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Jewish Education

by Shimon Kantz

Translated by Sara Mages

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Childhood is homeland! and there is no difference where we saw it, it is the nucleus of the great space and the hub of our world. It is therefore no wonder that we all carry in our hearts the city of our childhood, in which the cheder occupied a central place and from which our first journey began. Like the tabernacle in the days of Moses, which was able to accompany the Jews in all their journeys and encampments, the cheder was also able to wander and to adjust to the living conditions of the nation in the Diaspora, to its wandering from place to place. It has a long history, from the days of the writers and the Tannaim [Rabbinic sages], to the last generations in the Jewish Diaspora. Due to its simple form and limited curriculum, it was able to adapt to any Jewish community, wherever they arrived and settled, in every city and the smallest town. In this way the cheder was aimed at the nature of their lives. If a talented man was found to educate their sons, the parents immediately hired him and the cheder was established. Sometimes, the parents also came to him to ask for advice, since he was the closest scholar to the common people, and they tended to his advice. The cheder was in the melamed's home, in his private apartment. To cut back on expenses he, and the cooks, crowded together in his apartment, a matter that caused many difficulties: the small apartment, the lack of air, the smell of cooking and the school equipment. In the cheder there was a table and benches without a backrest. Study time in the cheder - all day long. The purpose of the cheder: to teach the Torah to Jewish boys, life was Torah and Torah was life. The knowledge of the Torah is the knowledge of life, and the purpose of the study in the cheder was to give the boys the information that made them Jews. The community life helped the cheder to fulfill its functions, which were the public functions. The studying of the Torah and the teaching of Torah, should be the legacy of every Jew, has always been the aspiration of our nation.

And that was the desire of every Jew in Wolomin.

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The Melamdim, the Cheder and Beit HaMidrash

by K. Shimoni

Translated by Sara Mages

Jewish education is not the same as secular education, even though this education does not exclude itself from the moral concepts of tradition and not from its sources. The secular school also taught Torah and Nevi'im [prophets] but, in them, today as then, the concepts of tradition are only presented in borrowed meaning, not in the perception of those who first said them as a divine command, but as a general human obligation, the obligation of the individual towards the public or just a beautiful and fair measure.

In most cases the cheder was not a public asset, it was privately owned. The melamdim [teachers] were the owners and the cheder was run at their own expense, they provided all its needs, rent and all other necessities that, indeed, were few. At the lower level of the cheder, where the melamed needed assistants, he financed them and paid their wages, he was, therefore, sort of a contractor.

This was also the case in Wolomin until they built the institution called "Talmud Torah." The community's revenue allowed its foundation. The cheder then became a public institution. At first it was used mostly for the children of the poor and supported them with books and other teaching aids. There were always those who refused to send their children to it, they preferred the private chedarim to the public institution because they hoped for better results.

The melamdim, as a special class in the community, have a very long history. They played great roles in the history of the Jewish spirit. Among the melamdim in Wolomin were men of action who knew how to counsel. The melamed also dealt with mitzvot when a poor man needed his help in time of distress. Even though his situation was not good, he did not prevent himself from dealing with such a mitzvah, a charity act, and the boys saw their rabbi dealing with mitzvot.

The melamed in Wolomin was not excluded from the society he was part of it and fulfilled a role within it.

The melamed in the town was a family friend. He participated in their joy and grief, took part in all family events, in the joy of marriage and circumcision, in "Shalom Zachar" [welcoming the male] and "Leil Shimurim," in "Pidyon Haben" [redemption of the first born son] and Bar Mitzvah, and in a simple home he was the most noted among the guests, a scholar within them.

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He entered the parents' home many times a year. The test on the Sabbath required him to come often.

He also visited the house at scheduled times: on Purim, Chanukah, Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot, and each time he was received graciously. He entered the conversation and emphasized his words with a verse or a proverb, and his student felt a mixed feeling of closeness and respect, of the air in the cheder and the freedom of home. He stood next to his rabbi and enjoyed himself.

Of all these, "honoring the Shabbat and Yom Tov" will receive a different form, even though it was a kind of obligation.

Sometimes, an old melamed also knew how to cast a spell on the "evil eye" and was proficient in remedies, as a friend of the family he did not prevent himself from using his knowledge.

In the Wolomin's cheder the boys sat in one row, not in two rows, one before the other, as in the big cities. The advantage of this order is that the melamed, and the boys, were not far apart and sat at one table.

The benches were without support and the boy leaned against the table in front of him. It is possible that this caused a habit of movement during the study, which was customary among the Jews from ancient time and was not fully understood.

The study in the cheder was calculated in "periods." It was customary to register the boys to the cheder for one "period," and so was the hiring of the melamed. A "period" is a continuation of six months, from the holiday of Sukkot to Passover, and from there to Rosh Hashanah.

Between the periods there was about a month of vacation. The summer period ended on Rosh Hashanah and the winter period began after the holiday. The studies ended about a week before Passover eve.

During these times the teachers were busy arranging the cheder for the coming days.

Indeed, there was not a full vacation even between the periods. They studied matters that time has caused.

Study time in the cheder - all day long since was it clearly written: " Who sits all day and a little of the night, in order to teach them day and night."

The boys arrived early in morning and returned late in the evening. The regular hours of study were: in the summer after Shacharit prayer to the time of Mincha prayer, and in the winter - two to three hours in the evening.

Sometimes, they also studied the Gemara early in the morning before the prayer.

The study in the evening began at the beginning of winter and continued all the time. The departure from the cheder at night was joy for the boys.

When winter came, the children made lanterns of paper or glass and every night

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left the cheder in a group, each boy with a lantern in his hand. Sometimes, the assistant accompanied the boys armed with a stick and the boys talked about demons and spirits.

The cheder in Wolomin was a day school, meaning, for the whole day. There were those in which the children did not go home for lunch. Life demanded this regulation. Their mothers were busy in their shops and at work, and it was good for them that the children did not interfere with their work.

The boys brought breakfast with them, the afternoon meal was brought by the assistant in his big basket, and sometimes he brought bread at dusk.

In this order they studied every day except for Friday afternoon. Thursday and Friday were review days.

Saturdays and holidays were, of course, free of study, and yet, on Saturday afternoon they studied a Shabbat lesson for an hour or two, since the parents also studied a lesson at the same time.

The cheder was part of the Jewish life in the town, a branch of Beit HaMidrash where the adults studied.

The melamed was a simple man and almost a member of the family.

The children were members of the community.

The community life helped the cheder to fulfill its duties which were public duties.

All the studies were taught in a melody: a special melody for the Chumash, which is different from the melody of the reading of the Torah: rendition for Nevi'im, special rendition for Tehillim and each of the five scrolls.

There were melamdim who used the individual teaching method. The melamed did not teach the class, except for once or twice a week at the time of a lecture. He had always taught one boy who read to him, and taught another boy when his turn came. The other boys had to listen but, for lack of supervision, they rested or read on their own. The hour of review replaced the recess and called the students to seek out thoughts and devote themselves to self-diligence.

Of course, it was impossible to teach an entire class, a matter that caused the severity of the discipline that weighed on the boys, especially in good chedarim.

However, on the other hand, the melamed knew the nature of each boy and adjusted his explanation to each of them, but he did not consciously and willingly grasp the nature of the student. For an excellent teacher, and for a fine student, there was no better method than that.

This method of teaching caused the small number of boys in the class. In its days, the Talmud determined twenty-five boys to whom it should not be added. The Gemara classes in the Wolomin's cheder never reached that number, the usual number was about ten or twelve students.

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Sometimes, a celebration, a festive day for the family, preceded the beginning of the Chumash in the infant-cheder, and its great value was in the symbolic act of accepting the yoke of Torah and the obligation of Judaism.

They began in Chumash Vayikra [Leviticus].

Not that they really started and continue in doing so, but an old custom to begin the study took place here.

On the Sabbath, that the celebration took place, invited guests, relatives and neighbors, arrived. The cheder boys gathered to see their friend's honor. The latter was decorated in a new garment in honor of the day. On that day the little guests received a good reception. The adults gave them space and served them sweets.

And indeed, on this Shabbat the boy began the first Torah portion in Vayikra, but, on the next day, he began the weekly Torah portion and engaged in the study of the Chumash in the first class.

After that: the Chumash with Rashi's commentary, as well as Rashi's small and odd letters.

Because of the age gap it was customary to study in groups, the "older" groups, the "younger" etc.

There were melamedim for whom the most active incentive was the strap and somehow the students progressed in their studies, some more and some less.

