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E. Events and Folklore


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Way of Life

by The editors

… For decades, our ancestors forged a modest, populist way of life. They were always whole in soul and calm in spirit. Indeed, the six workdays had a grey appearance, but in truth, the special essence of tradition, and orthodoxy was felt with vigilance for what took place in the “Tents of Shem”[1]. Even a verse of the Chumash or a rabbinical statement spread out and took on a form. Many bright minds would think well and discuss, as they toiled to clarify that which was hidden and obscure in life. The melody of the Gemara would pulsate extensively, and stick to you with parables and innuendoes. The commentators of the nation would produce a multitude of adages. Thus, the folklore that typifies the atmosphere of the city was formed.

Translator's footnote

  1. A term for the halls of Torah study. back

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Zgierz Folklore

by W. Fisher

Like many Jewish towns in Poland, Zgierz also had its own folklore, its own adages, anecdotes, wise sayings, and stories that are perhaps sometimes similar to the folklore of other towns. But they always have motifs that belong to the Zgierz way of life, and were a part of the reality of Jewish life in Zgierz.

The rich folklore of our city was perhaps not so rooted in traditions of the previous centuries and in old, half–forgotten places of life. However, it was a result of the various incarnations that took place over several generations of Jews in Zgierz, and were deeply rooted in the spirit of the Jews of Zgierz. It shone with the wisdom, human understanding, and fineness that Jewish life in Zgierz possessed.

The specific charm of a relatively young settlement with a way of life that stemmed from the events, experiences and personalities that influenced the unique spirit of the population – poor and rich, scholars, Hassidim, Maskilim, merchants and tradesmen – is present in the folklore of our city.

Jews from all over Russia, especially from White Russia, Lithuania, and Podolia, came to Zgierz. They arrived in waves since the first half of the 19th century until after the First World War. They brought with them their local modes of speech and pronunciation, as well as their local customs and local mannerisms. However, this did not prevent them from feeling like a homogenous community, in accordance with the ancient style of Jewish community. Jews in Zgierz felt and thought in a communal fashion.

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In time – and times were diverse, as there was no lack of bad and even worse, especially during the times of Russian rule – the Yiddish language became enriched. New slang words, expressions, anecdotes, wise witticisms, word plays, naïve and sharp expressions were created. There were flashy jokes or comical pursuits, at times accompanied by laughing at oneself, and through that at everyone, of one's own and other's difficulties, mocking the realities, laughing at human intellect and human experiences. Until the present, no wisdom in the world can surpass the wit of a folks–word of folk humor.

Thus, the local folklore that was characteristic of Jewish Zgierz was created from all this. To this day, in a certain sense, it can serve as a key that opens the door for us to the entire dynamic of Jewish life in Zgierz, to recognize the spirit of the community and the individual from the simple folk and the exceptional personalities and characters.

In this way, that folklore helps to draw a fuller picture of the very active and lively Jewish settlement in Zgierz.


A great deal of Zgierz folklore can also be found on the pages of the Book of Zgierz, especially in the excerpts of the creations that we have included there from the renowned Zgierz writers, such as Yaakov Kahan (from his memoirs Minetiv Chayay, pp 189–203), and Pinchas Bizberg (from his book Sabbath and Festival Jews, pp. 235–255).

About Two Sabbath Gentiles
(Wawzyn and Peter the Great)

by Z. F.

The position of the Sabbath Gentile [Shabbos Goy] in the Jewish experience, and his importance is well–known, especially those who came from the shtetl. Indeed, Jews knew how to relate to him properly and even to honor him. For there is no Jewish life and no Jewish community without a Shabbos Goy, especially in

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the Diaspora lands of Eastern Europe in times gone by. Indeed, through the generations, he became an inseparable part of the Jewish experience, and a recognizable and accepted concept throughout the entire Jewish Diaspora.

The Shabbos Goy was not exactly that gentile from among the gentiles with whom we lived and with whom we came into daily business contact. In general, they were elderly men, most of whom belonged to the poorer strata of the city. They found some sort of small but regular support for their meager sustenance from the Sabbath work for the Jews. In truth, not every gentile with self–respect (and especially the Poles, who were known for their puffed–up sense of national pride) was prepared to enter a Jewish house and engage in housework that was not considered honorable in his eyes. Therefore, the Shabbos Goy was a unique personality: in character he was modest, he did not lord over his fellow, he bore his burden quietly and patiently. Especially, he was a gentile who was comfortable with the Jewish spirit. He did his work willingly and accepted the compensation with gratitude.

When the gentile man (or woman) entered a Jewish home, clean and polished in honor of the Sabbath, with the festive spirit of rest enveloping everything and everyone, with the sparkling candlesticks on the table covered with a white cloth, with the children washed and wearing clean garments, etc. – all these undoubtedly left a feeling of honorable awe and respect for the Jewish family. Often enough, they expressed their feelings with words of praise for the Jewish family and their customs.

