Personalities from my town
Abraham Avital (Toichenfligel)
It seems that memories, the bad and the good, the pleasant and the sad, which at one time were the essence of one's life and grey everyday existence-often come back magically from the depths and appear newly radiant, unreal , not quite the reality of things past.
I recall some of the characters who inhabited my past, in that town both near and far, where I grew up, Koło, or as we called it , Koil, on the banks of the Varta in far-off Poland.
Rabbi Wolf the Hassid
When I was still almost a child, on Shabbat and holidays I would follow my father to the Shteibel(prayer-hall) of the Gur Hassidim, in the short alley that led to the Mikveh(ritual bath), in the two-storey building that housed the oil-press of Rabbi Wolf Brockstein, there I first saw him. I still recall him standing motionless between the Aron-Kodesh(Torah cupboard) and the window. In the Shmone-Esreh(Eighteen) prayer Rabbi Wolf the Hassid stood like a statue. I as a child would look at the Hassidim at prayer and note their varied expressions, that ranged from the funny, or the ecstatic to the indifferent. But always my gaze returned to Rabbi Wolf.
As I remember him, he was short, an aged youth, his face that of an ascetic, furrowed, pale red, with a sparse grey beard. But it was not his outward appearance that gripped me. He had the quiet power of an ancient statue, his eyes shut, his eyelids quivering with passionate prayer, his lips hardly moving.
Who was he and what did he do? I do not know, but my father would sometimes speak of him:
As my father described him he was a sort of Paul or missionary of the Hassidim in our little town, daring in his youth to bring the message of the Baal-Shem-Tov ( a famous Jewish mystic) to a town which was all Misnagedim (opponents of mysticism). He was the first to set up a circle of Hassidim among the Talmud students and sons of the wealthy, including my father -whose own father was a Misnaged Rabbi-and who in the Bet Hamidrash (religious academy) taught ( between the Minha and Maariv prayers), not Hassidism but The duties of the Heart by Rabbi B. Ibn-Pakudah, the Sephardi sage.
Rabbi Yohanan the Hassid
In outward appearance he was the very opposite of the other. Tall and thin, like a dried lulav (palm-frond used at Sukkot). His inner essence- to use Hassidic parlance -was also different. He was lively, aware, in his speech and prayer. His hands and body moved strongly and his prayer like his speech was powerful and aggressive.
As I recall he would pinch children's cheeks and call them sheigetz (Yiddish:naughty).
His livelihood came from a little shop in an old wooden shack, with a tiled roof covered in moss. Apart from yeast for Shabbat Hallah bread-that housewives bought on Thursdays, I don't think he sold anything. Rabbi Yohanan was no businessman.He spent his days and nights in the Shteibel studying Torah and praying, or chatting with the Hassidim. The shop was run by a round plump woman with a broad scarf on her head that almost covered her eyes.
Rabbi Yohanan and Rabbi Wolf were childhood friends, now both elderly and revered by their Hassidic followers, like in the stories of Y.L . Peretz.
In his youth Rabbi Yohanan helped his friend in preaching the ideas of Hassidism.
I well remember the night when the Hassidim got the sad news that the Rabbi of Gur had died. They gathered at the Shteibel, and with them was my father. They sat on the floor , mourning in a fearful silence, broken only by quiet sobs.
Suddenly the door opened and in staggered Rabbi Yohanan, supported by two young hassidim. He sat on the floor, raised his arms to heaven and began crying bitterly, filling the room with wild lamentation.
He was not a rabbi, nor a Mr, neither a Hassid nor a bible scholar, but unlike many Jews he was a Zionist intellectual.
Those were times of searching and questioning, of rebellion and renewal in Jewry. Jewish boys who went from the Heder to the Beit Midrash, listened in awe to the changes around them. They heard of the Russo-Japanese war, of pogroms and revolution (what were they?), of words like Haskalah, Bund, Zionism etc.. and amid all their arguments and shouting one heard the raised voice of Moshe Kott.
When I was a bit older and already knew the meaning of words like Bund and Zionist I would creep secretly into a room where the Zionists had their meetings and there got to know Moshe Kott.
He spoke quietly, dispassionately, but conveyed his message with the passion of a Hassid. It was exciting stuff: we learned of Hibbat-Zion, of settling in the Land of Israel, of people like Rabbi Zvi Hersch Kalischer, of Drs Pinsker and Lilienblum, of a gifted writer called Ahad Haam, of the Bilu movement, of the charitable Baron Rothschild, and about the farming colonies - and our young hearts filled with yearning for that distant place. Then we learned of Zionism and Herzl, and our meetings would end with the lusty singing of Hatikvah, often accompanied by Moshe Kott on the violin, We treasure those memories.
The man himself was just an ordinary Jew.
He wore the same shabby black kapote, a black hat drawn over his eyes. Of medium height, broad-shouldered, a short reddish beard, that was his appearance. What was he like as a person? How did he contend with his poverty-stricken surroundings? Who knows?
He had a small shop by the river where he sold leather and shoes. His wife was tall and big, but childless. When she died, he remarried and had sons and daughters. But the economic hardships he faced left him little time or energy for Zionism, Herzl and the dream of the colonies.
The years passed and our studies took us away from the Beit Midrash as well as from the early Zionism of Moshe Kott.
In later years I saw him occasionally, white-haired now, leading a child by his almost empty shop, and wordlessly saying, please God, I shall yet raise the young.
Rabbi Katriel Shaladowski
He was a melamed(tutor), but not like just any other teacher. He was - for his time - modern, and progressive and many called him Mr Shaladowski, because he was more of a teacher than an old-fashioned melamed.
He was short and thin, enveloped in a black kapote reaching his ankles, unlike the kapotas of progressives. He wore a black hat like a traditional Jew. His beard was short and sparse, in brief: just another poor thin Jew .So how then was he also modern? thanks to his insistence on grammar and exegesis.
He was the only melamed in town who led his pupils through the intricacies of Hebrew grammar, with a Polish-Lithuanian accent. His Bible class taught not only the traditional Rashi commentary but also the new interpretations of Moses Mendelssohn of Berlin. Some of the parents were uneasy but they let him prepare their children for Bar Mitzvah nonetheless.
He was modest and introverted. His voice was soft, his rhetoric muted. He took care not to offend, and was strictly observant, avoiding all contact with the Zionists.
The writer was a teenager when he first met this tutor, who treated him like an adult.
One evening after classes he was invited to the home of his teacher., who lived in a small room with a large table, two benches and a cupboard full of books. There were writings of the Haskalah (Enlightenment) movement, books of poetry and much more. All of them neatly wrapped and marked with his Ex Libris in careful handwriting.
For our melamed was also a poet. He would sit in his lonely room and pen verses, often didactic in form, in imitation of the great Jewish poets. He was also a Bible scholar, and consulted a German commentary, not one in Yiddish.
I heard that he spent his last years on Mt Carmel (Haifa) and was buried there.
But what of the Jews of Poland he taught? They were all swept away by the tempest ..
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