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[Page 150]

Purim Actors in Kobrin

On Pinsker Street opposite the synagogue, in the crowded alleyways in which even during hot days there were still swarms, there in one of the wooden houses that belonged to Fishel Yorke, the coachman, lived R' Melech, the builder. In all the days of the year R' Melech worked very, very hard.

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He would build the wooden houses and also he would be the one who would pray the evening prayer during the week, but when the month of Tevet came R' Melech changed completely and became a different person. If during the winter his building trade literally stopped and R' Melech was forced to live on his savings, his face would shine during that month of Tevet and he would look very happy. His dark red beard became lighter and his deep and dark eyes would show happiness. Quietly to himself he would hum one of the melodies from the Purim plays. This was a custom that R' Melech used to have and demand at that time of year. He says, “Gentlemen, the time has arrived for the rehearsals for the Purim plays with the members of the troop.”

R' Melech would respond and would invite the group of players for Sabbath after eating the Cholent. Everybody would feel that there was very little time and a lot of work to do but when R' Melech invites who would not go? The task was to select one of the two plays, either “The Selling of Joseph” or “The Play of Saul.” In that meeting there would be the pluses and minuses of both plays.

There were those who said that the “Saul's Play” is satisfactory to the women because they would show their famous “Solomon's judgment” in which one of two mothers of one baby says he is all hers and the other says that he is all hers. King Solomon, who in his great wisdom would even understand the talk of beast and birds, would sit on his throne and listen to the two women and would decide to cut the boy in two and divide him between the two mothers… Of course, the lying mother would agree to the verdict. An actor would carry in his hands a bundle of rags, supposedly the boy, and he would cry like a day old baby and the lying mother would shine with murderous fire and she screams in the Ukrainian language, “Cut, Cut I will even give you a drink.” The “truthful mother” spreads her hands and, crying and begging, turns to King Solomon sitting in judgment. She says, “Merciful King help. Please help. It is better to give the child to the lying mother than to cut him in half…”

The eyes of Liba, the wife of R' Melech, who stood by the window with its frozen glass, had tears coming down her face. Of course she saw that trial not once and she knew who the two mothers were, but still the trial touched her heart.

Then R' Melech announces: “This year on Purim we will play 'The Selling of Joseph'.” And there is no appealing his decision.

The actors stay in their places, R' Melech brings out from a glass cabinet the book of “Genesis” and he goes over the appropriate section. With his unlimited authority he gives everyone their role. You cannot talk about changing this decision.

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Of special honor are those actors who play the roles of Jacob our father; his sons Judah, Shimon, Levy; and especially Joseph in the role of deputy king of Egypt… All the women like him, especially on Purim when the “golden crown” was put on his head. Neither could you belittle the role of Little Joseph, who suffered from his brothers, but the public opinion was that “it was worth it.”

Every week, on a Saturday after eating the Cholent, R' Melech would conduct rehearsals in his house. Because this play was performed not once on the “stage,” many of the roles were forgotten by the actors during the year.

R' Melech kept in his memory all the details of the Purim plays that became an institution in the Jewish street, but just to be safe he would look from time to time at the book of “Genesis.” The job of “directing” was done very well. On matters of costume, Melech would not interfere and the actors would dress without paying to much attention to the period in which the play took place. For instance, Jacob, the patriarch, dressed in a Kittel of the “high holidays” and on his head would be this six pointed hat. He had a white beard made of sawdust that he glued to his face and the sons in uniforms and hats that were borrowed from the battalion of the Tshornomorsky that was kept in Kobrin, and they had swords on their hips.

On Purim, when the Jews of Kobrin would sit down for their meal, the actors would burst, in all their glory, into the house of R' Aaron Yehoshua Shafit, the Rabbi that was designated by the authorities.

Immediately they would remove from the large dining room all the furniture and leave only two arm chairs, one for the Rabbi far in the corner and the other for “Jacob the Patriarch.” All Jacob's sons would arrange themselves around their elderly father, who called close to him, affectionately, Joseph who was dressed in a long shirt, “a coat of many colors,” that was sewn by Joseph Leib Katazirer who was an expert in sewing shrouds… All the residents of the neighborhood would assemble at the house of the Rabbi to see the Purim play. There were many, many people that lived on the street that would stand outside and look in through the windows. One of the brothers who had the role of the Master of Ceremonies would call everybody by name and would praise their talents in rhyme; and the play begins. The Patriarch Jacob approaches his armchair and the brothers all burst out in a mighty song honoring Jacob.

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The face of the Rabbi in his armchair and the face of Yentele, his wife who is by him, show a lot of satisfaction from the song. The group of spectators announces in great excitement the names of the players whose faces are covered with fading red paper.

Jacob our Patriarch sits in the arm chair and by him Little Joseph. The brothers are shepherding the flock in the field and Joseph addresses his father in a song. He says, “Father, Father I dreamt a dream such as hasn't been heard in the whole world.”

