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[Pages 56 58]

Our Melamdim [Teachers]

by Jacob David Berg

Translated by Renee Miller

Edited by Fay Bussgang

Our town, just like other towns and villages in Poland, is now destroyed. Generations of Jewish life have been eradicated. The butchers have even destroyed the graves of our ancestors and disgraced their consecrated memory. They paved the sidewalks and streets with the matseves [gravestones] so that they could step on them and trample them with their dirty feet…with sadistic pleasure they trod on the letters of the paved gravestones so that they could in that way dishonor the Hebrew letters and, at the same time, the memory of past generations…

It is now my intention, in memory of the great Nazi destruction, to record the intellectual life of our town in my generation with regard to Jewish education. As much as my memory will serve me, I will try to describe the religious education system – the children's schools and their melamdim. Although here and there my recollection may be a bit playful, I recall these teachers with deep respect.

The children's schools were divided into three categories: 1) dardeke [youngest children] from alef-beys [ABCs] to Khumesh [Torah], 2) some Tanakh [Scriptures] and 3) some Gemore [commentary in the Talmud on the Mishnah {code of law}]

Jankele Melamed

Jankele Melamed held the first place among the dardeke teachers. Most of his talmidim [students] in kheder [Jewish elementary school] were middle class Hasidic children. He himself, that is, Jankele, was small in stature, which is probably why they called him Jankele [Little Jankel]. A sincere, good-natured person. He possessed an immense love for small children. He aroused an eagerness among youngsters to look into the sidurl [daily prayer book] by promising them that he would let them play with his [Torah] pointer made of bone. He was a fine, quiet man. Those from my generation who remember him speak of him with respect and love.


The second one in the first category of teachers was Abraham-Mojsze. Tall in stature, with a white beard and a severe face. His method of impressing children was precisely the opposite of Jankele's. He used to influence the youngsters by instilling fear and dread in them. In a moment of anger he used to grab a bread knife and threaten the youngsters that he would immediately cut off his beard if they would not learn and remember what they had learned. Or he would run to the ceramic stove that stood in the middle of the room and scream that he was going to knock over the stove; or he would overwhelm the small pupils with a terrible fear by warning them that he would cut off his wife's head with the bread knife if they did not get rid of their foolishness and do a better job with sheytl ivre [a reading in Hebrew].


brz056.jpg - A class from the kheder
A class from the kheder “Yesod haTorah”
[Foundation of Torah] with Jehuda Fuks, teacher


Although on the surface this teacher and his method of influencing the group of youngsters does not create the impression of a likable person, he still left his stamp on our generation. He was among the mentors who introduced the small child to the world of Yidishkayt [Jewishness] – in his curious way and according to a certain pedagogical style of that time, which seems to be so foreign to us today.

Szlama Peretz and Luzer

The other two schools – of Szlama Peretz and Luzer Melamed – were already on a higher level. The largest number of students in these schools were from rich Hasidic parents. Of the two, Luzer Melamed especially excelled. He became famous because he prepared the children thoroughly for the Khumesh celebration. This celebration had a very important place in his instruction, exactly like the Bar Mitzvah celebration has for us here in America. The celebration was carried out with a ceremony that was prepared weeks ahead. The Khumesh boy was dressed up in a special small silk coat and a small velvet hat and had prepared a well-rehearsed droshe [sermon] for the great occasion. This ceremony was performed in a theatrical manner. The boy had a fellow player, a second youth, who asked him: “What are you learning, little boy?” and the Khumesh boy answered, ”Khumesh.” “What does 'Khumesh' mean?” asked the fellow player, and the answer came, “Five.” “What does 'five' mean?” and the answer, “The Torah has five books – Breyshes, Shmoys, Vayikro, Bamidbor, Dvorim [Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy]. And then the boy let loose with his prepared droshe and a famous posek [verse of sacred text] – ani [and if not]…

The people around the tables thoroughly enjoyed themselves. Tate-mame [Papa and Mama] beamed with great nakhes [pleasure]. Luzer stood with a mixture of fear and happiness. He was afraid the little boy would suddenly get confused and mix things up or actually burst into tears and thereby spoil his reputation. But Luzer had tremendous pleasure when everything went smoothly and the weeks of work were not wasted…

After the four dardeke-melamdim comes the second category of religious schools. Just as with the first category, where everyone had his own style and method of teaching, so also with the second.

