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[Page 112]

Spirit and Vision


[Pages 112-116]

On the Holidays[1]

by Yehuda Rosenwaks

Translated by Allen Flusberg

When the month of Elul[2] arrives, you immediately sense the special atmosphere that has enveloped the town, the atmosphere of the approaching Yamim Noraim[3]. The blasts of the shofar emerge and rise up out of the prayer houses, announcing the Day of Judgment[4] and encouraging the Jews to repent.

As yet there is no discernable change in the behavior and practices of the townspeople; all are still acting the same way they do the rest of the year. But once the days of the short Selichot[5] arrive, that apparent indifference melts away and disappears, and dread of Judgment Day places its mark upon every single person.

At the start of the third night-watch[6] the shamash[7] begins to drag his feet from one house to the next, tapping his small hammer on the walls to arouse the Jews and get them out of bed, as he announces in the traditional tune: “Awaken, awaken; rise up for Selichot!”

Even those shopkeepers who are busy all year round in their shops and don't usually tear themselves away for the Mincha [Afternoon] or Maariv [Evening] Prayer Service—even they now leave their wives in their shops to take over for them and free themselves up from all business to participate in public prayer in the synagogue.

The sense of a Judgment Day engulfs the synagogue on Rosh Hashana, especially when the prayer “Unetaneh Tokef[8] is recited and one comes to the fear-inspiring lines: “Who shall live, and who shall die…” Even those who do not know the meaning of the Hebrew words and don't quite understand the import are praying with complete devotion, appealing to the Master of the Universe to grant them a favorable judgment.

And those who have prayed are not in a hurry to return home on this day [Yom Kippur Eve]; even during the break they remain in the synagogue, crowding around the tables. Some are listening to talks on Torah and ethics, while others are studying a chapter of Mishna[9], and still others are reciting chapters of Tehillim[10].

The day after Rosh Hashana arrangements begin to be made for kapparot[11]: the heads of households make sure to purchase chickens for kapparot for all members of the family, according to what they can afford. And already on Yom Kippur Eve, beginning with early morning hours, just after the morning prayers have been completed, a sense of reverential awe encompasses everyone, and the townspeople begin to recite hatarat nedarim[12]. Since it is permissible for a court consisting of three men to nullify a Jew's vows, everyone is rushing to find three men who can serve as his court judges, so that he can declare before them the customary request that his vows be nullified. And these three respond accordingly, nullifying his vows, as they wish one another a good year and a chatima tova[13].

During the afternoon, around one o'clock, the daily Mincha prayer service begins. One group of ten men completes its prayer service and another group of ten immediately starts theirs. Later, when it is time for the Maariv service, on Yom Kippur Eve, every single Jew of the town will participate; not a single one will be absent.

This was also the opportunity for the gabbaim[14], who throughout the year customarily collect whatever donations the congregants pledge, to ask for any outstanding pledges. The money collected on this day usually covers most of the expenses of the previous year.

On Yom Kippur Eve the various institutions, “Chevrat Bikur Cholim[15], “Kupat Gmilut Chassadim[16], the Jewish National Fund and others would customarily place bowls in the synagogue for the collection of contributions. All those attending services on that day would tend to contribute generously, each according to his ability.

Those who have attended the afternoon prayers would have serious expressions on their faces when they return home to sit down with their families for the last meal before the fast. The meal passes without small talk; the atmosphere of Judgment Day is palpable throughout the home. After the meal the children approach their father for him to bestow on them the traditional blessing: May you be inscribed and sealed with a good year!

The head of the household then stands up, wearing a while kittl[17], and with great emotion he spreads his hands on the heads of the children while his lips murmur a long prayer. Standing opposite him is his wife, the mother, bent over the candles, tears running down from her eyes as she prays in a whisper, requesting that her husband and children should be inscribed and sealed for a good life.

These moments are deeply ingrained in the souls of the children. Many years have passed since I, too, was one of the children in my father's house, but I still recall this experience with reverence and awe, as if it had just happened yesterday.

And when we leave the house after the pre-fast meal, everywhere in the street the atmosphere of the holy day is noticeable. People are streaming to the synagogue, wishing one another a good year.

