by Tz. Volominer
Translated by Theodore Steinberg
Until the First World War, the Wolomin rabbi lived on Szcienkevitsch Street in Wolomin. The Wolomin rabbi was the son of the Kuzmir rabbi and was known as a greater sage. The rabbi's court had a special attraction and was a center for Torah and Chasidism. It drew to itself both young and old Jews from surrounding shtetls and from Warsaw. Among them were some with keen minds, but the ruling principle was the striving for peacefulness and wholeness.
The Wolomin rabbi based everything on truth. Chasidism, the rabbi said, means wholeness, the harmony of spirit and body, both in the service of the Creator.
But not only the learned came to the Wolomin rabbi. So did random Jews, for a simple page of Gemara or a chapter of Mishnah or a chapter of Psalms; they came to the rabbi to feel the radiance of his personality. The rabbi shared with everyone, showed his love and sincerity, and spoke with each person according to his need.
A Chasid told me:
I was pretty young when I first came to Wolomin to the rabbi. In welcoming me, the rabbi asked if I knew how to study. I answered that I had to help my father in his store. On the rabbi's face I saw a hidden pity and he quietly murmured, ‘So why has he come to me?’
I was suddenly taken aback. The rabbi noticed my embarrassment and quickly responded:
‘It doesn't matter…If you transact business honestly, it is as if you studied. The whole purpose of study is in order to know how to excel in dealing with God and with one's fellow…Nu, and one also has to be good to oneself, not to be a fool and be taken up with misconceptions, with arrogance, simply to be a Jew, an outstanding Jew. Do you understand? That's why you've come to me, isn't it?’
That's the truth, said the Wolomin Chasidsince then I have undertaken every day to learn a page of Gemara and I have felt the peace in my soul that the rabbi brought to me.
Thus Wolomin became known in the area as a center of Chasidism, which was as accessible to the simple Jew as to the scholar.
In the Wolomin prayer house, which was on Varshevski Street, in R. Yakov Margulis' house, men prayed and learned and had meals. There developed there an authentic system, a system that stressed the essence rather than quibbling or hairsplitting, to clarify the law according to its deeper intention. This system spread among the Wolomin Chasidim in Warsaw and other shtetls.
Understandably, life in Wolomin adapted to the rhythm of the court. In scores of houses, men ate their Shabbos evening meal quickly so that they could get to the tisch [the rabbi's public meal]. So, too, did those who were not Wolomin Chasidim, who did not pray in the rabbi's prayer house but in the beishamedrash or with other groups. Young students were curious to see the Chasidim from other shtetls gathered together, among whom were wellknown scholars, and Wolomin people were proud of their celebrity. In Wolomin there were many bright students and they eagerly spoke about their learning with scholars from other cities.
In times of trouble, God forbid, people hurried to the rabbi. If someone needed advice, he went to the rabbi's home. With good news, too, people ran to the rabbi, because people knew that the rabbi rejoiced with every joy of every Jew.
On a festival or a day of leisure, when a large number of Chasidim went traveling, Varshevski Street and surrounding streets were full of strolling groups who wandered here and there speaking of their studies. The sound in the shtetl was loud, like when a family gets together for a joyous occasion, though courtesy ruled everyone and kept the abundant joy under control.
The Wolomin rabbi's Chasidic prayer house also served as a window to the greater world. Chasidim from Warsaw brought with them big city ways and, sharing them with the Chasidim from other, smaller shtetls, provided familiarity with remote places, with poor and with rich. People met each other, befriended each other, and often arranged marriages, sometimes between a Wolomin householder and a visiting Chasid, sometimes with a prodigy from a Warsaw yeshiva.
You have to understand that this often affected the income of the Jews of Wolomin. Traveling Chasidim needed lodging in which to stay for a night or two. Many householders earned a few rubles on festivals by providing Chasidim with food and lodging.
The rabbi had seven children, sons and daughters. When the oldest daughter got married, the whole shtetl went as one. Everyone rejoiced in the rabbi's celebration.
I was still a child, and since then much time has passed and many things have happened, but each wedding is engraved in my memory and remains there until this very day.
Several weeks before the wedding, things started cooking. You could feel in the air that something big was coming. Everyone felt that the wedding of the rabbi's daughter had a personal meaning. Seamstresses and dressmakers were swamped with work. Although the actual wedding garb was made in Warsaw, still there was plenty left for the local seamstresses to do. The clergy anticipated the fees they would collect. People provided fowl, eggs, and other products for the wedding. There was turmoil in the shtetl, and everyone knew the latest news and what was about to happen.
The groom, people knew, was a glorious person, though still young, who had, however, rabbinical permission to be a teacher and who came from a rabbinical court. In the shtetl people regarded him favorably. We would acquire an ornament in our family, where Torah and greatness go together, and he would advertise Wolomin's Chasidism to the world, at the eastern wall with his silk and satin and high sable shtreiml.
Clever young men sharpened their wits so that they could discuss their studies and learn a lesson. Wolomin's beishamedrash boys rejoiced with every arriving scholar, especially when it involved that brat the rabbi's soninlaw.
The bride one did not see in the street except for when she went to the seamstress together with her mother or with a younger sister. When she appeared, people stood still and watched after her. Her genteel face beamed, and later on at home people spoke about her grace and modesty.
More than one young woman envied her because of her beauty and breeding, and many young men envied her intended, who would be getting such a beautiful bride.
In the last days before the wedding, the doors of the rabbi's house were not still for a minute. Some went in and some went out. Chasidim willingly volunteered to be waiters, porters, and to do whatever tasks were necessary. Chasidic wives who were known to be good cooks offered their help in preparing the food and beverages for the wedding. Tailors and shoemakers brought the clothing, shoes, and undergarments. The gentle rustling of satin and silk could be heard and the new boots of the rabbi's sons squeaked.
The rabbi's intimates sat with the gabbais and drew up a list of the important guests who had to be invited. Others made plans for how to set out the tables and benches, including rooms for the visiting inlaws and a room where the bride and groom could be alone after the ceremony.
The kitchen was full of visitors and helpers. From the courtyard one could hear the shrieking of the fowl, and the rooms were full of the smell of baked goods, filled with raisins and preserves.
Everything was fussed over, everything was elaborate. Faces shone and eyes took on a special look…
Only in the rabbi's private room nothing disturbed the usual daily routine. Despite the tumult all around, the rabbi was sedate and comfortable. He prayed, he studied, he welcomed Chasidim, he gave advice, and he conferred blessings.
