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Episodes from Town Life


Montevideo An Event that Occurred – A Story with a Moral

Frumke Segal-Bogdanowicz

One summer day, before evening, when the sun began to set, Jehuda the Butcher left the butcher shop of his brother, Szaje, on Noworowa Street. He saw Judel (“Lokshe” [Noodle]) the Baker sitting at ease and looking about him. Jehuda decided to disturb his rest and addressed him in his usual style: “Listen, why are you sitting here at ease in the fresh air? Have you forgotten that the burial society needs to erect a new fence at the cemetery? Why are you idling and not joining the dead and buried?!”

Judel the Baker was stunned by this unexpected meeting and Jehuda's “suggestion”. At first, he was speechless, but he tried not to lose his composure. He got up from his seat and answered Jehuda in the same “polite” style.

Jehuda the Butcher was a plain, simple man, one of those for whom “the heart and the mouth” are equal. In comparison to Judel, he had a warm Jewish heart and a hand open to [give] charity. No beggar ever left his house hungry. In addition to food and drink, he would also receive a nice donation. His wife, Miriam, already knew from whom among the homeless not to collect payment. On the contrary, in addition to a portion of meat, she also added a nice coin.

After Judel the Baker hears the “refrain” from Jehuda the Butcher's mouth, he returns home with disquiet in his heart. He has lost his peace of mind and begins to search his memories. The first thing he remembers is a tragic event that happened to his son, something that shook the whole city at the time. Did it happen because of his miserliness? He regrets that precisely then, when it occurred, he was not at home. But Judel does not linger over this dark page of his memories. He continues on. He does not remember that he ever gave a generous donation. In general, for him, poor people do not exist. It seems to him that they are a group of racketeers who do not want to work, but to extract money from others by trickery. Judel turns a page in his memories, and here his sister appears, a poor widow with small children. The neighbors say that there are days when a slice of bread is not to be found in their home. And he, Judel, the brother, the well-to-do baker – is he not too indifferent to her situation?!

After leafing through his memories, Judel remembers that it is time to go to the bakery and begin preparing for the work of the night shift.

Hard times have come to the Jews of Poland. Anti- Semitism is rampant and decrees come down on the heads of the Jews daily. In accordance with Mrs. Prystor's proposal, the Polish Sejm is passing a law restricting kosher ritual slaughter. Butchers are in danger of losing the source of their support and existence. There is nothing to sell and there is nothing in exchange for which to buy. Sometimes the butcher slaughtered an animal secretly.

One autumn day, on a Friday afternoon, Jehuda the Butcher asked Reb Meirel the Slaughterer to slaughter a calf at his house (Reb Meirel used to slaughter in secret, without the community's agreement). He placed his daughter, Fejga, who was nicknamed by the butchers “Fejga the Thorn”, on guard. Fejga was a short, stocky girl who used to blink her eyes, but her mouth was always ready to chase any intruder away. And so Meirel the Ritual Slaughterer finished his work, and Jehuda the Butcher began to skin the calf and cover up the traces of the “crime”.

Fejga was still standing guard. Suddenly, she saw Mjeczek the Policeman approaching and was sure that he was coming to their house. Without delay, she ran to her father's stable and began screaming: “Father, they have informed on us!” Jehuda the Butcher was frightened and did not know where to hide the meat just then. Greatly excited, he fell on the floor – and never

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stood up… It seems that Judel the Baker was the only one who saw revenge in his death. But even he feels a twinge in his heart when he sees the burial society people come to attend to the deceased without contention and without haggling. The cemetery fence will already not be built from Jehuda's money…

Thoughts arise in his mind, and he comes to the conclusion that Jehuda's prophesy has apparently come to pass, and only he, Judel himself, will have to bear the expenses of putting up the new fence…

Judel is perplexed and does not see a way out of the situation. The only thing that can save him is not to die. But, you see, it was inevitable. The thought that his money will fall into strange hands at the end disturbs him constantly. The magic word “money” takes over everything.

