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[Page 281]

There, Where I Remained True

by Helen Yerazalimska–Safir, Los Angeles

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

 

now281.jpg
Helen Yerazalimska–Safir

 

Memories of my childhood and youth in Nowy Dwor remain in my mind. I remember my home, our family, poor but happy. How fortunate we were in our dear father Hershl Yerazalimski, may he rest in peace. His love was based on respect; he related to us with understanding and fairness. He never demanded, like other, severe fathers, that we fulfill his every wish and demand, but would explain everything in a reasonable way so that we would be convinced and understand how a person should behave in the world.

Our home was always open to everyone, Jews and Christians alike. My father treated everyone the same, civil way. He didn't see anything wrong when I played street games with Christian boys in public. This didn't go down well with the Nowy Dwor Hasidic Jews. Many of our neighbors complained that it was shameful and scandalous for a Jewish girl to be seen playing with Christian boys, and they also threatened my father that the “the girl will, God forbid, convert.” But my father would answer “No, my daughter would not do such a thing.”

My father would tell me everything that the neighbors said and complained about and I have to admit that at the time I didn't entirely understand the whole business about conversion. From my childhood on I did not see a great chasm between Jacob and Esau [Jew and non–Jew] because my free home was always open to Jews and Christians alike.

In school I still felt free. I was a good student and was loved by the teacher and other students. In the school, boys and girls studied and played together, and, while playing, often fought, and the girls, when fighting, felt like the boys. When a Christian boy, Frank, instead of fighting and pushing shook my hand warmly, I was very surprised and shocked. From that day on, when I was 11 years old, I considered myself a grown up lady.

Because of my good fortune I didn't, as I said, really understand what conversion meant. Years later, when I fell in love with a Christian man, I was confronted with the question in all its difficulty, of how not to betray my father's trust in me. I then left Nowy Dwor, and after difficult experiences and internal struggles I overcame the nightmare of my youthful love.

Now, after so many years here in America, these memories bring me back to my hometown Nowy Dwor, and I see everything with longing and warmth. I would like just once more in my life to see the Nowy Dwor of the past: there where my cradle stood, where I spun the dreams of youth, there where I always remained true to my home.

[Page 282]

 

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Grandmother and grandchild
 
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The old kashe–maker Pierkarek at prayer
 
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Moyshe Henekh Gertner at his carriage
 
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Two old men on their way to the besmedresh

 


[Page 283]

Personalities of the Gerer shtibl[1]

by Dovid Segal, Montivideo

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

The Gerer shtibl wasn't only for the use of the Gerer Hasidim. That shtibl in Tshipele's courtyard was the meeting place for all the religious Jews in town.

The most striking figure in the shtibl was Reb [respectful term of address] Meyer Likhtenshteyn. A stately man, tall and broad, with a snow–white beard and high brow, always neat and clean, he stood out clearly in the darkness within the walls of the shtibl. Reb Meyer was known for his clear, penetrating intelligence, his logical understanding of every issue, and with his profound decency and uncompromising observance of religious law.

He conducted the Hasidic gatherings like an experienced parliamentarian, with tact and respect for his opponents. He was among the founders of Agudat Israel. Reb Likhtnshteyn was elected president at the first meeting of Agudat. All the Gerer Hasidim participated in the founding meeting in Rabinovitsh's hall. Reb Meyer opened the meeting the way the respectable people do, with the ringing of a bell. With a trembling voice he called out: “Honorable people, I declare this meeting convened.” And from these honorable people Reb Meyer established an organization with a place in Jewish communal life, with representatives on the city council, leaders in the kehile [organized Jewish community] – a religious movement that fought for its rights in Nowy Dwor.

When Reb Meyer became gabe [manager] of the Gere shtibl, they could count on having sufficient wood for the entire winter to heat the oven, and around the warm oven the Hasidim would sit together, converse, and enjoy themselves.