Finally the wedding day arrived. The shtetl was in an uproar. One saw the silk caftans and high shtreimls of the arriving inlaws, distinguished guests, and Chasidim. Poor folk from other shtetls came seeking some income. People had celebrated a special meal for the poor and afterwards put a piece of cake for their children in their pockets and a donation in their hands.
Meanwhile, the Chasidic waiters and assistants had had something to drink and had become talkative and had started to yell and shove to get people out of the way, so that people would not interfere with their work, which they regarded as a sacred service. Is it a small thing, after all, that the rabbi is marrying off his daughter?
Others congregated around the bride, asking her how she felt while fasting and whether her heart was going so fast that she felt faint. She was the most important person in the house, and everyone was on tiptoe to fulfill any request that came from her mouth.
When evening crept in, the festival seized every home in the shtetl. From the windows in the rabbi's house blinker scores of lamps that lit up all of Varshavski Street, which radiated light and joy. R. Yakov Margulis had given over his whole house to the celebration. In one room the young girls danced, friends of the bride, darkly beautiful daughters of Wolomin, in their white silk dresses. In another room the young men of the Wolomin beishamedrash and the Chasidic prayer house came to the groom, eating cake and drinking wine and discussing their studies.
The other rooms were packed with the inlaws and their families, with important Jews of all kind, dressed in silk and satin caftans, each according to his taste. They sat not only around the table but also on benches, chairs, and stools around the walls, or they paced back and forth around the room, casting a glance into the other rooms.
In the air there was a warm murmur, accompanied by the pleasant aromas of wine and fragrant cigars.
In the middle of an ordinary week the Jews threw off the yoke of having to earn a living, of business, and got caught up in the rabbi's festive rooms, a wedding with such spirituality that it elevated the soul.
Together with the other children I stumbled among the feet, but like a grown up I felt the importance of this wedding.
Suddenly the whole world seemed, as if in a wave, to turn toward the door of the room where the groom sat with the young men. The music suddenly turned into a march. People led the groom to the chupah.
The throng was so great that no matter how I pushed, I could not break through to see the groom. Only when people sat down for the meal could I see him sitting at the head of the table surrounded by the inlaws from both sides of the family. In the bright lights shimmered the silk and satin. The big candelabra sparkled. I saw the young pale face of the groom that looked out from under his high, broad shtreiml. Quiet reigned as people listened to his words of Torah. So the groom delivered his commentary.
The men gathered closer, not wanting to miss a single word. The rabbi, who was sitting on the right side, rocked back and forth with a serious face and in the silence he repeated the words, at first quietly but then in a louder and more audible voice. The gemara melody filled the whole house.
When he finished, everyone swayed and you could hear cries of Mazel tov, mazel tov!
People congratulated him, extended their hands, and pressed forward as though it were each person's own celebration. People began to remove the stoppers from the bottles and pour wine into the cups and glasses. Later on people spoke about wealthy Chasidim who used to bring really expensive wine from their cellars.
Then the dancing began. Chasidim held each other's belts or hands, threw back their heads, closed their eyes, moved their feet, higher, more lively, dancing ecstatically.
Individuals, lively and happy, performed tricks: tying their coats with belts, bending their knees, their yarmulkes held down, their heads to the side, they launched into a Cossack dance and then another Russian dance, with the clapping of hands and loud laughter from the younger boys and girls who stood around them, wanting to see the Chasidim dance.
With the outbreak of the war, all of this ended. Chasidim stopped, since in war time it was dangerous for the rabbi to live in a small shtetl and the rabbi had moved to Warsaw, where he lived on Kupietski Street.
The Chasidim traveled further to Warsaw. From Wolomin, too, people traveled there and, when they came back, repeated the words of Torah that they heard from the rabbi, but there were some who complained about the big city, who lamented that the rabbi had settled in a metropolis. Truly, they said, it's more ostentatious there. It lacks the heimishkeit [hominess] of the shtetl.
This kind of talk sounded foolish to me, comical, but in time I came to understand those Jews. In the big city, Jewish life lacked that hominess, the spaciousness, the commonality of a religious voice in the street, the surrounding nature, as it was in the shtetl.
The old customs did not have the same status in Warsaw as in little Wolomin.
Coming to Warsaw, the Chasidim felt more strongly the exile of the Shechina. There were beautiful shuls there, wealthier Chasidic prayer houses, the best lulavs and the most kosher esrogs, great cantors and valuable shofarseverything that could be bought with money, nice fruit, expensive Torah covers, artful embroidery. Only one thing was missingthe openness of the street, the freedom and heimishkeit that Judaism and Chasidism had in little Wolomin.
In the Wolomin beishamedrash the prayers and sighs and melodies were not confined by the four walls. They mixed with the noise and the stillness of the shtetl. They travelled between heaven and earth with the tunes from the other Chasidic prayer houses, harmoniously and quietly, out to the fields, to the woods, and they blended with the still, nourishing melodies of the surrounding nature.
All of the joyous occasions, all of the Jewish customs and festivals in our little Wolomin had spaciousness, air, hominess, and so it was, too, with the Chasidim of Wolomin.
It seems that the rabbi felt this, too, and from time to time he would come to Wolomin and stand together with his Chasid R. Melech Levita.
When a Wolomin Chasid married off a child, he would invite the rabbi, and the rabbi would come to celebrate with his Chasidim, because a Chasidic wedding in Warsaw seemed far different.
The rabbi was killed by Hitler's murderers.
May God avenge his blood!
by Chaya Rubenstein
Translated by Theodore Steinberg
Before Rabbi Bergozin occupied the rabbinical chair in the shtetl, there was a sharp dispute among the Jews. They had brought in a rabbi who did not please part of the populace. So they brought in a second rabbi who did not please the other part.
For a while there were two rabbis in the shtetl, and each rabbi had his adherents and his opponents.
But the city could not maintain two rabbis, so the community decided to find a rabbi about whom the population could be unanimous.
They searched for a long time until they discovered that the Ruzhan rabbi had a son-in-law living in his house who had rabbinical ordination. A delegation immediately headed for Ruzhan to speak with the young man, who made such a good impression on him that they immediately decided to invite the young rabbi to Wolomin.
He became our rabbi, Rabbi Wolf Bergozin.
Rabbi Wolf Bergozin came from Nazhelsk, near Warsaw. His wife was the eldest daughter of the rabbi of Ruzhan. Her sisters were also married to rabbis. One sister was the wife of the Dlugazhad rabbi, Rabbi Pomerantz. Another sister was the wife of the rabbi of Radom, Rabbi Kestenberg.
There was also a sister whose husband succeeded her father in the rabbinical chair of Ruzhan after the father's death.