Equipped with these basic studies, the students moved to melamedim of higher levels. At R' Baruch they studied the Torah and also a chapter in the Talmud. At R' Zusha, a sharp Torah scholar, they studied complex issues with Tosafot [additional annotations to the Talmud], Maharam, Maharsha [Shmuel Eidels] and other commentators.

The melamed, R' Yehusua, was the one who stood at the head of this learning pyramid. He was very strict and demanded a lot from his few students because only those with outstanding talents were accepted to study with him.

R' Benyamin also engaged his students in special subjects of study in the Talmud and introduced them to the opinions of posekim and commentators.

I described the cheder from its objective side and in very general terms, so as not to expand the scope of this article. I purposely ignored the subjective side, from the atmosphere that prevailed within the walls of the cheder, the personal experiences of the students, the relationship between them and the melamed's family. All that I left for the rest of the members of Wolomin, who would expend the talk about our experiences on hot summer days and long winter evenings, when we returned with various lanterns, with all the phenomena of ups and downs, of standing and falling, of dreams and hopes.

Despite all the disappointments we are in awe at this institution called cheder and to our teachers, because we have come out of these religious schools whole in our mind and equipped with basic knowledge that gave us the training, and the desire, to broaden our horizons and expend our mind.


 

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My Teachers

by Yisroel Levitau

When I was five years old, there was a great simcha in our home. My mother had specially baked a cake, taken out a bottle of Wishniak (cherry brandy) which she had set aside, and my father wrapped me in his great tallis, led me to the cheder, to R. Avraham Yossl the teacher on Dluga Street. My mother did not forget to bring along treats, nuts, candies, raisins, and almonds, to share with the other children in the cheder.

For the cheder children this was a double simcha. First of all, they received sweets, and therefore their schoolwork was also interrupted. They played in the courtyard with horse chestnuts.

The teacher readily took me from my mother and father, seated me by him near a huge alef–beys and with his pointer indicating the letters, taught me the alef–beys.

And this is how I first became acquainted with the cheder, with the teacher, and with new friends.

After I finished learning the alef–beys and Hebrew with him, I was brought to R. Yehoshua Yehezkel the teacher, where I undertook learning Chumash with Rashi. Each transfer from one cheder to the other was accompanied by new experiences. In this way I also learned with Reb Baruch–Meyer Without a Foot and with R. Avraham Esterdiner, with whom I studied Gemara, Mishnah, and Tanakh. Later I also studied with R. Fishele the teacher, the old scribe from Leshne Street. My last teacher was R. Ziske the teacher, with whom I studied Gemara with the Tosafists. With him I also celebrated my bar mitzvah.

Remembering all these teachers, who taught us to love not only the Torah, but also every Jew, I can see them before my eyes, filled with the love of Israel. I see before me Avraham Esterdiner, who had his cheder in Yoske Salti's house. He was terribly poor and had no coal to heat his own little dwelling. One shivered with the cold there. There were times when we saw him collect the crumbs of bread that the children left behind.

A tragic fate befell R. Baruch–Meyer the teacher. It was not enough that his chest rattled, that he was missing a foot, and was very poor, but God had struck him with an upsetting wife, Toveh–Rivkeh, who gave him terrible trouble. He was our neighbor and more than once came to sorrow through her. Among us we said that R. Baruch–Meyer suffers in this world and therefore it will be good for him in the world to come.

We saw the terrible trouble that his wife caused and we used to have great pity for him. It was a wonder that he still had a head for teaching the cheder children that people brought to him.

Speaking of my teachers, I see before my eyes also my friends from different cheders, dear trusty children: Yankele the rabbi's son, Avraham Edelson, Mordechai Weinbroom, the sons of Shepsel Katzav the butcher from Platkovski. Later on bigger boys, Ezriel Podberger, Moyshe Shtern, Shmuel Feigenboim, Shammai Boym, the rabbi's son, etc.

 

My Teacher R. Baruch_Meyer

My first teacher was R. Baruchl–Meyer With One Foot. He lived in our neighborhood, a couple doors away, by the blacksmith. Aside from what he suffered from the children, whom he called “rascals,” he had a wife, Toveh–Rivkeh, who gave him such troubles that he surely lingered in this world for some sin. And we children also caused him more than a few troubles. For example, if we did not know the weekly portion in the Chumash, he hit us with his rod, so in revenge we would hide the rod when he fell asleep over his Chumash.

 

R. Avraham Osterdiner [1]

My second teacher was R. Avraham Osterdiner, in Yoske Solti's house on Dluga Street.

He was a good teacher. He taught Tanakh very well. I still can taste his sincere interpretations of chapters from Samuel the prophet. The better children of the city, the sons of the rabbi and the shochet, studied with him.

 

R. Yehoshua–Yehezkel and R. Ziske Freiman

I also had other fine teachers, for example, our neighbor R. Yehoshua–Yehezkel the teacher, who also taught older students, Gemara students. My last teacher [2] After we finished in his cheder, we knew enough to study a page of Gemara on our own.

Translator's Footnotes:

  1. Spelled differently earlier Return
  2. Text is defective here: one line is repeated and one is missing Return


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Schools and Teachers

I don't have the strength to speak about all of the schools and all of the teachers who taught Jewish children in Wolomin. This is a snapshot of images and samples, who represent an accurate aspect of Jewish life in the shtetl. I will briefly describe the schools and the teachers that taught me from my earliest childhood years. The cheders, these schools, were my universities, in which I learned the basics of Yiddishkeit and mentschlichkeit. Let my few words serve as a memorial for them, who first planted in me respect for the Jewish spirit, for the written word, for the high principles and great ideals of the prophets and the Torah sages. The older I grow, the better I understand and appreciate the value of the learning, of the education, that we received in the cheder, the yeshiva, and the beis–hamedrash.

 

R. Avraham–Velvel

R. Avraham–Velvel was my first teacher. I was barely three years old when I was brought to him wrapped in a tallis, and on the very first day he started to teach me the alef–beis.

He lived with his family in two small rooms, a tiny place. In one of these little rooms R. Avraham–Velvel conducted his lessons. My first “welcome” that I received from R. Avraham–Velvel came in the words: “From me, Shammaiele, you won't get any special favors. Sit down and learn to be a Jew.”

In this way he pretended to be strict and threatening. In fact he was a feeling Jew. He never, Heaven forbid, hit us or harmed us physically. It seems to me now that he was something of a child, just dressed and disguised as an old man.

We had tremendous respect for him. His teaching of the alef–beis and later of Hebrew was not difficult for children. He imposed no agonies. For every holiday he explained the meaning and purpose of the celebration, the heroic stories of the Jewish people.

 

R. Avraham Stardiner

After two years of studying with R. Avraham–Velvel, I transferred to the cheder of R. Avraham Stardiner. He was called this because he had come from the shtetl of Stardin. He seldom told anyone his family name.

His appearance remains in my memory, tall and thin, with a long beard and a long caftan. He was an angry man, and more than once we felt his heavy hand. But that did not stop us from overturning the classroom and playing all sorts of pranks.

Although I had certain privileges with him, as the son of an important man, I felt terrible when I saw how other children received slaps from his bony hands. His whip was always ready to carry out his sentence on a rebellious child, who had a deathly fear of him. The fathers knew about this and usually approved of the teacher's strictness. They saw in him a good intermediary for teaching their children, making them into men…When such a father asked how his son was behaving, he would get the answer: “I already took him by the “hoof'…” This meant that the poor boy had already felt the taste of the whip, which guaranteed, without a worry, that he would soon be a grown–up.

 

R. Shia–Chaskel

After my “term” with R. Avraham Stardiner I was brought to R. Shia–Chaskel, who taught Gemara. With him also we received our first instruction in writing Yiddish letters and composing a letter.

His cheder consisted of a single room, which was the bedroom, kitchen, and dining room. There R. Shia–Chaskel taught us the beginning of the Talmudic tract Baba Mezia. He wanted with all his heart to make mentschen of us, that we should be able to study and to write and to have a fine handwriting. In the shtetl he was considered knowledgeable. People said that he knew arithmetic and that he could have been a bookkeeper if he had only had a little luck.

 

R. Binyamin Shochet

That is what people called him, and no one was interested in his family name. It seems that he could not make a living as a shochet, so he had to turn to teaching. But even from that he gathered no honey. Want and need looked out from every corner.

 

R. Zushe the Teacher

He was considered a good teacher. He was brought from the “Yesodei HaTorah” school in another shtetl, and studying with him was an honor. At his cheder there were pretty smart students. Reb Zushe took great pleasure when he saw his students grasping the lesson that he taught, but the students used to give him trouble, playing all sorts of pranks.