At the warm oven, we “young rascals” could listen to Yenkl Waga (husband of Leye from the grocery) tell about the wonders of America, from which he had returned. Throwing a potato into the oven, he would tell us that people there polish their boots every day, that they go to the bath house three times a week, and that almost every person has his own car.

When the conversation around the oven was over and people dispersed, there remained only the very poor, who tried to get as close to the heat as possible. But Hershl the Photograper had the right to the place closest to the oven. He was a lonely bachelor. No one knew his background. He always wore a stiff collar, not very clean, and there was an air of secrecy around him. We young rascals teased him. When leaving the shtibl, we would throw wet towels at him. But he always defended his place next to the warm oven.

Another prominent person in the Gere shtibl was Reb Yekusiel Tasimovitsh, a strict Jew who insisted on religious observance. You don't have to be a fanatic, he would say, but you must be a Jew. He would take 6 months to teach us boys 6 pages of the Gemora, and then, as if he hadn't understood the meaning, he would then go back to the first page.

Reb Yekusiel's suke was famous among the Gerer Hasidim. There, he would pour out for everyone “just a little shot” [of whiskey] and yet everyone would get drunk. No one remained sober, and they all danced with Hasidic ecstasy. But though Reb Yehusiel made people happy, he experienced his own great sorrow when God took from him his only son. As a Jew of deep faith, Reb Yekusiel consoled himself, “God has given, and God has taken away….”

One of the most fervent Hasidism was Reb Nosn Dovid Tukhhendler, a well known merchant. He was a huge man, who barely moved from his place. Luckily for him, his house was very close to the shtibl.

[Page 284]

This sedentary man enjoyed being with us young rascals, and would pinch our cheeks affectionately. His playfulness won him a prominent place among the Hasidim.

Among the first to rush to the shtibl to welcome the Sabbath on Friday evening was Reb Moyshe Huliak, a laborer. All week he turned the mill to grind kasha, but on Friday evening he quickly took out his silk caftan and velvet hat with its big crown and began to leaf through the prayer book, as if he wanted to ask God to forgive him for being busy with secular matters all week. Suffused with the spirit of the holy Sabbath, he would read from the prayer book and accompany each word with a groan, “Oh dear sweet father.”

Reb Shmuel Males was another who rushed to the shtibl. With his heavy tread and the stern air of a policeman he would immediately go the lectern and shout: “Quiet! Silence! No talking during prayer.” Actually, no one was even there yet, so no one was talking, but Reb Shmuel was afraid they would and so he gave the warning.

The religious scholar Reb Hersh Mendl Liktenshteyn would come in quietly and barely smiling (since the destruction of the Temple, a real smile wasn't permitted) to welcome the holy Sabbath. All week he worked at making cigarettes and helped to rock to sleep the twins his wife had borne him, deriving pleasure when they fell asleep and could turn to studying. But the most important thing for him was the Sabbath and the world to come.

The rest of the week was full of sorrow and worries about earning a living, the burden of the dear little ones, and the uneasy wait for his wife, who smuggled meat, to return late from Warsaw, to prepare a late meal for him. But on the Sabbath he took a place near the Torah ark and as happy as if it were the coming of the Messiah, he sang along and when the cantor sang Lecha Dodi, [“Come my beloved,”] you could see Reb Hersh Mendl come forward dancing to greet the Sabbath princess.

The moyre haroe rabbi [or religious judge] would slip in, humbly and discretely. He was from Warsaw and was a bit odd. Everything amazed him. Whatever you told him, he would ask, “Really? That's how it was?” When he prayed, he stood near the window and shouted the words so they would go directly God.

Reb Hertzl Kagan –everyone called him Reb Hertske –had a special place in the shtibl. It was a big deal that he was the grandson of the Brisker rabbi. He was a Litvak and didn't pronounce Hebrew like everyone else, but rather spoke clearly and crispy.