The young rabbi, Rabbi Wolf Bergozin, pleased the inhabitants greatly and was unanimously chosen to be the rabbi.
In the same year that the rabbi arrived in the shtetl, people started to build a new beis-hamedrash.
Rabbi Bergozin had all the virtues of a local rabbinic authority: he was a pursuer of peace, a commanding but subdued man who demonstrated abundant wisdom in leading the Jewish community. The Jews used to flock to the rabbi for advice, whether in family matters or business matters.
When a disagreement arose, with great wisdom he brought peace to the disputants. His house was open to every Jew in the shtetl.
Also his wife Rachel excelled with her sincere friendliness and her sensitive heart, with her willingness to encounter every needy person with advice, with a comforting word, and also with tangible help.
They had eight children, five sons and three daughters. All of their children were born in Wolomin.
The eldest son, David, got married and emigrated to America, where he still lives.
The oldest [text says second] daughter, Itta, married a Wolomin boy, Moshe, the son of the Wolomin shochet R. Yisroel Mordechai.
The second daughter, Sarah, married a Wolomin boy, Leibl Zemba, who had rabbinical ordination.
The third daughter, Perl, also married a Wolomin boy and settled with him in Warsaw.
The son Elazar married a Wolomin girl, Chava, the daughter of Perl and Mattis Teiblum.
The three youngest sons did not marry. They were named Gadol, Yakov, and Binyamin. They studied in the yeshiva and were loved by their friends in the shtetl.
In the difficult days of Hitler's occupation, the rabbi remained with the Jews of the community and encouraged them, giving them confidence and hope that better times were coming.
The Jews of Wolomin merited something that other Jewish communities in Poland did not: usually the Nazis took the rabbis as their first victims, putting them either in the ghetto or the concentration camps.
When the Germans ordered the Wolomin Jews into the ghetto, the rabbi went with them. The ghetto was in Sosnavka, three kilometers from Wolomin.
For two years the Jews were held in the ghetto, and the whole time the rabbi was with them, suffering all the difficulties which pervaded the ghetto, until the dark days of liquidation arrived. The Germans surrounded the ghetto and ordered all the inhabitants into the square. There, too, the rabbi was with the Jews and went with them on their last journey.
The Wolomin Jews were taken to Radzomin, where the Jews from Legyanuv were also brought, and together they were taken to Treblinka.
by Yosef Eisenberg
Translated by Theodore Steinberg
People called him Cheskl Shammos. He was a tall and bigboned Jew, had a long and thick white beard and bushy graywhite eyebrows which concealed his small but lively eyes.
He had a deep voice, and when he used to awaken the Jews of the shtetl early each Shabbos morning to come say Psalms, his deep bass voice filled the streets with strength and warmth.
His whole store of knowledge consisted of reading the Shevat Mussar in archaic Yiddish and of saying Psalms. When he woke people up to say Psalms, he infused his tune with his whole sense of reverence, of the fear of Heaven and the love of Israel. He sang these words: Little Jews, dear and beloved little Jews, holy little Jews, wake up to serve your Creator.
He rested a bit and then continued singing with his warm bass voice: Get up, little Jews, get up to say Psalms. It's already six o'clock!
The words and the melody in which he sang them had a holiness to them that invaded the hearts of those who heard them and did not allow them to go back to sleep, made them get out of bed, even in the cold and frosty dawns.
Yechezkel earned his livelihood by working in the beishamedrash. He also provided an escort for the rabbi in the shtetl. On Fridays he went with him to the bathhouse. Early on Shabbos he accompanied him to the beishamedrash.
Before the arrival of the High Holidays, Yechezkel the Shamos would knock with his wooden hammer on the shutter of the Jews' doors and windows, calling the people to Selichos, the penitential prayers.
Throughout the year he made sure that everything in the beishamedrash was in order. He collected any papers that had the divine name in them and put them in the attic, treated them like holy objects, put them away with the torn prayer books, protected them so that the children would not tear the pages.
Chaskl Shammos also helped the rabbi by summoning a Jew to a rabbinical court and many other matters that were important to the community.
Over time, he was not satisfied with only reciting Psalms. His routine broadened to include a verse: Akaviah son of Mehallel used to say all the way to the King of all Kings, blessed be He.
He lived on what the Wolomin Jews would give him every week, a few groschen in salary, but thanks to his widened routine, he asked for two groschen.
I remember once when he came to my father to collect the groschen and asked, Reb Berl, do you want an Akaviah son of Mehallel?
My father, who had not consulted with the leaders of the shtetl, gave him the coins.
No one knew where Chaskl had ever come up with Akaviah son of Mehallel. Later on it turned out that the secret was really quite simple. One time, he had come into the rabbi's home and had complained that the Wolomin Jews were late and failed to wake up for saying Psalms, and he begged the rabbi to teach him some new words to rouse everyone, so the Wolomin rabbi thought a bit, went to the bookshelf, took out a book and opened to the passage, Akaviah son of Mehallel said: Know whence you came and where you are going and before whom who will stand in the future for judgment and rewardbefore the King of all Kings, blessed be He.
R.' Chaskl learned the verse by heart. This took him a whole week. A week later he came to the rabbi and repeated the verse together with a tune that he invented. The rabbi was quite pleased and on the spot he translated the verse into Yiddish. R.' Chaskl was taken with this and immediately began to use his Akaviah son of Mehallel with his usual fervor.
Once there was a heavy frost in the shtetl. All Friday night a blizzard raged. At that time we lived in Schuchman's houses on Statziner Street. Soon the strong bass voice of Chaskl the Shammos: Little Jews, dear, beloved little Jews, wake up…
At the same moment we heard a fearful outcry. It was R.' Chaskl screeching: Gevald, Jews! Help!
My father and I ran out into the street. Yoske Saltis was already outside, with a copper shield around his neck, which signified that he was a representative of the authorities. Leibush the Lame and other Jews were also there.
Before our eyes we saw an amazing sight: Two nonJews were holding R.' Chaskl by the shoulders and yelling at him in Polish that he should sing his little song again, because they liked it so much; but R.' Chaskl could not understand what they were saying and was certain that the nonJews had attacked him and were going to kill him.
The other Jews quickly grasped what had happened and calmed R.' Chaskl down, making him understand what had happened.
Frozen through, dressed in five kaftans and a bunch of scarves, which he had wound around his neck and face and over his beard, R.' Chaskl stood with his arms stretched out, as if he were at the cantor's table, and began his song with a drawn out tune, from Holy people, little Jews to the whole Akaviah son of Mehallel.
In the street a deep stillness reigned. The nonJews stood there happily the whole time, like strings sympathetic to the tune, which sounded powerfully over the whole shtetl.
