Translated by Sidney Lightman
My brother Mordechai had one of two answers for all of them either "This matter requires consideration", or "This will have to be thought about". I, for my part, did not think twice about refusing all the matches offered to me, because every single one was the daughter of a shochet, and I had already decided that I would on no account marry a shochet's daughter. I had never forgotten the dispute between my brother-in-law, Moshe, and Yossel's son, Meyer, which had made me realise that a shochet was always dependent on the opinions of others, and I had come to hate the profession. Even a great man like my father, who had been highly esteemed and lauded by one and all and treated with respect and honour, had been unable to find anyone to take his part when a dispute had broken out, and had had to suffer in silence while every ignoramus and boor in the community aired his opinion on the matter.
One day, out of the blue, Reb Hirschel Merova came to our house and told Mordechai that he had a match for me, the only daughter of a rich Cracow shochet, a real beauty. The shochet was prepared to give four-thousand crowns to whoever would marry his daughter, as well as board and lodging for as long as the young man might wish, and so on and so on. Mordechai, who was normally very cautious and was not given to making hasty decisions, showed great interest and noted down every detail, and I could see that he favoured this match and wanted to have a serious discussion about it with me. I was left with no choice but to reveal my secret loathing of our father's and his profession. I did not beat about the bush. "Listen, Mordechai", I told him, "I would not marry a shochet's daughter, even if he were to give me a house full of gold and silver, and even if his daughter were the most beautiful girl in the world. I have hated the profession of shochet ever since I saw the insolence and lack of respect all those nobodies showed our father. Please, Mordechai, don't have anything to do with any matchmaker who proposes a match with the daughter of a shochet". Mordechai, who had listened in silence to what I had to say, made no reply.
A short time later, he received a letter from Kolomia, from Moshe Weber, proposing a match for me with the daughter of a rich and respected businesswoman, Mrs B, who had a furniture shop in the town centre. The girl was well-educated, as well as good-looking, and her brother, Berl, a distinguished scholar, wanted me as a brother-in-law. Reb Weber concluded by urging Mordechai to answer his letter immediately, because Mrs B had received many offers, but had deferred consideration of all of them until she heard what reply he had received to his letter, because he was a constant visitor to her home and she trusted him.
But, as I have said, Mordechai was a cautious man, so he put Reb Weber's letter together with all the other letters, and turned the matter over in his mind. Less than a week later, there was a second letter from Reb Weber, urging Mordechai to reply without delay, before someone else beat him to it. My brother put this letter aside, too, and said no more about the matter. After several months, I could contain myself no longer. "Why haven't you mentioned the match with Mrs B's daughter? I told you months ago that I was interested in a match of that kind, and I would like to know whether you think this one is suitable. If not, let's drop the matter. Why should Moshe keep writing to no purpose? Pick up your pen and tell him 'Yes' or 'No'". Mordechai said that he would consider the matter for a few days and then decide what to do. His decision was that we should go to Kolomia via Tchortkov and ask the Tchortkov Rebbe's advice, and he wrote Moshe Webber that we would be coming to Kolomia within a day or two. I wrote to David, telling him what was afoot and asking him to be prepared to come to Kolomia, too, since it was not far from Czernowitz. I wanted him to come because he was more experienced in the matter of choosing a bride than I was. A few days later, we set off for Tchortkov, where the Rebbe wished us good fortune, and his son, Rabbi Yisrael, may his memory be blessed, gave us the names of three well-known people who would be able to provide us with all the information we needed about the family in question: Shimon Rota, the father of Rabbi Meshulam Rota, who was, as stated earlier, living in Kolomia at that time, and two Tchortkov Chassidim Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel Zilber, a member of the rabbinical court in Kolomia, and Rabbi Heschel Schoenberg. Rabbi Yisrael also blessed us.
Before leaving for Kolomia, we sent express letters to David and the matchmaker, telling them when we would be arriving, so that they could meet us at the railway station, which they did, and we all secured lodgings at a house owned by Reb Leib Tanenbaum, a Vishnitz Chassid. Moshe Weber then went out and came back with an invitation to Mrs B's house. Although we had obtained certain information in the meantime, which made it clear that Mrs B's daughter was not a suitable match for me, we decided to accept the invitation out of courtesy. We were received very graciously, but stayed for only a short time and then went back to our lodgings, where an argument broke out between Mordechai and Moshe Weber. Mordechai told him that he should have known in advance that the match was not a suitable one, seeing that he knew our family so well, and should not have brought us all the way to Kolomia on what had turned out to be a wild goose chase. Nor should he have involved us in the unnecessary expense of the journey and accommodation. Moshe Weber replied that Kolomia was a big city and there were plenty of other matches. This made Mordechai even more angry, and he told Moshe Weber not to suggest any more matches. He and I and David had not come to Kolomia for a marriage mart. To which Moshe Weber replied that it was impossible for a man to decide on a marriage partner until he had seen all the potential ones. At that point, Shimon Rota, who happened to be a grain merchant, came in with his partner, Moshe Tindell, and, catching sight of us, came over to talk to us. We gave him greetings from his son and then told him everything. Meanwhile, Moshe Weber suddenly disappeared, returning two hours later accompanied by a saintly-looking man with an honest face, whom he introduced to Mordechai and me as Reb Leibele Eifermann. We greeted him, and he returned our greeting. Moshe Weber then called Mordechai aside and said that no one would say anything against this new match he was trying to arrange, and he hoped God would crown his efforts with success and that he, Moshe, would be able to right the wrong he had done us. And now, he continued, he had two requests to make of us: that we should not say why we had come to Kolomia, and that we should not reveal that David was our brother, because the family was very Orthodox indeed, and a worldly-wise, clean-shaven brother without side curls might well prove to be an obstacle in the way of the match. Reb Shimon Rota would tell us all about the family, Moshe Weber added.