It used to happen that he would doze off in the middle of a lesson, holding his head up with his hands, which were almost on top of the table. We would take a candle, pour out the wax, and stick his beard to the table. When he awoke, he could not raise his head, The pain was twofold: it pained him to tear his beard from the table, and he was ashamed that his students had lost respect for their teacher, who taught them Torah and wanted to make them good Jews.

These childish tricks never made him lose his temper and he continued to teach with generosity and love.

 

R. Avrahm–Baruch

A quiet, excellent Jew, who had been brought from another shtetl. He ate daily at different people's homes. He ate with us on Sundays, because it was a free day for my mother, with the businesses closed, and there was more time to serve a guest. On Shabbos he ate at Shepsel Katsav's, whose son was also his student and enjoyed certain privileges. He would not touch him even when he transgressed, at the same time that other boys felt his heavy hand for the same transgression.

 

R. Yehoshua the Teacher

He stands before my eyes as he did decades ago, when I studied with him. My parents, who wanted their son to be a scholar, sent their child to study with Reb Yehoshua the teacher.

He was brought to be the teacher by six families who were determined to have a good teacher for their sons. Until then he was occupied in the meat trade, from which he made a living. But the Jews knew that he was a great scholar and explained things well, so they convinced him to leave the meat trade and take up teaching.

R. Yehoshua began to teach with six students. In addition to teaching Gemara with profound argumentation, he also taught us Chasidism. He explained the Chasidic way and told Chasidic stories. He used to say that when a Jew explained a passage other than in its literal meaning, if he had excellent intentions, his explanation was as important as the Torah learning a great scholar.

Night and day R. Yehoshua used to sit over his Torah and his prayers and he expected the same devotion from us, his students. Being completely unbiased, he made no distinction between one student and another. By the way, our fathers, as was appropriate, valued his work, to which he devoted himself as if to prayer; they paid him a good salary for a teacher.

When I had my bar mitzvah, R. Yehoshua helped me to prepare the subtle arguments for the Torah speech that I had to give at the meal. I remember as if it happened today how his face shone, as if lit up by heat, when he cited the saying of the Talmudic sages that every day the Holy One Blessed Be He sits on His throne of justice and when He sees that the world is wholly guilty, he stands up from the throne of judgment and sits on the throne of mercy, and he added, if the world were run only according to the attribute of justice, it would not survive for even a single day.

It has been a long time since R. Yehoshua taught me how great is the attribute of mercy, and in all my journeys I have attended to his words and the fervor with which he said them.

Even today his passionate speech rings in my ears: “Knowledge, mercy, and the glory of God are the rungs on which a man climbs to the highest heights. Knowledge means learning the Torah without ulterior motives; mercy–not to wrong any man, to care for the other's honor, his property, and his health and to give tangible help to all who are needy; glory means to seem Godly, to conduct oneself in purity, order, beauty in dress, not to say foolish things, not to make needless outcries, not to quarrel.”

From my earliest childhood years I felt the holiness of mercy. Almost every week we distributed collections of money and things for the poor, for the needy ill, for the hidden poor.

R. Yehoshua taught us the ideas of Chassidism and transmitted also the beauty of the rabbinic exemplars. Furthermore, what he strove to clarify, every year I grasped in more depth. In those years when I studied in the yeshivah, I increasingly considered and appreciated the depth of R. Yehoshua's ideas, which have remained in my mind, in the depths of my soul.

 

In the Yeshiva

My grandfather was reputed to be a great scholar in Wolomin, an uprooter of mountains, to whom the scholars would come with the difficult Talmudic passage. He would take the point of his beard in his mouth for a while and soon he would take it out and say: “I don't get what is so hard to understand…the answer is right there.”

People called my grandfather R. Meir Sokolover, perhaps because he came from Sokolov. For as long as I can remember, he used to come to Wolomin for Shabbos. The whole week he spent in Warsaw, where he gave lessons in the Piasetchner Yeshiva.

After my bar mitzvah, when people thought of me as a grown–up young man, my grandfather took me with him to the yeshiva, which was at 16 Noviniorski Street, where I was at the beginning the only Wolominer among the yeshiva boys, who came from a variety of different provincial shtetls.

There for the first time I felt the transition from one era to another. Until then I had been a free bird in Wolomin, a child without worries, and I had pictured myself in the small, beloved shtetl among happy Chasidim and confirmed misnagdim and I thought that Wolomin was the whole world and the Master of the World sat over it, in Heaven, and regarded only us in the shtetl. In Warsaw, actually, I had no large worries, since my father had provided me with all the necessities. But there I had the feeling of homelessness, like an exile in the place of the Torah.

My eyes were opened and I saw before me new worlds, which seized my soul. As a resident at the yeshiva, I became friendly with all the other yeshiva boys, debated with them and spoke of all kinds of things, in order to show them that we Wolomin boys did not stand apart from others.

After finishing the terms in the cheders, my grandfather took me to the Piasetchner Yeshiva. Even today his voice and the tune in which he chanted passages from the Gemara, which touched my heart, ring in my ears, More than once I think back to those good student years, when I simply studied day and night, practiced Chasidism, and built palaces in the World to Come…Where is that now? Everything was so sweet, so good. In all my limbs it resounded with sweetness and with warm security.

I had a purpose in life. I would be a rabbi, one who fears Heaven; I would contemplate heavenly matters day and night. All my paths were sure and bright. All I had to do was grow up.

 

Learning and Insight

As the years passed, the desire to learn grew in me. I repeated over and over each childish day and night the Gemara, with the Tosafos [medieval commentaries] and arguments. This was no easy thing, to pass the hours sitting in front of the Gemara, busily going through page after page, trying to grasp a commentary. I used to love those Tosafos, although they were not terribly simple or clear. In them lie, like shadows, the secrets of the Gemara, and in the yeshiva we had to reveal those secrets, to uncover them, to make them clear, to unravel them as one unravels a huge, thick ball of string.

Years ago I was surprised when I realized how much I remember from those yeshiva years, how fluently I went over those tangled Tosafos.

Also in the yeshiva it happened that at one spot, a difficult passage, I was stumped, stopped in my tracks, and I did not know how to move on, even step by step–nothing worked. What could I do? I wrinkled my forehead, hummed a Gemara tune, and tried with all my might to find a way through this difficult Tosafos; I sought help in various commentaries, but nothing worked.

So I went to my grandfather, and oddly enough, the same words when spoken by him came out entirely differently. The mountain that stood in my way disappeared and it was now so smooth and light that it was like a shining, snow–covered road.

I envied him, my grandfather, for his sharp mind and clear thought, for his dedication to learning and praying.

It sometimes happened that with divine inspiration he would linger over a melody for who knows how long, but more often he would murmur and hurry through the prayers, instead of drawing them out in a banal way. When he was not the head of the yeshiva, people argued with him more about why he hurried through the prayers, but never on a regular Monday or Thursday, when he was so enthusiastic, as I have never been able to forget.

I was proud of my grandfather not only in the yeshiva but also at home, when we returned to Wolomin. In the beis–hamedrash he was the center of everyone's attention. The different groups of young men there, students, gathered around him seeking solutions for their questions and problems, which they had accumulated during the week. In my grandfather's face one could read the sheer joy of seeing the growth of a new generation of scholars in the shtetl, and he listened gladly to the difficult questions they posed and he answered them simply, leading the students from stumbling in the dark with each sparkle of his gaonic intelligence, with lightning–like revelations.

I remember, too, how I used to see him read the Torah portion of the week. With both hands he held the Torah scroll, and with his head held high toward the rafters he began to sing hoarsely, “Yehi ratzon milifney avinu shebashamayim”…, and in his voice was such sweet sadness that people could almost see and hear how the exiled priests cried by the rivers of Babylon, as their silent harps hung from the branches of the trees.

 

My Father's Music

A disposition for singing was even more strongly developed in my father, who was the cantor in the beis–hamedrash for the High Holidays and the festivals. He prayed before the altar with such sweetness as if he were pouring out his heart. I will never forget his moving melodies and how his eyes lit up during the prayers with pure sadness, with total involvement, as if he saw before him not only the whole congregation of Jews from the shtetl but as if at that moment he also wanted to be everywhere where Jews were in trouble or danger, on the sea or on the dry land.

I can see he face after he sang a prayer and he remained standing for a long time, contemplative and silent, with amazement frozen in his eyes, as if he would not yet return from wandering through the world together with the wandering Jews. The lengthy silence in the beis–hamedrash and the looks from the supplicants, who had turned to him, eventually woke him from his bleak thoughts, which stemmed from his feeling of great responsibility for the congregation, whose prayer–leader he was, with the duty of bringing their prayers to the Throne of Glory.

My father's singing, even his sadder melodies, always seemed pure and sweet in my mind. It was a music that exalted the spirit, captivated the thoughts, and refined the human being.