Herszel Litwak

Herszel Litwak, a tall man with a black beard already sprinkled with silver. A fine person. He related to children with love. When a student excelled in learning, he would point him out as an example and would hand him something sweet – that his wife used to sell, since the small tuition fee was far from enough for a teacher to make a living even if his requirements were far from luxurious…

His subject consisted of Khumesh mit Rashi [Torah with Rashi commentaries], a little Tanakh, a little Gemore. His students still speak of him today with affection because he was a good and sincere person.

Icie-Majer Melamed

Icie-Majer Melamed was exactly the opposite of Herszel Litwak – still a young person but morbid and irascible. Most of his students were from the well-to-do class. The subject – a little of everything. He used to hit the students with sadistic delight until he would collapse in a faint. His sweet wife, the daughter of Mojsze Pabianicer [from Pabianice], lamenting, used to pull him away and calm him. Among the elements of his subject matter, the pshetl [hair-splitting argument] about Pesakh [Passover] that he began at Hanukkah held the most important place. He was extravagant with blows over this pshetl that a boy had to be able to say at the Seder on Pesakh. It is now fifty years since that time, but many of his students still remember that famous pshetl that he knocked into their heads with many blows.

Henoch Melamed

His brother Henoch was an entirely different person. He possessed a fine character. He even had more of a system, more order in his teaching. He believed in the rule of fewer blows and more teaching.

Gimpele Melamed

Gimpele Melamed was short in stature, a quiet, unassuming, good-hearted person. Most of his students were well-to-do children. The subject was similar to that as described above.

The majority of students virtually ended their education with these two categories of schools. A completely different element attended the other schools, which were actually schools of an even higher level.

These khadorim [Jewish elementary schools] from the third category had stronger Gemore teachers. The instruction was more systematic and introduced the student to a broader world of learning. Naturally, measured by today's methods of pedagogy, these khadorim were very limited, and what the students learned who succeeded in completing these khadorim was not much broader or more diverse than the learning of the students in the categories [of schools] mentioned before.

The Lutomiersker

The Lutomiersker [from Lutomiersk] Melamed – I believe hardly any of his students knew his real name, since among us he was known only as the Lutomiersker, from the name of the town from which he came. He was tall in stature. His great beard completely surrounded his earnest, severe face. His large front teeth increased the severity of his stately appearance, which strongly resembled Michelangelo's sculpture of Moses. A smile rarely appeared on his face. Always engrossed and absorbed in distant thoughts. His subject – Gemore – severe and serious. Also a little Maharsho [1555-1631 commentary on Talmud]. His type of students, who came from Hasidic parents, intended to continue their studies. His weapon was the well-known “korzhen” (a dried up tail of an animal), which he seldom used. The students used to brag about the small number of blows they received from that famous “korzhen.” It used to be said in town that a student who, during the course of three semesters, received no more than seven such “korzhanes” certainly should be considered a good student.

The Glowner

The Glowner [from Glowno] Melamed must also be counted mong the few Gemore teachers. He, just like the others, had his own individual methods and manner. The fact that his students remember him and speak of him with reverence is a sign that his influence was widespread. Among the khadorim that exerted an influence over Brzeziner youth, his kheder must occupy a prominent place.


brz058.jpg - The Glowner Melamed Luzer Tabak
The Glowner Melamed
Luzer Tabak


Luzer Tabak's kheder was on a higher level. A hoarse voice. A strict Gerer Hasid [follower of Ger {Gora Kalwaria} rebbe] who sought to exert influence over his students so that they would become the Gerer rebbe's future Hasidim. Although most of his pupils had parents who happen to have been Hasidim from other Hasidic courts, such as the Aleksanderer [from Aleksandrow] or the Grodzisker [from Grodzisk], he would, with forceful ardor, always describe his impression of the Gerer rebbe's tish [table]. He was a passionate user of snuff. With a certain air of confidence he would stuff a pinch of snuff into his nostrils without losing any of it. We, the students, waited for a great, strong sneeze, but it ended with a deep, satisfied sigh, “A-ah!”As a result of too much snuff, he had a half-burned mustache.

He taught us well and we learned thoroughly.

Abraham Kaluszyner

Abraham Kaluszyner [from Kaluszyn] also belonged to the category of the better teachers in town. The same type of student went to him as went to Luzer Tabak – future besmedresh bokhoyrim [prayer house young men, i.e., religious scholars].

Mojsze Pabianicer

Last but not least, Reb Mojsze Pabianicer's small kheder with a few students. Not everyone had the rare privilege to study with him. Every student had to be able to read a page of Gemore on his own. There one learned Yoyre-Deye [second part of the Shulchan Aruch, code of Jewish laws] and Khoyshen Mishpet [third part of the Shulchan Aruch]. Most of the students were already khosn-bokhoyrim [marriageable young men]. A student of Pabianicer was a candidate for a fine dowry and several years of kest [room and board at in-laws as part of marriage agreement].