He tells Jacob the dream about the Sheaves and the Stars and Jacob answers him and advises him also in a song. “Do not reveal to your brothers the dream because it may disrupt the peace among you. ”

Jacob our Patriarch addresses Joseph and asks him to take food to his brothers in the field because it has been several days that they haven't tasted a spoon of hot soup.

Joseph takes a big bowl of Cholent and carries it to his brothers. But before they begin to eat Joseph tells them about his dreams. The brothers become filled with anger and they are ready to devour him. They consult among themselves and decide to put him down into the hole. Reuven does not agree, but who is asking him?

They strip Joseph of his coat of many colors and throw him into the hole among “snakes and scorpions”. The hole consists of an upside down table with its four legs sticking up.

The condemned poor Joseph sits in the “deep hole.” But instead of allowing him to become a victim of the snakes and the scorpions, the old lady, Tzeitel, gives him a Hamantashen filled with poppy seeds and she consoles him saying that with God's help he will be saved from here and meanwhile he should eat something. Of course, the old lady does not have to try very hard to convince him and he swallows the cake and when there is nothing left of the cake Joseph addresses the snakes and the scorpions in a heart-rending tone. “Do you know who I am? I am Abraham and Isaac's grandson and Jacob's son.”

Suddenly the Ishmaelites appear and Judah leads them to the hole and he shows them the “merchandise” that he is ready and willing to sell them. They bargain for a while and at the end the Ishmaelites take out a fist full of copper coins and give it to Judah. Despite the fact that it is Purim today and the heart is filled with joy, the women cannot overcome their emotion and they wipe their eyes with the edges of their apron.

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When Reuven comes to the hole and does not find Joseph there he bursts with screams and yells and the brothers tell him with a song what they did here. The lot falls upon Reuven to offer Joseph's shirt to their father and when Jacob recognizes the shirt he lets out a very great and bitter cry and he says “Joseph was devoured”.

Reuven pretends to be very innocent and poor Jacob becomes very sad. Reuven finds it very hard to see his father suffering and he turns aside and whispers a song. “Father, Father I cannot tell you the truth. God will give you a clue that your son will come with a golden crown.”

Then there is famine in Canaan and Jacob sends his sons to find food in Egypt and Joseph recognizes they are his brothers. Joseph appears in the uniform of the Tamani Battalion that camped in Kobrin. He has golden epaulets with gold and silver tassels. A sword in a shiny, leather sheath on his hip and on his head a cardboard crown coated with gold paper.

Very quickly they acquaint themselves with one another and they bring in Jacob the Patriarch among them and repeat the opening with a mighty song. The players then help to return the big table to its place and the Rabbi appointed by the authorities gives each one of the Purim players their wages: two silver rubles.

The Rabbi's wife brings the liquor and wine bottles and a bowl filled with Hamantashen filled with poppy seeds. The players do not refuse the invitation. They drink L' Chaim and have various desserts. Not only that, but they even take some with them. They bid their hosts a Happy Purim and they all board the wagon of Itzl Shlumper and they then make their way to the other important people in Kobrin who are waiting eagerly for their coming and visiting them.

The last performance on Purim Eve is performed at Shimon the barber's, in the big front room where his barber tools and four big mirrors are. The show begins at midnight and goes on with the drinking until the time for the Shma of the morning prayer.

One more presentation was given on the second day of Purim in the evening at the school in the courtyard of the synagogue. That presentation was for the “masses.” Whoever wanted to come and watch would have to pay three Kopeks and there were enough people who came and availed themselves of this bargain. Because the great stove, which heated very well, became a division between the school and the women's gallery, R' Melech would sneak slowly above the stove to view the procedure of the play from above. R' Melech would lie on the stove and would sigh with difficulty, perhaps because of the great heat that came from the stove or from what he saw, namely all the work that he put into it is wasted, that a group of “players” were putting to waste all the efforts that he had put into producing the play…

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kob155.jpg [32 KB] - The destroyed market
The market that was destroyed by the Russian army retreating from Kobrin during World War I

The Life of Religion and Tradition

by I. Tanchumi

It is difficult to write about Kobrin and pass over the life of religion and tradition in town. It was a city in which some of the great Torah scholars were serving as Rabbis. People like R' Chaim Berlin, of blessed memory, and the R' Marim Shafit, of blessed memory, etc. We recall that the R' Reines, of blessed memory, was at one time a candidate for the Rabbinate in Kobrin. The seat of the Rabbinate in our town was among the most exalted in Poland.

Kobrin was the birth city of the Rabbi Moshke Kobriner who created a special style in Hassidim. And after his death there were several branches in Hassidim like the Hassidim of Slonim, etc.