 

Chassidism and Kabbalah

By studying in the Piasetshner yeshiva, I gained status among the boys in Wolomin. On free days, I studied Chassidism with them and had a lot of fun. I had much to tell them about life among yeshiva boys not only in the Piasetshner yeshiva but in other yeshivas in Warsaw.

There were yeshivas in which this was the routine: early on, superficial learning, including the whole Talmud. Later, as they became more proficient in the Talmud, they began to go deeper, more thoroughly, and instead of simple argumentation they sought the true sense of each matter.

At that time I was at the level of proficiency. I wanted to be proficient in the Talmud, and afterwards, I thought, insight would come.

There were, however, students who loved to confuse themselves and others with minute arguments and complicated hypotheses. Often it happened that I had to wrestle with someone over a Tosafos about which I had a question. They poured on the commentaries, the Maharam, the Maharash, and P'nei Yehoshua. It became clear that they could not answer the question, but they wanted to show their cleverness. The result was that I had to go to my grandfather, who answered my question on the spot.

Asking questions was for me, unlike for others, not merely for the sake of asking questions. Some would sit for a whole day over a page of Gemara just thinking of questions. I thought that was a poor and impractical practice. That way, years go quickly and learning goes slowly, without progress. I also did not like running too quickly over the tractates and pages. They knew hundreds of pages of Gemara, but they understood it all superficially, and in later years they forgot it and sought ways to acquire the ability to go deeper, to object to an interpretation.

Thus I progressed little by little in independent learning under the influence and direction of my grandfather.

My grandfather for me was the exemplar of a total Jew, of a mentsh, who would not hurt a fly on the wall: of a mentsh who is not touched by the world's ugliness, and although his body is on the sinful earth, he is, with his heart, mind, and soul in the highest realm of heaven. But more than anything else I was impressed by his learning, his proficiency, his cleverness in study. My goal was to grow up as a scholar, just like my grandfather.

The new worlds that opened for me at the Piasetshner yeshiva I brought back to Wolomin. Every Shabbos I brought the news that I heard and saw in Warsaw to my friends in the beis–hamedrash. The boys from the Wolomin beis–hamedrash wanted to learn from me new approaches to learning and new practices of Chassidism.

 

Mussar

Aside from the Talmud and its commentators, in the yeshiva I studied by myself the Midrash, Chassidic books, and I took a look at the Kabbalah. I was greatly influenced by the Novorodok yeshiva, which was not far from the Piasetshner, at 11 Franziskaner Street. I used to visit there often. Their profound Mussar melody, their self–examinations, their immense, all–consuming religious rapture moved me and became part of me.

That was a period when I became carried away with the religious ecstasy of the Novorodok yeshiva students, with their ecstatic contempt for the world and their rejection of material things. An ecstatic trance for a bar–mitzvah boy could last for minutes or hours; for me, however, I found myself in such a trance for days and nights.

It appeared to us Wolomin Chassidim that the strongest religious feeling from childhood on was accompanied by a kind of innate “the Shechinah is in exile” sadness, with a feeling of responsibility for everything in the world that was not proper, that was an “evil matter to take part in”; every one of us was obliged to help the suffering, to rescue the pursued, to satisfy the hungry, to protect the homeless, to revive the sinful and to teach those who wandered without understandingl

Consequently the hours I spent in Mussar with the Novorodokers affected me greatly, as the yeshiva students did their mental gymnastics, contemplated, went into depth, with great force to free themselves from the surrounding mediocrity, from their own weaknesses and doubts, from the darkness of daily life.

In those days I did not know about the big Mussar controversies, which began years earlier in the rabbinic world, particularly in Lithuania, over whether Mussar belonged in yeshivas, as the prominent students of Reb Yisroel Salanter contended. By the end of the nineteenth century these debates had taken on an unfortunate character. The rabbis wrote articles in contemporary journals on this question, and there were yeshivas that were involved, thanks to their students, in a virtual war. The greatest war waged against Mussar–learning was led by the Slobodker and Telzer yeshivas. In Warsaw, in my time, no yeshiva allowed Mussar–learning. Only the Novorodoker stubbornly stood by this ideology.

I was then too young to adopt this path in its full depth, though it influenced my outlook, my ecstatic will to raise myself above daily life. I used to see in a dream how I suddenly raised myself up and began flying. I arose and flew, and I wondered why other people did not do the same thing.

When I told my closest friends about my dream, it seemed that they also had similar dreams. It seems strange, but such were the Wolomin schoolchildren and the older boys in the beis–hamedrash: they danced, they carried on, they played in the dirt, they played tag, hide–and–go–seek, but inside they had a passion, a longing, that later in their young manhood gave them no rest.

That is why they paid such close attention to what I told them about the Novorodok followers of Mussar. It seemed to me that my stories sharpened their fear of Heaven, but it also aroused their fantasies, perhaps because the road of Mussar lay so wide from their Polish–Chassidic environment and were so different from the customs and doctrines of the Chassidic prayer houses.

 

The Beis–Hamedrash

The beis–hamedrash was located on Leshna Street. From early in the morning men were there praying and studying. Books were always arrayed on the long wooden tables: Gemaras, a Yoreh Da–ah, a Shulchan Aruch, a Chaye–Adam, an Eyin–Yakov. Some people arrived only to pray and quickly returned to their work, merchants to their shops and craftsmen to their workrooms. Others sat in the beis–hamedrash the whole day praying and learning.

One of the perennial scholars was R. Ephraim Ivri, who used to wake at four in the morning, summer and winter, and run to the beis–hamedrash. He would sit and learn until three in the afternoon, when he would go home to eat something, but soon he was back in the beis–hamedrash, sitting and learning until late at night.

His wife and two daughters ran a little store that sold writing implements, from which they barely made a living. People said that when he was young, his father–in–law had warned him that he should find something to do. He wrote to him, “Pay attention to both food and to Torah–one has to live like all Jews and find a way to make a living.” So he opened the shop. But gradually he became so involved in the higher spheres that his wife was left as the sole proprietor of the business.

His son, too, would spend all day and night learning in the beis–hamedrash, a young man with small shoulders and long sidecurls, which emphasized his long, refined face. After his marriage, he traveled to the Ger rabbi, even though like his father he was an Alexander chassid. He had the nerve to say in the Ger court that he had come to Ger because his father–in–law forced him to. But truthfully, he only had to travel to his own rabbi, that is, the Alexander rabbi.

Among the prominent Jews in the beis–hamedrash was also R. Leibush Farber, an adherent of the Agudah, a happy man who distinguished himself from the others. Although he listened to the very religious ones, who lamented modern times and who paid attention only to the Agudah faction, who wanted to bring an end to the attempts to bring redemption to the land of Israel before the messiah came, Reb Leibush openly sympathized with those who went up to Eretz Yisroel. When he learned that I intended to go to Israel, he earnestly said to me in a voice suffused with lovingkindness, “If you are near the Wall, remember, in God's name, to put in a note for me, too.”

I reconstruct the beis–hamedrash because it seems to me that it occupied an important place for each of us, since that is where we learned the basic principle, “Hear O Israel” and “Moshe commanded the Torah to us, the inheritance of the congregation of Yakov” and other verses and blessings, even until the last years of our learning on our own.

Bound up with the beis–hamedrash is the memory of our fathers and grandfathers. And our mothers as well lived with the thought of the beis–hamedrash as a holy site, where their children and their husbands prayed and studied Torah. In each Jewish mother there was something of the rabbinical sage Yehoshua's mother, who, when he was an infant, would bring his cradle into the beis–hamedrash so that he would hear the voice of the Torah. From our earliest years, we grew accustomed to the sound of the Gemara–melodies that emanated from the beis–hamedrash.

Where did we children in Wolomin use to play? In and around the beis–hamedrash. That bound us by a thousand threads to the beis–hamedrash.

 

Good Students and Fiery Politicians

In my time, I remember, there were deeply devout young men in the beis–hamedrash: Moyshe–Feyvl Shtulman, a good student and a fiery politician who maintained that when the time came for action–put aside your Torah. That is, one may interrupt one's studying and hold in the beis–hamedrash a referendum for the Agudah. He also showed himself to be a fine orator.

Another fine student was Avraham Greenshpan, the scribe's son, who is today a rabbi, a slaughterer, and a mohel in Halifax.

Like an exemplar of a great Jew, the former Bobrowsk rabbi is engraved in my memory. He arrived in Volomin after the Bolshevik Revolution and he studied in the beis–hamedrash day and night. Always when I think of learning Torah simply for itself, before my eyes stands the figure of the Bobrowsk rabbi, as he sat bent over the Gemara and the commentaries from early morning until late at night.