Mordechai went outside with Reb Rota, and David moved away and stood to one side, as if he did not know us and just happened to be staying at the same lodgings. Reb Leibele engaged me in conversation, and I could see from his face that he liked me. When Mordechai came back in, he knew about the family in general and Reb Leibele, my prospective father-in-law, in particular.
Reb Leibele had a big, very well-stocked grocery shop, which also
sold wines and spirits, in the centre of Kolomia, and was a wholesaler as
well as a retailer. It was a flourishing business, and people came
from far and wide to shop there, because they knew that they would get
honest measure. Indeed, they always referred to the shop simply as
"the honest shop". Many non-Jewish officials used to buy there, too, on
credit, and pay at the end of the month, when they received their
salaries. It was hard work in the shop, from dawn until dusk and, very
often, until midnight. There were four sales assistants, and the
service was excellent. The person responsible for all the work, as
well as the supervision and the administration was Leibele's wife, Reisel
Sima. She was clever, a shrewd businesswoman, modest, highly respected
and from a prestigious family her father was Reb David Hornik, of
Kalish, known as David Zakaiele's [Zakai's David Zakaiele is the
diminutive of Zakai, which means "innocent", "righteous", "worthy",
"commendable", "full of merit"]. His father, whose name was Selig
[which means "blessed", "blissful", "happy" in German], was very much
loved by his parents, who did not call him "Selig", but "Zakaiele",
and the name stuck.
The girl Moshe Weber had in mind for me was Reb Leibele's third daughter. The first two were already married. Reb Leibele asked Moshe Weber in a whisper to go and bring his father, Reb Meshulam Ze'ev, to the hotel. Father and son accorded each other very great honour. Reb Leibele was Reb Meshulam Ze'ev's only son, and Reb Meshulam was proud of him, while Reb Leibele honoured his father because he was his father, and never did anything without first consulting him. Moshe went and brought Reb Meshulam, and Reb Leibele stood up when his father came in, a tall man with a beaming face. I could tell just by looking at him that this was no ordinary, simple man. After we had all exchanged greetings, Reb Leibele's father asked: "Where have you come from and where are you going, and what are we all doing here?" Mordechai answered him to his satisfaction, and then he ordered that Leibele's two sons-in-law, Yitzchak Greenberg and Mordechai Nussboim, should be brought to the hotel, together with his own elder son-in-law, Zvi Maimon. Less than an hour later, there were more than ten of us in the hotel. My brother, Davidl, meanwhile, stood off to one side and observed from a distance how I was being looked over and tested. Zvi Maimon had apparently been chosen in advance as the examiner because, not only were Messrs Greenberg and Nussboim younger than I but, because they had not yet been able to take the measure of this visitor to their town, they were also rather apprehensive about the possibility of becoming embroiled in a Torah war at our first meeting. Reb Zvi Maimon came over to me and asked me what I was studying at the moment. With the arrogance of a young "scholar of the Law", I replied that I was studying everything. "Yes, but which tractate?" "A tractate of the Talmud". "Which one are we going to discuss?" "Whichever one you like". He at once turned to Mr Tanenbaum and asked him if he had any volumes of the Gemara. "Yes, I have," he replied, and went and brought Tractate Chullin. Reb Maimon kept turning the pages, looking for a difficult passage that might trip me up. However, he clearly could not find what he was looking for, so I opened the volume at Page 11 and started to hold forth. Soon, the examinee had become the examiner, and I fired questions at them all and raised difficult points. Soon, everybody else was joining in, and interpretations and explanations flew back and forth. But, sharp as they were, I was sharper. I made the sparks fly, and none could withstand me. Reb Leibele's whole face lit up. As for David, he had to stand there, helpless to intervene in the battle, despite his Talmudic expertise.
Suddenly, Reb Leibele got up from the table and went over to David, thinking he was an ordinary guest at the hotel. "Excuse me sir", said Reb Leibele, "I hope that we are not disturbing you". "Not at all", replied my brother. "I am also interested in the discussion you are having, because I once studied Talmud and, from what I can see, that young man is very well versed in it". "Yes, indeed. We like him". "Oh, will the match be agreed, then?" David asked. "I hope so", said Reb Leibele and went back to the table.
David immediately went to Reisel Eifermann's shop to have a look at it and also at the girl in question. When he came back he made signs that everything was all right and we should proceed further in the matter. The examination ended, and Reb Meshulam invited us back to his son's house. When we arrived, Mrs Eifermann and her daughter were already there, and the table had been laid. We recited the evening service and were invited to take our places at the table. Mrs Eifermann engaged me in conversation about her family and her husband's family, and then introduced her daughter to us, praising her and saying that she was like her father in everything. After we had eaten and drunk and discussed religious subjects, we sat and talked for a while. Then Reb Meshulam Ze'ev rose to his feet and said: "I can see that it was God Who brought you here. That being so, and both sides having an equally distinguished pedigree, let us not miss this God-given opportunity. Let us agree to the match and shake hands to seal the agreement. What do you say, Reb Mordechai? Do you all agree?" My brother replied: "I never do anything without first consulting the Rebbe of Tchortkov. That is what my father, may his memory be blessed, did, and that is what I do." "If that is the case, if you want to consult your Rebbe, we shall consult ours, too", said Reb Meshulam. "I think that Reb Mordechai should go straight to Tchortkov from here, and my son-in-law, Mordechai Nussboim, will go with you, because he is also a Tchortkov Chassid."
