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C. Way of Life

[Page 136]

Shuls, Shtiblech and Minyanim[1]

by Dawid Liwer

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Będzin counted over 80 houses of prayer, two synagogues, a large house of prayer and study, Hasidic shtiblech, prayer houses for specific groups and so on. Jews prayed. There were no Polish Hasidic rebbes who did not have a shtibl in Będzin.

And when someone went out on the streets of Będzin early on Shabbos, what tranquility and serenity reigned! Thousands of Jews in their black silk topcoats and velvet hats, a number in shtreimlech [fur-edged hats worn by Hasidim] and gartln [rope-like belts worn during prayers] around their hips with large prayer books under their arms – the Jews would go slowly, not hurrying and wish a gutn Shabbos [good Shabbos].

Very pious Jews would wear their talis [prayer shawl] because they could never be sure if the eruv [wire boundary within which things can be carried on Shabbos] was intact. The rich men would wear cloth kapotes [long coats worn by observant Jews] so that their silk topcoats would not be seen; Będziner Jews felt free, lived without fear in a pure Jewish city.

The Great Synagogue

The synagogue was built in 1881 and later was rebuilt several times. In 1926, the inside of the Będzin synagogue was painted and decorated by the Jewish artists Mosze Apelboim, Szmul Cygler and the sculptor Chaim Hanft.[2] This was the only synagogue in Poland that was painted by Jewish painters.

The synagogue had a regular chazan [cantor] and a choir, led by a conductor. The Great Będzin Synagogue was known for its good cantors, as for example, Abram Jicchak Szirman, Lichtensztajn, Menachem Zopowicz, Mosze Klanswald, etc. The Great Synagogue was spacious with rows of massive benches. The eastern wall was beautiful with Apelboim's painting and the western wall with Cygler's superb painting.

Praying was not done in the Great Synagogue during the week, except for special celebrations such as, for example, the 20th of Tammuz[3] or the 11th of November – Poland's national holiday, then they would come together to hear a sermon dealing with current affairs. The worshippers were mainly simple Jews, craftsmen. Hasidim would come to pray in the synagogue twice a year – Shabbos Teshuva [Shabbos between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur] and Shabbos haGadol [Shabbos before Passover], when the rabbi gave his yearly sermon. A number of Hasidim would accompany the rabbi into the synagogue on Simchat Torah for the hakofes [circular procession with the Torah scrolls around the bime (the reading desk from which the Torah is read)] in celebration of the completion of the yearly reading of the Torah)]. Lejbl Londner and Majer Beri would recite the morning prayers in the synagogue. The usual Torah reader was Szaul Frydlech. The last gabbaim [men who assist with the reading of the Torah] – Mosze Lejb Szwajcer, Jekele Zyskind and, singled out over everyone, the shamas [assistant to the rabbi], Abram Kaplan, who ruled the synagogue despotically, was tall and stout, taller than all of the worshippers in the synagogue… When he shouted, “Sha! Sha!” [“Quiet! Quiet.”] he was heard in all of the alleys…

In 1939 the German gangsters burned the synagogue and tore down its paintings; a mountain of stones remained of the great, beautiful synagogue.

Będziner Jews who were proud of their superb synagogue and were strongly bound to it would take the bricks from its ruins and light their Shabbos candles on them…

Bed-136.jpg [23 KB] Great Synagogue
The Great Synagogue
in 1936

[Page 137]

The Large Bet Midrash
[House of Study; Bet Midrash and Bet-haMidrash are used interchangeably.]

The Bet-haMidrash was next to the synagogue, the second largest synagogue in size in the city (built in 1859). This was a homey and popular place of prayer. It was always full of worshipers, the majority of them common people and of the poor strata; this was Shabbos, in contrast to the week days when many “richer” Jews would come in here, one for Daf Yomi[4] Talmudic study, or at random, a chapter of Mishnah. Young men would sit and study a page of Gemara by themselves, or pages in an old religious book, as the Bet-haMidrash possessed a great number of old books of rabbinical literature that was a rarity in the city. The Bet-haMidrash was like a university for the young scholarly generation; young men would sit until late at night and discuss difficult topics. It can be said that the voice of learning and voice of prayer reigned there the entire day. The Bet-haMidrash was also the best and, perhaps, the only place for spiritual pursuit for the older generation.

