The Shtibel of the Gerrer Chassidim
The shtibel of
the Gerrer Chassidim on Zamurova Street was one of the largest in our town. It was housed in a four-room apartment on the second floor of Naftali Frankel's house. One of the rooms was large enough for prayer and meditation. There were coarse wooden benches along the western walls
which had no back support. In the middle of the room stood a square table covered with a colorfully embroidered cloth, on top of which the Torah scroll was placed for reading. In the middle of the east wall stood a holy ark filled with Torahs. Next to it was the amud (prayer post) with the Shiviti inscription above it, where sometimes a note was left with the name of someone seriously ill and his mother's name. The south and north walls had porcelain heating stoves with hooks for hanging upper garments, towels, and water cans for washing one's hands. There were long tables and benches along the western wall. The two rooms to the right of the large room had tables, benches and bookcases filled with volumes of the Talmud, the Bible, the Geonite writings, commentaries, Talmudic discussions (pilpul), Chassidic writings, Kabbalah, and Musar. These two
rooms were used by young men and adults who were supported by their fathers-in-law. They would study either alone or together, usually in the company of students who had finished their heder (elementary Jewish education) studies. The room to the left of the large room had two tables, benches, two large barrels, and a tin can. One barrel contained pure water for washing the hands, and the second had used water. There were kerosene lamps hanging from the ceiling, as well as on the tables. Invariably there were
candles burning in the candlesticks over the amud to mark the anniversary of the death of someone close to the Chassidim, or on behalf of someone seriously ill. The main entrance to the shtibel was
in the hallway next to the entrance to the home and print shop of Motl (Mordechai) Cederbaum.
The shtibel was full of Torah students from early dawn until late at night, with short interruptions for breakfast and lunch; it was also full on Monday and Thursday nights, and at times one had to wait for a place at the table.
The gabai was Reb David Zelver, known as David Lodzer, and his assistant was Abba'le Sofer (Kruza). Some six hundred men frequented the shtibel, including the privileged ones who used to travel to Kotzk. There were many scholarly Jews in town who were steeped in Torah, some of whom were drawn to other rebbes, such as the Lubliner, Ostrowtza, or just learned Jews who did not agree with the Chassidic practices.
Most of the Gerrer Chassidim were shopkeepers, merchants and persons of means. Nearly all the religious functionaries the local rabbi, the rabbinical judges, the kosher butchers, etc. frequented this Chassidic house. The rabbi was bound by his agreement with the community to pray in the main synagogue, but whenever he could find an appropriate excuse he would go to pray at the Chassidic place. One example would be the night of Shmini Atzerett, when there were no hakkafot at the synagogue and the rabbi went to participate in the Chassidic hakkafot, or on the first night of Passover, when they did not say Hallel at the synagogue, or when the synagogue was closed for remodeling.
The leading personalities in the Gerrer shtibel at various times included: Shalom (Weitzman) Sofer, who used to travel to Izbitze and later to Lublin, a great scholar and a pious man who lived modestly; Rabbi Leibush (Blaut), the dayan (judge), a scion of the Kotzk Chassidim; Meir Halevi Ish Horowitz; Yyukl Horowitz, one of the leading Torah students in town, a noble person, the grandson of the Gaon (Talmudic scholar) Reb Motl Halevi Ish Horowitz, from whom he inherited many of his gifts; Moshe Eibshitz, a descendant of Reb Yehonatan Eibshitz; and Baruch Shidlowski, the father-in-law of the Tzaddik of Ostrovtze, who studied Torah day and night.
The Horowitzes, the Eibshitzes and the Shidlowskis were members of leading families, and invariably were attracted to the Gerrer Rebbe. The Pinchavski, Shapira and Kozlowski families of Malintz were close to Gur court. They were not blessed scholars, but were prominent among the Chassidim because of their militancy. In disputes over choosing a rabbi, a judge, a butcher, etc., the Malintzers always took the lead and used all means to do the bidding of the Chassidic court. Rosh Hodesh meals did not take place at the Chassidic house, but in private homes. Sometimes a L'hayim toast was offered on a Yahrzeit; and on the eve of Yom Kippur the worshippers were given a cup of wine and a piece of honey cake, and everyone, young and old, shook hands and greeted one another with love and friendship.
When the study of a Talmudic tractate was completed, or when a celebration related to the Kotzk or Gur tzadikim took place, a royal feast was offered, with white bread, gefilte fish, beef soup with rice and meatballs, and a drink. Words of Torah were spoken, and there was singing and dancing until late at night.
The Gerrer Chassidim studied Torah according to a schedule they had arranged for the large room at the shtibel, and in 1906, when their leader, Rabbi Avraham Mordechai, introduced early rising for prayer, some did not follow suit, and many of those who rose early to pray would only go through the morning prayer in the first minyan, and until the Musaf prayer of the second minyan they sat or stood and studied Torah.