The synagogue, too, has changed its appearance: on the right, at the entrance, there is a crate of sand sitting on a table, with memorial candles stuck in it. Fresh, fragrant hay, with the scent of the outdoors, has been spread on the floor, to make it comfortable for the people to take off their shoes[18] and not be bothered by the cold of the floor.

The adult men praying are all wrapped in talitot[19], and many of them are also wearing white kittls. The tension reaches a crescendo when the Torah scrolls are removed from the Holy Ark, and two distinguished members of the congregation stand on either side of the cantor as he recites the agitating verses: “With God's permission and with that of the congregation…”[20]

And then, when the cantor begins to recite the Kol Nidre prayer, one can hear the sound of weeping from the women's section; with their tears they are seeking to relieve their worries and concerns about the Day of Judgment. And at that moment the sense of holiness and awe intensifies throughout the entire synagogue…

And when the fast day is over, at the end of the Ne'ila[21] prayer service, the mentality of those who are praying changes: the melancholy expression on their faces has faded away and has been replaced by a feeling of confidence, so characteristic of Jews. Their hearts have been filled with faith, with the belief that their community prayers have been accepted and that they will merit a good and blessed year.

And it is as if even the street looks different: the light of a full moon casts a glow over it, chasing the shadows away, as if it wishes to announce a renewed life.

The adults are still not hurrying home in spite of the difficult fast. Instead they are lingering outside the synagogue in order to sanctify the moon in its renewal[22], so that they can, through this prayer, fulfil their very first mitzvah for the new year.

And similarly there are those who have the custom of erecting a tent peg at the anticipated location of their Sukka[23] right after the meal eaten when the Yom Kippur fast day ends.

And anyone who has not seen Simchat Torah[24] being celebrated in the town has never seen true joy[25]. On the eve of the holiday the synagogue is crowded with people, their eyes aglow with the joy of the holiday. All anticipate being involved in the circular processions, during which everyone, from young to old, is given a turn to carry a Torah. The singing begins, rising up to heaven, and the dancing rattles the foundations of the synagogue. And the longer the processions last the more intense the jubilation becomes.

The following morning the prayer service begins early, to make it possible to have a celebratory holiday Kiddush[26]. This custom has been practiced by the townspeople for generations, and each of them tries to bring along and contribute some small portion of food according to what he can afford. Meanwhile people of means prepare a meal that is fit to be called a Kiddush, inviting the entire congregation to their homes. These Kiddush celebrations last until noontime, it being easy to see that, were they to continue longer, the congregants would have a hard time enjoying the meals that await them in their own homes. Truly a day that is all joy and delight.

These are the words that were engraved on the headstone of R. Meir Feivel, words of eulogy that are stylistically unique: a kind of tender lament, written in the phraseology of our ancient ancestors, and attesting to the modesty and greatness of spirit of a person who dedicated himself selflessly to teaching Torah to children of the poor (see p. 92)[27] [28]


A group of young people in the Schutzen-wald woods
Bottom center: Bertcha Holz[29]


Young people of Dobrzyn
In the center of the second row from below: Hersh Hartbrod[30]