The “idle people” would sit and recite Psalms at daybreak and when day began, the first worshipers would come – these were the Jewish wagon drivers from the “Rusares” who would take passengers to Czeladź, Grodziec, Siewierz and other shtetlech [towns]. The riders would also come early and pray quickly. Then the artisans, traders would come and thus one minyan after another appeared until late in the day, one o'clock or two.

The last worshipers were always the same familiar types, without whom the Będziner Bet-haMidrash cannot be described. It was said that a lamed-vovnik [one of the 36 hidden righteous men in each generation on whose merit the world depends] was certainly found among them, but it was not known which of them it was…

Here they are: Reb Abram Mordechai, the eternal money gatherer; he did not demand, did not ask of anyone that they give a donation, did not request – only spread out a red handkerchief on the Bet-haMidrash table and Jews would throw coins into it. Everyone knew that despite the fact that Reb Abram was very poor, he did not collect money, God forbid, for any personal gain: he had his poor Jews and he supported them.

A second type was Reb Abram Litwak, the organizer of the tailors who recited Psalms. He recited Psalms with them every morning and many Hasidim would come and recite a chapter of Psalms with Reb Abram's tailors.

Now, Hendele. It is impossible to present the Bet-haMidrash without him; a Jew in his 70s, every day he opened the Bet-haMidrash and was also the last one who locked it at night. Summer and winter the poor would concentrate around him near the large oven and he would tell them wonderful stories and fantasies about the Russian czar…

Today, Natele Sznajder, the eternally poor man, who felt it was necessary to care for the poor people by providing shrouds. They ran straight to him when a poor man died.

Almost every day the last worshipers were the same types: the melancholy Abram of Zawale Street, not that he said anything, always looking in a religious book and it was said of him that it is rare that anyone could be compared to him in studying; and his melancholy actually was from studying too much.

A second one was Tuwja Israel or “Iwan Stralai[5]as he was called, who possessed a persecution complex. He would go one step forward and one step back; walking on the street he would enter every gate in order to hide from his ostensible persecutor. He said this fear came from the time he served in the Russian army and a shell hit his position. His nickname comes from this.

The third one was Dawid Sefer-Torah'le. He was once a soyfer [scribe], always stood in front of the aron-koydesh [the ark containing the Torah scrolls] in the Bet-haMidrash. He always came to pray early with his large talis sack under his arm; the talis was so large that it covered the entire width of the Bet-haMidrash table and every day he was barely finished with the last minyan.

Now comes the shiber [person who slides bread into the oven], a small Jew with a half yellow beard, summer and winter, wearing three or four black silk topcoats to pray, saying each word several times, thinking he would not finish his prayers… Last is the meshugener [crazy] Szlomo, who was a great scholar. It was not known why he had ended his relationship with his family. He was never seen eating and it was not known how he earned a living. It appeared that it he was one of Reb Abram Mordechai's “clients”…

And every day, at one o'clock, one thirty in the afternoon, the Jews realized that they needed two or three men for a minyan, but God does not desert his devoted Jews; here the first to pray Minchah [afternoon prayers] began to arrive and a combination was made and they were counted for Shacharis [morning prayers]. The Shmonah-Esre [18 blessings] was said jointly – some for Shachris and some for Minchah, and the Jews had pleasure – still praying with a minyan.

Bed-137.jpg [18 KB] Bet-haMidrash
The Bet-haMidrash
in 1938

[Page 138]

Finally, let us remember the regular Bet-haMidrash inhabitant, Reb Lejzer Ber Ferszt, a bookseller, who at that time had a stamp that he placed on his seforim [religious books] and books. Yes, we also received from Reb Lejzer Ber Ferszt for three kopeks Shomer's[6] novels to read, which he divided into many parts that the tailor apprentices and the Jewish maids would take to read on Shabbos; the Enlightened young people would receive The Paris Mystery[7] and Mendele's[8] Klatshe [Horse] and more; and it was said that Reb Leizer Ber Ferszt had the first shekel [certificate of membership in the Zionist Organization] in the city.

Bed-138.jpg [27 KB] The synagogue's exit door
The synagogue's exit door
The metal engravings are by Chaim Hanft

At the head of all of the residents of the Bet-haMidrash, let us not forget the respected old man, Reb Juda Lejb Sofer, the spiritual ornament of the Bet-haMidrash, one of the most pious men in the city, who would always be absorbed in immersing himself in the mikvah [ritual bath] and in praying and writing sefer-Torahs [Torah scrolls]. He was the regular reciter of Kol Nidre [prayer recited at the start of the Yom Kippur service] in the Great Synagogue. The last Shacharis in the Bet-haMidrash had not yet ended and they already came to pray Minchah and again one minyan after another. Będziner Jews did not have time, they dropped in for a fast Minchah and rushed away, some back to work, some to business. Jews came in and went out; one had not yet ended the Aleinu [“It is our duty…” a concluding prayer] and another had already begun Ashrei yoshvei [“Happy are those who dwell in Your house…”] and in this way until Maariv.