At this point, Mrs Eifermann intervened: "We also have an entrée to Tchortkov. My brother-in-law, Abba Mihlshtein, the husband of my elder sister, travels to Tchortkov regularly. If you mention his name there, you will find out what sort of a family you are going to have the honour of marrying into, because he is very well-known and is held in high esteem." Reb Meshulam then went on to say: "Your brother will stay with us over Shabbat and, if the Rebbes agree, and I certainly hope that they will, we will arrange the formal betrothal and draw up the marriage contract next week, please God". When Mordechai saw how much they wanted the match and how much they liked me, he decided to slow things down, as was his custom. "My brother will not stay here, because there's no reason for him to", said Mordechai. He added: "If the Rebbe agrees, we'll travel straight back home from Tchortkov, and have the official betrothal some weeks later." But Reb Meshulam stood by his suggestion, and said sarcastically: "Your brother will not go short, if you leave him here." Then, smiling proudly: "He'll be with a Jewish family in a Jewish home, and we'll look after him". Moshe suggested a compromise: "We have a sister in Monastrishtch, our eldest one, Zvia, whose husband's name is Ephraim. We'll travel to Tchortkov via Monastrishtch, and my brother will stay there until we return to Kolomia, please God". After Mordechai had extolled the virtues of Zvia and her husband, his compromise suggestion was accepted. We set off the next morning and, after dropping me off in Monastrishtch, the two Mordechais, my brother and Mordechai Nussboim, continued to Tchortkov. After my brother had told the Rebbe all about the proposed match and mentioned that my prospective father-in-law was the brother-in-law of Abba Mihlshtein and also the father-in-law of Mordechai Nussboim, the Rebbe sanctioned the match and gave them his blessing. From there, they went to see the Rebbe's son, Rabbi Yisrael, and spent a long time with him. Mordechai Nussboim asked about our family and about our father, in particular. Rabbi Yisrael told him that our family was very reputable and highly respected. Our father had been unique among shochetim and had been an honourable and religiously observant man, whose every deed had been for the sake of Heaven. "From what I hear, this is an eminently suitable match, especially as far as the parents on both sides are concerned", Rabbi Yisrael declared, wishing them well. The two Mordechais went home happy -- my brother to Chorostkow, and Mordechai Nussboim to Kolomia.
A few days later, my brother received a letter from Kolomia asking us to go there for the betrothal ceremony and bring Zvia with us. The ceremony was wonderful. I gave a long Torah discourse, and I could see from their faces that everyone enjoyed it, including the bride's mother, who was standing to one side. The whole evening passed off very pleasantly, and we all went home happy and in high spirits. The following Sabbath, Mordechai made a Kiddush for his friends and fellow Chassidim, for which my sister-in-law, Chayah, prepared everything. Rabbi Meshulam Rota was there, and we gave him greetings from his father. He, for his part, spoke at length to those present in praise of the family into which I was going to marry, particularly Reb Leibele.
I returned to my beit hamidrash and continued with my studies. I wrote to my future father-in-law from time to time, including both discussion of some point of religious law and talk of everyday matters, and he replied in his usual spare style, making it clear that he enjoyed my letters. Just before Purim, I received the gift of a silver watch, and I reciprocated by preparing a handwritten book about Purim, demonstrating my knowledge and acuity, and including a specially written poem in honour of the festival, all in ornate script, as was the custom at the time.
I had hoped to receive a reply from my future father-in-law, thanking me and praising what I had done, but there was no reaction. I wrote to him, and wrote a second time, but no letter came in reply. Then two months later, I did receive a letter from Kolomia. This is what it said: "We have heard a bad report about you. We have been informed that you have two more brothers, a fact that you concealed, never once mentioning their existence. We understand that these two brothers are studying at a college in Czernowitz and that they are totally liberal in their religious beliefs and practice, and are not following in their father's footsteps in any way. We are apprehensive lest the potential son-in-law we have chosen may also be infected with this to some extent. Thus, the agreement we made was made in error, and we request that you release us from it in a good way and in secret, so that we shall not need to endure the unpleasantness of legal proceedings". I could not make out the signature, although I knew it was not my prospective father-in-law's. Mordechai told me not to reply but, this time, I could not bring myself to obey, because silence would be an admission of guilt, and the letter had cut me to the quick. Who would have thought, all those years ago, that David, such a wonderful person, on whom my father had doted, who had run away from home to go to yeshivah, who had more than once walked to Tchortkov to see the Rebbe, would now be an obstacle in my path? And how could I give up such a match, when it was exactly what I had prayed for? What was all the fuss about, anyway? Was I to be rejected because my brother was no longer strictly Orthodox? There was no law of that kind in the Shulchan Aruch!
I sat down and wrote to Moshe, the matchmaker, asking him if he knew what had happened. He wrote back a few days later, saying that he had met Reb Leibele Eifermann some weeks previously, and he had complained because Moshe had not told him about my other two brothers who, Leibele and his family had heard, were not religiously observant. If they were like that, who could know what was in the groom's heart? Leibele had said. Moshe said that he had told Leibele that my two brothers were honest, straightforward people, and had gone to Czernowitz after our father's death to study bookkeeping. What was wrong with that? Reb Leibele had walked away, and Moshe did not know whether his answer had reassured him or not. Moshe's letter went on to say that he had discovered soon afterwards that a group of fanatics headed by a man called Itzik Michal Stempfler had intervened in the affair. They could not bear the thought that so prominent a Chassid as Reb Leibele, the right-hand man of the Vishnitz Rebbe, should take a Tchortkov Chassid for a son-in-law. Was there such a shortage of suitable young men among the Vishnitz Chassidim, that Reb Leibele had to go and choose one from another town? Moshe concluded his letter by saying that the only thing to do was to wait until all the anger had died down. After I had read Moshe's letter, I wrote to our friend, Reb Shimon Rota. His reply was the same as Moshe Weber's, except that he added one thing which, he wrote, it was important for me to know. Abba Mihlshtein had been in Kolomia, and his sister-in-law, Reisel Eifermann, had poured out all her troubles to him, and had given him all my letters and the Purim book. Reb Mihlshtein had sat down in a corner of the shop and read them all, and had then said to his sister-in-law: "I don't know what you want. I can see from these letters that this is a very nice young man, intelligent, logical and well-versed in the Talmud, who has an attractive turn of phrase and writes well. I cannot see what you are complaining about". Reisel replied: "Abba, he knows too much. And who knows what hidden liabilities he has?" At this, Abba Mihlshtein grew angry. "Do you want everyone to be like Leibele?" he said. Reb Shimon Rota said that he had been told about the scene by someone who had been in the shop at the time.