The Hofetz Hayim Among the Gerrer Chassidim
That year the Gaon Rabbi Israel Meir, named the Hofetz Hayim after one of his important books, used to pray at the shtibel. He gave many of his books to Motl Zederboim to be printed at his shop. Since the Hofetz Hayim stayed with the printer, he would go and pray at the nearby Chassidic house. He did not wear the Chassidic silk coat or sash, but only a common upper garment. He did not sway during the service like the Chassidim. He would stand still during the prayer and read from a prayer book. The Chassidim found his behavior odd, but they showed him great respect all the same because of his great knowledge.
The Gabai, David Zelever, was a stern man who conducted the affairs of the shtibel with a firm hand and often clashed with the worshipers. His behavior resulted in a revolt by young Chassidim, who left tire shtibel and started the Young Shtibel on 21 Bikovska Street, at the home of Hayim Avrunin. The leader of the rebels was Asher Fishel, a Melnitzer. This place served not only for prayer but for frequent celebrations. Some informed people reported that the Gabai had complained to the Rebbe about the revolt of the young, and consequently the shtibel was closed down and they had to return for a while to their alma mater on Zamorova.
Between the afternoon and evening prayers there was a break, and the Chassidim would chat about the Torah and the stories concerning the tzadikim of Kotzk and Gar, or would gossip about other tzadikim. There was greater conflict and even hate among the followers of the various Chassidic leaders than between the Chassidim and their opponents or between the former and ordinary Jews or even Jews who pursued free trades, many of whom were assimilationists. The main adversaries of the Gerrer Chassidim were the Alexander Chassidim, who were second to the Getter Chassidim in their numbers and their status as students of Torah, as well as their social status. Their quarrels resulted mainly from conflicts while choosing judges, butchers, and other religious functionaries.
The Gerrer Chassidim would often have to reach a compromise with the Alexander Chassidim. Such a compromise resulted in the choice of Reb Yaakov Glaser as judge; he became known as Yankele Dayan (judge). He was a learned man and an Alexander Chassid. Yaakov was chosen in 1901 as the chief judge and served until the Second World War, when he was killed by a bomb on the way to Suleyuv.
Reb Yaakov Yosef Shochet, an Alexander Chassid, was chosen over the objection of the Gerrer Chassidim. But generally, communal matters were decided in Piotrkow by the Gerrer Chassidim with the help of the assimilationists and the professional intelligentsia. Whereas the Gerrer Chassidim were fanatics who fought anyone who dared to introduce changes in educational matters (such as starting a reformed heder of a model introduced at that time by the educator M. Krinski) and came out against all types of Zionists, they lived peacefully with those who publicly preached assimilation and even helped them run the community.
But the events of the great world reached even this stronghold. During the Russo-Japanese War, the Chassidim engaged in heated discussions between those who believed that the Russians would win the war and those who considered the Japanese stronger. The debates took place mainly between the afternoon and evening prayers and on the Sabbath between the morning prayers and Musaf. The debaters made a great deal of noise and even fought, and it was necessary to introduce the recitation of Psalms between the afternoon and evening services and do away with the break between the morning prayers and Musaf on the Sabbath and holy days.
The Gerrer Chassidim lent their quarters for the illegal meetings of the socialist parties, since there were two entrances and, in a moment of danger, one could escape through the back door. Thus, there were meetings held during the day, attended by hundreds of workers and party leaders who came from Warsaw and Lodz to deliver speeches, especially during economic or political strikes. Ahron Singlovski, known as Yellow Ahron, one of the great socialist orators and leader of the socialist party, would often come to those meetings, and the young men who studied at that time with the Chassidim would listen to his speeches; some even joined his party.
The initiative to start the Agudath Israel branch in town came out of that shtibel. During World War One it was known as the Orthodox Agudah. The founder of the Beis Yaakov girls' school also came out of this place. This school was started to counter the Jewish high school started by the Zionists, which attracted some Gerrer girls The old Chassidim at first opposed the establishment of a Beis Yaakov school, basing themselves on the verse, And you shall not follow their laws, in arguing that it was forbidden to change the customs of the past.
From time to time there were cracks in the walls of this Gerrer stronghold. Many young Chassidim joined the various parties that fought for social and national liberation. They mainly joined the various factions of the Zionist movement, and many of them headed the Mizrahi, the General Zionists, the Tzeire Zion-Poale Zion, and the Hehalutz, and many have taken part in the rebuilding and defense of Israel. They remember their origins and pay homage to those who kindled within them the holy flame of faith in the values of Judaism and the eternal Rock of Israel.
The Alexander Chassidim
The home of the Alexander Chassidim in Piotrkow was on Stara-Warshavska Street.