Translator's Footnotes

  1. From My Town: In Memory of the Communities Dobrzyn-Gollob, edited by M. Harpaz, (published by the Dobrzyn-Golub Society, Israel, 1969), pp. 112-116. Return
  2. Elul = Hebrew month corresponding approximately to September, the last month before the New Year Return
  3. Yamim Noraim = Days of Awe (Hebrew), i.e. Rosh Hashana (New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), which are 9 days apart. Return
  4. Day of Judgment: a reference to the tradition that God passes judgment on all of mankind once a year, on Rosh Hashana, and seals their fate on Yom Kippur Return
  5. Selichot = prayers for forgiveness, recited at night, beginning several days before Rosh Hashana Return
  6. Approximately 4 hours before sunrise Return
  7. Shamash = beadle (Hebrew), who is responsible for running the daily prayer services of a synagogue or prayer house Return
  8. Unetaneh Tokef = the first two words of a Hebrew liturgical poem, more than a thousand years old, recited on both Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, relating how God judges mankind on these days, as He decides “who shall live and who shall die…” Return
  9. Mishna = book of Jewish law, written down circa 200 CE. Return
  10. Tehillim = Psalms, recited for special merit. Return
  11. Kapparot (Hebrew: atonements), a ritual carried out on the day before Yom Kippur, in which a Jew would wave a purchased chicken around his head, reciting “…let this chicken be my atonement (kapparati)….” Males would wave a rooster, while females would wave a hen. The chicken would be slaughtered, and either the meat or its monetary value given to charity. See the following link (retrieved June, 2014): http://www.chabad.org/holidays/JewishNewYear/template_cdo/aid/989585/jewish/Kaparot.htm Return
  12. Hatarat nedarim = nullification of vows (Hebrew), a ceremony customarily conducted on Yom Kippur Eve, in which a person “convenes” a “court” of 3 men and requests them to nullify past vows he may have made in error, as well as any vows that he might make throughout the following year. Generally such a procedure is considered to apply only to vows the person has made to impose restrictions on himself, such as not eating a particular food that is permitted by Jewish law. See the following link (retrieved July, 2015): http://www.jewishcontent.org/cgi-bin/calendar?holiday=tishrei402 Return
  13. chatima tova (Hebrew) = (literally) a good sealed inscription, i.e. a favorable judgment by God in His “Book of Life" Return
  14. Gabbaim (plural of gabbai) = synagogue treasurer functionaries, who, among other duties, collected contributions and organized the provision of charity to the needy Return
  15. Chevrat Bikur Cholim = Association for Visiting the Sick Return
  16. Kupat Gmilut Chassadim = Benevolence Fund Return
  17. kittl = loose white robe, tied at the waist, customarily worn by men on Yom Kippur. See the following Web site (retrieved August, 2014): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kittel Return
  18. Wearing leather shoes is prohibited on Yom Kippur. Return
  19. Talitot = prayer shawls (singular: tallit) Return
  20. See the following link (retrieved July, 2015) for more details on the Kol Nidre prayer and the verses recited before and after it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kol_Nidre Return
  21. Ne'ila = the closing prayer service of Yom Kippur, which is completed about 40 minutes after sunset Return
  22. For details on the ritual sanctification of the moon (kiddush levanah) see the following link (retrieved July, 2015): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kiddush_levana Return
  23. Sukka = temporary dwelling erected for the one-week celebration of the Sukkot holiday, which begins five days after Yom Kippur. Return
  24. Simchat Torah = a joyous holiday of dancing in a procession in which Torahs are carried around; it is celebrated 8 days after the beginning of the Sukkot holiday. Return
  25. Paraphrase of statement in the Mishna (Sukkah 5:1; Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 51a): “Whoever has not seen the Celebration of the Water Drawing has never seen true joy.” Return
  26. Kiddush = (literally sanctification) food and drink eaten to sanctify and celebrate a Sabbath or holiday, in this case immediately after the morning prayer service ends Return
  27. From p. 112 of reference cited in Footnote 1. Return
  28. An English translation of the Hebrew inscription follows:
    "Here lies buried Meir Shraga, son of Yehuda the Kohen. May his soul be bound in everlasting life. Call the dirge-singing women and send for the skilled women to arouse crying and wailing; Together with them let our tears run down, and let us weep with a wailing sound. For the crown of our head has fallen, our dancing turned into mourning. Our hands are all weakened, for we have been left desolate and solitary. The gladness of our heart has been stilled by the death of our father, a precious soul, Rabbi Meir Feivel son of Yehuda of blessed memory. May his great righteousness in teaching Torah accompany His soul, keeping it bound in heights above, concealed, in perfect peace. At the age of 52, on the 9th of Adar 5658, he passed away and is gone."
    The poem is a double acrostic. The abbreviation for “Here lies buried:” at the very top of the inscription are continued by the first and last letters of each line, the first letters spelling out “Meir Shraga, son of", and the last letters spelling out “Yehuda, the Kohen". In the first two lines of the poem the reference to dirge-singers who arouse weeping is an allusion to Jeremiah 9:16-17. The date of death corresponds to March 3, 1898. Return
  29. From p. 115 of reference cited in Footnote 1. Return
  30. From p. 116 of reference cited in Footnote 1. Return

[Page 117]

A Jewish Theatre in Dobrzyn[1]
(A Tribute to Yaakov Baruch Degala)

by Avraham Dor (Dobroszklanka)