And there was a magid [preacher] after Maariv almost every day and a red handkerchief lay on a table in front of the exit door where Jews would throw coins for the sermon giver. No magid left Będzin with empty hands and preachers were drawn to Będzin from all over Poland, Lithuania and Galicia.

The Bet-haMidrash had its own chazan [cantor], a city chazan, who in his last years would receive a pension from the kehila [organized Jewish community] treasury. Moshe Jakob Piotrkowski was the chazan for many years and later his son, Lipa. The last gabbaim were Reb Mendel Openhajm and Reb Jekl Welgryn.

Lastly, let us remember Michael shamas with an always worried face, who quietly and calmly did his work.

When the Nazis set fire to the shul, the Bet-haMidrash and the surrounding houses disappeared in flames.

The “German” Synagogue

It was located in Rozenblum's house on Kołłątaja Street. The people of the “German” synagogue were very different and differentiated from the worshipers at the Great Synagogue and at the Bet-Midrash; Jews without beards came here to pray, the “Germans” in short suit jackets, rich men, doctors, teachers and other members of the intelligentsia, almost all with shaved beards. The shamas did the main work in the synagogue. He had the task of reminding members when they had a yahrzeit [anniversary of a death] and he made an effort to gather a minyan when a member had to say kaddish [memorial prayer] and so on.

The regular chazan was Wolf Hersz Baum, who had been the chazan in the synagogue since 1912 and had his own choir of his six sons. The synagogue was clean and tidy with smooth polished reading desks where each one had their regular spot to pray. The synagogue was not supported by the kehila, but maintained itself through member's dues.

The Hasidic Shtiblech

The majority of prayer houses in the city were the Hasidic shtiblech. With the exception of several small houses of study, as for example the Bet-haMidrash of the Admor[9] Rebbe Jechiel Majer Szapiro, may God take revenge for his blood (perished in Auschwitz), who was called the “brikewer Rebbe” in the city because he lived near the water bridge [brik is the Yiddish word for bridge], and to whom Hasidim and those educated in Torah would come to pray. [They would also pray] in the Bet-haMidrash of Jakob Mendl haLevi Rotenberg, of blessed memory, who was called the “Szajnewer Rebbe” because he lived in Szajn's house on Małachowski Street. Unpretentious Jews would come to pray in Aron Mendl Szuster's house and in the Bet-haMidrash. In this way, the two rabbis divided the Hasidim in the city.

The charitable institutions also had a series of houses of study, such as the Ahavat Chesed [Love of Kindness] in Cukerman's house, Linat haCholim [organization to assist sick and poor] under the mountain in the old age home, Chevra haTehilim [organization for reciting Psalms] on Zawale Street in Meryn's house, Malbish Arumim [Clothing for the Needy], the group Hachnasat Kala [Assistance for young girls to get married] and more and more.

These houses of study would invite the city's rich men for Shabbos in order that they would promise the largest sums to the group while being called up to the Torah.


Translator's Notes

  1. Synagogues, small Hasidic houses of prayer; quorums of 10 men required for prayer. return
  2. The sculptor's name is actually Chaim Hanft. return
  3. The 20th of Tammuz (usually falling during June or July) is a fast day commemorating various tragedies that occurred on this date. It begins the three weeks of mourning for the destruction of the Temple. return
  4. Daf Yomi is the study of the Talmud, a folio [both sides of a page] each day. This course of study is completed during a seven and a half year cycle.  return
  5. The nickname is possibly derived from the Russian word, strelayi – to shoot.  return
  6. Pseudonym of Nachum Majer Szajkewicz. return
  7. Les Mystères de Paris, series of books written in the 1840's by Eugene Sue and translated into Hebrew in Vilna by Kalman Szulman. return
  8. Mendele Mocher Sforim, pseudonym of Szalom Jakob Abramowicz. return
  9. Admor is an acronym for Adonainu, Morainu, veRabbeinu and translates as “Our master, our teacher, and our rabbi.”. return

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