Often I went through the shtetl with Reb Chaim–Aaron Bunems collecting money to support the great scholar, who breathed out the love of the Torah. His scholarship and gentleness had a tremendous influence on us beis–hamedrash boys. We saw how learning pervaded his whole being, so that he could no more stop learning than he could live without breathing.

In later years, when I knew that the word “philosophy” came from two Greek words––“philos,” which means “love” and “sophos,” which means wisdom–it became clear to me that so would the learned Greeks refer to the Bobrowsk rabbi, who embodied the love of Torah wisdom, who had a magnetic power for learning.

On the first Shabbos after Pesach, the study of Pirkey Avos began in the beis–hamedrash. It seemed that the younger Jews had, like myself, great affection for studying Pirkey Avos, which discusses great ethical principles and rules of conduct from the great Jewish characters of the past. My grandfather told me that studying Pirkey Avos went on over two thousand years ago in the great Babylonian yeshivas. From there the custom spread over the whole Jewish world. The six chapters of Pirkey Avos are printed in the bigger prayer books so that Jews can have them easily at hand. Actually I knew that Pirkey Avos is a section of the Mishnah and is printed together with all the Mishnahs and in the complete Talmud, in the Order Nezikin, and therefore it is also called “Tractate Avos.” It can be found right in the middle of the Talmud.

 

R. Chaim Topol

An interesting character was also the shammos [sexton] of the beis–hamedrash, R. Chaim Topol, the grandfather of Yisroeldik the stage actor who is famous today throughout the world for his acting ability. He surely got the impetus for acting from his grandfather. Of course, his grandfather never entered a theater and never saw a stage with his own eyes. However, he had a spark of talent, which appeared in his humor, in the jokes he good–naturedly made about himself and others without hurting anyone, even when the joke had a sting. So, for example, without any anger toward women, he could say that the women's section of the synagogue had to have a floor because women were not worth enough for the ground to support them.

In his homespun, deliberate way of talking he often revealed simple everyday bits of wisdom, as, for example, that it is not worthwhile to chase after wealth or honor, because one who multiplies his possessions multiplies his troubles, and one who chases after honor, honor flees from him. And he had a story for every occasion. His jokes made the rounds, from mouth to mouth, and people held their sides from laughter.

The beis–hamedrash was a homey, popular prayer hall. Both ordinary people and rich Jews prayed there. People would take the opportunity to learn a lesson from the Talmudic page–of–the–day or to study a chapter of the Mishnah, to leaf through an old book or to study with excitement a page of the Gemara until late at night. In the early years it was a lively place. The young men would argue over a difficult Talmudic passage. But in later times, closer to the war years, it became quieter; for both the older and the younger generations, the beis–hamedrash was the best place for passing time in a spiritual fashion.

The shoemaker and the tailor, the wagon–driver, the small–time merchant and the owner of a larger store, the wealthy Jew and the pauper–at the hour of the afternoon and evening prayers, all left behind their businesses and their worries and were cut off from their outer lives, gathered instead for an enjoyable hour in the beis–hamedrash. No other gathering place existed for them. This sacred place was for the Jews in Wolomin a gathering place, a place for discussion of worldly matters, like politics or community affairs that interested every Wolomin Jew.

But the greatest pleasure that our fathers and grandfathers enjoyed was a page of Gemara, a chapter of Mishnah, an excerpt from Ayin Yakov or simply saying Psalms, each according to his ability and that of his companion, with whom he studied. One could hardly find in that older generation a single Jew who would not take part in some kind of learning or Psalm recitation. That was for people who were not from the community. Each person belonged in that framework, which gave him satisfaction, not only spiritual satisfaction but also pleasure and delight, the simplest sense of those words.

“It was a pleasure”–people used to say in Wolomin. In the beis–hamedrash they renewed and refreshed themselves, roused themselves, felt that they were not idle limbs but that they were part of a great people who had a God who had not abandoned them.

 

Preachers

Occasionally, when a traveling preacher would come to the shtetl, there was pleasurable anticipation. Everyone–men, women, and even children–took pleasure in hearing a good sermon. When one encountered a preacher with a nice voice and a pleasing cadence, who spoke sincerely, one's eyes welled up and even produced tears.

Wolomin Jews would forget their troubles for a while and taste the joy of the world. That was a greater joy than that feeling of purity one gets from rejecting worldly things. But at first glance, Wolomin Jews did not give the impression that they were sentimental. Rather, they seemed more serious, loving wisdom, a witticism, even something that cut them to the quick, but that was all superficial. In these preoccupied Jews–preoccupied with making a living, in sun and rain, in snow and frost, there always beat a feeling heart, which always responded to a warm word and longed for a sweet melody which exalted them, which led them to other worlds, more beautiful, higher.

Yes, now, for the first time, I feel more strongly the beauty of these beis–hamedrash Jews in our shtetl. The majority of these simple people, merchants, toilers, and shopkeepers–differed from the everyday people that we have encountered in our journeys and wanderings in different lands and countries. The simple people whom we have met among other people, end their days playing cards or with alcohol or with idle gossip and the like. They would dream a whole day of crawling out of their hiding places and their souls drained out of their bodies.

Different from these others is the path that our fathers and grandfathers paved in our old home. They did not leave their homes in the evenings seeking the yetzer–harah, only the yetzer–tov. They did not go out to unwind and to waste time, nor to seek frivolous adventures, only to exalt their minds and fill their souls with the highest feelings. The hours in the beis–hamedrash were, for the Jews of Wolomin, for generation after generation, a kind of spiritual purification. Those hours cleansed them of the dust of the day. They threw off a part of their material existence, and they returned home more spiritual, more in possession of themselves than when they left.

The Jewish “strings,” which had become a bit loosened during the week, in the tumult of a whole week, were tightened up again in the beis–hamedrash. Once again the Wolomin Jew felt the supremacy of the transcendent, of the spiritual over the material, of the genteel over the boorish; and in such hours more than one began to regret his follies and became captured by thoughts of repentance.

Whenever I think about the afternoon and evening prayers in the beis–hamedrash, it comes to me that in our shtetl the day never descended to evening. Rather it was the opposite: the day rose instead of descending. In the evening, the Jew ascended, he rose to greatness. According to many accounts, our fathers and our grandfathers were people who were not satisfied with just praying. After praying, something seized them, in order to strengthen the body for the Torah, and they quickly turned to learning by the light of tiny lamps, or, in earlier times, of oil lamps.

They sat there by the notched and wax–covered tables and with a bolstering melody applied themselves to discovering the core of a “The rabbis taught…” and “Abaye said…” The melody was accompanied by bickering and sparring over the rightness of an argument and the difficulty of a Talmudic passage. One man tried to outdo another with a sharp word and a diverting argument.

At first they spoke about holy things and their conversation was casual. People listened to them as though they were authorities in worldly matters. But hardly had they opened their Gemaras before they took the paths of Nehardea and Pumbeditha, that is, they began to quarrel and wrangle. Here they question and there they answer, and here they think that everything has been answered, but then a new questioner arises, who poses in his melody a new problem. And then other voices sing out the problems and the justifications like weeping flutes. Others resounded and thundered with confidence, with malice for anyone who dares to disagree.

To this day I see before me the pale young men with their dreamy eyes and the grown Jews with their black and gray beards, and in my ears ring their Germara melodies in the beis–hamedrash. With the same melodies, we ourselves in our younger years sharpened our minds on each passage, saying, and verse.

Thus we absorbed the nectar of the Torah, of the Gemara with all its commentaries together with the nostalgic melodies. All my bones speak out, all my bones and limbs were shaped by them.

How clearly it teaches that a word is not simply what is written but how it is spoken. The melody is as important as the thought, the tone is as important as the style, the intention of a word is more important than the word itself, and now the beautiful melodies and pure intentions of the Wolomin Jews as they learned and prayed in the beis–hamedrash swim before me.

Let me mention something else. There were also those who learned quietly, swaying hour after hour over their Gemara, and one heard not a peep from them. But occasionally a melody arose from them, the old Germara melody with which our fathers and our grandfathers learned the same Gemaras, by the same tables in the same beis–hamedrash.

 

Chassidic Prayer Houses

Ger

On Leshne Street was the Ger prayer house, where about sixty Chassidim prayed. They were accounted in the shtetl as the sharpest and most excitable, ready to trample every opponent. It seems to me, however, that almost all of them were good, upright Jews, their glances suffused with the sheer warmth and light that they brought with them from the Ger court.

I see them on an ordinary Shabbos after nap time, as they enter the prayer house to read a sacred text and hum a joyful Ger melody, a melody without an end, with a lesson of spiritual awakening, just as people hum it in Ger.

