk held a speech. The Rabbi from Kock asked him:

– Are you coming from Wurk? Was there an audience?

– About three thousand Hassidim.

– Did Mendel from Wurk greet each one of them personally?

– He did, each one.

Well, this is the best sign that this silent man must be a Rabbi. Only a Rabbi can shake hands with three thousand people and not become a leper…

The Rabbi from Wurk left Berish's hand, and lifted his two hands:

– Do you hear me Berish? Let us scream silently.

They sat together in silence, knowing that they serve God with their thoughts and that a Hassid should behave exceptionally: If the law says you must never hurt your friend, the exception is that you must never hurt yourself.

They sat without talking. They prayed Mincho, they prayed Ma'ariv, they moaned the death of the Rabbi of Kock, but did not utter a word. Then Rabbi Mendel from Wurk raised a question: “What is One?” Berish did not answer immediately, and the Rabbi closed his eyes and said: “One is the one and only!” and he was silent again, such silence that one could hear and touch it. They set like that for hours and hours. Suddenly, the two Tsaddikim stopped the silence together, as if they had coordinated it ahead of time, and said:

– We need to study a lesson for Shvat 15. We must have a lesson, according to what Rabbi Mendele fron Kock used to say: “He who learns Torah will be rewarded in this world and in the other world”.

Berish went to the door. He became angry with the group of Hassidim who stood there doing nothing. The Hassidim received Berish with open hands and enlarged eyes:

Reb Berish, we were waiting for you, and did not hear anything.

– It is impossible! – Berish lifted his hand – We had a meal, he taught me a very difficult lesson, and he did not leave me until I answered all his questions. Did you not hear any of that? Actually, you are right; the whole conversation between us was only in our thoughts…

The Hassidim sat around the table, and Berish from Biala started the lesson of Shvat 15.


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Poland

by Y. Y. Trunk

Translated by Ofra Anson

 

Chapter 35
The kingdom of Biala. Rabbinic Marquise. All are crown princesses.
The dynasty of Biala holds the golden key to prosperity. Silk and velvet.

I have already written about the love story, a Romeo and Julia kind of love story, between two rich families in Lodz. The current love story, between two rabbinic courts, took place in 1905–6. It pictures the atmosphere of that time.

The rabbinic court in Biala did not have many Hassidim. Yet, its genealogy, “yihuss”, was one of the best in Poland. Their blood relations could be found in almost all important rabbinical dynasties in Poland and in Wolin. If I were to count the ancestors of the court of Biala, I would have to write the full history of the Hassidic movement. It is enough to note that the Biala court stemmed from “The Holy Jew from Peshischa”, a very important yihuss for Hassidim, and this is only the beginning. Hassidim from Wolin will tell you about their rabbinic dynasty, and how it is blood–related to the Biala court.

Although Biala did not have many Hassidim, it was managed like an empire. The life style was aristocratic, like the courts of Radzyn and Sadagora. The Hassidim used to say that, for the needs of the Rabbi's court, God puts in a hundred Zloty bill each time a purse opened. This must have been true, money came in buckets from the Hassidim. Biala had its share of poor, and there were quite a few beggars, supported by the Biala court. The rich did not want to live in Biala, where lazy beggars were always dependent on the Rabbi to provide them with food.

The Rebbetzn, the first lady of the Biala court, the grandmother of the hero of our story, was treated in Poland as a Marquise. It would take an hour to describe her yihuss. Moreover, she was beautiful, the only refined daughter in a court of the important rabbinic dynasty of Wolin. She was of a good disposition, but held that she has the right to her own place in the world. She was not the only one to think that. Since she was a baby, the people around her had kept pointing this out. The Hassidim, men and women, talked about the yihuss of her ancestors. She understood very well that either because of her rabbinic blood, or because of her beauty (an orthodox woman may also look at the mirror), she needs to go to Warsaw to have her dresses sewn. Moreover, she needs to hire the same seamstresses as the most rich and ancient Polish aristocracy. Biala's Hassidim understood that this is how it should be, and that their Rebbetzn deserves it by God's will. They opened their wallets and spread the court with gold. She was known to be one of the prettiest and most elegant women in Poland not only among the Jews, but among the Polish aristocracy as well.