But, Judel's turn came, too. One winter day, he became seriously ill with pneumonia. His wife kept his illness a deep secret, and also ordered her children not to reveal it to the neighbors. She wanted to prevent the premature joy of those who hoped for his death. But Judel's day came, and he had no choice but to give up his soul to his Creator. He left a difficult task to his heirs. When his son went to the burial society, they listened to him calmly and replied: “Tomorrow, if God wills it, we will see. There is still time.” When another day passed and the matter remained stuck at the same point, Judel's family lost its equanimity. So the burial society specified a certain amount, and arguing and haggling began. Finally, they reached a compromise and the burial society came to fulfill its duty. When they took Judel out of the house, his wife cried and wailed for two things as one: for the death of her husband and for the many thousands of his accumulated wealth she had lost. Compared to the double mourning prevailing in her house, at the burial society, things were completely different. They drank L'Chaim [“To life”, a toast] and once more repeated the ancient saying: “Whoever refuses to give during his life, will finally give after his death”.

At the time, this was the only subject of discussion in every Jewish house in Ostrolenka.

From the Party's Doings

Shalom Margalit, Tel Aviv

A. A speech for a speech

In 1928-1929, the Bund was very popular in Ostrolenka. Besides youths from the proletarian strata, those from the well-to-do civil sector, and even Chassidim, joined its ranks as well. Later, some became heads of the Bund party, such as Meir Krymkiewicz, Aron Zusman, Icchak Kachan (the son of Chaim Berel the Ritual Slaughterer, he is in Australia today, a wellknown writer and lecturer) and others.

On the other hand, the Zionist movement, with its parties and youth movements (such as Poalei Zion, HaShomer HaTzair, HeChalutz, etc.), whose ideology opposed Bundist anti-Israel thinking like fire and water, did not sit idly by. They did everything to be saved from the Bundist danger, and tried to strengthen their ranks with youthful forces that stood for Zionism. Each side made an effort to be on top in this rivalry. A tried and true resource was increasing the treasury of books in the libraries, in order to draw as wide a circle of readers as possible. They also brought brilliant, persuasive speakers and well-known party leaders from big cities, to provide spiritual sustenance for the errant youth which was seeking its way in Poland's small cities.

I would like to mention an episode here that is etched in my memory to this day. It was on a Sabbath night in Ostrolenka (a good time for guest lecturers…). As a “bombshell”, the Bund brought the famous speaker and poet, Peretz Markisz. I remember that the hall was packed; room for even “the head of a pin” could not have been found. When the speaker touched upon the Land of Israel problem, among other things, he declared with great pathos: “We do not need national cows and national milk! When a pioneer reaches Israel, they dress him in a 'white shroud' (meaning white work clothes, as was customary in the first pioneering years) and [place] clay shards on his eyes (that is to say, dark sunglasses). They give him a few meters of land and tell him: 'Here you are buried!'”

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Of course, we Zionists were insulted by his words.

When we left the hall, we decided to fulfill the mitzvah of “an eye for an eye” immediately, and invite a speaker no less famous than Peretz Markisz. We brought the well-known poet, Z. Segalowicz, to lecture. Our lecture also took place on Sabbath night, in the Zionist movement's hall, which was full. His lecture was not political. It was advertised that he would speak on the subject “Free Love”. Segalowicz knew that Peretz Markisz, with whom he apparently had an old score to settle, had appeared before him. He said, among other things, “Distinguished audience! There are lecturers and poets of different kinds. There are those who talk and write according to a predetermined order, like a record placed on a phonograph.” He also related, “Once a poet, with a great forelock of hair falling over his forehead, sat in the company of seven young women. They asked him to write a love poem to each of them. The poet rolled up his sleeves, tossed back his forelock, went into a nearby room and wrote… Later, he returned with seven poems and gave one to each young woman. And do you know what? There are some poets who write when the muse is upon them, and there are those who write according to the will of young girls…” Here, he found an opportunity to settle his old score, and to soften the bad impression left in our city by Markisz's speech.


