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[Page 157]

A Visit to Belz in the Year 1903

Dr. Arthur Ruppin

Translated by Gila Schecter

My visit to the Belzer Rebbe was remarkably special. I came by train to Belz on the eve of the holiday of Shavuot. The train was completely packed with Jews who were traveling to the Rebbe. All of them had long sidelocks and wore black velvet and round turbans (shtreimels?) on their heads and some were wearing sandals. We arrived in Belz in the afternoon. The long line of Jews who were walking towards the town reminded me of a nation's constant motion. Normally, Belz had 6,000 residents, of whom half were Jewish. On that day it was like Belz was populated by Jews only, since thousands of Jews came from out of town to visit the Rebbe, even from Hungary and Russia.

I went to synagogue for the evening prayer. There was no place to sit. There were thousands of Jews standing, crowding and swaying during prayer like sheaves of grain in the wind. The Rebbe appeared and the congregation immediately started to pray. Everyone is pushing themselves, attempting to get close to the Rebbe. The Rebbe walks to the stand and prays with a crying voice. It seems as though the voice awakens burning admiration for most of the congregation. They are closing their eyes and swaying their bodies from side to side devotedly. The loud prayer is similar to an uproar of a storm. Whoever sees these Jews in their prayer, in the end would have to admit that this nation is still the most devout of all nations.

After the prayer, (at 10:30), I went with the rest of the Jews to eat the evening feast at the Rebbe's house. It was a very big hall, immeasurably crowded, one head literally touched another head. Perchance, the Shamesh (Caretaker) of the Rebbe, whom I had met earlier on the street, noticed me. I'd told him that I had come from Berlin; he was pleased that someone had traveled so far to see the Rebbe, and he told me affably:

Yes, 200 years ago Berlin was popularly praised for her holy people. His opinion was that when the city became empty of her scholars, her importance was nullified.

The Shamesh was helping me pave my way through the huge crowd, and pointed to a windowsill above the Rebbe's seat, a place from where I could clearly see and clearly hear everything. When the Rebbe appeared, a few more Jews leaped and sat on the windowsill which could not seat more than 3 people at most. From then on I could not sit there, I was only able to stand on my feet. That is how I stood for 3 whole hours with me were 10 other Jews, unbearably cramped and hot.

I took off my hat, and stood a short while with my head uncovered, so I could wipe off my forehead. My neighbor then shoved me in the ribs. This was not polite; after all, we were not in a coffee shop. Then I put my hat back on and continued to stand and stand in agony. I was hanging on to a window frame with one of my hands and one of my feet was dangling in the air. It seems to me that never in my life did I have to make such strenuous physical efforts to see something. But I had to wait until it was over, for there was no way to get to the entrance because it was so cramped.

Close to midnight, the Rebbe arrived. The meal was a meal of fish, soup, meat, dessert and the challah (translator note: special egg bread, usually eaten only on Sabbath and holidays). The Rebbe tasted all of the foods, and dipped his bread in sauce with his fingers (there weren't forks and knives, only spoons for the soup). He cut the fish and meat with his bare hands and offered the pieces to the people sitting at his table, (Rabbi's from neighboring places), and also to the rest of the people from the community who stood close by. They eagerly grabbed “'the treat,” (translator note: to get food from the Rebbe's plate/hands – shreiyim -is considered something that will bring you luck)(they saved the fish bones ??) and they jumped up to the soup plates to dip their fingers into it. Also to me the Shamesh brought fish and was amazed that I turned it down out of a certain resistance to accept (Translator note: probably from a German sense of shock at being given food by hand, rather than with a utensil).

After we ate, the Rebbe gave his drash (Translators note: a homiletic speech based on some religious text) to the crowd in a quiet voice, which I didn't understand at all - I was so tired from standing and hanging on the windowsill, that I was afraid I would fall on the Rebbe. I was unbearably tortured with thirst, but I had to wait until the meal was over at 1:30 a.m. I immediately rushed to my hostel, hoping to find a drink to quench my thirst, but there were no servants at the hostel. I went quickly to the beer-house, where I had seen a beer barrel in the afternoon without noticing the bodies of sleeping Jews thrown on the floor like sacks of flour. I leaped over the sleeping bodies on the beer barrel as if my life passed in front of my eyes, and took off my boot and drank until I was full. Most of the drink spilled on the floor but I didn't care; I didn't listen to the Jews screaming. The main thing was that I didn't die of thirst.