I found Reb Rota's letter encouraging and, without asking Mordechai, I sat down and wrote to Reb Leibele. I heard later that my letter had had some effect and that he had tried to persuade his wife to change her mind. And what did she do, this wise woman? She invited Itzik Michal Stempfler to her home, told him the whole story and asked him to go to Chorostkow as a spy and make secret inquiries about our family and about my conduct. She would, of course, cover all his expenses, she told him. He agreed but, a few days later, came back to her and said that there was no need to go to Chorostkow, because he had managed to obtain all the information she needed in Kolomia. He said that my conduct was very ugly and there was no difference between me and my brothers. Furthermore, the "hotel guest" that her husband had spoken to, the clean-shaven one without sidelocks, had actually been one of those two precious brothers. Someone who was in the same position at the time told me all this in confidence. When Itzik Michal Stempfler had left, Reisel said to Reb Leibele: "Did you hear what Itzik Michal said? He is a poor man, and matters like this are his living, yet he did not want to cause us unnecessary expense. If a man like that gives up an opportunity to earn some money, surely he must be trustworthy? We have no choice but to do everything we can to rid ourselves of the young man." Reb Leibele immediately picked up his pen and wrote as follows: "I hereby cancel the betrothal.
The document concerning it is worthless. Because of the reports I
have received, I do not ask pardon, for this was an agreement made in
error", and signed it. Mordechai was not at all put out. "Don't worry,
brother. Everything is in the hands of God. If this match is not to
be, a better one will come along." But I shall not attempt to deny that
the letter made a powerful impression on me, because it had been written
by Reb Leibele himself, and I could not give up the match, because one
like that did not happen every day. I was very upset. Then David
suddenly appeared from Czernowitz, and Mordechai told him what had
happened and how unhappy I was, and showed him all the letters that
had come from Kolomia. David broke into derisive laughter. "You fool!" he
said to me. "Are you a girl that you are frightened of being left on
the shelf? You are a young man. Forget all about those
good-for-nothings, who want all the world to be like them and don't
want to accept that you are not responsible for what your brothers do.
Or perhaps you would like me to grow a beard and side-curls again? And
what will you do if they still don't want the match, throw yourself on
their mercy?" But I did not change my mind, and David's words had no
effect one me.
Several weeks later, Rabbi Meshulam Rota went to Tchortkov for Shabbat and, while he was there, he told Rabbi Yisrael the whole story, and also began praising me as a diligent student, and described how unhappy I was. He said that a handful of fanatics who could not bear the thought of a Tchortkov Chassid marrying into Reb Leibele Eifermann's family, had brought about the whole sorry situation. Rabbi Yisrael said: "The Vishnitz Rebbe will soon be marrying his daughter to the son of the Kupiczinze Rebbe. The ceremony will be in Kupiczinze. There is no doubt whatever that the Vishnitz Rebbe will pay me a visit, because he always does when he is staying anywhere near Tchortkov. He is a relative of mine my father is his uncle. I shall speak to him about this matter and hope that my words will have some effect". When he came back to Tchortkov, Rabbi Meshulam Rota told me about the conversation and about Rabbi Yisrael's intention to speak to the Vishnitz Rebbe, and I felt a little easier in my mind.
The day of the wedding came and, after the ceremony, the Vishnitz Rebbe travelled to Tchortkov to stay the night. I went to Tchortkov, too, the same night, because I wanted to find out if Rabbi Yisrael had spoken to him and what his reply had been. Also, I thought that I might be able to meet the Vishnitz Rebbe face to face and discuss the matter with him personally. There were many Vishnitz Chassidim in Tchortkov, and they had their own synagogue there. Their head was the well-known magnate, Nissan Pohoril, who had a mansion in the town, and the Vishnitz Rebbe stayed there whenever he visited Tchortkov. This time was no exception, and all the Vishnitz Chassidim assembled there to greet their Rebbe. Afterwards, he went to pay a visit to his venerable uncle, Rabbi David Moshe, may his memory be blessed. His Chassidim followed him there and waited outside. When the visit was over, the two men shook hands, and the Rebbe made his way back to Reb Pohoril's house, followed by his Chassidim, and began to receive their requests. They went in to him one by one and handed him a piece of paper with their request written on it, together with a gift of money. I insinuated myself into the crowd and, weaving this way and that, I eventually found myself standing in front of the Rebbe. I introduced myself as the future son-in-law of Reb Leibele Eifermann and gave him my piece of paper. When the Rebbe heard the name of Reb Leibele, he stretched out his hand and stroked my cheek, saying with a smile: "And what is happening about the dispute between you?" So he knew all about what had happened! I replied: "I have not come here about that." "So what do you want of me?" "I wanted to hear from you whether there is a law in the Shulchan Aruch that, if a son-in-law has a brother who is studying bookkeeping at college, the son-in-law is disqualified, the betrothal nullified and all contact broken off". "There is no such law in the Shulchan Aruch and no disqualification for that reason", the Rebbe replied. "If that is the case, why has Reb Leibele sought to cancel the betrothal?" Again he stroked my cheek. Then he said: "It is clear from the way that you speak that you are an intelligent person. I shall let you into a secret: Reb Leibele has very little to say in the matter. It is his wife, Reisel, who decides. It might be as well for you to accept a sum of money from her as compensation and look for another match. A young man like you should have no difficulty in that respect." I started trembling when I heard the Rebbe's words, but I pulled myself together and said: "I am not a merchant and I have not come here to do business. All I came for was to ask whether there was such a law, and if there is not, then law and order must prevail among us Jews." "So, what will you do?" asked the Rebbe. "If Leibele will give his wife a Get [bill of divorcement], then I will release his daughter", I replied.