We will now bring two descriptions of Shabbos Goyim who were known in the city, who were woven with the Jewish reality in the city, each in his time. Thus ,for example, Peter (Pietryk in Polish) is still remembered from our childhood years. He was tall, but already under the burden of old age. He limped with heavy steps and a unique rhythm. This gave us children in the vicinity of the old marketplace the impetus to wait for him and hum from behind him in accordance with the rhythm: Etshe–Petshe, Gdze–Idzetshe

The poet and writer Yaakov Kahan mentions him with respect in his autobiography Minetiv Chayay [From the Paths of my Life]. We did not know the second gentile, Wawzyn, but we heard about him and his wit from the elders. The writer Pinchas Zelik Gliksman mentions him in his book Tiferet Adam. However, a more comprehensive description of Wawzyn the Shabbos Goy can be found on a single page that remained by chance from the letters of Yisrael Weinik, may G–d avenge his blood, under the title: the Elderly Rabbi, may the memory of the holy be blessed, and Wawzyn the Shabbos Goy.

We will now bring an excerpt from his letter, in his words (with light editing by Z. F.)

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The Elderly Rabbi, may the memory of the holy be blessed,
the Sabbath Gentile Wawzyn

(From the series: City Stories)

by Israel Weinik

– – Wawzyn was the former Shabbos Goy of our town. Everyone, young and old, knew Wawzyn, who used to walk around barefoot, with a strip around his pants, which drooped a bit lower than his belt. By nature, he was a very good gentile. He spoke Yiddish like any Jew in town, and was involved in all Jewish matters. He knew all the laws. Were it not for his gentile traits, such as shaving his folksy, yellow, constantly growing beard, sipping the “four cups” ten times a day, and various other trivialities, he could be a considered a perfect Jew.

It is superfluous to mention what type of position Wawzyn had in our Jewish life in our town. Wawzyn knew very well that the community could not function without him, and he sometimes perpetrated various pranks. The old rabbi, of blessed memory, would tell about his pranks with a loving smile on his lips, and praise for Wawzyn's smart mind.

For example, Wawzyn knew that at the sale of the chometz on the eve of Passover, after drinking the first cup, which had no connection to the Seder night, he should pay the rabbi a few additional copper tens, so that he would be able to get double after the holiday. Thus did he act from old times, even though the rabbi used to tell him:

“No, don't bother yourself, Wawzyn. Let our transaction be already, so long as I am certain about the act of acquisition…”

Wawzyn, however, would act innocently, as he quietly smiled and took the last coins from his tattered pockets, and put them on the table as business transaction.

Every Rosh Hashanah eve, Wawzyn would go around to the Jewish homes to collect donations. He would present himself to the Jews as the vice–beadle, and did not fail to mention his service for the benefit of the Jewish community and public. His services consisted of: placing the candles and lamps in the synagogue and the Beis Midrash, and bringing the heavy Korban Mincha siddur home for every elderly and important woman, wrapped in a kerchief, any time the eruv in the city was broken[1], which

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happened very often. Indeed, when was it not broken? His services to the Jewish public included lighting the Sabbath oven and other tasks that were part of his regular roles, and from which he lived very well. With the arrival of the Sabbath, one could even note a spark of the additional soul[2]

Wawzyn lived not far from the Beis Midrash. Since grass grew near the rabbi's window, it was the best place for him to snatch a nap on Friday nights, until he sobered up from the emptied cups that he had received in the Jewish homes.

Once, in the midst of a warm, summer Friday night, the elderly rabbi, of blessed memory, suddenly exited his home very upset about what had happened a moment earlier: the lamp had suddenly gone out.

This upset the rabbi greatly. He was known as very diligent in his learning, and he loved very much to study on Friday nights until dawn. During those hours, he found some sort of special taste and contentment from his studies. It was calm in the town, and it was so good to delve deeply into G–d's Torah, but now the lamp had gone out, and the rabbi remained sitting in the darkness.

Upset, the rabbi went out on to the street, and not far from him, under the window, he noticed Wawzyn lying drunk on the grass. A restrained smile swept over the rabbi's face, as if he found a fresh idea in a difficult Talmudic passage. The hope arose in the rabbi's heart that he would soon again be able to sit at the table and enjoy his Friday night learning. Exhilarated, he approached the gentile, patted his shoulder, an called out:

“Wawzyn, would you like a drink?”

“Do I want a drink? A fine question.” Wawzyn lifted himself off the ground and stood upright, moved his shaking limbs and barely dragged himself to the house of the rabbinical court. With an open mouth, he prepared to drink the promised cup.