Translated by Allen Flusberg

The unfavorable view of the small Jewish towns of Eastern Europe—which was adopted predominantly by the Enlightenment Period writers, and then later by the leaders of the pioneer-oriented movements—has long since faded away. Today we have learned to discern the extent of the hyperbole that was present in their criticism, and we have come to value the coping skills and morale of our forefathers who lived in these towns.
Nowadays we marvel at the unglorified courage and unpraised valor of the many Jews who lived in small towns and were able to withstand the persecution they were suffering and, in effect, outsmart the Gentiles by defiantly fashioning a thriving Jewish milieu.

Life in the town was indeed vibrant, not only within the realm of Torah, but in ordinary, daily life as well. The town had a way of life of its own that differentiated it from its Gentile surroundings and set it apart.

There is no doubt that the Jewish theatre played a particularly important role in this Jewish milieu. For it was here, on the stage, that we had an opportunity to express what was in our hearts, to soar on the wings of our imagination and to dream…

In Dobrzyn, as well, there was a theatre that belonged entirely to one person, Yaakov Baruch Degala. For who, other than Degala, was ready to devote his days and nights to stage a play, in difficult circumstances and with amateur actors—actors who, with his guidance, were just beginning to learn how to enunciate correctly and how to position themselves on the stage?

I can still see him: a man of average height, his long hair hanging down over the nape of his neck, and a smile on his clean-shaven face. That smile never left his face; he always greeted people cheerfully, and he was always ready and willing to tell a colorful joke.

He was the son of the town cantor, a bachelor who continued to live at his parents' house. There was not a single performance in the town that he did not take part in, whether as director or as one of the organizers. He encouraged the amateur actors with his inexhaustible energy. He would first read the play out loud to the actors and elaborate on the personalities of the characters. Many of the young people in the town were among his student actors. I, too, was fortunate enough to take part in one of the plays, Reb Aba'le Ashkenazi, written by Z. Anchi.

He found these plays in the stories and skits of Yiddish writers: Shalom-Aleichem, Peretz, and others, arranging them for the stage. The plays were performed in Morzanski Hall, which had about 300 seats and specialized in performances.

How much toil and trouble Yaakov Baruch Degala took to bring these plays to the stage, not only in selecting suitable actors and directing them, but also in bringing in costumes and other stage accessories that he did not have in his possession!

At first the Hassidim of the town did not look favorably upon this theatrical activity, but as time passed they adapted to the idea, particularly since the plays were staged during the Jewish holidays, when Jewish hearts crave for a bit of pleasure.

But we, the young people of the town, were very attached to him and were enchanted by his cheerful personality. We remember him as someone who contributed a great deal to the social and cultural life of Dobrzyn.

Performance of “God, Man and the Devil” in the amateur theatre of Dobrzyn[2]


Translator's Footnotes

  1. From My Town: In Memory of the Communities Dobrzyn-Gollob, edited by M. Harpaz, (published by the Dobrzyn-Golub Society, Israel, 1969), pp. 117-118. Return
  2. From p. 118 of reference cited in Footnote 1. Return

[Page 119]

The Idea of Aliya to Israel Strikes Root[1]
by Yehuda Rosenwaks

Translated by Allen Flusberg

The spread of the Zionist idea among Polish Jewry and the strengthening of the yearning for the Land of Israel did not skip over Dobrzyn and Golub. I recall, from the time of my youth, the first Zionists in the town. The fire of the Zionist idea was kindled in their hearts by the sight of the destruction wreaked during the pogroms and the accompanying cries of despair by the Jewish masses; and from that day and on they did not cease, even for a single moment, encouraging their people to leave the Exile.

The shock of the pogroms opened the eyes of many who had until then viewed the Zionist endeavor as a false illusion, a chimeric vision. Now they felt they had reached a crossroad, and a number of them began to ask themselves: what is this place to me, and whom do I have here?

The verses that had so often been repeated as an afterthought: “And may our eyes behold Your merciful return to Jerusalem”… “And may You build up the Holy City of Jerusalem speedily in our time”[2]…began to receive a new, fuller meaning as an imperative. And thus as they sought to fulfil this idyllic aspiration of generations of Jews, many of the young people were brought closer to the Zionist idea.

