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[Page 264]

The Part of the Tarnow Jews in
Science, Art, Literature and the Press

 

Reb Mordechai Dovid

by Dovid Zayden

Translated by Florence Rubenfeld

Reb Mordechai Dovid – that is how we referred to Mordechai David Brandstetter in Tarnow. When we spoke about Reb Mordechai Dovid, we were referring to the tall Jew with a long and smoothly-shaved face and closely-cropped gray hair. He walked down the street with a rather resolute stride, not stopping unless someone actually approached him. He had vibrant blue eyes, creased at the sockets, which glided over everything in his view with a hidden smile, certainly not with haughtiness. Jews doffed their hats in his direction, as if he was a dignitary, even if they just knew him slightly. Somehow, you could not just pass by him in the same way as other Jews you encountered on the street. When he walked down the street it was not a casual matter due to his stature in town.

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tar1_265.jpg
Mordechai David Brandstetter
1844-1928
z“l (of blessed memory)

 

He was called 'Reb' even though he was a 'galukh' [i.e. a Jew who has shaved his beard] and he converted Jews in the town and throughout the region into terrible heretics. Whatever stories used to be told about heretics anywhere else in the world would be told in the town about Reb Mordechai Dovid. People actually saw with their own eyes how he read the Zohar with an uncovered head [Note: not wearing a kippah]. With ridicule, he even had a particular Turkish pipe he displayed on the Sabbath with silver engraving that read “In Honor of the Sabbath”, even though he actually smoked cigarettes. Nonetheless, we had great respect for him. Even though we said all sorts of terrible things about him, we also spoke about him with great respect and affection. In contrast, we spoke differently about the younger “apostates” who had begun to distance themselves one by one from the religious prayer houses. They were not welcome in the houses of Jewish study because they dishonored their traditions and unbuttoned the collars of their shirt or actually wore a necktie. Reb Mordechai Dovid was considered a great scholar, Jews swore that about him, even those who had never even spoken a single word to him.

How he was addressed in person depended on the religious observance of the person speaking. If the person addressing him was a learned Jew from the older generation, a Jew who categorizes people according to whether or not they are scholarly, then they didn't have, G-d forbid, any fear about calling him Reb Mordechai Dovid. End of story. If it was a modern-day Jew, one with cut sidelocks who dressed in the more modern German or partially-German style, for example a merchant, he addressed Reb Mordechai Dovid with the more formal “Mr. Brandstetter.” Depending on the circumstances, he was referred to differently. In his role as scholar and apostate, he was called Reb Mordechai Dovid. In his professional life, as a merchant and oil manufacturer, he was called “Mr. Brandstetter.” The younger generation, who recognized the stature Reb Mordechai Dovid held in the annals of Hebrew literature, combined both names: “Reb Mordechai Dovid Brandstetter”.

I do not remember whether Reb Mordechai Dovid had any friends in town. In the beginning of the century, one certainly envisions him as having light-hearted chats with the community-writers and the cynical enlightened individuals, who, behind the backs of the elite, skewered the town. From time to time he would demonstrate his critical writing in a pamphlet opposing the young upstarts, the Zionists, along with his colleagues, the “hunchback” Max Bienenstock (1879 or 1881–1923), and Dr. Zaltz, the son of the Yidl Mutz (the tailor from the Grabowska). Sometimes two drunken enlightened men would drop by, the first of whom was Fishl Weissman Chajes, a brother of the well-known Rabbi Mordechai Vaysman Chajes, more commonly known as Fishaleh Pyok (“the drunk”). He was a correspondent from “HaMagid” and for the Viennese “Neue Freie Presse” [Note: the New Free Press- a Viennese newspaper], where he would write a few lines about trivial matters, a great fire, or the celebrations for the Kaiser's birthday. Besides that he also had the privilege of soliciting subscriptions for the newspaper and was able to collect a commission for the subscriptions he solicited. The other drunken friend was Shloyme Mendel Haber, who also sometimes wrote for the Hebrew newspapers - a more

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respected gentleman. Because of his excessive drinking and lack of a job, he was supported by his family's trust fund and received a daily alcohol 'maintenance' - a half liter of mead - from Chaim Berl, the mead-barkeeper. Yet he still had enough strength and mindset to interpret a biblical passage or engage in a Talmudic discussion in order to confirm that he retained his level of scholarship. He had the ability to discover illicit acts of the prophets and acronyms, etc... In exchange for these words and thoughts, someone would come forward to honor him by buying him a drink in Dovid Leibel's wine bar. Although Shloyme Mendel Haber didn't earn a living, he was a maven of a well-spoken word. In Leibel's beer tavern, you could always find a big crowd at the long table in the front room, where Reb Mordechai Dovid would comfortably speak about both Torah and wisdom.