The rabbi was happy with his idea. It was obvious that his plan had worked, and apparently preoccupied and partly upset, he began to pace over the room with shuffling steps , groping in the room, searching by memory for a cup for Wawzyn. Of course, the rabbi was very careful

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that his mouth should not, heaven forbid, mislead him and utter a word that could lead to a desecration of the Sabbath[3]

Wawzyn's intelligent mind quickly understood that the elderly rabbi would not quickly find a glass in the dark. Wawzyn entered the kitchen to which he had been accustomed for years. He immediately found the matches and lit the lamp. His hands trembled impatiently waiting for the cup that the rabbi had promised him.

The rabbi was happy that his plan had succeeded, and that he had light. Without saying a word, he immediately gave him his cup, and wanted to return to the Gemara, but Wawzyn, already on his way out, blew at the lamp and put it out…

“Oh–woe, Oh–woe!” The rabbi remained standing despondent, and a heavy sigh rose up from his heart:

“What will be now, Wawzyn? Oh, what do we do now?”

“Nothing,” Wawzyn answered, already standing on the other side of the door. “One lies down to sleep, and is free…”

He immediately lay down on the grass and fell fast asleep…

Translator's footnotes

  1. The Sabbath boundary partition enabling one to carry on the Sabbath. See https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/eruv/ back
  2. Neshama Yeteira. See https://www.chabad.org/kabbalah/article_cdo/aid/380636/jewish/The–Additional–Shabbat–Soul.htm back
  3. One is not permitted to tell a gentile directly to perform work on the Sabbath. One can only hint. back

Peter the Great
(From The Path of My Life)

by Yaakov Cohen

From when I first became self–aware, I knew him, Peter, the gatekeeper of the house. After some time I called him “Peter the Great” due to his height. Every Sabbath, he would come in the morning to take the candlesticks off the table, and in the winter also to light the oven in the dining room. In addition to the salary that was given to him on a weekday, he immediately received a glass of whiskey, which he emptied in one gulp, as well as a slice of challah, which he put into the deep pockets of his cloak. He was alone, without a family, and was already not particularly healthy. He lived in one of the rooms in the upper story in the left part of the courtyard. From there, the unfortunate man would come down time after time to the sound of the ringing of someone who was late in returning home. He would drag his feet, and pace his heavy steps in his tattered sandals. He would open the gate, and receive his money for drinks as a type of silent submission. He was honest in his purpose, working faithfully, and bearing his burden in silence. My father would praise him

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and say, “This gentile is truly G–d fearing.” Indeed, in the afternoon hours one would hear a hollow sound coming up from the courtyard, like the humming of a prayer. One could see him sitting on the ground in his dwelling, reading from a book, and humming with a broken heart Psalms in Luther's translation.

In the Tipsiness of Purim

by Zeev Fisher

“One is required to get tipsy on Purim” (Megilla, page 7)

The Hassidim sat at the Purim party with the wealthy Hassid Reb Noach Mandelson. They drank in accordance with custom, and enjoyed all the good delicacies that were prepared on the table in ample fashion, as they discussed Hassidism and the issues of the day. Of course, the conversation was spiced with words of wit appropriate for the traditions of the holiday, and the spirits were high.

And when their hearts were merry with wine, Reb Noach turned to those gathered to ask them what type of drink they wanted, in order to fulfil that which is said: To do the will of each person[1]. Reb Noach specified, “Blessed be G–d, there are various types of wine, Okowita, strong liquor, and also sweet, and there is mead, and the house is full of beer – everyone will get what they want!” The master of the house ordered the servants, and every person got what they wanted.

Reb Yosef Sokolower also sat among the gathering. He was a veteran Hassid and a scholar, sharp in thinking and in speech. He knew his statements and various types of words. He sat and was silent. Reb Noach looked at him and said, “And you, Yosef, what will you drink?”

“I,” responded Reb Yosef calmly, “I would prefer a “Kalishekel sak, I mean karshensak” (that is a cup of juice, cherry juice).

The learned Reb Yitzchak Eksztajn, who was used to teasing Reb Yosef, was already sufficiently tipsy. He called over to Reb Yosef:

“If that is the case, Yosef, why are you Sokolower? Would it not be better to call you Yosef Sak… It is fitting for your tastes.”

Reb Yosef listened to Reb Yitzchak, and responded with a light smile:

“Indeed you are correct, Yitzchak. But we should also seek to change your name. Why do you have this Sztejn (stone)? Yitzchak, to you, Ek (tail in Yiddish), is more fitting).”