When R.' Chaskel finished, we recognized a deep emotion on the faces of the nonJews. Both of them took out coins and presented them to R.' Chaskl and could by no means understand why Chaskl turned away from them as if he had been scalded and only said a single word:
To the assembled Jews he said, I'm going into the beishamedrash…Tonight I won't wake anyone else…
The people remained standing silently. With wonder and amazement they looked after the bowed figure of R.' Chaskl, whose step from his reddish boots echoed in the frosty stillness of the Shabbos morning.
R' Yisrolke Feldsher
He was a short man who wore a long kaftan, and in winter he also wore a cotton jacket. His thick black beard covered his whole face practically up to his eyes. He worked as a doctor, healing sick people, even though he had no medical studies. His patients were only men. When he was called to attend a sick person, he came into the house like a wind and immediately asked, Nu, nu, where is he?
His patients mostly suffered pains in their sides from constipation or catarrh.
When R' Yisrolek arrived, he took a look at the sick man, put his ear to the man's heart and listened, through the man's clothing, to how his heart was beating, told him to hold his breath, cleared his throat, and soon came out with a diagnosis and then gave orders: apply leeches, smear on French turpentine…well.
If someone was suffering from constipation, R' Yisrolek ordered him to stick out his tongue, which might be, for example, white as milk. He held the tongue, wiped it with his hand, saying, Aha…white… which meant that he would cure the man in no time. He would order an enema for the man, castor oil, and sour milk.
If the sick man complained about a sore throat and needed a special treatment, R' Yisrolek always had with him a wad of cotton, which he ripped out of his cotton jacket. He rolled the cotton onto a stick, dipped it into iodine and…the sick man was quickly cured. Just like with the cotton, so with the sticks: he did not have to carry them around in a valise for first aid. It was not necessary. The cotton he took from his own jacket and the stick…in which home in Wolomin would there not be a broom? R' Yisrolek would take a straw from the broom, wrap the cotton around it, and done…
If it happened that the condition of the patient became serious, R' Yisrolek would consult with the patient about whether to call a doctor. R' Yisrolek would give his opinion about whether to travel east, that is, to Yadova, or west, that is, to Warsaw. The patient himself had to decide.
In Wolomin people used to say that in his youth R' Yisrolek had served in the tsarist army and was assigned to work in a military hospital. There he developed some medical skills and represented in the shtetl both a public health officer and a doctor. He never demanded that people pay him. Whatever anyone gave him was enough, and if someone gave him nothing, he never said a word of complaint.
Slaughterers and Cantors
The Wolomin beishamedrash on Leshne Street did not have a designated cantor, but everyone knew that R' YisroelMordechai the Shochet had a claim on the reader's stand. On an ordinary Shabbos or Festival, he led the prayers without helpers or assistants, but with the approach of the High Holidays he put together a choir, which consisted of boys with sweetsounding voices who helped him with singing the High Holiday prayers, the different tunes and marches.
R' YisroellMordechai the Shochet was a prayer leader who quickened people's hearts with the warm tone of his praying and who enchanted those who heard him with his beautiful voice. When he sang a tune from Mordzhitz, he put his whole body into it. He would lead the Kol Nidrei prayer as well as the Musaf and Neilah services, and music lovers would come from other minyanim on the chance of hearing R' YisroelMordechai sing a new tune from Mordzhitz. Anyone who ever heard him sing never forgot it. Even today I can hear R' YisroelMordechai's tune. Before my eyes I can see his stately appearance, his long, fair beard, his thoughtful glance and the dreamlike look on his face. When you saw him walking in the street, his appearance demanded respect and honor. Even those who did not know him felt immediately a servant of holiness.
R' YisroelMordechai was a clever Jew. No one ever heard him complain and he had a good and a loving smile for everyone. Everyone in the city, big and little, right and left, loved him. Hardly anyone knew his family name, Tentshur, because everyone called him R' YisroelMordechai the Shochet, and in this name stood his pedigree and his pride.
There were only two shochets in the town. R' Baruch Rotshanzer was a Ger Chasid. People called him Rotshandzer because he came from the shtetl of Rotshandz, which was on the other side of the river. He spoke with a hard r. On the High Holidays he led the morning prayers. Some in the shtetl called him the black shochet, because, as opposed to R' YisroelMordechai, he had a pitch black beard. He was welcomed in Wolomin after the previous shochet, R' Chaim Binyamin, became old and his hands began to tremble. He did not cease being a shochet altogether, but confined himself to slaughtering fowl.
R' Baruch the Shochet was selected in his thirties, along with Moyshe Gutvetter, as a delegate to travel to Israel to buy soil for the Wolomin householders. This was after the Ger rabbi had called on Jews to travel to the land of Israel and had in Jaffa and other places bought large tracts of land.
R' Baruch the Shochet was an unassuming man, honest and dedicated to every undertaking he assumed. I remember him together with my young friend Moyshe Koohr and R' Moyshe Gutvetter as we travelled to various places buying soil.
Moshe Koohr was shot by the Nazis in a village near Paris, Valerien Siren on February 21, 1942.
R' Baruch the Shochet was killed together with all the Jews of Wolomin by the Nazi murderers.
R' Moyshele the White
R' Moyshele the White was called that because he was a whitewasher. He had a scraggly beard and spoke with a thin, womanish voice. One of the shtetl's wits once asked him, R' Moyshe, can't you speak a bit more gruffly? R' Moyshe snapped back, Why not? Meanwhile, kiss me in the…If you do, I'll speak more gruffly…
Always I see him as if he is holding in his hand a ladder, from which hangs a pail with pain and in his other hand a brush with a long handle. In earlier times when there was no work, the householders in the shtetl gave no thought to whitewashing the walls of their poor dwellings, he used to wear a vest, to which was attached a thick chain of white metal. On the chain were hanging a pair of horseshoes, the head of a horse, a rifle, a compass and other such trivial things. R' Moyshele prided himself in this equipment, and if someone asked him a question, R' Moyshe, what is that? he slowly and with great solemnity he removed the chain from his vest pocket until there appeared a heavy silver box, round, with a little top. This was a watch with double doors, on which were engraved the heads of Russian czars.
R' Moyshel then sighed into the box and opened one of the doors, and then R' Moyshe announced in a declamatory voice, Now it is exactly two o'clock.
If someone brought to his attention that the train to Bialystok had already long departed, he paid no attention and immediately responded, That shows that the train was too early…My watch shows the exact time.