On Simkhes Torah, when Reb Hersh Mendl became [the more familiar] “Hertske”, he would whisper a moral lesson in the ear of the Litvak Hertske: “Yes, Yes, you have to be a Jew and observe the Jewish religion.” Reb Mendl was keeping an eye on Hertske the Litvak.

Reb Moyshe Borekh Guzshik was a simple fellow, a straight arrow. “If the rebe says something, you must believe it without asking any questions. That's how he wants it to be.” He would beam with pleasure to hear Pinkhesl relate, with half closed eyes, what he saw and heard at the Gerer rebe's, “long may he live.” He couldn't stand the young people, the modern ones. “Go study! Go study! ” he would shout at young and old. During study, when Reb Shmuel Yankev Faber refused to give in on a Talmudic question, and they couldn't agree, the best way to win him over was to say “That's how the rebe –– long may he live –interpreted it,” and Reb Moyshe Borekh would prevail.

Reb Borekh Anker was recognizable by the angry expression on his face and the way he kept stroking his chin. But he stroked the chin in vain, because he didn't have a single hair growing there, not even a sign of a beard. Reb Borekh Anker had a feeling for singing. At the lectern he would sing out his woes. He, the son of the Poviznker rabbi, was not even able to grow a beard. He would hum Modzshitser melodies, but never finished them. When they sang Lecha Dodi, he began in the Modzshitser style, but when they got to the words, “pnei Shabbat,” he switched to his own, very different, melody.

[Page 285]

 

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From the surviving manuscript of Reb Hershl Likhtenshteyn,
the great scholar and gabe of the Gerer shtibl

 

[Page 286]

Reb Borekh Anker was a fanatic. He had only to hear that a young man, who was being supported by his father–in– law, who wanted to be merchant, had taken his wife for a walk on a Friday night after dinner, and right away, early on Saturday morning at prayers, he would scold him [for this breach of religious law] and wouldn't let him pray. Similarly, he wouldn't allow people to read from the Torah on the grounds they hadn't observed the laws of family purity, or because they combed their hair in a foppish manner. Reb Borekh Anker kept watch over the young men and women who didn't strictly observe the religious rules, and took out all his anger and troubles on them.

Reb Binyomen Pinker was completely different. All week he drove wagons full of grain to the markets and fairs, and dealt easily with non–Jews But when he came to the shtibl on Saturday, he became an aristocrat and even before Reb Borekh Anker had finished the preparations, Reb Binyomen would be at the pulpit and knock out the prayers the proper ways. Reb Borekh Anker, despite being offended, had to go along with it.

All these dear, kind Jews are no longer alive. May these words memorialize their holy souls.

 

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A group of young people

 

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A group of young Hasids

 


Translator's footnote

  1. Small, one–room synagogue Return


[Page 287]

Henekh's Melody

by Sholem Kartsovitsh, Holon

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

Henekh was one of the noble figures in the album of my town. The always smiling Henekh, who was always ready to play a prank, lived in a world of sound, his soul soaring amidst the melodies.

At work during the day, standing behind the buffet [at his tavern] he would pore over the sheet music that lay among the cakes, herring and cheese, immersing himself in the notes, while humming a tune. A woman would stop by and ask him, “Henele, perhaps you have a nice piece of cheese?” But Henekh with his constant smile would answer, as if to get rid of her, “Unfortunately I don't have any fresh cheese. I do have cheese, but it's not for you.” He'd do the same thing on a Thursday, when the Jewish women would rush in, perspiring, asking for yeast with which to bake challah [for the Sabbath]. He couldn't bear all these customers who were preventing him from looking at his music.

His mother was Rivka the Tsadike [pious, saintly woman] or, as the women called her, Rivke Hersh Bers, after her husband, the scholar and pious man, whose name evoked respect among all the Jews in town. She always complaining about her son: “Oy, what will become of him? He doesn't know how to do anything. He forgets to do the accounts. Sometime he doesn't reorder something, sometimes he gives too much change. I'm fading away like salt in water, and he won't listen to my pleas.” Henekh would say, “Well, Mother, enough with the pleas.” Then he'd hum, smiling, a passage from the Ninth Symphony.