The Chassidim began murmuring against me, accusing me of insolence towards their Rebbe, but he gestured to them to leave me alone and then stretched out his hand towards me as a signal that the audience was at an end. He wished me well and promised to try to do something in the matter.
I went back to where I was staying, but I could not sleep, because the Vishnitz Rebbe's advice about accepting compensation had upset me. I waited impatiently for morning to come, so that I could ask Rabbi Yisrael what he had said to the Vishnitzer and what he had said in reply. The next morning, standing in the market place, I saw crowds of people streaming towards the railway station, followed by a sumptuous carriage. In it were seated Rabbi Yisrael of Tchortkov and Rabbi Yisrael of Vishnitz. Our rabbi's three sons followed behind in a second carriage, and this in turn, was followed by carriage after carriage full of Vishnitz Chassidim, all escorting their Rebbe to the station on his way home. I wandered about excitedly, not knowing what to do next. An hour or so later, I heard a voice behind me calling: "Hey, you from Chorostkow! You from Chorostkow!" I turned round but could not see where the voice was coming from. Then, whoever it was began calling: "Hey, you, the son of Reb Avraham from Chorostkow!" and I saw Reb Nissan Pohoril beckoning me. I went up to him, and he said: "I'm not calling you for nothing. I saw how important the Tchortkov Rebbe thinks you are. You are in dispute with your future father-in-law, Leibele Eifermann, aren't you?" "Yes, I am, but how do you know about it?" "They were talking about it the whole way." I asked Reb Pohoril if he could tell me what they had said. "Yes", he replied, "I'll tell you word for word. The two Rebbes, yours and mine, were travelling together, and I was standing on the steps of the coach at the side. I heard your Rebbe ask mine: 'What is happening with the match between Reb Leibele Eifermann's daughter and the son of Reb Avraham the Shochet, from Chorostkow?' My Rebbe replied: 'The young man came to see me and asked me to help him, and I told him that Reb Leibele has nothing to say in the matter. It is his wife who decides, and she is a stubborn woman who refuses to change her mind, so what can I do?' Then, your rabbi said: 'Even so, it is only fair to try to do something to get the two sides to make peace with each other instead of being split, and not to shame the young man, who is learned and comes from a good family.' Your Rebbe praised you and your father at length, and my Rebbe promised that he would do everything he could".
I thanked Reb Pohoril, shook hands with him and went home. When I told Mordechai what I had learned, her smiled and said: "Well, we'll see whether your dreams will come true or not". Several weeks passed, and the High Holy-days were approaching, when I received a letter from Reb Shimon Rota, in which he said that he had happened to meet a member of the Eifermann family by chance, and had realised from his conversation with this person that, if I were able to go and stay in Vishnitz over Rosh Hashanah, the matter might yet end well. "I recommend that you do that", he wrote. When I asked Mordechai's advice, he sat on the fence, so I decided to go and see Rabbi Yisrael in Tchortkov. After he had read the letter, he said that he, too, would advise me to go to Vishnitz. "You have already done everything else, so do this, too. You normally celebrate Rosh Hashanah with us but, this year you can come to us for Yom Kippur instead". Plucking up my courage, I told Rabbi Yisrael that I did not have any money. He immediately took out his cash box, gave me twenty crowns and wished me luck.
Returning to Chorostkow, I made my preparations for the journey, and set off for Vishnitz two days before Rosh Hashanah. I arrived in Vishnitz the morning of the day before Rosh Hashanah. Since I was a stranger in the town, and did not want to stay at the same lodgings as Reb Leibele, I went into the first place I saw and asked whether he was staying there. When I was told that he was not, I put down my suitcase and said: "I'll stay here over Rosh Hashanah". After I had had something to eat and rested a little, I went out to explore the town. Suddenly, I caught sight of Reb Leibele some way off. He had a folded shirt over his arm and was clearly on his way to the bathhouse. Even from a distance, I saw his face brighten when he caught sight of me. I went up to him and greeted him, and he returned my greeting. His first question was: "Where are you staying?" I told him, and he said: "What a pity! Perhaps you can still take your things and transfer to where I am?" I told him that I did not think that would be right and, after brief reflection, he agreed. "We'll meet at the Rebbe's house, please God", he said and went on his way. In the evening, after the Rebbe had greeted me, I entered the synagogue, which was already packed with hundreds of Chassidim strange people from strange places. Many were from Hungary, and there were also more than a few from Vishnitz itself.
The Rebbe stepped down to the front of the Ark, and the service began. I became aware right at the beginning that there was a group behind me looking at me very intently, but I kept my eyes on my prayer book and continued praying.
When the service ended, the synagogue resounded with New Year wishes, mine included, and the congregation began moving to the Eastern end of the synagogue to wish the Rebbe well and receive a blessing from him. I went with them and did as they did. Then I caught sight of Reb Leibele in the crush, with his father, Reb Meshulam Ze'ev; Reb Meshulam Ze'ev's son-in-law, Zvi Maimon, and Reb Leibele's son-in-law, Yitzchak Greenberg. They all greeted me and I greeted them. Everybody then hurried home for the Yomtov meal, which they ate as quickly as was decently possible, so that they could go round to the Rebbe's courtyard and get a good place at his table in the hall there, where they could see him clearly and hear his interpretations of difficult passages in the Torah. I did not hurry, because I knew that I would not be among those privileged to sit round the Rebbe's table. I ate a leisurely meal and then went round to the hall. It was packed with hundreds of people, and more stood on the stairs. There were still more people standing in an orderly fashion round the table, at the head of which sat the Rebbe.