The gathering burst out in laughter. The Purim names were accepted by the community, and thus did they remain: Reb Yosef Sak, and Reb Yitzchak Ek. These names also transferred to their children…

(From Hed Rachok [Distant Echo])

Translator's footnote

  1. Esther 1:8. back

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Singing and Dancing
(From my childhood years in the Gerrer Shtibel)

by Zeev Ben–Shimon

I remember those years from the Hassidic past of our town, the years in cheder and in the Hassidic shtibel. The students and the Hassidim remain so clear and alive before my eyes. I feel them and see them singing and dancing with the pleasure of inner joy. The service of the Blessed G–d must be with joy, enthusiasm, and fervor, with full love and life. The joy bubbled up from deep faith in the Creator of the World, and from there, also the elevation of the soul, which did not allow for any sadness and certainly no despair.

Thus did they, the Hassidim of Zgierz, worship and study with fervor and fire in the hearts. The prayers, the words, and the devotions were conducted with great faith and belief, and with song, emanating from the depths of the soul. With the Hassidic melody that the Hassidim often hummed to themselves, one can hear the refined imprint of the soul of his mood and spirit, the spirit and sensation of a negation of materialism in his natural sense of understanding. In his spiritual world, however, a Sabbath and festival mood of exultation always pervaded. Song and dance ignited his soul, and was a source of spiritual delight and festive joy.

For us in the Gerrer Shtibel, on festivals between Mincha and Maariv, things lasted until deep in the evening. Around the long tables, adorned with white tablecloths, there were Hassidim, especially elderly ones, sitting bent over books and Gemaras, studying or simply delving into matters of the day. Others were involved in conversations, discussing memories of Hassidism of old, previous Rebbes. Their discussions were often accompanied by deep sighs. Mentioning things from times gone by made the hearts emotional… At the same time, the memories were so homey, joyous, and warm… Where do you find such Jews now? Where? Hassidim of old with great trust and faith… They mentioned names of sharp youth and grey elders whose Hassidism pervaded the entire town. They were fervent Hassidim and great scholars.

The shiny lamps shone everywhere with festive geniality and sweet hominess. Stripped of materialism, from day–to–day worries,

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people waited for the crowd that would soon arrive. As they waited, they hummed a Hassidic melody, a devotional tune of longing.

Then a joyous sound from outside came through, and the echo of homey singing approached. Youths were running noisily and warmly, with joy. They are coming… That meant that the crowd who had been invited that day for a drink at Reb Shlomo's, the Hassidic wealthy man, were already coming to the shtibel for Maariv. It was lively and warm.

They always arrived singing and dancing. The tall, rich–man's streimels were tilted to the sides, “Cossack style.” The internal, warm and festive high spirits were accompanied with a joyous sound of the running youths. The dance actually began on the street, far from the synagogue. This time, the policeman walking around the city hall acted as if the singing did not bother him at all. He knew that it was a holiday for the Hebrews, and it was best to act indifferently to the noise, singing and dancing on the street. It will be worthwhile for him…

When the entire Hassidic gathering danced into the shtibel with a warm, Hassidic melody, those who were already seated around the table lifted their eyes from their books. They began to stand up, and closed their Gemaras. The thought that “You shall rejoice on your festival”[1] is a great commandment moved them, the good pious Jews and fervent Hassidim, from their places. They stood up and inserted themselves into the dance circle. The dancing became greater and heavier.

“Look from heaven, and see”[2] – the eyes overflowed with tears from great joy. Goodness shone from the eyes. It seemed as they were dancing and leaping with lightness, as if with wings. Soon Reb Yisrael Zaken jumped on the table, tipsy, dressed in his satin kapote with his silk gartel, and called out: “Holy sheep! Meeeh!” A proud chorus of children responded. The dance continued on again. Hand to hand, hand on shoulder, they went around the Torah reading table in a circle. Large, white, black, and blond beards fluttered around, with beaming faces and fervent glances. Reb Yisrael, above all, attempted to shout over the song to his calls to the children. His eyes caressed the children so goodly, so tenderly. He smiled and clapped his hands, and the dance blazed on further – a dance that was wholly in the service of the Creator. “Sing to Him, sing praises to Him, tell of His wonders”[3],

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the fervent song echoed throughout the entire Hassidic shtibel. It included the young and the elderly, joining everyone in the vibrant circle of song: ay dy dy.. yadi, dadi, dy – one tune merged into the next, and the clapping with the dancing feet was rhythmic to the beat.

Those who were originally standing at the side and clapping their hands became more involved in the circle, which became wider and broader. Yosel Baluter was already dancing, hand on the shoulder, with Chaim Yankel on the table. The enjoyment of the festival beamed from everyone's faces, and the light of the lamps sparkled over their dancing shoulders, covered in satin and silk.