R' Moyshe had two sons who helped him with his work on those days when he was swamped with work. Soon after Purim, when the snow started to disappear and the leaves in the shtetl became greener and thicker, R' Moyshel became more important in his own eyes, almost a field marshal, because the prePassover days in Wolomin marked the assault of the housewives, who flocked to him from every corner of the shtetl, just like, you should pardon the comparison, Chasidim to their rabbi, with their demands and requests, each one in his time, and began to bargain with him, some with feminine coquetry and some with motherly pleas. Each housewife wanted R' Moyshel to come first to her, before others got to him, besieging him with their demands.
In those days R. Moyshe valued himself highly. Seeing himself surrounded by so many women, who depended on the goodness of his heart, he selfimportantly gave them to understand that in the previous year he had promised this and that housewife that if they waited for year, they would be first this year…
Secondly, this year he had only a single color that could cover that color with which he had previously for the other housewives.
Seeing that the women were entirely in his hands, at the same time he added something else, which was always a bit difficult for him: You must know, R' Moyshele said to the women, this year I will not stand for any nuisances. I have no time to waste with such foolishness. The women began to mutter unhappily: What's he talking about? Not to be a nuisance?
R' Moyshel remained firm despite the women's unhappiness. He spoke firmly, quickly, and simply: Whoever agrees, fine. Whoever doesn't, so be it…
Since they had no choice, the women agreed and R' Moyshel began his work, his painting.
In the courtyards, all kinds of furniture began to appeardifferent styles from different generations, furniture that the women placed before their doors in order to free up the rooms for whitewashing. People began to scrub, to brush, to pour, to cleanse. The noise in the shtetl became a racket. The straw which was taken out of the mattresses and spread out in individual stalks flew around the shtetl along with the colored papers that had been stuffed between the double windows for the winter to keep the cold out of the houses. In the air there were feathers from the pillows and featherbeds.
R' Moshel did his work whitewashing the walls, soaping them up, going from courtyard to courtyard, carrying his ladder with his pail of pain and singing a variety of cheerful songs.
Thus did people live in Wolomin, sometimes quietly and idyllically and sometimes in a tumult and an uproar. There were happy days and sad, evenings noisy with singing and gatherings of people and unhappy evenings, when people were consumed by longing and from the desire for a bigger and better world, and people did not realize how much beauty and depth could be found in their own shtetl, with its scholars and simple Jews, gabbais and Chasidim, shammoses and workmen, beishamedrash students, who spoke only about their learning and about large, distant yeshivas, and young people, who discussed the problems of our national exile and the salvation of the world, who studied Ahad HaAm, Nordau, probed Hegel, Kant, Marx, and Engels, got all excited about every electionthey all had their own aspirations, and they are all dear and holy to us now.
Translated by Theodore Steinberg
The Wolomin beis-medresh on Leshne Street did not have a regular cantor, but everyone knew that the place before the cantor's stand belonged to R. Yisroel-Mordechai the Shochet [the Slaughterer]. On ordinary Shabbos days and holidays, he led the prayers before the cantor's stand without assistants, without a choir, but with the approach of the High Holidays, he would assemble a choir made up of
young men with sweet-sounding voices who helped him sing the High Holiday prayers, the various tunes and marches.
R. Yisroel-Mordechai the Shochet was a cantor who could move people's hearts with the warm tones of his praying and who enchanted those who heard him with his beautiful voice. When he would sing a melody from Modzhitz, it suffused everyone's limbs. He would lead the Kol Nidrei service, Mussaf, and Ne'ilah, and music lovers would come from other services when there were breaks to hear R. Yisroel-Mordechai sing a new melody from Modzhitz. Anyone who ever heard him never forgot. Even today, I can hear R. Yisroel-Mordechai's singing. I can visualize his stately appearancehis long, fair beard, his thoughtful glance, and the transcendent look on his face. When people saw him walking in the street, he showed courtesy and honor even to those from foreign towns. Even people who did not know him recognized in him a holy aura.
R. Yisroel-Mordechai was a clever man. No one ever saw him get angry, and he had a good word and a loving smile for everyone. His family name, Tentczer, was little known. Everyone called him R. Yisroel-Mordechai the Shochet, and it was with that name that he gathered fame and praise.
There were two other slaughterers in town. R. Baruch Ratshanzer was Ger Chasid. He was called Ratshanzer because he came from the shtetl of Ratshandz, which was on the other side of the Vistula. He pronounced his r's differently. On the High Holidays, he led the morning prayers in the beis-medresh. Some people in the town also called him the black slaughterer, because in contrast to R. Yisroel-Mordechai he had a dark black beard. He was accepted as a shocker in Wolomin after the former shocker, R. Chaim Binyamin, grew old and his hands began to tremble. He did not abandon slaughtering altogether, but he confined his work to fowl.
R. Baruch the Shochet was chosen, in his thirties, along with Moshe Gutveter, to go to Israel to buy land for the people of Wolomin. This came after the Ger rebbe
had called on Jews to go to Eretz Yisroel and had purchased in Jaffa and other places large tracts of land.
R. Baruch the Shochet was an artless man, earnest and devoted to the job he had assumed. I recall how together with the friend of my youth, Moshe Ku-ohr, along with R. Baruch Shochet and R. Moshe Gutveter, we traveled to different spots to buy land.
Moshe Ku-ohr was shot by the Nazis in a village near Paris, Valerien Suresnes, on February 21, 1942.
R. Baruch the Shochet was killed together with all the Jews of Wolomin by the Nazi murderers.
by Noson Gingold
Translated by Theodore Steinberg
R' YisroelMordechai was a slaughterer and a cantor in Wolomin, a unique personality who deserves a broader and longer article. Perhaps others who knew him better will compose one, people who know more of his personal and social life and have more material to recount about him.
I do not know the year in which R' YisroelMordechai came to Wolomin, so I must be satisfied with drawing a picture of him and his family beginning in 1931, when I became acquainted with them, and ending with the outbreak of the Second World War.
I knew that R' YisroelMordechai came from the shtetl of Stack and at an early age undertook to learn to be a shochet, that he had a great devotion to Yiddishkeit and good deeds, and that he was zealous about learning, so that he developed a reputation as a shochet, a scholar, and a fearer of Heaven. His intensity and attraction to knowledge were revealed not only in study, in repeating the Torah insights of the Amshinov rabbi, but also in music, in rejoicing in public. He had a beautiful voice and over time he became a cantor. Thus he became both a cantor and a shochet in Wolomin. People used to say that a cantor and a shochet go together like Vayakhel and Pekudei [two Torah readings that are often read together].
R' Yisroel Mordechai had ten children, five sons and five daughters. The oldest sons were quite observant. The oldest later became cantorshochet in the shtetl of Vishkov. The younger children were more modern, more attracted to the Zionist movement.