As I have already said, the court in Biala conducted an aristocratic life style. Nevertheless, although there was a son in the court, he was not the only crown prince; all the sons in the court were crown princes. Each of them had a group of people around him, who looked at “their” crown prince as the one who will inherit the court when the Rabbi reaches 120 years. Meanwhile, they kept their wallets open, to have first access to the abundance that will flow when “their” crown prince becomes the Rabbi. Naturally, there were also beggars who prepared themselves for an idle life by the new Rabbi's table. Each son in The Biala court felt and behaved like the future Rabbi, each daughter in law felt and behaved like a Rebbetzn.

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The Rabbi, the crown princes, and the Hassidim were sure that the Biala court would stand solid until the Messiah comes. Even when the Messiah's shofar will be heard, and all will have to leave Poland and move to Jerusalem, the Biala court will not cease to exist. Meanwhile, the princes who will run the Biala court in the future had to prepare themselves. They began their training in the cradle. When they went to the Heder some of them had a private server that would not move from their side. Nothing but silk and velvet was good enough for the gentle body of a grandson of the Biala court.

 

Chapter 36

Biala's elderly look at the baby in the cradle. A bride is brought from Sochatchov.
The bride is a member of Poalei Zion (a Socialist–Zionist movement, O.A.).
The Russian Czar gains priority over nice dresses. Is this wedding possible?

Joshua'le – the hero of our story – was one of the princes in the Biala court. He was the eldest son of the Biala Rabbi's first–born son. This meant that he was the first in line to the crown. Since he was born, the Hassidim sought after him. They struggled to peep in the pram to see him and could not wait for him to grow up. They started calling his name and his mother's name asking for prosperity. As I have already said, the Biala Hassidim were sure that God put the golden key to prosperity in the hands of the Biala dynasty.

When Joshua'le started walking, he was dressed only in silk and velvet. He carried a golden yarmulke on his little head as if it was a crown. He had a special caretaker who did not leave him for a moment, followed his step, searched his mouth, and served him. Naturally, the caretaker was handsomely paid.

He grew up to be a fine young man, and reached the age of marriage. He was thin and gentle, pale, with two beautiful innocent eyes. His long, curled, sideburns, and his silk and velvet clothes, made him look like a real rabbinic prince. His pale, gentle face was covered with the respect of generations of important Rabbis. The Hassidim were sure that the Biala dynasty was about to begin a new stage.

The search for a bride began, and matchmakers brought a bride from the Sotchachov court. It was agreed that Biala had enough rabbinic yihuss, and the blood of a genius in the Torah should be added to the family.

Rabbi Avreimale from Sotchachov was still alive then. At that time, Sotchachov was the Torah center, not only in Poland but also all over the world.

The bride was the granddaughter of Rabbi Avreimale, daughter of Rabbi Shmuel, the famous, only, son of Rabbi Avreimale. Shmuel sometimes replaced Rabbi Avreimale. I have already written a lot about him in the first chapters of this book. In Sotchachov, outstanding scholarship was not sufficiently appreciated. Money did not flow into the court as in other Hassidic courts. When the Rabbi's wife, the Rebbetzn Tzine, a daughter of the Rabbi from Kock, heard that in Biala the Rebbetzns are dressed like Polish nobility, she did not want even to consider a possible match.

She was a descendant of The Holy Jew from Peshischa, who was admired in the Kock court. They also admired Rabbi Avreimale, his daughter the Rebbetzn Tzine, and, needless to say, the Rabbi's son Shmuel. Thus, marriage with a granddaughter of the Holy Jew from Peshischa was so important, that they were willing to disregard the fact that the Sochachow court did not like the way they read the Gomorra in Kock.

All this happened around 1905, the time of the great revolution. A revolution in Jewish life also took place in those years. Everything changed. Yihuss, rabbinic courts, did not matter as much anymore. The workers' movement penetrated to the court of Rabbi Avreimale. Dobrish, Shmuel's daughter, who was supposed to be the bride of the delicate grandson of the Biala court, inherited the extremist tendencies of the Kock court and of her grandmother Tzine. She was strongly influenced by Poalei Zion.