The religious and traditional life were intertwined in the environment of the city and put their imprint on the economic life of the Jews and non-Jews in commerce and industry.

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When the Sabbath came the traffic stopped in the whole city. Transportation vehicles disappeared from the market and even the coach service to the train station (which was the only connection with the outside) did not work on the Sabbath, aside from two coaches which were managed by non-Jews and on rotation according to the demands of the municipality.

The electric poles that belonged to the municipality served as “Eruv” to the Jews according to a special arrangement.

If a market day fell on a Sabbath, it would be postponed even for a few days. When Easter came the Christians knew already that they had to make haste and prepare a flour and yeast for their holiday. Our Passover holiday usually would fall during the same week and they knew that any leaven materials could not be acquired for any price in the world. On the other hand the people from the villages in the neighborhood knew how to supply the holiday provisions for the Jews of the city at the right time. These included chicken for the day of. atonement, thatch for the Sukkoth and willows for the Hoshana Rabba, etc.

Most of the Jews of Kobrin would nourish themselves during the week with barley soup and that is why they would be called in the area by the name “Kobriner Krupnik.” But they would honor the Sabbath with good food and with “Kingly Delights.” On the meals of Friday night and the Sabbath you could hear on the streets the clanging of spoons and forks and singing. The Jews would forget all their worries and their toil as if they lived during the days of the Messiah. Indeed, an American company photographed the process of the Sabbath day in Kobrin and you could say that in Kobrin you could not find anybody who would desecrate the Sabbath in public. The hands of the “Sabbath Goys” were always filled with work during the Sabbath days and they were rewarded for their service handsomely.

The synagogue “Shtiblach” of the Hassidim were always filled with worshippers. Aside from the eighteen synagogues in town there were many “Minions” in private homes. The big synagogue (said in town to have been built with a donation from Emperor Alexander II) was exceptionally pretty. The holy ark was made by an artist with special carvings in wood. In the yard of the synagogue was the Gass Beit Midrash. When a family did not believe that a young person had prayed at the synagogue, they would ask him pointedly whether he had prayed in the Gass Beit Midrash, which was the same as saying he had been strolling in the street. Twenty years ago there was found in the back wing of this synagogue a Mikvah, which an investigator of the history of the city produced as proof of his contention that Pinsker Street was at one time a “ghetto”. That is why it is also called Yiddisher Gass. There was also there the concentration of the community's wealth and also the old cemetery was in that street.

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There were in the city synagogues that were named after the events of the time, like the Russian synagogue and the Synagogue Japoni in Zamochevitz. There were also “Shtiblach” and they were named according to the city of their origin and their Rabbis who would come during the year to visit their “flock”.

Our city was also the place of two great Rabbis, R' Moshe Aaron, the great Rabbi of Kobrin, and the R' Yitzhak Aaron Weingarten, the great Rabbi from Leubachev. He helped a lot to make the city famous in the United States because he visited here twice.

The Hassidim of Kobrin were scattered in the cities of Poland and abroad and the Rabbis would go out to visit them as was the custom during the year. During the high holidays many of them would come together in Kobrin to visit their Rabbi as a custom of the Hassidim. It was an especially happy time during the Simchat Torah. Secular people and “Mitnagidim” and even those who are not of the sons of the covenant came to participate in the celebration of the holiday. And R' Aaron Einbinder was the conductor for the singing and the dancing. The people of the town did not take pity on their shoes and their new clothes and they would run around in the mud in the dirty alleys during the dark nights to come to the “Shtibel.” R' Aaron Einbinder honored everybody with circling around with the Torah.

A story in itself is R' Hirshel, the sexton, who served in that synagogue. It was rumored that he was one of the 36 secret righteous men. In the evenings you could hear the sound of the Torah from the synagogue of “those who study Shas” to the group of “Ein Yakov” (for the simple people). They had their own Rabbi that would teach them and transmit to them the portion of the week and together with the various interpretations. One of them I remember and he was R' Isaac Joseph Yachas who taught them the Torah. Preachers who would pass through town would visit frequently and found for themselves an audience of listeners all according to the talents of the preacher.

There was also in Kobrin a national religious school named “Intelligence” where most of the children of the city received their education. There existed also two Yeshivas, one was called “a small Yeshiva” and the other “a large Yeshiva” that were to be found in the synagogue called “Life of a Man” that was established by R' Pesach Frumkin.

When that Yeshiva was established there was a controversy (still remembered today) in the city between the followers of R' Frumkin and R' Michael Shamush that continued for several years. The Jews of the city became immersed completely in this matter. They forgot all their troubles, they neglected their business as if the only matter that existed was the matter of the Rabbinate.

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The Intelligentsia and the Zionists followed R' Michael and the Artisans were following R' Pesach who knew how to attract an audience to his side with his fiery speeches. When the people of R' Pesach elected him for a Rabbi the people of R' Michael elected him for their Rabbi, and there was not one home in Kobrin in which, no matter the circle, this controversy was not discussed. The story even reached the government and the Jewish press did not neglect it.