The dance became sweeter, heartier, and more joyous. The hearts were jaunty and warm, and when the mouths opened, the feet began to move; and new Hassidim arrived, from the houses, from the street, and joined the circle. With hand placed on shoulder, and heart to heart, they joined together in the circle, with such goodness and enthusiasm, with devotion, to the point of the nullification of the soul. The room was full of joy. Everyone in the shtibel – children, adults, and grey elders – sang and danced and joined in a great, surging circle, carried away with the wordless Hassidic dance tune: adi, dadi, adi dadi, adi dadi dy… The warm song burst through the open windows to the outside. The tens of faces of the wives and the girls, who had come to watch the Hassidim rejoicing and dancing, were beaming with pride. They maintained themselves with modesty, a bit in the shadows, but clapping their hands, imbued with the joy of the Hassidim. The entire shtibel and the surrounding courtyard was full of song and dance, with light and joy.

The circle spun, swinging in the dance.
Already hopping with the elders, spinning in a garland.

They dance around, and around again:
It is such a dance for us, a dance with joy and good fortune.

Reb Tovia–Yosef jumps as high as the heavens in his dance,
Before him, within him, as if in the imagination dances Reb Mendel–Noach.

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Reb Leibel Lipa's with the white beard is also dancing already,
Hand in hand with the tall Elia Wirbel in the circle.

The lamp on the ceiling shakes, and the walls vibrate.
The children outside in their mother's hands also shake.

Adi dadi, adi dadi… adi dadi dy…

This dance would have continued on until late at night had not Reb Shalom Henech…

Reb Shalom Henech, was a cordial Jew, a Hassid who was fully gracious[4]. His biggest mitzvah was making sure the guests in the shtibel had a place to eat on Sabbaths and festivals with the Hassidic householders. At the peak of the heat of the dance, he would enter from the anteroom, sweating and tired after allocating the festival meals for the poor people. He broke through the dance circle, and called out to Yossel:

“Yossel, enough! The guests want to eat!”

He pushed his way to the reader's table, gave two bangs and called up.”

“Let us pray, let us pray”

This was sufficient that the dance, which was at its peak, died down and stopped. Yossele's soft voice could be heard, singing “And those from afar will come,” and the crowd responded, “and give You a crown of rulership.”

Then, joyous calls to Yossele could be heard, “Well done, Yossel!”

Thus ended the festive dance, and soon Itche Meir's festive singing could be heard “Barchu[5].

The congregation, still a bit tipsy from the fervent dance, began to sway prayerfully, and joined into the melody of the festival service.

Translator's footnotes

  1. Deuteronomy 16:4 back
  2. Isaiah 63:15. back
  3. Psalms 105:2. back
  4. Hassid and chesed (gracious) are based on the same root in Hebrew. There are lots of rhymes and allusions in this article, which are lost in translation. back
  5. The opening word of the Maariv service on festivals. back

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Let it be with a Weaver
(An old folk song from our region)

by W.F.

In memory of our dear, ardent mother Chana Fiszer the daughter of Reb Moshe Yaakov Kopel of blessed memory who always used to entertain us with a hearty folk song from her rich treasury of songs.

The lot of the Jewish handworker and board worker during the last decade of the 19th century until the First World War was difficult. They stood bent over the lathe from morning until evening, banging with their hands and feet toward the quota of a thousand for the meager bit of livelihood.

When the weaving guild, and shortly thereafter, the growing textile industry, took in more Jewish youth of the middle class, girls began to slowly abandon their romantic illusions and began to practically evaluate their situation, which was very often far from realizing the dreams of young girls. The following folk song circulated around at that time:

O, Mommy, make me a wedding
I want to be with a weaver already,
But let us travel to the wedding
In a coach with rubber wheels.

He will travel in a top hat,
I will travel in a hat
And at our wedding
Russian music will be played…

That folksong expressed the longing for a bit of good fortune, settling for the sad reality, as well as inciting fantasies for the delicate girly pride.

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Blossoms of Episodes and Folklore

Reb Nota Heinsdorf, the Kock Hasid in Zgierz, would tell:

When the Rebbe, Reb Bunim, may the memory of the holy be blessed, would pass through Zgierz in his time, he would say: “the evil inclination is dancing here on the roofs. It is necessary to bring it down and chase it away from here. It is clear to all that one does not chase the evil inclination away with sticks or stones, but rather with Hassidism and the study of Torah.”

As a Kock Hassid, Reb Natan Nota of blessed memory worked together with his brother–in–law Reb Leibush Pozner of blessed memory in supporting the first Rebbe, the Tzadik Reb Shalom Tzvi HaKohen, may the memory of the holy be a blessing, in the arena of spiritual life of the community. The three of them traveled to Kock, where they absorbed Torah, Hassidism, and fear of Heaven, and disseminated them in the city, until the city of Zgierz became a proper scholarly–Hassidic city whose renown spread, especially due to the large, famous Yeshiva of the rabbi.