[Page 296]

Because of her strong character, she could not compromise. She brought her socialist ideas home, to Rabbi Shmuel's doorstep. The Sochachow court was known for its scholarly merits and Rabbi Avreimale as an expert in the laws of the Sabbath. His book, Eglei Tal (drops of dew, O.A.), which discussed the 39 tasks forbidden on Saturday, was a masterpiece. His granddaughter, however, was an atheist. She challenged her family, for example, by writing at home on Saturday.

We do not know how Dobrish got under the influence of Poalei Zion. We do know, however, that Poland was shocked to see how deeply atheism had penetrated into the Jewish community. They had to make sure that Dobrish would not make any scandal. Her father, Rabbi Shmuel, was a strong man who did not let any question go unresolved. Now he had hide what was going on in court, the great Torah center. The other rabbinic courts seemed to have avoided the revolution.

The common attitude in the Sochachow court was that when Dobrish will get married, she would have other things to worry about than fighting with Poalei Zion against the Russian Czar and against the old Jewish life. The beautiful clothes will overcome politics.

Dobrish was my age. Matchmakers suggested her as a possible bride for me, among other brides who lived all over Poland. My grandfather Baruch liked the idea of intermarriage with the Sochachow court. He thought that a rich family does not need the prestige of other rich families, but the respect of the Torah. His only daughter married into the family of Joshua'le Kotner. For his only grandson he wanted a bride from the court of Rabbi Avreimale of Sotchachov.

Rabbi Shmuel knew that choosing a groom for Dobrish without asking her opinion was a waste of time. He asked her if she would marry me. She answered with Kock wit:

– Thank you, but I do not need a son of a rich family.

It was clear that there was no point in asking her again. Meanwhile, different people told Rabbi Shmuel that Dobrish was attending illegal gatherings of Poalei Zion in Sotchachov. He decided to go along with the groom from the Biala court, without discussing it with Dobrish. He was sure that once she was married and moved from Sotchachov to Biala, the crazy socialist ideas would evaporate.

Now, all the fancy dresses of the women in the Biala court became an asset, rather than disadvantage. Rabbi Shmuel thought that the beautiful clothes would take Dobrish's mind off Poalei Zion and the Russian Czar.

The Biala court had no idea what a terrible bride was coming from Sotchachov. The matchmakers knew how to hide and keep secrets, the distance between Sotchachov and Biala prevented gossip mongers from spreading the word.

Nobody asked Dobrish, and the Thnoim (the marriage contract, O.A.) were signed. The Biala court showed its aristocratic affluence. The Rebbetzn Tzine, the daughter of the Rabbi from Kock, had one look at the silk and velvet dresses of the women of the Biala court, their pearls and diamonds, turned her back and murmured sharp words of disapproval. Under normal circumstances, she would have stated her opinion loud and clear. Yet, she had to pay her respect to the descendants of the Holy Jew, and not to spoil Dobrish's wedding.

The groom, Jushua'le, was more quiet and gentle than his relatives. With his long sideburns, his silk and velvet clothes, he really looked like a prince. Rabbi Avreimale himself, though he was more interested in the scholarly prestige of the Baila court, looked at him and told Rabbi Shmuel:

– He looks like a grandson of the Holy Jew.

Dobrish looked at the event as a comedy. She laughed with her friends from Poalei Zion and said: Let them play! I am not going to marry such a bourgeois rabbinic bloodsucker anyway.

[Page 297]

Chapter 37

Only God knows one's heart. The Bund secret.
Those who seek, find. Poland is shocked
and the Sotchachov court sends back the marriage contract.
Dobrish's letter to the groom. The dialectic of the revolution discontinues.

Only God knows what is in one's heart. Nobody can see the worm which lives inside the most beautiful apple. A period of unrest came along. When legends take the front of the stage – the logic of all traditions is quiet.