The Two Mendels

The two Mendels should also be remembered among the teachers of my generation. In truth, Mendel Kop was not considered among the better teachers in our town although he excelled as a melumed [learned man]. Everyone knows he was strict and even a bit of a prankster with his students, delivering a blow if someone got distracted. Later Reb Mendel wondered if he had not, God forbid, hurt the playful child with his own hand.

The second – Mendel Jezower [from Jezow]. In Brzezin he was certainly considered among the better teachers. He was a Gerer Hasid, a Jew, a Talmud-khokhem [scholar]. Most of the students whom he prepared for the besmedresh came from Hasidic well-to-do parents, He certainly did not use a whip on their sharp Gemore-keplekh [Gemore-learned heads], but he was very fastidious in his manner of teaching. I remember him as being not of tall stature, middle aged, and an asthma sufferer. He used to smoke all the time, thinking that smoking was a remedy for his rasping, tormenting cough. He was continuously busy rolling his own cigarettes.

These were the teachers of our town who had an immense influence over several generations. Naturally, over the years, other teachers with new methods of teaching came, but those of our generation will, with deep respect, remember these, our first teachers, who introduced us to the spiritual values of Judaism. True, they did it in a very primitive manner, which was the style of Jewish education in those years, but thanks to them, it awakened in us an eagerness toward general education – to familiarize ourselves with worldly, progressive, and revolutionary currents, which began to flow into our social lives. These very educational institutions, which we have only outlined with a few cursory strokes of a pen, are no longer there in our town, just as everything about our town is now eradicated by the devilish hands of the villains. But we will remember those intellectual institutions of ours as long as the pulse of the Jewish people beats.

[Pages 59 60]

Benjamin Melamed [the Teacher]

brz059.jpg - Melech Herszenberg

by Melech Herszenberg

Translated by Renee Miller

Edited by Fay Bussgang

As long as I can remember my father was always a very impractical man in worldly matters, and whenever my mother would complain to him and ask questions, he would always have a justification ready. “What should I sacrifice myself for? Since, all told, this world is just a 'passageway,' an antechamber to the true palace that is the oylem-habe [world to come], which is the only worthwhile thing!”

Right after their wedding he enlisted his brother-in-law in a “business undertaking” – they published a seyfer [religious book], Pardes Dovid [Paradise of David] – and he lost both his nadn [dowry from wife's family] and a thousand rubles of his Uncle Dawid's money.

My mother quickly understood that she had to bear the yoke and carry the burden of making a living on her own weak shoulders. She began to sell “lottery tickets.” And since this was not enough, she agreed to take in to our room-with-a-kitchen an old senile woman, who was a relative of the rich Landsbergers from Tomaszow. They paid five rubles a week for her and also gave my mother the privilege of buying leftovers of wool from their factory. We called them leystn [remnants]. When I recall the misery my poor mother had to suffer over that old woman, my hair stands on end! More than once our neighbors came to bring us the message that the old woman wanted to undress herself in the middle of the street; and to bring her into the house was not very easy.

From time to time my father would help make a living with his teaching. The wealthiest rich men of the town would bring him their sons, the khosen-bokhoyrim [marriageable young men], in order for him to teach them. It never lasted more than one semester and often not even that long. My mother used to beg him with tears in her eyes, “Benjamin! Have God in your heart! Don't hit them! It's really a shame, such fine children! They're really rich children! Their parents certainly won't tolerate it!”

But my father had his justification. “I will not sell my soul for a few rubles! The parents gave the shkutsim [smart alecks] to me so I could teach them Torah! During the few hours a day that is set aside for the Torah, they will learn from me, not look out into the field at the shiksas [non-Jewish women]!”

Since he quickly lost his students, he began to write a seyfer by the name of Shoymer Emunim [Guardian of the Faithful], but he could not find a partner with funding, and it was never published. When I once asked him, “What is holding up the little book?” he yelled at me, “Sheygets [smart aleck]! This is not just some sort of little book! This is a small seyfer! It states how important it is to observe and to repeat every 'omeyn' [amen] while praying.” He then added, “Every 'omeyn' is worth more than a million rubles!” I knew I risked getting a smack in the face, but I could not hold myself back and asked, “Why don't you exchange a couple of 'omeyns' for small change and give it to Mama to make Shabbos?” My cheek still burns today! ...