After he had made Kiddush with his own special tune and washed his hands, his collector, Ephraim, took off his shoes and climbed onto the table to do the Rebbe's bidding. The scraps left over from the Rebbe's meal were distributed, and the wine presentation ceremony began, with Ephraim handing out wine to those present on the instructions of the Rebbe. Some received a complete bottle, others a glass, and they all drank l'Chaim to the Rebbe. The noise was tremendous. Suddenly, I heard Ephraim shout: "The future son-in-law of Leibele!", "The future son-in-law of Leibele!" I forced my way to the table, and Ephraim held out a bottle of wine to me, as the Rebbe had instructed. I pushed my way to the head of the table and drank a l'Chaim to the Rebbe, who beamed at me benignly. I could see that Reb Leibele was absolutely delighted. Afterwards, he made his way over to me and said that the hall was too crowded for him to be able to remain for the Torah discourse that the Rebbe would give at the end of the wine presentation ceremony. Would I please to stay as close to the Rebbe as I could, so that I could hear what he had to say and tell him, Leibele, afterwards.
I did as he asked, of course. When the Rebbe had finished, many of the Chassidim sang songs, grace after meals was recited, and I left with those who were going home.
When I went to the synagogue to pray next morning, Leibele came up to me and said that the Rebbe had asked about me the previous evening. "When?" I asked him, very surprised. Reb Leibele explained that, after the first gathering had ended, there was a second, which only exceptional individuals were allowed to attend. It was at this second gathering that one could experience the real joy of Yomtov, because everyone drank and danced until midnight. The Rebbe danced with everyone in turn, pausing at intervals to give a brief Torah discourse.
Reb Leibele continued: "During the dancing, the Rebbe asked me: 'Where is your guest?' I told him that you did not know about the second gathering and had gone back to your lodgings after the first one. The Rebbe was surprised that I had not told you about it, and I felt ashamed." Later, someone who had been there told me that Reb Leibele had described to his family how the Vishnitz Rebbe had taken him aside during the dancing and said: "Leibele, I grew up in a home where we understood how to assess the character of a person. I tell you, Leibele, that the young man is a worthy one, and I can find no blemish in him whatsoever". When I heard that the Rebbe himself had set his seal of approval upon me, I knew that no one would dare to speak evil about me now. I kept my own counsel and waited.
After Rosh Hashanah was over, all the Vishnitz Chassidim assembled to take their leave of the Rebbe and receive his blessing, and everyone prepared a petition. I did the same. When Reb Leibele saw me in the crowd, he came over and asked me when I was thinking of returning home to Chorostkow. I told him that my train was leaving early next morning.
At that point, he began stammering and stuttering and mumbling, but the purport of his words was that I should travel with him via Kolomia and visit his home. "To what purpose?", I asked. He replied candidly that he had already forgotten what had happened between us and that, as far as he was concerned, bygones were bygones but, in order to advance matters and also to preserve domestic harmony, he thought it right that I should present myself to his wife, Reisel. That was not how I saw the situation, I replied. It was not right that I should present myself to his wife, in my view. What would people say if I did? Would they say that I had come to see the bride? It was not I who had to appease his wife but, rather, she who had to appease me. No, I would not be going home via Kolomia. Reb Leibele did not try to persuade me to change my mind. Instead, he shook my hand, said he hoped we would meet again soon, and went on his way.
I heard later, after I had returned to Chorostkow that, when Reb Leibele arrived home, he said to his wife: "Mazzeltov! The Rebbe has agreed to the match and even blessed us and wished us luck." Reisel was astonished. "When has the Rebbe ever seen him?" she cried. Then Reb Leibele told her that I had also been in Vishnitz over Rosh Hashanah and that the Rebbe had taken a great liking to me. After repeating what the Rebbe had said to me, Reb Leibele told his wife: "If you believe in the Rebbe, you must do what he says". Reisel was in a quandary. She could not refuse to obey the Rebbe, but she could also not change her attitude in a moment and agree to something she had fought against for a long time. In the end, Reb Leibele said: "Let us call our daughter and see what she thinks".
When his daughter heard that the Rebbe favoured the match, she said: "If the Rebbe agrees, then I agree". "Oh yes?" said her mother. "If that is the case, my girl, be in no doubt that the responsibility is all yours. I will not be responsible in any way". A few weeks later, I received a letter from Reb Leibele, written in his usual terse style, bidding me to prepare myself for my wedding which he would be arranging in the near future, please God.
My future father-in-law prepared a beautiful prayer shawl for me,
with solid silver ornamental edging and a shtreimel of the finest fur, as
well as a special silk overcoat, lined with fox fur, for Shabbat.
Chorostkow was, indeed, a small town, although its rabbis were great, and many scholars and intellectuals lived there. There were many synagogues, including the beautiful Great Synagogue, as well as batei midrash [singular: prayer hall and/or house of study], in Chorostkow, There was also a bathhouse of ample dimensions, containing a mikveh. A special non-Jew was on duty every Friday from early in the morning until a short time before sunset, to draw water from the well with a water wheel, which raised it to the trough, from where it flowed straight into the pool. Monday was market day, and most of Chorostkow's residents earned their living from it, because there were many villages in the area round the town, and thousands of peasants from these villages used to bring their produce to the market, where Jewish merchants and dealers used to buy it from them. In the centre of the town was a large open space, which could accommodate thousands of people. In addition, there were two large enclosures on the outskirts of the town, one for cattle and one for other livestock. A great deal of money changed hands in the market, and shopkeepers, hotel-owners and dealers used to earn enough on market day to keep them and their families for the rest of the week. The town thieves and pickpockets also used to do well on market day except for one unlucky fellow, whose story is worth telling briefly, I think.