Who could imagine that pale Joshua'le, the prince dressed in silk and velvet, who had his own servant and all the Hassidim wanted to work for him, would join the “Bund” in Biala? Who could believe that when he asked his servant to leave him alone and close the door, when the Hassidim were sure that he was studying the mystic writings, he was actually reading the books of Karl Marx?

In court he behaved in the usual rabbinic way. He kept his long sideburns, the clothes, the servant and the Hassidim followed him, a great show. At the same time, he belonged to the “Bund”.

The reason was the following:

A Russian troop has been stationed in Biala. The soldiers were mainly Cossacks and Circassians. The “Bund” was active among them, trying to make them join the revolution, and had managed to organize several revolutionary cells. This activity was extremely dangerous. They figured that the rabbinic court was the best and safest hiding place for their written materials. Moreover, they had their own man in the Biala court, Joshua'le. They ordered him, therefor, not to change his rabbinic behavior.

Joshua'le obeyed the party's orders, and never came to their meetings. Only three–four members knew that he belonged to the organization. It did not cross the minds of the gendarme and the secret services that the center of Biala's revolutionary militant organization was in the rabbinic court.

Everything went well for quite a while.

However, there was one provocateur, who looked and searched until he found a lead. He showed the Russian gendarme where to look for the propaganda center of the revolutionary militant organization. The gendarme could not believe his eyes and said to the provocateur:

– You must be crazy! Alternatively, the “Bund” wants you in jail.

The provocateur insisted he was right, and the gendarme had no choice but to enter the rabbinic court and search for the terrible enemy of the Czar.

They gently knocked on the rabbinic closed doors.

All the Rebbetzns and the servants grew pale, and could not understand what the matter was. They spoke calmly and politely to assure the gendarme that there must have been some misunderstanding. Some of their rivals probably dropped a word in Petersburg to get them into trouble, and the government issued an order to search the rabbinic court. The truth will come out soon, and the mistake or the lies revealed.

The Rebbetzns indeed calmed themselves down. They did not inform the Rabbi, who was praying in his special room, because they did not want to disturb him.

The gendarmes started the search, and they knew how to do it. They went to Joshua's chamber, and soon found what they were looking for.

The gendarmes themselves could not believe their eyes when they found the stamps of the revolutionary military organization,

[Page 298]

and a package of propaganda pamphlets to be distributed among the Cossack and Circassian soldiers.

One cannot imagine what happened in The Biala court. The Rabbi had to be disturbed in the middle of praying, to be told the horrible news.

The shaken gendarmes remained polite to the flabbergasted Rebbetzns. They were also polite to Joshua'le, but took him with them. The case was so important, that they were afraid to hold him in the Biala prison and transferred him to Warsaw under heavy guard.

* * *

The news fell on the Hassidim of Poland like a thunder on a clear day. If revolutionary activity had been found in the Biala court, this must be the end of the world. The Jewish way of life was under attack, nobody could trust his own children anymore.

In Sochachow they thought: not only Dobrish's engagement to Joshua'le did not make her leave Poalei Zion, but also the grandson of the Holy Jew himself was involved in revolutionary activity. Rumor was that the young, pale, well–dressed young man with long sideburns would be sent to Siberia for the rest of his life. They did not think of respect or prestige, and immediately sent the marriage contract back to Biala. The engagement was over!

The Biala Hassidim knew that they have to open their wallets wide to pay for the Mitzvah of prisoners' redemption; they also knew that they would be rembraced from heaven. They had to act quickly, and not to save a thousand or even ten thousand. God and the Holy Fathers will multiply each sum spent ten or hundred times. Indeed, money started pouring in. They started with the Biala gendarme, bribing left right and center. In no time, the Biala gendarme obeyed the Biala Hassidim. They destroyed the documents that could be used against Joshua'le. The agents who searched his chamber swore by the name of all the saints that they did not find anything and was all a big mistake. Then they went to Warsaw, and the delegate of the Czar could not resist the bribery.

Sure enough, Dobrish heard about Joshua'le heroic revolutionary activity.