B. The “bare heads” parable

As in other places at the time of elections for the Sejm (the Polish parliament), famous speakers and party leaders such as Icchak Greenbojm, Rabbi Rubinsztejn of Vilna (Senator), Rabbi Hager and others visited Ostrolenka. I am reminded of something that took place at the time: The study hall was full of people from all strata of the population who came to hear the address of Rabbi Hager (Mizrachi), which was greeted with great enthusiasm. When he spoke in favor of Zionism and the Land of Israel, and stressed that our young men went there and sometimes sacrificed their lives, Reb Lazer Mintz (Agudat Yisrael) called out, “Yes, yes, those without hats, with bare heads!” Rabbi Hager responded: “As to that, I will tell you a parable. It once happened that the mother of a large family, which included officials, Torah scholars, as well as students in a modern school, passed away. After a time, a miracle occurred, and the mother returned to life. When her son who was an official was told, he answered, 'I will come to see her at one o'clock, after I close the office.' The Torah scholar responded, 'I will run to her after I finish this page of Gemara.' But the students in the modern school, when they heard the news, left everything, forgetting to put on their hats, and ran bareheaded, to see the great miracle that had happened to their dead mother!”

This wise and abrupt answer won extended applause from all those present.

Our Townsman, Cwi Hersz Kachan of Florida,
Revives Memories of Ostrolenka

A. Aging overnight
(During World War I)

When Jews were caught in the streets for work in defense excavations, each one tried to escape from the “trouble”. Therefore, the government issued an order, placing the matter in the hands of the rabbi and the beadle. So the two of them, the rabbi and the beadle, went out into the city's streets. Before them walked a drummer. They called on all the Jews, young and old, to

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appear at the police station. I think this happened on the Sabbath. My father, of blessed memory, and I went to the police station. On the way, I tried to persuade my father not to go there. But, if the rabbi himself had so ordered, it was forbidden to refuse. We got to the courtyard of the police station, which was already full of Jews wearing Sabbath kapotas. They kept us there all night. When the police went to sleep and no one was guarding us, all the young people jumped over the fence and escaped. Only the old remained. In the morning, the commander appeared, saw who was there and yelled out: “Where have the young kikes disappeared to?” To this, one of the jokers replied: “We were all young yesterday, but overnight, we got old”…

In the end, everyone was released.


B. Because of the arrest

On the eve of Tisha B'Av [the date of the destruction of both Holy Temples] 1915, the Jews of Ostrolenka were about to be evacuated. A panic broke out and everyone looked for a way to escape as quickly as possible. My family, too, prepared to leave. My father was placed on a wagon full of bundles and he was tied down with a rope, so as not to fall. My mother, brother and sister left on other wagons. I jumped on a wagon loaded with all kinds of copper vessels, without the knowledge of the owner of the wagon, who had refused to take anyone at any price. (I don't remember his name; I only know that he was a coppersmith.) I hid in a large copper vat. To this day, I cannot understand how the bones of my skinny body survived all the jolts of the road. Along the way, we experienced massive bombardment and shells actually flew before my eyes, while I heard hell's music. Hunger also left its mark. It was the Eve of Tisha B'Av, when it was a mitzvah to fast, but my empty stomach refused to accept this excuse. I was hungry and despondent.

Suddenly, my hand crept into a pot, and touched a thick liquid. I pulled my hand out and licked my fingers. It was a delicious jam! I licked it all night. I had to hide, so that “my coachman” would not discover me, Heaven forbid. I wondered that at a time like this, he cared more about his pots than about people. We arrived in Lomza, where I met a few youngsters – hungry as I was. It was six in the morning and a curfew was in force, when it was forbidden to wander around the streets. But we decided to go and look for our families. A patrol saw us, and immediately arrested us for breaking the law. Merciful Jews, who saw them leading us in the street, threw bread and rolls at us. Thus, we quieted our hunger pangs – all because of our arrest… Later on, we were released.