There was an organised gang of thieves in Chorostkow, whose leader, Avramele Kreut, was known as "The King of Thieves". Every tyro who wanted to join the gang had to appear before this Avramele and make the following request: "My lord king, take me under your wing". Avramele would then test him, and if he proved adept at thievery and robbery, would allow him to join the gang. That was the only way anyone could join the gang. One day a young red-haired fellow came along and asked to be admitted to membership of the gang. "King" Avramele looked him up and down, assessed his capabilities, and told him to go and buy a gulden's worth of apples. Before you could say "Jack Robinson", the young man had dashed to the market and returned with the apples. Avramele rounded on him angrily: "Why have you brought me apples? I told you to bring plums!" Undaunted, the young thief looked Avramele straight in the eye and replied: "Not so, my lord king. You asked me to bring you apples, and I have brought you apples". Avramele was furious at this insubordination and ordered his henchmen to give the young man a thrashing and lock him up until he came to his senses. They did as they were ordered, but the young man kept protesting: "The King told me to bring apples". Avramele went over to him, told him to stand up and declared: "My boy, you are now one of us! You are a thief and you will develop into a talented one, because sticking to your guns, even if you suffer as a result, is the secret of being a good thief".
Next market day, Avramele sent this new member of his gang, who was called Chaim, to the market to try his luck. Taking a sharp knife with him, Chaim made his way to the cattle enclosure, which was crowded with thousands of peasants and cattle dealers. As he looked about him, he saw one peasant sell a pair of horses for a tidy sum and put the money in his jerkin pocket. Chaim went straight over to him, slit the jerkin with his knife and took the money. Unluckily for Chaim, however, the peasant felt him do it and began shouting. In a twinkling he had been grabbed by some of the crowd and taken off to the local jail. The building was brand new it had been finished only a few days before and Chaim was its first and, at the time, only inmate. The next morning, he was found dead in his cell. Avramele and his whole gang accompanied the body to the cemetery.
Now, we shall let Chaim's bones rest in peace and return to the subject of the town's synagogues and batei midrash. Although I studied at various batei midrash for several hours a day, I spent most of the day, until late at night, at the Tchortkov Chassidim's synagogue.
Obviously, most of the worshippers there were Tchortkov Chassidim, decent, learned men like Shlomo Katz and his brother-in-law, Isaac Widermann; Isaac's relative, Arieh Broinshtein; Avraham Zeiden; Avramche Ashkenaz; Chaim Shimon Mihlrad; Avraham Chaim Heilpern, the treasurer, and his two sons, Yaakov and Shmuel Yitzchak, etc, etc, etc. The congregation also included some outstanding Torah and Talmud scholars, such as Yisrael Tanenbaum and Zalman Rottenberg. Each of them deserves very much more than a mere mention, and there are others, not mentioned, who also deserve to be written about at length. However, space is at a premium, so I shall write about only three of them: Moshe Weisselberg, who was called "Ginger Moshe", Shabbetai Shamash and Alter Kotter.
There was nobody in Chorostkow like Ginger Moshe, a sycophant. He was a rich businessman, with a mansion in the centre of the town, and was constantly in and out of the palace of the lord of the town, Simianski, who was considered one of the great Polish noblemen. Nevertheless, this same Ginger Moshe could not even sign his name, let alone read or write. All the letters and telegrams he received were read to him by a young man called Elia Katz, the son of Itzi Katz, an educated man and a respected householder. But Ginger Moshe had a sharp brain and a retentive memory, and he wanted to be the community's chief spokesman. On holidays like 3 Cheshvan or 19 Kislev, when the Chassidim all used to come together, and my father, a fluent speaker, used to tell stories about the deeds of the Patriarchs and other saintly men, Ginger Moshe used to make insolent interjections and pester my father to talk about Simianski and sing his praises. When Chassidim and men of good deeds sat down together and discussed Torah and sang songs in praise of the Rebbe of Ruzhin or the Preacher of Mazeritch on their festive days, Ginger Moshe used to go on about his precious Simianski, who was no different from any other non-Jew. My father used to react by following the advice of our Sages: "If an unseemly man shall cause you trouble, draw him to the beit hamidrash". Once there, my father would launch into a Torah discourse, and Ginger Moshe would beat a hasty retreat. Now we shall talk about Shabbetai. He, too, was one of a kind. He was an old man with a thick, heavy beard, long and wide, a veritable forest of a beard. Shabbetai was a stutterer and, every time he spoke, he used to wave his hands about with all his strength. Despite his handicap, he used to love talking, but the person he was talking to would often walk off while Shabbetai was still trying to get past the first word or two, because he began stuttering as soon as he opened his mouth, and people simply did not have the patience to wait until he had finished saying what he wanted to say. Shabbetai was the beadle of the Tchortkov Chassidim's synagogue, a post to which he had been appointed many years before, and the congregation could not find it in their heart to dismiss him, old man that he was. Besides, he carried out his duties assiduously, although he was not always as meticulous as he might have been about sweeping up the dust and dirt in odd corners of the synagogue. On top of all this, Shabbetai was a drinker. Every morning, members of the congregation would find him dead drunk. Not that he used to frequent taverns or bars, Heaven forbid. As readers probably know, every synagogue beadle used to keep a small supply of brandy in a cupboard somewhere, in case of emergency. Most beadles would have two or three bottles tucked away, but not Shabbetai. He used to spend all his wages on brandy, and his cupboard never held fewer than fifty large bottles of it. Every night, when everyone except me had left the synagogue and gone home, Shabbetai would open his "store cupboard", take out all fifty bottles and fill them up, because he could not bear that a single bottle should be less than chock full. He always filled them right to the very top which, of course, meant that he could not get the cork back into the bottle. Shabbetai had a simple solution to this problem: He just took a sip of brandy from each bottle. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that he became dead drunk. Every drunkard gets his punishment, and Shabbetai was no exception. One morning, when the young men arrived at the synagogue, they found Shabbetai in a worse state than usual, absolutely reeking of brandy, lying flat on his back and snoring thunderously. Asher, my younger brother, unable to resist the temptation, ran and got some deep red aniline dye and painted Shabbetai's whole beard with it. When the Chassidim arrived for morning prayers, they roared with laughter at the sight of him. He had come round by this time, and when he saw that everyone burst out laughing when they set eyes on him, he rushed over to a nearby house to look in the mirror. With everyone in the hose laughing at him, he rushed back to the synagogue and began cursing the young men, who laughed even more loudly. Suddenly, he realised that Asher was the culprit and, when my father arrived, Shabbetai stammered: R- r-r-reb Av-av-avraham, l-l-l-look what your p-p-precious s-s-son has d-d-done!" Even my father, a serious man not much given to laughter, could not keep a straight face, and turned away so that Shabbetai should not see him smiling at the absurd sight he presented. Afterwards, of course, Asher received the punishment he deserved. As for Shabbetai, he tried washing his beard with all sorts of things, but never managed to restore it to its pristine whiteness, and his beard remained red until the day of his death. May he rest in peace.