The engagement was over. Dobrish sat down to write a letter to her former groom, the pale orthodox man, whom she would rather die than marry. Actually, she wrote, our parents arranged our engagement without asking us, and broke the engagement without asking us. This does not matter now. If you want me, I am willing to marry you.

Joshua'le, who heard about her revolutionary activity, answered: Yes, I would like to.

They met in Warsaw a few times. Although she was from Poalei Zion and he was from the “Bund” (both socialists, but the Bund was not Zionist O.A.), they fell for each other.

In both rabbinic courts, that of Biala and that of Sochachow, matchmakers continued to bring possible matches. This time, Dobrish used the sharp tongue she inherited from her grandmother Tzina, and told her father, Shmuel:

– I give you three weeks to revive the engagement with The Biala court, or I will live with him without getting married.

Rabb Shmuel was shattered. He knew his daughter, and knew that she was sincere.

[Page 299]

Careful, diplomatic, negotiations started between Biala and Sochachow. The marriage contract was restored, but the wedding was modest and quiet, in Warsaw, not as originally planned in Biala. Bells did not ring, only close relatives knew the exact date. Under other circumstances, this wedding would have been a major event in the Hassidic world.

*

Joshua Rabinowitz (the name of the Holy Jew from Peshischa) lived first in Lodz, and later in Warsaw. We were good friends. He used to come with Dobrish to my place, and I used to visit him with my wife Hanna.

Joshua was an example of a person who managed to combine “Bundist” thought with deep Jewish socialism. There was no contradiction between the tradition represented by the Holy Jew and the “Bund”. Both stem from the same Jewish historical thought: the dialectic of the revolution and beyond.

Joshua remained an orthodox Marxist. He saw in me a metaphysicist and idealist. We had many arguments, but we both were good “Bundists”.

He was in the Warsaw Ghetto during WWII, in the “Bund” underground organization, until the Germans sent him to his death. Dobrish had been shot by the Germans while walking on the street with her youngest daughter, whom she named Tzina after her grandmother. The Germans used to shoot the child in front of the parent, and then shoot the adult. One can imagine that Dobrish was happy to leave this world.


Biala's “Yard”[1]

by A. Litwin

Translated by Ofra Anson

None of the Hassidic courts in Poland was as glorious and magnificent as the Biala Court. Neither the Gere nor the Turzysk courts succeeded in setting up a “table”[2] like the Biala court had. Biala's Rabbi, Yitzhak Jacob, had a top rabbinic yihuss. He was the grandson of the Holy Jew from Peshischa, and a great–grandson of the best disciples of the Baal Shem Tov.

His nickname was “the cripple”. Naturally, only the “Mithnogdim” dared to call him by that name, not the Hassidim, although it was true. He had a limp.

He was very talented, and very smart. He knew how to handle his Hassidim, men and women worshiped him. A poor woman, who always paid redemption for her only son (that is, she donated to the court for the safety of her son, O.A.), used to complain only of one thing: why was she not born a man? If she was a man, she could have stood close to the Rabbi.

I would like to present some more evidence of the uniqueness of the Biala Rabbi. Usually, only a few Hassidim lived with their Rabbi in the same town. Living in the same location meant that they knew the Rabbi and his family inside out, and lost respect for him. The opposite happened in Biala. The most important and the most devoted Hassidim lived in Biala.

This was possible only because the Rabbi knew how to run a “kingdom”. During the High Holidays, he assured that his Hassidim would be in awe. Dressed in white, surrounded by seven Shofar, he alone read the whole book during the service. By the table, discussing the Torah, he did not speak clearly, and the warden explained to the others what their Rabbi meant. No rabbi could so artistically make believe he had risen to heaven for a long time, and had suddenly remembered to come back to earth as the Rabbi of Biala.

Like many other rabbis, the Rabbi of Biala was too proud to go around asking for donations and redemption fees. The funds came of their own accord. Each Hassid, even the poorest one, was committed to a weekly donation, rich Hassidim donated a lot of gold. Each note for a woman cost a Ruble. In his closet, the Rabbi held the most expensive wine, worth thousands of Rubles. Table manners were meticulous and meals were like a royal ceremony.