(from Rabbi Meir Sczaranski, may the memory of the holy be blessed.)


Honor of the Mother

I heard that from the time his father died, Rabbi Avrahamele of Ciechanów, the son of Reb Refael of blessed memory, would travel every year to visit his mother, the righteous widow, the woman of valor Mrs. Roda of blessed memory in the city of Zgierz, to honor and gladded the soul of the widow. Every time, he made himself a new garment to wear I hear honor. Every time, all the rabbis and great ones around that city would gather together to greet him for the sake of his honor

(The Book of Hassidism by Reb Yitzchak Refael)


Matchmaking Issues

Reb Avraham Weicenfeld writes:

Blessed is G–d, Sunday of the Torah Portion of Reeh, 5718. Here in Krakow[1]

In honor of my wise friend – Shzch'h[2]

Your soul should be pleased to hear the news that I have entered into a marriage connection with the city of Zgierz, in Poland. The dowry is 1,000 R't[3]. The dear, intelligent, young woman guards the ways of the household[4], and the family is wealthy and Torah oriented, with some knowledge of the language of the country and the ways of the world. The additional benefit is that, immediately after the marriage, I have become a free person, and I do not need to depend on the table of others, for there is immediately a business to work at, which will provide all my needs, with the help of G–d. For this maiden

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is an orphaned from her father, and her aging mother has turned over her business to my bride, for she is the only daughter. Aside from this, she owns two houses that yield a great deal of rent annually. And I will cast my burdens upon G–d[5], for he has prepared this great step in my life.

Translator's footnotes

  1. This would correspond to August 10, 1958 (or the preceding evening). back
  2. There is a footnote in the text here, as follows: Shzch'h is the acronym for Shlomo Zalman Chaim Halberstam of Krakow, one of the Jewish scholars of the second half of the 19th century. back
  3. There is a footnote in the text here, as follows: Ruble Taler. back
  4. From Proverbs 31:27. back
  5. From Psalms 55:22. back

“The Agreement” of the Holy Community
of Zgierz for the Coronation of Nikolai II as the Czar of Russia

One day during the 1890s, the administrators of the community of Zgierz were astounded that the representative of the kingdom in the local city council told them that in three days, they must arrange a festive service in the synagogue on the occasion of the coronation of his majesty Nikolai Alexandrovich as the Czar of Russia and Poland, which was taking place that day in the capital of Petersburg.

All the Jews of the community were obligated to participate in the festive service, and the rabbi was to deliver a sermon on the importance of this event to the Jews as well. The clergy, cantor, and administrators must also appear. Representatives of the kingdom, the city council, and the police would be in attendance.

Turmoil broke out in the communal council, for the rabbi was sick in bed, and his deputy, Reb Moshel the rabbinical judge was, albeit a scholar, a straightforward man who was not involved at all in worldly matters. The city administrators consulted as to how to direct Reb Moshel to appear at this important event, but the timeframe was tight, and the command could not be revoked. The law of the land is the law.

The sextons went out quickly to all the houses of worship to announce and inform that in three days, at 10:00 a.m., a festive prayer service for the wellbeing of the new Czar would take place in the synagogue, and the entire community was asked to attend. The gallery would also be open for women.

The city was simmering, and everyone prepared for the great day. There was certainly room to ask, why all this preparation? What is the character of the new Czar? Would he not continue, heaven forbid, in the ways of his father, a well–known anti–Semite? Will he be benevolent or harsh?

The number of people asking and wondering was indeed not small. Nevertheless, when the designated day came, the synagogue, that had been cleaned and polished, was full to the brim. All the chandeliers and candles were lit. Flags of the kingdom were here and there, and a festive atmosphere pervaded through the entire building.

The important people of the city were already on the stage. The police chief and his entourage were there in uniform, as well as Jurczenko the gendarme in his full stature and splendor. On the other hand, the rabbinical judge Reb Moshel was in his place, with his long, white beard, streimel on his head, and tallis over his thin shoulders. Reb Beinush the cantor looked tense, as if just before Kol Nidre (to differentiate). The members of the choir were standing, prepared.

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The head of the community gave the sign to the beadle, who quieted the congregation by banging on the reader's table. Silence pervade in the synagogue, and all eyes turned to the speaker. The head of the community and his administrators looked on with bated breath.

Reb Moshel placed his palm on his face and stroked his beard, as if delving deeply into a difficult section of Gemara. He then began, with the sing–song Talmudic melody.