There was, of course, no shortage of parents who tried to prevent their children from immigrating to the Land; but in this matter the children were no longer fulfilling the commandment to honor the desire of their fathers and mothers. Many of the townspeople joined the pioneer movements, went off to hachshara[3] locations, and prepared themselves for Aliya.

Seeing various categories of anti-Semites flourishing, and their influence intensifying, only made the longing to leave the Exile grow by leaps and bounds. Gangs of anti-Semites would often rampage through city streets, harassing Jews. The young people of the town felt that the ground was burning under their feet, and that they no longer had any future in this blood-soaked land. The decision crystalized in their minds that they had to immigrate to the Land of Israel and to help build and resurrect the old-new homeland.

However, there were many whose eyes were unable to see clearly, and who ignored the harsh, dismal reality; they did not discern the political changes and did not sense the reverberating enmity against the Jews. Like ostriches, they hid their heads in the sand, waiting out the storm…until the terrible storm came and swept them away…

Among the first to immigrate to the Land, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, was the family of R.[4] Ephraim Eliezer Granat; and after them the first pioneers, who arrived when they were very young: Shlomo Hartbrot and Yehoshua Isaac[5] of blessed memory.

Mention must be made of the Zionist R. Feibish Lipka,[6] a great Torah scholar who was an Otwock Hassid[7]. By 1913 he had already begun to preach the idea of redemption. His enthusiasm increased even more after he made a visit to the Land and observed with his very own eyes the great desolation and the generation of the Magshimim[8] who were struggling against the desolation and managing to overcome it. After he returned to Poland he traveled from one city to another and encouraged his fellow Jews to arise, to immigrate to the Holy Land and rebuild its ruins.

His toil was not in vain. The Zionist movement in Dobrzyn and Golub grew and expanded as the members of the passionate youth movements rose up to fulfil their dream, leaving their parents' home behind as they immigrated to the Land of Israel.

The youth movements that arose intensified the Zionist activity and won the people over. Many began to learn the Hebrew language and to study the doctrines of Zionism, which were capturing the hearts of the people.

As stated above, Sh. Hartbrot and Y. Isaac were the first of the Magshimim. They had been educated in and graduated from the “Herzlia” high school. The former was killed at a young age at the end of the First World War, when the Germans invaded the Land. The second, Y. Isaac, joined the “Hashomer[9] organization, which had as its goal the defense of the Jewish settlements against Arab bandits. He was one of the founders of the Hebrew Defense Forces and served from the days of “Hashomer” until the rebirth of the State of Israel, by which time he had risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Israel Defense Forces.

Those who were the first to arrive did not remain alone: many others followed in their footsteps, contributing their talents and their youthful enthusiasm to the rebuilding of the Land.

Translator's Footnotes

  1. From My Town: In Memory of the Communities Dobrzyn-Gollob, edited by M. Harpaz, (published by the Dobrzyn-Golub Society, Israel, 1969), pp. 119-120. Return
  2. These are quotations from the Amida, the silent prayer recited three times daily. Return
  3. Hachshara = training in work to prepare for the move to Palestine. Return
  4. R. = Reb, an honorific similar to English “Mr.” Return
  5. Yehoshua Isaac (later Eshel), 1900-1966. A short biography of him can be found in this volume: A. Dor, “Yehoshua Eshel,” pp. 218-219 of reference cited in Footnote 1. Eshel was also the author of the next article, “The First Dobrzyners in the Land of Israel,” pp. 121-126 of reference cited in Footnote 1. Return
  6. For more details on R. Feibish Lipka, see Y. Lipka, “Memoirs Dedicated to My Father, R. Feibish Lipka,” pp. 404-438 of reference cited in Footnote 1. Return
  7. Otwock (pronounced Otvotsk) is the name of a town in Poland (located ~30km southeast of Warsaw) that the leaders of this Hassidic group were associated with. See the following links (retrieved August, 2015): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amshinov_%28Hasidic_dynasty%29, http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Vurke_Hasidic_Dynasty Return
  8. Magshimim = those who fulfil (the dream) Return
  9. For more details on Hashomer ( = the Watchman), see the following link (retrieved August, 2015): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hashomer Return


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