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Except for cameos, the Rabbi used to give Seguloth (merits, O.A.) for the sick, which actually were instructions in hygiene. Young people, who were close to the court, told me that the old Rabbi used to read “Hatzfira” (a Hebrew newspaper, not accepted by the orthodox. O.A.) in the toilet. Moreover, in his chamber he had a collection of books of general knowledge. These books were packed away secretly after his death, five years ago, and taken by people who had an interest in general education. Nobody in the court knew about these “unclean” books.

The Rebbetzn, the wife of the Rabbi of Biala, was a special woman. She used to be very pretty and had the reputation of being an elegant woman. While the Rabbi enjoyed the admiration of the wives of the Hassidim, the Rebbetzn was the goddess of the Hassidim themselves.

She had the intellectual and spiritual abilities to run the court like a marquise, to ensure an aristocratic atmosphere, including glamorous companions. She made the court into a palace. She had her own secretary, a handsome and healthy warden (both male, O.A.), who followed her everywhere. She used to go for walks with the warden, leaning on his shoulder.

She used to dress according to the latest fashion of Paris and Berlin. She ordered her dresses abroad, in the leading fashion shops. The price of a dress was 800–1000 Rubles, 100 Rubles for an umbrella. Diamonds were studded in her garters. When one of her daughters got married, she ordered a dress embroidered with gold for herself, as beautiful as the wedding dress of the bride.

I would like to bring two indications of the admiration of the Rebbetzn by the Hassidim. Once, she went to a store in Vienna, to buy some cosmetics. Next to her stood a rich woman, probably a German marquise. The marquise argued that the price they were asking was too high, and left. The Rebbetzn paid the full price for the cosmetics fancied by the German marquise. Later the marquise came back to the store to buy what she had chosen before she left, yet, it was too late. She got very angry and asked: – Who was the milliner who bought it? When she learnt that it was just a Rabbi's wife, she almost lost her mind. The German newspapers published the story, but the Rebbetzn won…

One dark night, the Rebbetzn lost a hairpin. It was, of course, diamond studded. When the Hassidim heard about it, they came to search for it, and did not leave until it was found.

The Biala Court was a real palace. It had a large garden, a carriage and horses always stood at the ready. Each child had his or her own house, servants, and a group of Hassidim as companions.

The Rabbi and the Rebbetzn had four sons and two daughters. One daughter is the Rebbetzn of Radzymin (Radzymin, Gere, Biala, and Turzysk were the most important rabbinic courts in Poland and Wolin). One daughter fell in love with a simple young man from town. The relationship was stopped as soon as it was discovered. Their youngest son, Hershele, was very talented. He was a singer and played the violin, a painter, and, on top of everything, very good looking. In the evenings, he used to hide his sideburns under his hat, sneak out, and go out with young women from the town.

The old Rabbi of Biala died just before the first Russian revolution. Hershele became the Rabbi, but actually, the old marquise, the old Rebbetzn, ran the court. Nevertheless, it did not last long. Six months after he became a Rabbi he died in Siedlce.

A war of inheritance started between the other brothers, as often happened in many other courts. The result was the end of the Biala kingdom. The glamorous court with the Jewish marquises and princesses ceased to be forever. Small kingdoms were set up, though, in Miedzyrzec, Siedlce and other places. None of them, however, had the prestige and admiration enjoyed by the Biala Court. The Biala Court is lost, the ways leading to it are blocked and only a small number of the former thousands of Hassidim and pilgrims have remained loyal to the dynasty. Many others joined other courts. The old Rebbetzn, the Jewish marquise, went to live with her daughter in Lublin, unhappy in her later years. Yet, there were enough loyal Hassidim to provide her with a good pension, and she kept up her high standard of living until she passed away.

(“Yiddishe souls”, Volume 6, published by “Folk Building”, New York, 1917)

Translator's footnotes

  1. “Yard” is equal to the “court” as used by Y. Y. Trunk the chapters from Poland. (O.A.) Return
  2. “Table” “tish” in Yiddish, us an event in court, when a table is laid for the Rabbi and his Hassidim. (O.A.) Return

 

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