I came to their house in 1931 because their fourth daughter, who was the ninth child in the family, became my wife.
Consequently I was able to observe more closely this ideal family. R' YisroelMordechai was of average height, a little heavy, with a broad face, which was made even broader by his beard, which did not hide his permanent smile and the gentleness of his face. He never complained, always had a funny comment ready, and the Jews loved him. Even young people who were not so observant showed him great respect. He never moralized, and he never listened to those who thought of themselves as God's Cossacks.
On Shabbos, many citizens had the tradition of coming to R' YisroelMordechai's to eat kugel. His wife's kugels, kishkes, and milts [spleen] were renowned in the town.
I once happened to hear someone from Volin, one of the fine Jews, who warned R' YisroelMordechai that he should pay attention to his children, because people said in the shtetl that they took the train to Warsaw on Shabbos. R' YisroelMordechai responded: My children? God forbid…People should not say such things…Incidentally, I wonder whether you've given a thought to your own children? Pay attention so that what the sages won't apply to you: ‘He submerges, but the creeping thing is in his hand…
The better that I came to know this excellent Jew, the more my respect for him grew.
R' YisroelMordechai liked for his sonsinlaw to sit at the table together with his sons on Shabbos and Festivals. He particularly liked the two youngest sonsinlaw because they had once been yeshiva students and knew how to converse and learn with him. I remember one conversation when R' YisroelMordechai said to us: Two things I learned from the Amshinov rabbi: love of God and love of Israel. The author of Yismach Moyshe derives an idea from the word ‘love,’ which has the gematria value of thirteen. When two Jews love each other, their love is double thirteen, that is, twentysix, which is also the value of the Living Name [i.e., the Tetragrammaton]. In other words, the love between one Jew and another creates the Ineffable Name.
In dealing with the laws of slaughtering, R' YisroelMordechai tended to the lenient side, especially in cases of a large loss [if something were to be declared not kosher]. R' YisroelMordechai therefore did everything he could not to declare an animal unkosher and not to cost the butcher a large sum of money. He therefore consulted the Yoreh Deah and other books about the laws of slaughtering until he found a reason not to declare an animal unkosher.
R' YisroelMordechai was also famous as a cantor. When he was a young man, he studied music and developed his voice so that he truly became a famous singer. People in Wolomin told many stories about his singing, about his strong voice, and about its sweetness. I will retell one of them:
It happened on Rosh Hashanah, when R' YisroelMordechai said the prayer Hineni… At the words trembling and frightened he gave such a yell with all his might that a pregnant woman in the women's section miscarried through fear.
People also used to say that in the early years when he first came to Wolomin, the Radzimin village elder, along with other Christians, would come to Kol Nidrei and Neilah so they could hear R' YisroelMordechai sing and pray.
Most of his children inherited his musical talent. Most notable was his youngest daughter, FreidaRochele, who sang so beautifully different piyyutim and helped her father to sing Shabbos songs. She also sang opera arias. She had a superb coloratura voice. But she never sang when people asked her to, only when she wanted to. Then she would take off. Usually it was on a Saturday evening, when outside darkness was falling and in the house lights had not yet been lit because the father was still at the third Shabbos meal. Often I would hear her magical singing on a Shabbos evening and it would transport me to another world, a world where everything was good…R' YisroelMordechai's wife, whom people called Leah the Shochetke [a feminine form of Shochet], played a huge role in helping to create the enlightened atmosphere of the household. I often wondered at her refinement, at her good soul. When I met her, she was middleaged, a bit weak, but she was never stingy with help or with money when she had to deal with someone who needed help, whether it was someone who was ill or someone dealing with poverty.
People in the town knew that if they had to help someone in need, they would go first to Leah the Shochetke. She never allowed a poor person to leave her home empty handed.
It once happened that a poor person came to the house begging for a donation and Leah the Shochetke accidentally had no small bills at hand and the poor man could not give change for a large bill. Seeing her embarrassment, the poor man left, but Leah the Shochetke quickly recovered. She snatched some pieces of sugar and other dry foods and ran after the poor man, begging him to take them so that he would not leave her home empty handed.
R' YisroelMordechai used to bring home from the slaughterhouse milts, kishke, liver, and sweetbreads, and Leah the Shochetke would sell them. Poor women knew Leah's weakness, that she had a heart full of compassion for the poor and they often used that weakness, begging her to give them a little piece of kishke on the side. There were also always people who lacked a few groschen to pay. They knew that Leah the Shochetke would never take back even a little piece of the meat. And she would never write down the debt. R' YisroelMordechai used to lament to the children that he didn't know what their mother did with the money. Today I brought home so much meat from the slaughterhouse, he would say, and there is so little money. R' YisroelMordechai truly never knew the secret of what his wife did with the money.
R' YisroelMordechai died several days before the war in his seventies. On the day of his funeral, almost all of Wolomin was in mourning. The whole town demonstrated its love for this refined, goodhearted Jew.
Leah the Shochetke was killed together with her children and grandchildren, either in the ghetto or in the camps. The only survivors were two daughters who had gone to Israel before the war. These two daughters with their children and grandchildren represent the continuation of this ideal family, and there, in Israel, they add on to the golden chain of this beautiful Jewish home, the home of R' YisroelMordechai the Shochet.
Leah the Shochetke belonged among those figures who enlarged every Jewish shtetl. She was one of the righteous women who were not satisfied with going over a chapter of Psalms or praying on weekdays when it was emotionally difficult and eyes dripped with tears, falling on the old prayer book pages. Her religious goodness consisted of what she did in her home and in the street, in her sorrows, so that a Jewish home should not go without challas and fish for Shabbos, poor sick people should not go without the help of a doctor, without the warm supervision of an attending person.
Wolomin was a poor shtetl, but rich and magnificent with personalities like R' YisroelMordechai and his wife Leah.
by Shmuel Zucker
Translated by Theodore Steinberg
It's been so very long
since from you I went away;
so many names have slipped my mind
since that long ago day.
I still can taste from Yosef's shop
I remember Meyer Treger,
His daughter by the window stood,
There was Rosa, who made shoes
Chanah the milk lady
Yankel who made challah
Itschele who made our beer
The hands of Zvi the sewer
by Shmuel Zucker
Translated by Theodore Steinberg
The welltrod path that led to the wooden steps of the shul was decorated with yellow leaves that that fallen from the scrawny trees. Closer to the shul, you could sense the stagnant air from the wellworn Gemaras with their torn spines and of the other books that sat in the bookcases covered with dust. The doors of the beismedrash stood halfopened and you could hear the plaintive Gemara chants. Two rooms were also there that were known as hospitality.