When these two, Fishl Pijak [the drunk] and Shloyme Mendel HaBehr [the bear] drank, they might wobble out together from the tavern. If they could stand on their own two feet, they meandered over to the Walowa, across from the police station, where Mordechai Dovid lived. Mordechai Dovid was a man who coveted having time after lunch in his house. One knew perfectly well that one could find him at home at that time. To visitors, Mordechai Dovid always had a clear message to impart, about the Torah or the like.

But this was back quite a few years.

When these two -- Fishl and Menachem Mendel - were already long dead in their graves, it became rather quiet for Reb Mordechai Dovid. From time to time he chatted with the assimilated Dr. Goldhammer (c. 1851-1912), who was a gentleman and a wise man. Dr. Goldhammer was the most brilliant speaker and an outstanding jurist, whose greatness was known even by the clerks in the highest courts in Vienna. He never relied solely on jurisprudence and rhetoric. It was rumored that on occasion he would slip a small gift or bribe into someone's hand –some older lawyers whispered about this- so that no one would know. Though they were a bit envious, they couldn't deny that he was the greatest. Dr. Goldhammer was actually the only one in town who could impress the great writer Mordechai Dovid with anything; he was quite the European gentleman. Beginning in the 1880s Dr. Goldhammer, who was at that time still a young lawyer and had just arrived in Tarnow from a small shtetl, gave a public lectures in Tarnow about Henrik Ibsen, an author that the world was just starting to become aware of.

There was another indication of how highly the older writer [Mordechai Dovid] regarded the young lawyer [Dr. Goldhammer]. When the first issue of the “Yidishe Natzional” newspaper was published, in the early days of the Enlightenment, when the first sparks of worldly Jewishness started to appear in the Lemberger “Shomer Yisroel”, Dr. Goldhammer, ran for office in the Austrian parliament election against the priest Father Stayalovski, under the auspices of a Jewish National Party, which he himself founded for that purpose. That was how the young lawyer. Goldhammer, known to have a “silver tongue”, became the leader of what were known as the

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progressive Jews. These Jews had their own temple, where they prayed in short talises, and they had an organ and a choir befitting what they considered to be the 'finer people.' But Dr. Goldhammer's elevation to national recognition lasted only as long as the election. It had to take another 15 years before the cause was taken up by younger and more ordinary Jews, i.e. shop owners and the bourgeoisie, and they went a step further than just the National. They were Zionists. They founded the “Ahavat Tzion” (Lovers of Zion) along with the son of tailor Yidele Mutz – Dr. Abraham Zalts, Fisher Hollander and the Hebrew teacher, Zacharia Mendl Shapiro, who later was a teacher in Rosh Pinah in the Land of Israel. Afterwards he was in Tel Aviv, and published a book in German here in the 1920s, so nicely entitled: “Die Bibel als Ariadne-Faden im Labyrinth der Sprachen” [Translation note: “The Bible as Ariadne's Thread in the Labyrinth of Language”]. They founded ”Ahavat Tzion” (Lovers of Zion) and had taken to building camps in the Land of Israel, set-up an entire movement several years before the end of the 19th century. They even tried to get rabbinical approval for this and were nearly banished by the Belzer Rabbi. Interestingly, the story can be read in Ahad-Ha'am's book “Al Parashat Derachim” [Translation note: Fork in the Road].

Reb Mordechai Dovid was not impressed by Zionism. The younger folks didn't impress him either. He smiled at them soberly, as he generally did for “half of Asia” with its Hasidim and Maskilim alike. As for the new type of Hassidim – Zionists – he considered them average or common. As he got older they did not impress him. In his sixties, he wrote revolutionary songs (which he didn't publish). When he was young he had wanted to turn the world upside down. Consequently he waged war in his earlier writings with the Hasidim including the rabbis of Belz and Ziditshov [Note: a Hasidic dynasty originating in town Ziditshoyv]. Now, as the great enemy is already retreating – here comes the person newly-elevated to distinction. He wondered if there anyone left to engage in a conflict with? He viewed the younger Zionists as ridiculous, and one needs to laugh at them a bit… true already they were becoming more European, more modern. One did actually learn something in all these years –but it did not create a conflict as he felt the young Zionists were ridiculous.