At the time of the third Shabbos meal, one could hear through the windows the sounds of Shabbos songs, yearning, sung in the darkness, with closed eyes, unending, with supplications, with trust, with sadness, with joy, like a march, a military march toward the doors of the Throne of Glory. Soon the notes sound like tuneful caresses, nestling, poured out like sweet wine on the palate, moving and waking every limb. The Ger melodies never become worn out.

Some there were who spent their whole day in the Chassidic prayer house studying, swaying over their holy books, conversing, speaking about Ger, about new customs, behaviors, and laws.

Among the esteemed Ger Chassidim was R. Shia the teacher, who had traveled to the Sfas Emes and taught us how to reach a high spiritual level, guided us in how to serve the Name, blessed be He, and to study for its own sake. His son studied in a yeshiva in Warsaw and R. Shia the teacher every Friday would send him clean clothes to wear after he went to the mikveh.

Another esteemed Ger Chassid was R. Itshe Shpiegelman from the tannery, a scholar who used to come every Shabbos to the beis–hamedrash wearing his shtreimel and his silken jacket, to quiz the children.

The Chassidic prayer house was a world to itself. Unity between the powerful and the poor ruled there. Everyone said “du” [the informal form of “you”]. For the Chassidim the prayer hall was a second home, sometimes even more of a home than the first, for there they could escape from their worries and their heartaches. There they supported each other, helped with a piece of advice and with deeds, whether regarding sorrows, material difficulties, or spiritual matters.

 

Amshinov

The Amshinov prayer house could be found on Statsina Street. The Amshinov Chassidim had a reputation for being more worldly. Among them were wealthy merchants, some with trimmed beards. There were also simple, everyday people who showed great respect for the learners, listened to their Gemara lessons and Chassidic aphorisms, which the Chassidim repeated from their rabbi, whom they used visit in Atvotsk on the High Holidays, pouring out their hearts to the rabbi and believing in his power to help them.

Among the Amshinov Chassidim there were no very wealthy magnates. Those who often traveled to their rabbi would speak of the love for Israel that dominated his court. When a Chassid arrived there with a broken heart, hardly had he said “sholem aleichem” to the rabbi than he felt the gentleness of his glance.

Older Chassidim, who travelled to Rabbi Shimonl–Sholem, spoke about how difficult it was to approach him. He was always dwelling in Warsaw, in order to be prepared at all times to defend the rights and the honor of the Jews. Thus he did in Tsarist times and later, when Poland became an independent country.

Later, when the rabbi was not in good health, he moved to Atvotsk, but he was still in contact with Warsaw and was all his life the messenger and intercessor for Jews in times of trouble. The giants of Israel in Poland included the Amshinov rabbi and invited him to all the great local and world conventions and his word was often cited in important religious matters.

 

Wolomin

Wolomin Jews also had their own rabbi, who actually had his headquarters in Warsaw, but his faithful Chassidim in Wolomin had their own prayer house on Kashtshelne Street.

Unassuming and modest Jews were the Chassidim of the Volomin rabbi, although people used to pray with great rapture in their prayer house, with total devotion, “all my bones speak out.” There was no lack of brandy at every opportunity for collective rejoicing, especially at Simchas Torah, when they would go through the streets, from one Chassid to another, eating and drinking whatever had been prepared. Chassidim in Wolomin especially loved to rejoice, to eat and drink in friendship, searching out the significance of the rabbi's words, which the Chassidim brought back after making a pilgrimage to him on a festival. One of the valued Wolomin Chassidim was Margolis, a great scholar and a God–fearing man.

The unity which prevailed in each prayer house did not exist between one prayer house and another, because they each had different attitudes toward community matters, which occasionally emerged with a special sharpness, led to controversies indeed in religious matters, such as hiring a shochet.

I considered myself a Sochotshav Chassid and more than once got carried away with ambition, which so interested a young boy. But now, when I go back in my memory to those times, all of those Chassidic prayer houses are near and dear to me, all the Chassidic melodies, the Shabbos songs in the Shabbos beis–hamekdash, when rapture mixed with gnawing homesickness. Jews would hold on to those hours with all their strength, not wanting to let Shabbos pass.

 

Cantors And Prayer Leaders

Actually there were no cantorial specialists and none of the cantors had a higher musical eduation. None had graduated from a conservatory. They were simple prayer leaders, but their prayers, the melodies and cadences possessed a peculiar sweetness, and the Wolomin Jews were delighted with their rather conventional voices as they welcomed them and prayed the morning and Musaf services, especially on the High Holidays,

The most outstanding prayer leaders were R. Yisroel–Mordechai the shochet and my father, R. Yehudah–Leib. In his way of praying and singing before the reader's stand, he did not adopt improvisatory recitative or “do–re–mi” or other academic practices. As he sang the prayers, his goal was to pour out his heart, and through his singing he could call forth tears–and not only in the women's section but also among the men. Mostly they were tears of great spiritual delight, but at the same time his singing caused a deep spiritual awakening.

My father had great musical strength, but he was not overwhelming. He was not aware of the lyricism of his own voice, but the congregation felt the refined and sweet ringing of his voice, which pierced the walls of the beis–hamedrash and spread over the streets of Volomin, which were so still on Shabbos and holidays, as if they wanted to hear the prayers.

Another prayer leader was R. Yisroel–Mordechai the shochet. Although I was jealous in regard to my father's singing and I was proud of his prayer before the reader's stand, I still felt with R. Yisroel how his melodies came from his heart. Going to the reader's stand, he felt himself to be a messenger for the congregation, who had to convey the prayer and the feeling for the whole congregation of Wolomin's Jews and display their bitter hearts to the Master of the World.

I will hear those melodies forever. Sometimes it seems to me that they burn holes in me. Sometimes they float far away from me and then return, like sounds and smells on a summer evening. They come together with the voices of the annihilated Wolomin Jews, about whom people testified that through the sweetness of their voices, they could bring the messiah. Such were those who prayed before the reader's stand on Shabbos and festivals or those who after the afternoon prayers recited a lesson for the shtetl's Torah students, astutely and sincerely, those who were simple Jews or great scholars. We should remember them all.

They were certain that their children would go along the same path, just as they had gone along the path of their ancestors.

 

The Agudas–Yisroel Youth

In my heart my affection for our elders' way of life never ceased, just as my love for their likeness never ceased. Now the memory of their end brings a deep sorrow, because our affection is suffused with a holy fire. So, too, is my membership in the Agudas–Yisroel Youth. With that same fire I devoted myself to the mitzvah of settling Eretz Yisroel.

The members of the Agudas–Yisroel Youth were mostly Chassidic young men who wanted to show that they were capable of more than just learning in the yeshiva or in the beis–hamedrash or finishing up the Talmud page–of–the–day or marking death anniversaries or melava– malkes.

When it came to elections, the Agudas–Yisroel Youth mastered election strategies and did not lag behind the young people in the free Zionist organizations and parties.

The Agudah was active in all the political and communal facets of the shtetl. They took part in the elections for the Polish parliament and senate, for the city council, and for the Jewish community, but the Agudah particularly devoted its attention to problems of strengthening the religion. The second generation of the Agudah movement, the young people, although they were like the old pattern of beis–hamedrash boys, still paid more attention to modern organizational techniques, showed initiative and ability in motivating the Chassidic youngsters and involving them in the task of lighting the fire of Torah and combating the currents of atheism and liberal ideologies that were spreading among the young people in the shtetl.

We began to distribute the Orthodox Jewish Press of Warsaw, organized lessons, spoke with the parents of young people and warned them of the danger of belonging to liberal organizations; we called gatherings of young people and furthered the program of the Agudah. We felt a communal and political power with which the other organizations and parties had to reckon.

From time to time speakers from the Agudah would visit our shtetl, and we, young followers of the Agudah, felt the power of arranging affairs, of discipline. Among the speakers who visited Wolomin, I most vividly remember Alexander Zishe Friedman, the general secretary of Agudas Yisroel in Poland. His articles in the Orthodox Press were full of emotion and logic. His style of speaking was clear and eloquent. Even the opponents of the Agudah had to reckon with him, partly because of his talent and partly because of his excellence. His insights into the Torah were appreciated by scholars. His book, “Kesef Mzokeyk,” was pedagogical and learned. His anthology, “Der Toyrah Kval,” was not about irrelevancies but was about everyday things, written with proficiency and acuteness.

His presentations and speeches in Wolomin made a strong impression on us, the Young Agudah followers. We were very proud of him and we were always on guard so that his opponents could not disturb his speeches.