Jews with white beards, genteel faces, and the wise looks of Talmud scholars stayed there together with simple Jews, with worn out and worried faces with black, tangled beards and downcast eyes, that glanced around nervously. There were also Jews with trimmed beards or no beards at all who came from distant lands, from faraway towns and shtetls. In the evenings you could see them entering with their bags with a little clothing, a book, a siddur. They appeared to be deep in thought, lost in other worlds. They went quietly, accompanied by the feeling looks of the Wolomin Jews.
A whole day they had gone from house to house, adding a groschen to a groschen, which they laid aside and sent to their families, which they had left in their distant homes.
The hospitality rooms were over the beisomedrash. Inside, the air was heavy with different smells. On winter evenings, the round iron stove filled the rooms with a choking smoke blocked the faces, so that two people in conversation could not see each other.
In the evenings, I used to sneak in and listen to the conversations of the strange Jews, to their fantastic stories. Each one had his own life history, which described distant places, in towns and shtetls with different adventures. Many of these stories stayed with me for days and nights, in those years when I sat in the neighboring schoolroom, where I studied my lessons. Their talk rang in my ears, their nostalgic voices. There were some who had left their homes years earlier, in the First World War, leaving behind wives and little children. When they returned from the war, they found nothing. Their shtetls had burned down. Many Jews were slaughtered in the pogroms.
There were also some who had left behind in their home towns established households. Good business disappeared in confusion, in the terror of the Cossacks. When they returned home, their businesses were pillaged and their homes in ruins.
It seemed to me that all Jews were victims of the World War. There were also some who served at the front, had become invalids and were not capable of any kind of work, which forced them to wander through the world. From town to town, begging for a piece of bread to sustain their lives. They had descended to such poverty that they could barely survive. They had no good fortune and could not support their families.
The hospitality rooms were for them a luxury and a cure. It used to be that when a Jew in his wanderings by foot managed, with his last strength, in great pain, often with a high fever, to arrive at our hospitality rooms, Yankl Blecher would take him in hand, Yankl who worried about the poor Jews and would call a doctor or a health worker, seeing to it that his bed was clean, with a white sheet and a blanket. He hovered over the poor man like a good mother, dressed him, reassured him, wished him good health.
The Jews of Wolomin spoke about the hospitality rooms with great warmth, thinking about them as a great mitzvah, and mothers would say, Even the birds who have lost their nests get on the roof where they see the smoke from the hot stoves curling up and they can warm themselves.
A Secret Gift
I remember how Moyshe Oyslander once told me that he had once seen in a dwelling where a whole family was hungry. The parents could not bear to see the suffering of their children and were in despair [literally: they hit their heads against the wall].
In our courtyard, too, there was such a family, with seven children. Their crust of bread was gone in an instant, and soon you could hear through the broken windows the cries of the children: I'm hungry!
It happened that in the same courtyard, Yosef Baker had his bakery, and the smells of fresh bread and rolls would permeate the homes, which only increased the hunger in that poor dwelling.
In that dwelling, both the adults and the children went hungry.
Moyshe Oyslander said that their poverty gave him the idea of creating hospitality and a secret gift for poor Jews in Wolomin who were distraught and without incomes.
He gathered regular members who would give money each month and with the money buy a variety of items: flour, rice, sugar. They also got coal in the winter and they took it to the homes of people who were too ashamed to ask for charity.
These people would sit locked in their homes, ashamed of their own distress. They were like forgotten poor folks in the town, and concern for them called forth the secret gift, which Wolomin's Jews considered a great mitzvah, something holy. They never spoke openly about those needy ones. They made sure that no one knew about their poverty so that they would not be embarrassed.
If it had not been for the heavily laden horses and wagons that used to arrive on Thursdays from the surrounding villages for market day and disturbed the water and mud that had accumulated from the rains, the wooden houses, together with the beismedrash, would have sunk in the standing water and mud from Rosh Hashanah until Pesach.
More than once it happened that someone's galoshes got stuck. More than one schoolboy ran home with a sad cry because in the deep mud he had lost a shoe that was too big for him, since he had borrowed it from an older brother so that he could go to school.
Leshne Street was small and narrow, with scattered and inferior houses were green and decrepit and bore witness to their age and lineage from the time of grandparents and great grandparents.
On Leshne Street there were also fences that always had milk cans and washed out pots hanging from them, as well as diapers and laundry.
Around the mud, hens, geese, and turkeys gathered, picking up with their beaks the corn that had fallen from holes in the sacks on peasant wagons. The corn sat there, soaking in the water that was always covered in green slime.
A mixture of voices and tunes always arose from Leshne Street, from Aaron Bynum's heartfelt Gemara chant that broke out from the broken glass in the beismedrash to the tumultuous voices from the noisy courtyard where the building of the Yesodei Hatorah stood, where scores of students swayed over their Gemaras and argued over difficult passages in the Talmud or in the Tosafos. These voices mixed with the neighing of balking horses who had torn loose from their carts.
To this was added the bleating of the white goats that enjoyed munching on the grass in the little bit of a field that bordered the beismedrash.
Suddenly the cries of Ephraim Zilbershteyn were heard, as he stood wringing his hands over the fallen body of his horse, who was his sole source of income. Ephraim's eyes were bloodred from anger and protest against this great injustice that had befallen him.
No one could help him. His cries and pleas were drowned out by Tzalke the kasha maker's mills, that had been operating all day and deafened the whole shtetl.
Only Aryeh Braude was attentive to Ephraim's cries. He didn't just throw up his hands, but he put on his cotton jacket and big boots and blew out of his dark room like a wind, moving quickly across the street to the disaster where Ephraim stood with his horse.
Aryeh threw himself across the belly of the dying horse and with his strong hand he pulled open its mouth that was clamped shut. He poured into that mouth a bucket of salt water and said, as if he were a doctor, That should help!
It actually did help, and when Aryeh stood up and straightened himself out, he stretched his hands toward the sky and said, Master of the Universe, would you take away someone's livelihood?!
It happened that the antiSemitic Polish young people decided to attack the Jews in the shtetl, Aryeh Braude gave orders like a general. He gathered young people around him and armed them with iron bars and rods. He stationed them strategically in the streets, and in the shtetl there was a new feeling. Jews comforted themselves and felt secure that nothing would happen to them because Aryeh Braude was watching over them.
Aryeh had a large Jewish heart. When he found out that some Jew did not have the wherewithal to make Shabbos, he put on his black kaftan that he had received for his wedding, so that it was old and full of stains, tight and too short. He ran his broad fingers through his beard and set out through the shtetl to collect a few groschen for the hungry people in that poor household.