My oldest brother, who was a well-known child prodigy (by the age of nine he knew the entire Mesekhte [Talmud tractate] backwards and forwards), was betrothed to a girl with one shoulder higher than the other, the daughter of a rich alcohol “brewer” in Gozlin. At that time my brother was ten years old, and the girl, thirteen. He was to get eybike kest [room and board from in-laws] for the rest of his life, so that he could sit and study. There was no limit to my father's happiness – one child provided with “olyem-habe” …

My mother cried and begged him, “Benjamin, dear! He is truly still a child!” But the only thing he gave in to was that they would wait six years before the wedding.

Since my father had no dowry for my oldest sister, he got for her an observant young man named Jozef Calek, the son of the hoarse Jehoszua. The young man took after my father completely, both with his piety and also with his impracticality. My mother used to call them the “Father-in-law and son-in-law team.”

Right after the wedding the young couple opened a food shop, and they had enough to eat, until they ate up the store…

A meeting was called, and it was decided that my brother-in-law should become a soyfer [scribe]. He went to Lodz for a couple of months, and he returned home a trained scribe. Since the town knew very well how pious Jozef was, it did not take long until he was bombarded with work.

Pious Jews were willing to pay for a mezuzah [small tube attached to doorpost that contained an inscribed parchment] or Tfillin-parshes [passages of the Torah placed inside phylacteries] five or six times more than they would pay another soyfer for the same work. But he did not become a rich man simply because he had to go to the mikve [ritual bath] each time before he wrote down a “Shem” [the name of God].

Suddenly he decided he would not write any more! My sister cried and begged him, “Jozef! Don't do it just for me! But our four children, they will surely, God forbid, die of hunger!” He gave her an answer a bit reminiscent of my father's, “I will not sell my soul! I am not pious enough to do such holy work!”

In his mid-sixties, my father fell ill, and all the Lodzer and Warsaw doctors helped little.

I was already married then and ran a candy store that once belonged to Icek Landau. In the town I was considered a shtikl gvir [something of a rich man].

It was six o'clock in the evening at the beginning of the month of Shvat [January–February], the second day of the month. At just the time when I was very busy in my shop, my mother came in with tearful eyes and said, ”Run quickly to your father; he wants to say something to you!”

I felt that something bad was about to happen, and running quickly, I thought: what will he say? He would surely say, “Melech! You must remember that your mother, unfortunately, will now be left alone!”

As soon as I came over to the sickbed and saw my father's face, I stood amazed – his eyes gleamed, his whole face shone, his entire bearing gave the impression that he was preparing himself for a great celebration. His sunken cheeks had a reddish color that I had not seen on him for a long time. He took my hand in his emaciated but hot hand, and pulling me nearer to him said, “Melech! You must never forget that you are a Jew!”

Suddenly he heard Mother crying in the next room; he shouted to her, “Surcia! Don't cry! The soul suffers from agony, and it will be hard for it to part from the body!”

My mother quickly wiped her eyes and came in. My father called her over and said, “Surcia! I guarantee to you that it will yet be so good for you that they'll be ringing your doorbell…”

Then I was sure that the fever made my father speak that way. I thought to myself: All her life she suffered and did not make a living, and now she would suddenly have good luck…but I must now say that my father's words completely came true, one hundred percent. My mother later was married a second time to her uncle, the Warsaw Rabbi Perlmuter, and she lived her last few years as a queen.

At that time, however, my father's words sounded very strange to me. Suddenly my father noticed that a grandchild of his who was a Koyen [Cohen – a descendant of the priestly caste] was standing at the bedside, and he shouted at him, “Mojszele! What are you doing here? You know you are a Koyen! Go away and don't come back! Better run up to Aunt Ruchel and tell her to come here right away and bring all the children from the biggest to the smallest.” Later I found out why he needed them. His brother Jekiel, who had died in Russia, had left here in Brzezin a cemetery plot already paid for that my father wanted to use. He wanted all the children and the aunt to give him their hands, to pardon him for asking, and allow him the right to use this cemetery plot. As soon as they consented to his wish, he breathed easier and spoke out to Zacharia Tandejter, the gabbai [trustee] of the Khevre Kedishe [Burial Society], “Zacharia, don't be ashamed and do only what is necessary. You should forget that you were my student. You see exactly how things are! And I would like to be ready before reshkhoydesh [first day of the new moon] is over!”

With lowered head and quivering fingers (not at all like his usual manner) Zacharia laid a feather under his former rabbi's nose and began to recite with him Videh [confession of sins]. My father repeated every word, and when it came to the word “Ekhod” [“One,” as in “God is One,” the last words of the prayer Shema Israel {Hear, O Israel}], my father breathed out his sacred soul…

A king, I think, could not have wished for a more beautiful death.

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