 

Shabbos and Festivals

No fields, no palaces, no family coats–of–arms did we inherit from our parents. Consequently, we did not have to investigate the heroic chronicle of Sefer Yochasin down to our great–great–grandfathers. I always knew that they were religious and observant Jews and whenever they were not preoccupied with the problems of making a living, they never, not for a single hour, day or night, neglected the image of God, their Jewish and mentschlich dignity, and in the hardest times they never lost hope for better days.

What, then, did we inherit from them? What came down to us, their descendants, from our grandfathers and great–grandfathers? A deeply felt melody, a moral, a story from ancient times about wonderful people, about special events and about Shabbos and the Festivals.

A proverb says, “If you really want to know the people–go and see how they celebrate Shabbos and the Festivals.” So, too, the character of our shtetl was revealed in its Shabboses and Festivals.

The holiness of Shabbos days put its seal on a Jewish child until his latest years. It framed his spiritual character, developed in him the enthusiasm for beauty and high–mindedness and also a sensitivity for poetry and music, for songs and hymns.

I tremble when I see passing before my eyes the holy moments of our pitilessly destroyed shtetl. Every minute of the day our fathers and mothers go before my eyes with their trembling love for the customs and commandments for sanctifying the seventh day of the week and each of the Festivals, with their anticipation of the approach of sacred days.

Each had according to his means the best food and the nicest clothing to honor Shabbos, for him and for his children. For the whole week, people were satisfied with whatever they had. There were homes in which people ate no more than dry bread and water, enough to survive on, but on Shabbos it was a mitzvah to prepare fresh challas, wine, and food.

For those who could not at all indulge themselves, there were always in the shtetl men with good hearts and charitable women who took care that the Shabbos angels should in mysterious ways make their way to every impoverished household and the blessing of Shabbos should rest on their tables.

There were homes in Wolomin where white tablecloths appeared only to honor Shabbos and Festivals. During the whole week their faces were gray and gloomy, but on Shabbos their faces shone and people found whatever solutions they could to prepare fish and meat. One could imagine the joy of the children in every home.

On Friday the shtetl took on another appearance. Beginning at dawn the streets were full of aromas from fresh baked goods to honor Shabbos. On Friday in the schools, we celebrated, because we knew that the school day was shortened today. In summer, right after eating we went out to play. When the sun got cooler, it revealed that people had gone to the bathhouse. People were not hesitant to enjoy this pleasure. But the approaching Shabbos hurried them on. People put on their clean clothing, and with wet beards and side curls they slowly made their way home, ready to greet the Shabbos Queen.

At the same time, the wives, with grease–covered aprons, placed in their ovens the cholent in clay pots. Then they started to wash their children, braid the girls' hair, and polish the candlesticks for candle lighting.

Thus stands before my eyes our home when it was suffused with Shabbos and over everything lay the grace of holiness. On the table are already the two challas covered with a cloth. On the polished silver candlesticks are the candles, and over them stands my mother, gentle and pale, slightly bent over, her outspread hands covering her face as she blesses the Shabbos lights.

Quietly her lips murmur the prayer. She prays for her husband and children, for the whole shtetl, for every Jew. Her hands, like twin birds, wave over the lights, full of pity and trust, and from my mother's eyes, sanctified by pain and sorrow, a tear falls on the white tablecloth.

My mother's soft, dove–like eyes, so sacred in the beauty of the blessed lights in Friday's twilight, accompany me all my days.

Step by step the Jews make their way to shul, to the beis–hamedrash and to the Chassidic prayer houses.

“Lecha dodi likras kallah, p'ney Shabbos n'kabelah”–the song is heard from all corners of the different streets, in all corners of the shtetl. In all the synagogues, everyone is immersed in the light of flickering lamps.

Shabbos, Shabbos! So earth and heaven sang in Wolomin. It was the song of generations that had in Wolomin their special grace and magic that remain with us today.

Where are you, Jews of my destroyed shtetl home, and where are the dreams of your young people, who learned about Shabbos from your example, the beis–hamedrash boys–with prayers and the music of hymns, the young people who joined organizations and parties–with the sound of discussion and lectures, with evenings of checkers and the music of Zionist songs?

Where are you, dear mothers, with your hands full of blessings? On the ashes of your hands grow new trees in Treblinka, in Maidanek, and in Auschwitz.

Where are those blissful hours of Friday nights, the fullness and riches of Jewish life in our shtetl home Wolomin?

Gone are the magical flames of the Shabbos lights in the narrow windows of our homes. Instead we kindle yahrzeit lights, flames in memory of a warm, pulsing, and beautiful Jewish life which once was and is no more.

 

The High Holidays

Preparations for the High Holidays were filled with awe. Certain people, my grandfather, for instance, and others like him, began to prepare starting on the fifteenth of Av. They began to examine their actions, to stay longer in the beis–hamedrash. In a letter to a relative in a distant city people wrote wishes for a good year and over all people were concerned with thoughts of repentance.

The real trembling began on Rosh Chodesh Elul. The blowing of the shofar and the collective recitation of Psalms early every morning darkened one's mood and filled one's heart with a gnawing sadness and a quiet fear. Thus began the days of accounting for one's soul and purification, of forgiveness and self–improvement. They awoke feelings of brotherhood and a desire to do good deeds, charity and righteousness. People were more careful about what they said. In Chassidic homes on those days people spoke more softly. Conversations in the beis–hamedrash were more courteous and subdued.

Many people in Wolomin held no worldly conversations from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Yom Kippur because in the whole world there is no better way to purify the soul than to keep one's mouth closed and speak no frivolity. Even more, such rejection of foolishness is good for a person when he considers the devotion of his prayers and he realizes that his pure devotion should not be mixed with other thoughts.

Even more powerful is the spiritual awakening of the first Selichos prayers, which are recited at midnight. There were some who directly after the melaveh malkeh went to the beis–hamedrash and sat and studied until midnight. Others walked slowly through the dark streets to the beis–hamedrash together with the children who had been awakened, silently and contemplatively.

Wolomin, my beautiful shtetl, now after decades I still hear the sounds and the stillness of that night. The moon and the stars spoke in their own secret language and I felt that the shtetl was full of shades.

On Erev Rosh Hashanah, people were not satisfied only with Selichos. They also said the whole book of Psalms before the Selichos and afterwards. They forgave promises, visited the cemetery, gave charity, fasted, some for a whole day and more for a half of a day. More strongly, with more ecstasy, they repeated the Thirteen Attributes of God, though the highest level was reserved for Erev Yom Kippur.

My pen is too weak to convey the mood, the experience, and the feeling of Erev Yom Kippur day in the shtetl. From dawn on, the Jews streamed to the mikveh. As I remember it, almost all the Jews, especially from the older generation, went to the mikveh on Erev Yom Kippur. Some would submerge themselves three times, before the morning prayers, before the afternoon prayers, and before the pre–fast meal. The only mikveh in town was certainly crowded, but that did not stop anyone.

At dawn began the atonement ceremony. Very religious Jews sought out a white hen, though in an emergency a brown one would do. The youngsters would say with great intensity the “Benei Adam” while their fathers swung the hen around their heads. They were sure that all their sins were transferred to the hens. This was the origin of the saying, “He looks like a hen during the “Benei Adam.”

On that day all the Jews gave charity, each according to his means. In the shul and in the beis–hamedrash, people set up receptacles for various charitable causes and no one refused to contribute, both paper money and coins.

Several hours before candle lighting, the whole shtetl was prepared for the holiday. Mothers and grandmothers put on kerchiefs and scarves, and people went to neighbors and relatives, to friends and to those whom they had offended, wishing them a good year and a good inscription in the Book of Life, as well as asking forgiveness for cross words that had slipped out, for offending with slander and gossip. Wives embraced each other and from the houses arose laments and weeping. Children were clasped by mothers and fathers and were taught the importance of the Day of Judgment.

In the streets we saw people with tearful eyes. The fathers were dressed in white kittles and taleisim, and they blessed their children with voices choked with tears. Their mother had poured out her heart while lighting the candles.

Houses and streets were filled with dread. The mood was serious, holy, and fearful. With broken hearts people went to the shul, to the beis–hamedrash, and to Chassidic prayer houses for the prayers and the confession of Rabbeinu Nissim.

Soon, the tones of Kol Nidrei sounded through the whole shtetl. In the shul and in the beis–hamedrash the great yahrzeit lights were kindled in memory of deceased ancestors, of parents, who went to their eternal rest. The shul was full of light, with the men dressed in their white kittles.

Wolomin's Jews listened with dread and trembling to the mystical melody of Kol Nidrei. Many would stand for twenty–four or twenty–five or twenty–six hours before their creator and confess their sins, beat their breasts while they say “I have sinned,” say prayers, songs, and praises to God amid rivers of tears. In the Memorial Service people recalled the dead, their ancestors from generations ago, who are at eternal rest.