From the City

Arcie Nowinski, Argentina

A Merit for the World to Come

Late one night, when the yeshiva boys sat over a page of Gemara, trying to crack a difficult issue, they suddenly saw the shadow of a woman creep slowly into the yeshiva. At first, they were very scared, but when the figure came closer, they saw that it was Cyrl, the beadle's wife. She was pale and frightened. To their question as to what brought her there at such a late hour (incidentally, the beadle lived next door to the yeshiva), she replied that she had dreamed that she was needed in the World to Come, and that she should prepare herself. Therefore, she had come to ask the yeshiva students to take pity on her and sell her all the World to Come they had earned in their studies that night, so that she would have something to present to the Heavenly Court. She explained, “My life with the beadle is not the best. He is a bad, irritable man. For every little thing, he swears at me with death curses and sometimes, when he feels like it, he throws a plate at my head. So, with a little of the World to Come, when I get there, I will be at rest. I will sit on a stool at the feet of the righteous in the Garden of Eden and listen to them learning Torah.” We could not refuse her. We saw that she would brook no opposition, so we dedicated about twenty pages of Gemara to her.

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Out of great joy, she began to kiss our hands and left beaming with happiness, with “the document” in her hand as a talisman and merit for the World to Come.


The Gang of the “Insolents” of Ostrolenka

This was our nickname. We were called thus in the city, and we were proud of the name. This is an episode that demonstrates our insolence. In Poland, after Passover, there was a period of recruitment for the army and we, a group of about twenty fellows, received our call-up orders. Of course, none of us was interested in serving. We decided to lose weight so that we would not be drafted. But how do we do this? We found a way – not to sleep at night and to wander around the streets. To this end, we established an “administration”. Its task was to organize the “night's agenda”.

One night, we were ordered to switch all the signs in the city. We switched the shoemaker's sign, for example, with the doctor's sign; we hung the community's sign in the bathhouse, etc. Unfortunately, we were caught “at work” by one of the city's eminent Jews, who immediately notified the police. We decided to punish him for this. The next night, our lads placed a coffin near his home, putting the “bed” on his doorstep. In the morning, a rumor spread in the city that this eminent Jew had passed away.


How a Policeman Supervised Kosher Ritual Slaughter

As is known, conflicts and disputes always prevailed among the religious workers in our city. This reminds me of an incident that took place in 1934. The licenses of all the Jews to sell tobacco were revoked by the Polish government, which claimed that this was the right of handicapped Poles. This law especially harmed one Jew, a lamdan, who supported eight children. Since he was a Gur Chassid, the Gur Chassidic congregation turned to the community, requesting that he be given a ritual slaughter's license. (Ritual slaughter was in the hands of the community.) Now, a tumult arose between the other religious workers: “This cannot be! The rabbi, the ritual slaughterers, etc., will be deprived of income.” Of course, the license was not given and the man began to slaughter on his own. The Rabbi decreed a ban on [the meat] he slaughtered, and ruled that all his tools should be destroyed, as they were not kosher. Many Jews in the synagogue did not accept the ban, because they pitied his eight children. In response, the police were called. They confiscated his knife and posted a police guard near his house for an extended period of time – so that the city should not blunder, Heaven forbid, by eating non-kosher food. As we have related, the conflict continued for a long time, until finally the man was recognized as an official ritual slaughterer of the community.

How Rabbi Jakow Meir Rakowski
Turned Kaczyny into an Official Town

(A character description)

Kaczyny, a railway station about five kilometers from Ostrolenka, was always dependent on Ostrolenka in every respect. The Jewish settlement there was very small, only a few houses among the houses of the Christians, and was considered part of Ostrolenka.