So what remains of Reb Mordechai Dovid's children? One of them, a doctor, Michal Brandstetter, is a fine academic. As for the grandchildren, he didn't know what would become of them, several were younger and remain at home. He had friends, Dr. Goldhammer, a busy person, and in Warsaw a friend named Frischmann. It warmed his heart just thinking of the writer Dovid Frischmann (1859-1922). He said, “Oh, that Frischmann, that's one fine man.” Once when Frischmann was traveling from Carlsbad, while en route, he made a point to stop in Tarnow to see Mr. Mordechai Dovid. They spent three days together. That was a memorable holiday, not to be forgotten. Reb Mordechai Dovid said that “Dovid Frischmann was truly a European and witty man.” They simply could not part, and this warmed the older man's heart for many years.

Mr. Mordechai Dovid's last story was the final in a series and was called

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“Tmunot Krynica” (Translation note: Pictures from Krynica”). He wrote it last of all. The story did not even get published in the book of “Tmunot” (pictures), but it truly is a wonderful epilogue to a writer's life. The story is set at the end of the season on the famous Promenade in Krynica. Usually the promenade is full of strolling visitors. In the story, there's only one older person sitting on a bench. The din of the season had passed. The autumn trees explode with faded leaves. Sometimes a breeze shakes up the bare park. At one moment– from among the trees- a squirrel comes nearer, jumps up on the bench and sits itself down. Lost in thought, the squirrel sits near a calm gentleman. They sit together on the bench – Mordechai Dovid Brandstetter, the greatest Jewish writer of his time – and the squirrel from the woods. The story ends like a lyrical poem.

Now all that remains of Mordechai Dovid's engaging writing – can be found in Hebrew and Yiddish literature. In Warsaw, “Tushiya” began publishing his collected works but didn't complete it. They won't move heaven and earth to get it completed. After all, there are so many other great contemporary writers. He doesn't even talk about this. He enjoys it when young people come to him and sometime bring him a new book. He talks about himself to them, sharing that as early as 1896 he spoke with (Micha Josef) Berdyczewski in Carlsbad and told him they needed to publish Bialik. He was the first to treasure him and understand that Bialik was due great respect. Mordechai Dovid expressed his opinions about Hebrew literature to the young visitors. He considered Shalom Aleichem to be a truly great artist because “he has standards,” especially artistic standards (that was his opinion regarding the volumes he knew). He considered Peretz to be a very talented “dilettante” simply because he didn't always maintain his own standards. Among the younger writers, Moishe Broderzon (1890-1956) strongly impressed him with his Yiddish-language artistry. As he saw the blossoming of Yiddish literature, he derived great pleasure that once, many years back, several of his anti-Hasidic stories were released in Yiddish translation. He spoke painfully about the collection of a thousand letters by Yiddish writers of his time, which he left behind in his apartment, when he escaped to Vienna fleeing the Russian invasion. He recounted the story of how they disappeared forever. In the confusion of the moment, he grabbed a pillow instead of the letters, so that he'd have something to sleep on. He totally forgot that he was offered several thousand dollars for these letters…and left them behind. He heard that during the invasion, S. Ansky had been up in his apartment, searching for what remained, but, it turned out that the letters had already been burned by the Russian officers.

He never stopped writing. When not writing and publishing stories, he jotted down aphorisms. He published quite a bit in the American newspaper, “Ha-Do'ar ”. There wasn't much business for him so any money he earned came in handy. To earn some money, he agreed to an arrangement . Mr. Chaim Neiger, the town's uber-Zionist, came to an agreement with him about buying a library. Once the library was bought, it would revert to a university in Jerusalem in a hundred years' time.

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He absolutely didn't want to part with his books. Did they arrive at the library? The poems were in a notebook, which he showed me, about Socialism (… when I was young I was a socialist too). But I found in in the poems only songs against tyrants and aristocrats. Songs of a democrat of the 1860s.

He was then approximately 80 years old.

 

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