It had a large hall and a courtyard, both of which were used for prayer. The Chassidic house had about one hundred worshipers, who consisted of Alexander Chassidim and others who prayed there out of habit or because of the tolerant attitude of that place. Next to the shtibel was
a yeshiva called Beis Israel, named after the middle rebbe, Rabbi Israel Yitzhak Danziger, the author of Yismach Israel. The yeshiva was headed by Reb Moshe Gomolinski, known as Reb Moshe Silver, a great scholar and baal tefilah.
The Alexander Chassidim were the second largest Chassidic group in Congress Poland. The only larger group were the Gerrer Chassidim. But without going into the differences between the two groups, suffice it to say that the Alexander Chassidim were distinguished by their unassuming ways and simplicity, and their tolerance of the nonreligious or those who were less religious than they. This attitude attracted worshipers who had not travelled to see the Rebbe, but who were nonetheless treated as equals. The Alexander Chassidim were more positive and accommodating in their attitude towards Zionism than the Chassidic groups that belonged to Agudath Israel The Alexander house welcomed members of the Mizrahi and lovers of Zion in general. Reb Mendel Landau, an important member of Hamizrahi in Piotrkow, is worthy of mention. Freethinkers would travel to see the Alexander Rebbe and seek his advice, since his court was open to everyone.
The Alexander Chassidim were a close-knit group who travelled to the Rebbe for the Sabbath, holidays and Days of Awe, and stayed in the same inn. If a Chassid took sick they would rush to visit him. If someone was in financial straits they did their best to help him, and there were many such cases. Next to the Chassidic house there was a charitable fund headed by Reb Moshe Eliyahu Silber, a learned Jew who knew his grammar and his accounting. The fund helped members with loans, at low interest, to cover its operation cost.
The Alexander Chassidim in Piotrkow took part in the elections to the Jewish community council. They had their own list and got their delegate elected to the council. He was Reb Mended Weinacht, may his blood be avenged, who was a lumber merchant, a communal worker, a man of means, who married off his daughters to learned grooms and who was an active member of the Chassidic house. His son, Reb Israel Yitzhak Weinacht, was the secretary of the Yeshiva Hachmey Lublin.
During the festivities of the Alexander Rebbes there was a high-spirited atmosphere. The Chassidim would gather for the meal at the shtibel, divide among themselves the study of the Gemarah, and each would undertake a tractate which he was committed to finish by the next yahrzeit. The young generation in the Chassidic house was mainly named after the later Rebbes, and many were named Yehiel, while younger ones were Israel Yitzhak, and even younger ones were named Shmuel Tzvi.
Central Personalities in the shtibel
The judge Reb Yaakov Dayan, who served in Piotrkow for some forty years and spent his life studying Torah and deciding matters of religious law, submitted his candidacy for rabbi of the town, with the support of the Alexander Chassidim, but Reb Meir Shapira won out and became the local rabbi.
Reb Yaakov Dayan, who prayed on the Sabbath at the Chassidic house, would have people gather in his house for the Third Meal and sing the melodies that he himself composed.
On the Days of Awe prayers were held at his home. The fervor of the prayers was enormous. The prayers always ended later than in other places in town, even Chassidic places of prayer. The Gabai, Reb Moshe Epstein, known as Reb Moshe Yehezkel's, was a beloved Jew who, despite his physical weakness, was always ready to go out and help others. He served as gabai for many years, and kept the Chassidic house clean and orderly. On the eve of Yom Kippur it was customary for the gabai to bring cakes and liquor for the worshipers. Reb Moshe would observe this tradition and would not get angry when a child would come back for a second or third serving. His son-in-law, Reb Lipa Sanik, a pious student, was also a prominent member of the shtibel. A leading Alexander activist was Reb Yitzhak Aharon Suchevski, who for many years was a communal leader.
A regular Torah reader for the first minyan was Reb Avraham Dunski, who had a special voice for reading the Torah. He was a well-to-do, tall and good-looking man who dressed impeccably, and his reading of the Torah was much enjoyed by his listeners.
Reb Hayim Perl was baal tefillah, a prayer leader. He was tall and thin, and prayed with great fervor. On holidays and Days of Awe the prayer leader was Reb Elazar Lifschitz, whose soft yet penetrating voice conveyed the solemnity and awe of the day of judgement.
The regulars of the house of prayer included the brothers Dov Berish Meshulam and Mordechai Lifschitz, pious Jews who were close to the Alexander Rebbe and related to him by family ties. Others were Sanik Lipa and Yehiel, Yehoshua Bitsk, the bank director, Ezer Flatau, a real estate agent, Yaakov Shmuel Gint, a melamed, Yudle Neiberg, a Bratzlav Chassid, Yaakov Lieberman, Levi Goldmintz, Moshe Goldmintz, Yaakov Shmuelevitz, Bonim Birnboim, David Katchka Blumenstein, and Yaakov Aryeh Kaminski, may their blood be avenged.
|Chassidim of our home town|
|Yeshivat Beth Yosef in Piotrkow|
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