All the Zionist and national activities took place in the synagogues that served as a place for propaganda for a variety of funds and elections and especially this was true with “The Great Beit Midrash” the special home for Zionist activities.

There was also in the city a religious organization of the “Mizrahi,” and of the “Pioneer Mizrahi,” and also the organization of “Agudath Israel,” headed by Menachem Birman. Preferred places for advertising were the synagogues in town. Who does not remember the “principal” of that department, R' Udel, the sexton (the announcer)? On Friday, toward the end of the day, he would walk around and announce “Sabbath, Sabbath”. And the stores were all closed together as if by a magic wand and the peasants who were in the city knew already that they had to take their carriages and go back to their village and make way for “Sabbath, the Queen.”

Once there was a new police commander who did not know R' Udel, the sexton, and he wanted to interfere with his work. R' Udel answered him in Yiddish with some saying.' The goy laughed and laughed and R' Udel continued in his work in the future. They called him a “living newspaper” and there was a good reason for it. On Saturday morning he would go through all the synagogues and all the minions in town, announcing every news event and advertising whatever needed to be announced, from the announcement of a new bathhouse to announcements of the government and business establishments.

Our city was very righteous and very generous and its hand was open to every beggar who needed charity in secrecy. A regular custom in many of the homes in town (during the baking of the Challas for Sabbath) was to bake at least one extra Challah (and he who baked more than one was even better) for the poor person who could not buy a Challah for the Sabbath. The people would bring their secret donation to righteous women who saw to it that there wouldn't be a hungry person in the congregation. Who still remembers from the time of the previous World War (the First) how our city organized the help and accepted into it the refugees from Brisk and many of them settled in the city until the great destruction.

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Livelihoods in our Town

by Joseph Vishengrad

The structure of the economy in our city was not based upon the known principal “not to raise the supply over the demand” but upon the old Jewish assumption “if such a large number of people find their livelihood from the same branch of business, I will be among them too.” And that is why no new branch of business or livelihood came to our city. Everything lived according to the tradition of the forefathers. No industry worth its name developed in our city and perhaps it did have room to develop. About the citizens of our city, it couldn't be said as was written “go and make a living one from the other.” Usually most of the livelihood of the citizens came from the peasants of the surrounding villages.

In order to attract the villagers into the city, the municipality of Kobrin announced that Monday and Wednesday would be market days. Every tenth day of the month, namely the 10th, 20th, and 30th of the month, would be a fair. The fairs in Kobrin were famous all over Poland. On the day of the fair merchants of all kinds would come into the city from all corners of Poland. Because of that there was established a special group in our city: the peddlers that would come into the markets and would fill the air with their shouts, “What do you have to sell?” This kind of commerce was available to every young person who did not have a profession or could not find a job. The peasants would come to the city to offer merchandise and products such as wheat, linen seed, horses, big and small animals, chickens, foodstuff, cloth, handmade embroidery, pigs' hair and skins of forest animals. The more talented among the known merchants of Mezrich would not neglect the opportunity of a fair. Peddlers came to the city from afar and their merchandise represented serious competition to the local people. Of course on days like these there wouldn't be a dearth of pickpockets from afar who would succeed in their “vocation” because of the terrible crowdedness. Most of the shops in the city were shops of primary needs (because of the reason that was mentioned above). These were grocery stores where you could find, aside from grocery stuffs, also kerosene, sewing thread, and alike.

Aside from that, the shopkeepers would also be busy in buying merchandise from the peasants and on the market day and the fair the shopkeeper would mobilize his family members to help in the wheeling and dealing and also to oversee the buyers who caught the “shoplifting disease.” The parasha (portion of the week) was a code between the shopkeeper and his family members to indicate the suspicion that a shopper had that disease.

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The shops were concentrated in the center of the city which was also the commercial center. There stood the marketplace which was built in the shape of one frame within another frame. Inside the square of the last frame was a new world of shops which could be reached through various alleys. The marketplace was built as a passageway. Inside the passageway also was the only scale in the city that could weigh the carriages and their load. In the center of the marketplace in a spacious area was also a line of stalls. Most of the stalls carried various kinds of baking good and haberdashery.

kob160.jpg [30 KB] - The market square
The market square

In addition to this market and commercial center which was mostly retail, there was also a special wholesale market in Pinsker Street by the Polish church where there was mostly concentrated the business in animals such as horses, pigs, etc. Usually the peasants would sell their merchandise and then would come to the center to arrange their own shipping.

On the day of the fair there would be a strange display: the horses would be freed of their harnesses and made to stand there free with shafts raised above (according to the demand of the police). It made it look as if the city were being conquered by army battalions with their spears raised.

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