On Wednesdays, a market day, Henekh's tavern would become very lively. Peasants drove in with their wagons and there began the racket of bargaining and hand smacking, marking the raising and lowering of prices. His tavern would fill with mustached peasants and peasant women in red scarves. His mother would take out a flask of whiskey from under her apron and pour out drinks. In the midst of all the commotion she had to keep watch to make sure the policeman “Black Lewandoski” wouldn't come in and catch her red–handed pouring out drinks.

And just on that day, with all the commotion, when his mother needed his help, Henekh would disappear, nowhere to be found. His mother would run around asking everyone, “Have you seen him? I'm going to drop like a fly.” But all in vain. Her complaints were of no concern to the red–faced peasants who couldn't have cared less whether Henekh was there or not, as long as they got their drinks.

Henekh wouldn't appear until the end of the day, when things had quieted down, and the peasants had driven away. Somewhere a horse neighed, seeking his master who had gone missing, who had gotten drunk and was snoring away somewhere. Then Henekh would slink back to the tavern with a smile on his face, humming an eerie tune.

“Where were you?” his mother greeted him angrily. “You're going to be the death of me before my time.” Henekh didn't answer right away. Finally, smiling, he said, “I was with Chopin.” “Ha,” said his mother. “Who's that piece of trash?” Henekh didn't answer. It was his secret. When things got noisy on market days he would go off to the brick house of a former Russian functionary, near the church, and there, in the spacious rooms of the old widow, Henekh's fingers played on the keys of the fortepiano the tender sounds of Chopin.

[Page 288]

*

The war pursued and displaced Henekh. Along with many thousands of Jews, he left for Bialystok and there, homeless, he breathed his last in a corner of a besmedresh. He, who had lived his whole life with the sounds of Chopin, no doubt hummed these sounds with his last breath, and his soul trembled to the melody, until it was extinguished. May these words serve as a memorial candle for his noble soul.


Aunt Khane

by L. Lefkovitsh, Yaffa

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

Everyone knew Khane. She was a kind of quasi–doctor. You would always see her going to visit a sick person, limping along with her basket of bankes [ glass cups used in cupping] and various bottles and fasteners – her medical instruments.

The doctors in the town knew her well and sent many sick people to her. She knew what to do based on their symptoms. Everyone relied on her and asked for her help. They would promise her a lot of money to keep her there until the patient was completely cured. The doctors would say, “You have Khane to thank that the patient is well.” She also helped women giving birth. They wouldn't let her go until the new mother was back on her feet.

For our family, Khane was our free doctor. As soon as someone got sick, they called for her. “Khane, help!” and we would only call a doctor if she told us to do so. But that happened very rarely. Mostly we relied on her and she cured us. She would start off by saying, “Show me your tongue, let me look at your throat, give me a spoon.” Then she would make her diagnosis of various infections or inflammations, decide on the remedy – “a bit of quassia, some soda water, three drops of iodine, mix together and gargle. Most important, don't call a doctor. This evening I'll come and do the cupping.”

She always came when she promised, although she often came late, very tired after visiting the sick. She would always defend herself, and under no circumstances would she take any money from us. “Just get well.” That's how she'd settle the question of a fee and go on her way.

The women would always find her new patients: “Auntie, look. My daughter has some kind of rash on her check.” Aunt Khane would get right down to business. “Let me see. Take a thick cockscomb, tie it to her cheek and in three days the rash will be gone.” And that's what in fact happened. She would help people with her old wives' remedies.

She did everything calmly and would comfort people. “Don't' be upset, it's nothing.” She'd close the door with a blessing, and went on her way, limping from one patient to another. We saw her as an angel bringing a cure. We were proud of her and would boast of our own “Aunt Khane.” Honor to her memory and her deeds.

 

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