Now for the third pen portrait Alter Kotter. His father was a respected ultra-Orthodox man, a Tchortkov Chassid, whose name was Shlomo Katz, for he was a Cohen [member of the priestly clan]. His father's name was Chaim Ber, and he was known, not as Shlomo Katz, but Shlomo Chaim Ber's. Chaim Ber had been a Stretin Chassid but, when the Rebbe of Stretin, Rabbi Yehudah Hirsch, died, he moved to Tchortkov where Rabbi David Moshe was the Rebbe. When Chaim Ber died, he left Shlomo a substantial legacy, a large house with a courtyard in the centre of the town, which he turned into a tavern. His wife, Sheindel, a real spitfire of a woman, helped him to run it. Sheindel, incidentally, had a brother in Palestine, whom she had not seen for a long time. One day, when Sheindel was alone at home, a poor man came to the door. When she saw him she was very happy, because the man looked just like her brother, and she thought it really was he, so she embraced him and kissed him and made him welcome. The man was no fool and, taking a key from his pocket, he said: "Sister mine, I left my suitcase at the first house on the outskirts of town. Go there and find a porter to collect it and bring it here. I'll give you the key, so that you can open it and see what presents I've brought you from Palestine. Go and come back quickly, and then we can talk. Sheindel hurried off and, as soon as she was out of sight, the visitor stole everything he could lay his hands on and disappeared. When Sheindel returned and found her front door open and many of her belongings missing, she began screaming. When the neighbours came running to see what was the matter, Sheindel told them the whole story, and they just laughed. The thief, meanwhile, got clean away. Now, Shlomo and Sheindel's son was most unusual. He was not a dwarf or a midget, just small and short. His walk was not normal, either. It was a kind of crawl, and people who saw him from a distance used to think he was a cat. Because his surname was Katz [an acronym from Cohen Tsadik Righteous Cohen often used as a surname instead of Cohen, it means "cat" in Yiddish], everyone used to call him Alter Kotter [Tom-cat]. He caused his parents a great deal of trouble, and they were also slightly ashamed of him. Not that he was a thief or anything like that. He had difficulty in speaking properly, and used to say each word three times. He had been extremely observant from boyhood and was thus a regular synagogue attender. When he prayed, he used to bend low and bury his face in his prayer book, repeating each word three times, to make sure that he had pronounced it properly. When the others realised this, a group of them used to taunt him and mix him up, so that it was really a struggle for him to say his prayers, and it usually took him until midday to finish the first part of the morning service. Then came the business of putting on his tefillin [phylacteries] and reciting the rest of the prayers. This took hours and, when the congregants came to the synagogue in the late afternoon to recite Minchah and then Ma'ariv, Alter Kotter was still there, wearing his tefillin and praying in a corner. That was how he passed his days. His father constantly chastised him and even beat him, but nothing had any effect. One day, my brother, Asher, made a bet with Alter Kotter that he would not be able to finish his prayers at the same time as the rest of the congregation. The next day, Alter went to the synagogue at the crack of dawn and began praying and, despite Asher inciting some of the younger congregants to disturb him and muddle him, Alter Kotter managed to win the bet. When Shlomo Chaim Ber's heard about it, he was furious and beat his son unmercifully. When asked why, he said that he had always thought his son's speech impairment was incurable, but the fact that he had managed to finish his prayers in time just to win a small sum, showed that there was really nothing wrong with his speech and that he could speak properly if he wanted to. But Alter's father was wrong. The following day, his prayers again took him all day. One day, when people arrived at the synagogue for the afternoon service, they found Alter Kotter praying in his tefillin inside the large, circular chandelier which hung from the middle of the ceiling, his head buried in his prayer book as usual. How he managed to get up there, I do not know to this day. I suspect that a group of young men put him up there, and that my brother Asher was involved, as well.
But, despite all his son's disabilities, Shlomo Chaim Ber's
managed to find him a bride. One of the young men persuaded him to write a letter
to the girl, and undoubtedly suggested to him what he should write:
Verses 10 to 30 of the Book of Proverbs "A woman of virtue who can
find?" etc, to "Favour is deceitful and beauty is vain...". When the
father of the bride saw the letter, he cancelled the betrothal on the
spot, and Alter Kotter remained a bachelor for the whole of his
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