“Behold it is known to everyone that the ‘elder’ died, may it not befall us. So, if he died – he died. And we, as is our custom, recite the blessing, Blessed is the True Judge… However, it is impossible to leave a country without a leader, and of course the country requires a Czar, so that the awe of the government will be upon us, as our sages of blessed memory have stated: You must pray for the wellbeing of the government, for were it not for its fear, etc.[1] Therefore, we now require a new Czar, and they, in the house of government, desire that we Jews of the holy community of Zgierz agree to the new Czar. Therefore, we give our assent, and we all state: we agree, we agree, we agree…”

Then, the lions voice of the cantor and the congregation sounded loudly:

“He Who gives salvation to Kings…”[2]

The entire congregation rose and stood in silence.

The representatives of the government did not leave their places until they warmly shook the hand of Reb Moshel the rabbinical judge in gratitude.

The head of the community breathed a sigh of relief, and there was a smile of satisfaction on his face.

Translator's footnotes

  1. Pirkei Avot 3:2. The rest of the statement is: everyone would swallow his fellow alive. back
  2. The opening words of the prayer for the government. back

We Were Slaves
(From his book “To a Son – and a Daughter”)

Then we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt
And we are now slaves seven times over.
For about two thousand years we have been eating the bread of affliction
Exiled from country to country, from host to host.
Persecuted incessantly, a life of shame and if only,
Begging for mercy from nations, in the stubble of the enemy and the cruel ones,
Every enemy of Israel became a head and commander.

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Hitler also became a leader and ruler of the gangs,
In the land of Germany, the enlightened nation, with philosophy,
By calling out: “Destruction to Israel, Germany rise up!”…
The nation of Kant found – “the clear understanding”…
To the life of Germany! To the life of Hitler! Let us drink the potion,
There will be no more citizen of Mosaic persuasion, he is strange and foreign,
A corrupt root of Israel, Marxians, the yeast of the dough,
Their hand is in everything, and their trap is spread throughout the entire world;
For Germany is revenge and recompence, for the Jews, horror and the fire pan
The blood of Israel shall flow from the outstretched sword!

– – – – – – – – – This happened in the 20th century, this was Germany in which they placed their trust,
Did they not kill you? Did you not learn your lesson yet? –
We and our grandchildren will be slaves forever
If we do not build our home in the Land of the forefathers!

Eve of Passover, 5693 (1933)

(Memories from my Yeshiva years)

by W. Fisher

In memory of our cordial sister Bina, may G–d avenge her blood, the daughter of Reb Shimon Fiszer of blessed memory, who so avidly read the novels and story books that I would bring her from Janis.

He would come to us in the city twice a year, always between the vacation periods. Once was between Purim and Passover when one could already hear the recognizable sound of the matzo bakeries on the Jewish street. From there, the Passover aroma of freshly baked matzos in the mild sweet spring

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breezes carried a melody from Song of Songs over the entire city[1]. Janis would come for the second time during the pleasant days of the month of Elul, when the skies looked upon us with such gentle blue sadness, and the trees already began to turn carmine, gold and saffron for the upcoming High Holy Days.

When the tall, round, covered wagon rolled into the courtyard of the Beis Midrash, it remained standing there for a while. The two Jews on the coachbox were bickering over something, perhaps over the income from the journey, and perhaps over the next trip onward. This lasted only for a short while. Soon, the wagon driver descended from the coachbox. He was a husky Jew with a tanned face, ending with a short, black beard. He took the hand of the second, very elderly Jew, and helped him descend from the wagon.

“Janis!” a lad called out from the window, “Janis has arrived.”

The call echoed through the Beis Midrash, and the Gemara tunes were interrupted for a while. A strange excitement could be sensed, and a happy smile came over the faces of some of the lads. Before long, it spread over the entire Jewish street, through the cheders, Yeshivas, and Hassidic shtibels, until the news reached the old city:

“Janis has arrived…”

After placing the trough before the horses, he wagon driver himself had something to eat in the nearby tavern of Meirl Kalski. First, he “put down” a reasonable sized mug of Macewski's beer while his passenger unloaded his load – is god not still a father[2]… for the spicy aroma of the freshly broiled livers on the grill strongly ignited his wagon–driver's appetite.

In the meantime, a group of lads came out courtyard and immediately began to help the bookseller unload the heavy load of books from the wagon and bring them into the Beis Midrash. The sack carriers were actually quite happy with their run and with the tumult that they had created, for what would he himself have done alone with the heavy load, were it not for their energy? Then he, like a respected merchant, quickly entered into his customary role

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as a bookseller. He was strict to not allow any book to leave his hand, with the suspicion as people might come there to rip him off. He knew that the lads do not consider it a sin to take out a book. Therefore he would grab it from their hands and shout:

“Wait, do not grab… not this sack, but only from the sack that you book before…”

For the most part, he trembled in front of the sack that was the lightest to move, and from which he would not know how many books had “flown away.” Therefore, Janis was uncomfortable, and his small, reddish eyes began to dart back and forth with anger and impatience. He did not know where to go first, whether to remain here at the unloading of the wagon, or should he hurry to the Beis Midrash, where the merchandise was laying unguarded at the time. Therefore, he expressed his anger with his hoarse, nasal voice, but the group was barely affected by his shouting and they did their work with great zest.