When the cantor sang of the sorrow of our afflicted people in the prayer recalling the Ten Martyrs, old and young thought not only about those who were tortured by the Romans but about all who were killed amid great suffering in the Crusades, in the Inquisition, and through the rulings and persecutions through the centuries among all peoples.

Moving laments were heard from the women's section when the cantor recalled Rabbi Akiva, whose torturers flayed his skin with iron combs. Thus our mothers and grandmothers bewailed the dark Jewish fate in exile.

Finally the service ended with “Next year in Jerusalem.”

After the evening service, people did not rush home to eat after the long fast, but they stayed to say the prayer over the new moon. The holiest day of the year had passed. Everyone felt clean, purified of sin and ready to begin a new year, a year for taking new steps in a difficult life, with a hope for better times.

Awesome and holy were the High Holidays in Wolomin, a way of life that was established over generations by Jewish sages, geonim and rabbis and was sanctified by martyrs through suffering and anguish.

 

Succos and Simchas Torah

Succos–so many ceremonies and commandments. But because of the compressed time, everything had to be done quickly. Many people had succahs prepared and had only to open the roofs and bring schach. Children helped to prepare the new succah. They decorated it with multi–colored chains and lanterns, but the greatest preparations concerned the esrog and lulav, which had to be supplied for the whole community.

The sexton used to go around to all the houses with the esrog so that the women could say the blessing. Fathers taught their children how to say the blessing and shake the lulav.

On Simchas Torah the children prepared paper flags with an apple on the point of the stick. For the children this was a great experience. In the apples they stuck a little candle. There were children who never had enough to eat, but for Simchas Torah they had to have a flag.

Jews in Wolomin made the Simchas Torah processions in the beis–midreshes and the Chassidic prayer halls. On their entrance into the shul, the girls would bend over to kiss the Torah scrolls.

During the day there were some Jews who made everyone happy by singing “Tzon–kodoshim,” while young people circled them and held them up and their happy voices echoed all around.

 

Chanukah

Chanukah is one of those holidays when people can work, so the celebration was not drawn out. In every home there was a Chanukah lamp, which people received as wedding presents, some of silver and some of simple brass, some using oil and some using candles. People in the shtetl let themselves go, fried latkes, played a little cards, and in many homes people had cracklings with Passover schmaltz.

But for the children it was a real holiday. They received Chanukah gelt, played at dreidel in the beis–hamedrash and at home. Outside the frost cracked and the windows were covered with snow. Soon after blessing the Chanukah lights, having extracted from their parents all that they could, they ran to uncles and aunts for Chanukah gelt. Later they sat around playing dreidel and telling stories about the great hero Judah Maccabee and his heroic brothers, stories that they heard in school and that filled their imaginations with mighty deeds.

 

Purim

On Purim people were more worn out. The mothers made hamentaschen, meat kreplach, and other treats for shalach manos. Children made groggers and rattles for the megillah reading and especially masks to disguise themselves.

Grown–up Jews also disguised themselves, wearing different costumes and masks. Singing songs, they went from house to house collecting donations for various good causes, like supplying wheat to the poor for Passover, and others.

People dressed up as Ahashveros and the righteous Mordechai, as the patriarchs and Aaron the priest, as wicked Haman and others. They were welcomed into each home with drink and with the food that had been prepared.

The sending of shalach manos involved the children, who ran with runny noses from the frost delivering the shalach manos and in the process grabbing a nosh. A unique time of the year.

 

Pesach

Immediately after Purim, the season for matzoh baking began. Religious Jews only ground the wheat by hand and earlier they selected the wheat so that it would be free of any trace of chametz. Merchants brought samples to the rabbis so that he could put a hechsher on the wheat, kosher for Passover.

Usually the head of the household or his wife would come to the matzoh baking, chat with baker, and bring home the flour. The people who worked for the baker were hired, mostly women and younger girls as kneaders and rollers. Young men and boys would perforate the matzohs with a toothed wheel from a clock.

People brought the matzohs home in a bedsheet, tied with four knots, and hung them from a hook from the ceiling.

Then it was time to prepare the borscht, which was part of the work of preparing for the holiday. Then they put away raisins for raisin wine.

Having finished with these important tasks, which were handed down from parents to children for generations, they began a regimen of cleaning, scraping, , scratching, and koshering: airing out the books in the courtyard, emptying pockets in clothing, and koshering the pots. In the bathhouse were special containers in which people koshered their pots.

A particularly sacred task was baking the shmura matzoh for erev Pesach. This began the day before, when people set out water to sit overnight. This water, according to religious law, had to sit overnight in the house and with that water people kneaded the dough for the matzoh.

Often I went with the Chassidim to the well. One person held the bucket. Remember, it had to be made of wood. A second person–the earthenware dipper, and another–the strainer, and it was an honor for who would draw earlier and who later. When we had filled several buckets with water, we went home singing.

After the evening prayers we began the search for chametz. We often scattered breadcrumbs around solely so that we could make the blessing at the burning of the chametz. The ceremony was brief. But many of the homemakers were awake all night preparing for the holiday and it seemed to them that their work was never finished.

In the morning at the baker's, the baking got started. After handing over the sheet, the kneading began. One had to pay special attention to [the amount of time between] adding drops of water to the dough and when the kneading was done and at the right time he called out, “Take the dough.” One of the rollers took the dough, divided it into sections and gave each roller a section, and then the work began.

The rolling was done on a long table, which was constructed of two broad boards which were scraped wondrously clean. The boards were laid on a wooden frame, which was called a “mare,” and thus they became a table.

The rolled out matzoh, thin almost to transparency, was laid out for perforating so that they would not explode in the oven. From there they were taken and laid out in the oven, where in a corner a fire had burned continuously. A special person had the job of standing by the oven and counting the matzohs. The matzohs were placed in a special basket and distributed among the Chassidim.

My father prepared thoroughly for the seder. He prepared the seder plate, the four cups of wine, the Haggados for each person. After the asking of the Four Questions, everyone said together “Avadim hayinu, We were slaves in Egypt.” There was no home in the shtetl which was not prepared for Passover with all its customs and in which the table was not prepared with fish, soup, and knaidlich.

Children anxiously prepared to open the door for “Pour out your wrath” and to see Eliahu the Prophet take a sip from his cup, which stood filled with wine on each table. But they never saw him because by that time they had fallen asleep. Almost every child in Wolomin had the same dream after falling asleep after the knaidlich. In our dream we saw Eliahu the Prophet, a little old man, kind and happy, with a silver white beard, in a white satin caftan embroidered with silver. He goes to the cup and sips so little that it was hard to tell. As people drank…

Every child had prepared requests and wishes to beg from Eliahu the Prophet, but at just the right moment, he became tongue–tied and could not say a word. Such were the dreams of the seder night for the beautiful, happy children.

The streets were silent except for the sounds of the Haggadah being sung, which lasted half the night. No one was seen in the streets, for everyone knew that on this night, Jews and Jewish dwellings were protected by holy angels. They float over the roofs, look in the windows, and stand like watchmen by the doors.

 

Preparations for the Passover Holiday

[This section, pp. 136–7] repeats in Hebrew much that was in the previous section.]

 

Shavuos

No special preparations were common in the shtetl, because the holiday commemorating the giving of the Torah is not bound up with special ceremonies, except that the milkmen were busy as the women prepared dairy meals, cheese–filled dumplings and baked goods with butter, cheese cake, cheese rolls, and so on.

In the prayer houses and in the beis–hamedrash, people decorated the walls and the floors with green branches, especially around the bimah and the holy ark, to remind us of the assembly at Mt. Sinai. Children went into the woods, as though there were no such thing as school or rabbi or whip. They brought home green branches, greens for the holiday, to hang over the windows and spread irises on the floors.


Thus were the traditions and customs observed in that inviting atmosphere of our shtetl, a homey Jewish and deeply humane atmosphere. Generations grew up sucking their life's milk from the inexhaustible source of Yiddishkeit, bound with every thread of their souls to the Jewish people, feeling their sorrows and their joys.

It was an epoch when many of the young people from our shtetl went away to seek culture from other people, allegedly. Many others went to other Jewish shtetls to seek more beautiful and better values. Disappointment came quickly, bitter and tragic disappointment, and the price was the most murderous in the history of mankind and led to destruction.

Seas of blood and tears have flowed and now, when we recall our holy martyrs, their treasures and traditions, judgments, laws, and customs are appear before our eyes. The more we think about them, the more we recognize their greatness and their beauty, their overall ethical behavior and the personal relations between individuals and the spirit of a higher morality that created the spiritual atmosphere of the shtetl.

 

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