On hot days, when children swam in the clay pits, we would hear that someone had drowned. Immediately Aryeh Braude would appear, wearing a colorful flannel shirt and his big taliskatan. He quickly threw them off and jumped into the water to pull out the drowned boy.
A conflagration broke out in the shtetl, and Aryeh was the first one there. He did not wait for the fire brigade. Instead he immediately ran into the burning house and saved what he could, bringing out a very sick woman and little children and then some other things.
On his broad face and ruddy cheeks there always shone a childish naivety and a goodhearted willingness to help everyone with no thought of reward but just for the sake of helping people.
by Shmuel Zucker
Translated by Theodore Steinberg
Erev Shabbos in the Shtetl
On Friday the shtetl put on another face. From early morning the streets were full of the aromas of freshbaked goods, for Shabbos and the whole week; smells of baked challas, of kichele, with blackberries that grew abundantly in the surrounding forests. The peasants brought them in big earthenware pots and sold them in the market for groschen.
In the school everyone was happy, because they knew that the school day was short. In summer we quickly went outside the village and played games.
When it got cooler, fewer people were in the streets. The noise was less. People shuttered their doors in the stores and workshops. The last horse and wagon had already left the shtetl for the village. Jews appeared with little brooms in their hands on the way to the shvitzbath. All day long a black smoke appeared, and through the windows we could hear the voices of overheated sweaters on the highest bench.
Jews didn't enjoy these pleasures for long. The approaching Shabbos interfered. After the shvitzbath, people had to go immerse in the mikveh, three times in honor of Shabbos. Then people put on their clean clothes, and with groomed beards and payes and heavy trousers they went home to greet the Shabbos queen.
At the same time, the wives, with tightly tied kerchiefs, brought to the baker their cholent in limesmeared pots. They hurried back quickly to get home. It was already time to go to shul, and in the home there was still much to do. One had to wash oneself and the children and prepare the silver candlesticks for candle lighting.
On the road came a solitary Jew, from the villages, from Warsaw, a business traveler, and then there went the last Jew. Yechezkel the Shammos, with his long white beard, leaning on his cane, goes through the streets and with his big hammer knocks on the shutters and the walls and calls out, Shabbos, Shabbos…
Meyer the Porter, with his stiff boots, goes home tired and puts away his padded shirt, which is covered with meal from the sacks he carried all week on his broad shoulders to Yosef Kressever.
Shiala the Shoemaker removed from his nose the broken glasses that are held together with a bit of string. He has already cleaned up his workroom, where he sits all week from early in the morning until late at night.
Migdal the Tailor has already washed the floor on which lay the mud of a whole week, brought in by the peasants' boots.
Ephraim from Leshne Street has already emptied from his sack the straw in which his children sleep. The straws serves both to lie on and as a cover, in the summer heat and the winter cold.
Bashke, the poor woman who has moved from place to place all week with her bag of rags and has nowhere to sleep at night. Now she has taken Yosef the Baker's dark hallway, where she will rest until after Shabbos, when he will have to start baking the bread and rolls for Sunday morning.
Freidele from the market place has already packed her flattened pillows behind the broken windows so that the wind will not extinguish the Shabbos candles that she is about to put on the white tablecloth.
Happy were the horses of Ephraim and Chaim Zilbershtein, who were unharnessed and stood in the broken wooden stalls, wondering at the stillness that lay over the straw.
Young girls with newly washed hair and braids and red ribbons run around in their courtyard holding in their hands freshly baked kichele, from which they take occasional bites.
Soon each dwelling will be full of Shabbos, and over everyone will rest the favor of holiness. On the tables are two beautiful challas covered with a cloth. In the shiny silver candlesticks are candles, over which the mother stands, gentle and pale, with light, spread hands, and soon she covers her face with them and blesses the Shabbos candles.
Her lips quietly mouth the prayer. She prays for her husband and children, for every Jew. Her hands, like twin wings, pass over the light, full of mercy, security, and trust, and from the momma's eyes, holy with sorrow and pain, a tear falls on the white tablecloth.
Mother's mild, dovelike eyes, so holy in the glow from the blessed lights on Friday evening, accompany me everywhere, through my whole life.
Jews with black satin caftans, with shined shoes and socks, go to the beishamedrash to welcome Shabbos, leading children by the hand, the older children walking behind. They enter the beishamedrash to welcome Shabbos.
So, too, goes YisraelMordechai the Shochet, all dressed up in his silk caftan. With his soft fingers he strokes his reddish beard. He walks with slow steps on the way that leads to Leshne Street. In the brightly lit beishamedrash, the reader's stand waits for him. There he will soon sing Lecha Dodi with a new Modzhizer tune.
Between Mincha and Ma'ariv
The wooden beishamedrash, which the German murderers destroyed and sent up in smoke, still stands before my eyes. Deep in my memory are the winter evening when we, schoolboys, after studying Chumash with Rashi, ran home and together with our fathers went to the beishamedrash to say the afternoon and evening prayers.
The beishamedrash was a warm home for all the Jews in the shtetl. Gathered together were great scholars, merchants, and workmen, porters in their graincovered clothes, bakers, who brought with them the smells of fresh bread. Each one found his place there and davened mincha and ma'ariv set away in the corners with their particular groups. Some conversed while others learned; some argued while others told stories from the Gemara and the Midrash; others talked politics.
I see Chaim AaronBinum's, the dream interpreter, who always sat alone, swaying over his volume of the Talmud. The more he learned, the more his face lit up.
There were also scholars who learned with others. They sat here and there around a table and listened to each other's sharp arguments. There were also shy men who were eager to hear a new interpretation of the Gemara, and even when that interpretation did not appeal to them, they sagely nodded their heads, not demonstrating their astuteness, so that everyone thought they were great scholars.
It sometimes happened that in these warm surroundings suddenly would be heard a lament from an unhappy mother whose child was seriously ill. Then everyone would immediately begin reciting Psalms. We could feel in the air a great Jewish unity and care for each other.
Near the western wall, which bordered the women's section, young men in oversized coats sat around tables and swayed over their Gemaras. Whether they studied alone or with a friend, from time to time they would get up and go to the stove, which was seldom too hot. Having felt the cold tiles, they went back to the Gemara on the table, immersed themselves in a difficult passage, indifferent to whatever was going on. Thus the young men would sit by the dripping candles until late into the night.
The beishamedrash became even more ardent later in the evening when the Hasidim came from their rabbi and with great rapture recounted his sayings about the Torah or sang a new tune that they had heard by the rabbi's table.
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