I didn't get a chance to speak with the Rebbe himself. A Jewish doctor told me that the Rebbe was enjoying the company of the minister of the district, because he helps him like a propagandist during election time.

As I heard it, only ten percent of the Jews in Belz have a yearly income of 600 zehuvim=50 l”ish (translator note: unclear what this amount actually is), an amount that enables them to rent a room and kitchen and bare necessities. Of the remaining ninety percent, half of them have a weekly income of 3 to 6 zehuvim; the rest are beggars. a kind of sewage system in town, where there are many stereotypes.

Jews that don't wear hats and don't have long payot, sidelocks, there are none of these in Belz, which is known to be the most “devout” town of all. Anyone who changes the dress code even slightly is considered a “German”, meaning an atheist. Parents only send their children to cheder (translator note: religious school), and try in many ways to keep them away from non-religious schools out of fear of their Judaism being damaged.

(From the book: “The Chapters of my Life”, Volume 1)

[Pages 175-176]

The Rebbe R'Yissachar Dov Stays in Our Hotel

Peretz Zeifert (Jerusalem)

Translated by Gila Schecter

Editorial assistance by Sandra Krisch

In the winter of 1924 Rebbe Yissachar Dov (of blessed memory) returned to Belz after 10 years of wandering. When World War I broke out, the Rebbe and his family left for Hungary, followed by six years spent in Munkacs and in Holoshiz [now Oleszyce]. The Rebbe returned when his house, which had been burned down by the Russians, was rebuilt. The story I will tell occurred during the last days of the month of Elul 1924, during the week of Slichot. My father, R. Nachman Zeifert (of blessed memory) had just completed building the hotel that had to be ready for the first Rosh Hashanah that the Rebbe would be celebrating after his return to Belz.

It was a well-known custom of long standing, ever since the days of the founder of Belz, that for Rosh Hashanah thousands of Chasidim would flock to Belz to celebrate the High Holy Days close to the Rebbe and under his inspiration. Our family was prepared to welcome the many guests who were coming to Belz for Rosh Hashanah. My mother and sister were busy completing the preparations for the big event.

I was only a child then and was praying in the synagogue when I suddenly noticed that many of the people were talking about something extraordinary after they finished praying. Very quickly I understood what they were talking about. The word had been that the Rebbe was to visit Nachman Zeifert's new hotel. The rumor traveled quickly to my father, who was amongst the crowd. The words took my father by surprise, and he ordered me to go home and tell my mother and sisters about the special guest who was to honor us with his visit.

We immediately started to tidy the house and the entrance, and with trembling hearts we waited anxiously for the big event. Shortly after that, we observed from afar a large crowd: the Rebbe and his followers making their way to our home. A few minutes later the Rebbe was standing in all his glory at the entrance to our house—R'Yissocher Dov, and behind him his entourage. The Rebbe bent over slightly, crossed the threshold of the house and kissed the mezuzah, and after him followed many who accompanied him on this extraordinary visit. My father, who was walking with the crowd, hardly made his way home to greet the Rebbe at his house. The first question the Rebbe asked my father was, “Where will the guest dine for the meals and where will he sleep?”

The Rebbe visited the kitchen and the ground level and went up to the second floor. The Rebbe stopped in one of the rooms and asked with humor, “Nachman, will there always be four beds in the room?” Father explained to the Rebbe that only for Rosh Hashanah, when many guests were expected, did he put four beds in a room and that during the rest of the year there would only be two beds in a room. When the Rebbe entered the front room he looked through the door and saw that the balcony had not been completed. He tried to open the door but was pleased to find it locked. He asked my father where the key was, and my father told him that it was in his pocket. The Rebbe was not yet satisfied, and he asked to have a bed block the door so that it could not be opened. And then the Rebbe said, “Nachman, as soon as the holidays are over, complete the building of the balcony and make a railing.”

The visit was completed with the praise of the Rebbe for the building and its improvements and a blessing for the New Year.

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