Kaczyny's Torah law litigations were, of course, brought before the Rabbi of Ostrolenka. The Jews of Kaczyny ate meat from the ritual slaughter of Ostrolenka. All administrative matters were attended to only in Ostrolenka. Kaczyny's matters of trade were run in Ostrolenka. Merchandise deliveries to Ostrolenka were sent via the Kaczyny railway station, and Kaczyny's carters and porters supported themselves from the transport of shipments to Ostrolenka.

One day, Reb Jakow Meir Rakowski, an inhabitant of Kaczyny (the father of the well-known writer and translator, Mark Rakowski), decided to turn Kaczyny into an independent “kingdom”, that is, an official town. First of all, he decided to build a study hall there, and to stop holding the minyan's prayers in private homes. A

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decision of Rabbi Jakow Meir was not subject to change. He was a Jew of great energy and an iron will. In addition, he was knowledgeable in many areas, in the field of trade, as well as social subjects. He was even expert in drawing up building plans. All this aroused admiration and respect, even in the eyes of the train's conductor, who would stop the train while it was running when he saw that Reb Jakow Meir had arrived at the station and wanted to get on…

He always found a mutual language with Kaczyny's “common” people, tailors, carters and craftsmen, and captured their hearts. It is said that before settling in Kaczyny, when he was still in Malkin, he used to pair off couples during Hakafot [seven dancing circuits made with Torah scrolls] on Simchat Torah. To show that his heart was inclined to the simple folk, he would call to the same Hakafa someone of great yichus [distinguished lineage], together with a common shoemaker, so that they would be joyous together. The gabbaim did not approve. They would not forgive him for this.

When the building of the synagogue began in Kaczyny, the Rabbi of Ostrolenka, Rabbi Icchak Bursztejn, the righteous of blessed memory, strongly opposed this “independence” of Rabbi Jakow Meir. In addition, the latter brought a young man from Jadova and appointed him to be ritual slaughterer in Kaczyny. (As a result of this, the Jews of Troszyn, Rzekun and other small towns in the area also ate Kaczyny's ritually slaughtered meat.) In addition, he brought a young yeshiva student, a lamdan from one of the yeshivas, and “crowned” him Rabbi of Kaczyny… Now all hope was lost – Ostrolenka could not be silent about this!

Reb Jakow Meir himself began to have doubts. Was he allowed to act on his own authority? Was this not overstepping the boundaries? He went to consult about the matter with his uncle, Reb Awraham Abba Rakowski, known as a great lamdan and Hebrew writer, who had encyclopedic knowledge. (He was a member of the yeshiva of Nachum Sokolow and on the editorial staff of HaTzfira!) Although Reb Jakow Meir was convinced that he was right and did not shrink from obstacles in his way, nevertheless… On the spot, Reb Awraham Abba gave Reb Jakow Meir the desired permission. And why not? According to all the laws of the Torah, the matter was kosher. When a specific settlement, small though it may be, was interested in becoming independent – it was permissible for it to establish its own study hall, to hire a ritual slaughterer of its own, and also a rabbi of its own… Why not? On the contrary, the more the merrier.

Thus strengthened by his famous uncle, and his determined will and dynamic personality – Reb Jakow Meir took a large wagon, sat all the important balabatim of Kaczyny in it, together with the simple “common” people (among them Hone, Awraham Mordechaj, Awraham Mosze, Meir Josel, Lejbel the Shoemaker and others), and he himself at their head – and went to the rabbi of Ostrolenka. Teach us, our rabbi, where is it written in the Torah that is it forbidden for Kaczyny to have a study hall of its own, a ritual slaughterer of its own and a rabbi of its own? On the contrary, we are ready to see this! The porters and carters thundered: Of course, of course, the rabbi will show us where it is written!!

The rabbi became confused and lost his senses. When he recovered, he became enraged and angry at Reb Jakow Meir, “He who sins and causes others to sin…”

Thus the matter ended. From then on, Kaczyny became an independent town, and this was due to Reb Jakow Meir, of blessed memory.

Recorded from the words of Tzila Rakowski-Carmel, Tel Aviv


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