Finally, the entire load was inside, and Janis had his belongings under his control, which calmed him somewhat. Soon, he found an older lad who brought him a cup of coffee from the nearby mikva attendant. Janis took a bit of food out of his handbag to satisfy his hunger.

Around Mincha–time, Janis talked to two older lads, whom he knew from his prior visits, to ask them to assist him lay out the merchandise on the table after Maariv, in the order that he, Janis, will show them. As always, this was done without payment, as the enterprise was beneficial for both sides.


Janis' Organized Book Table

Both lads were from among the good learners of the city. In the Beis Midrash, it was said about them that they also studied other languages and had impressive knowledge of secular books as well. They looked among Janis' books for those that could not be found by other sack–carriers. For them, assisting Janis was a golden opportunity to obtain many of the books that they were looking for, and to read them without paying even a groszy. It was also worthwhile for Janis, for he was going to remain there for four or five days, and they helped him

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lay out the books on the table in good order, as Janis instructed them. He knew how important a well–organized book table was for business, for one would be able to find the books them wanted.

In the morning, the finely ordered table dazzled the eyes. The gorgeous colors that beautified the long table caught the eye. The table was organized with various colored book covers, and looked as if it was decked with a multi–colored mosaic. The eye was treated with the collection of colors. When the tall, semicircular windows caught the sun rays and they shined cheerfully on the table, it literally blinded the eye. Even the white beams above appeared shiny from the brightness of the colors, and smiled lovingly at the people:

“Indeed, Janis has come…”

This does not imply that Janis was the only itinerant bookseller who used to visit our city and bring spiritual food for the thirsty souls of young lads. On the contrary, not a month went by when such a bookseller did not appear Zgierz, placing on the table of the Hassidic shtibel or the Beis Midrash the bit of wares that he brought in a flashy suitcase. However, the little bit of merchandise from the other book sellers consisted primarily of Hassidic books from Rebbes. They were rabbis and regular booksellers who we already knew almost from the outside. We, children and older lads, students of the Yeshivos, shtibels and Beis Midrashes, were thirsty for a fresh book, which would clarify for us other matters that are outside the four ells of halacha; matters about which we heard unclear echoes from afar, the meaning of which we had meager knowledge. Those sack carries knew our city very well and knew that they had a good market for their merchandise. Zgierz had a larger number of youth thirsty for knowledge than other towns. Those youth who, like everyone, studied in the Yeshivas and Beis Midrashes, covertly sought a new book, which they could not find from the usual sack carriers. The striving for knowledge was also felt by the learners in the Hassidic shtibels. In truth, we knew that we

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could find such books in the city library, but few had the boldness to open the door of the library, which so greatly charmed us. We knew that we could find there a great collection of books in Yiddish, Hebrew, German, and Russian, but in those days, a Beis Midrash lad was not permitted to enter such a room, in which pictures of the non–religious, the Zionist and Socialists, were hanging, all with bare heads. If the Rosh Yeshiva or principal had found out about this, he would have a reckoning with such a lad.

Therefore, the only source from which we could derive the bit of knowledge was from the sack carriers who brought us a drink of “living waters” from time to time. This refreshed the languid souls that were so craving to hear a story, to read about the wonderful things that are taking place in the world, far from the town.


The Interesting Stories that we Devoured

For a long time, we followed the interesting stories, such as about Reb Yosef the unchaste, who took the sword from the Angel of Death, but was convinced to return it… Or the wonderful story about the Maharal, who created the Golem and placed the ineffable name of G–d within it, turning it into a mighty defender of Jews. We used to devour the stories about the red Jews who were found on the other side of the Sambatyon[3], the river tossing up stones all week, thereby calming the steps of the enemies. The stories about the wonders performed by the wonder workers, such as the Shpoiler Zeide[4] and other such people, captivated us. Later, we told them over among groups of friends who gathered in the Hassidic shtibel, in the dark hours of the Sabbath, at the time of the Third Sabbath meal [shalosh seudos], when the people around the table had finished satisfying themselves with their morsel, and the tune of Michael–Mendel's Bnei Heichala[5] was being sung in the darkness. Ah, we inserted our stories in the mysterious mood of those hours, when we were overtaken with the feeling of someone who sees, but is not seen…

We were not able to obtain from every bookseller the story books, with the woven stories, that would tell us about adventures of great

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people, wonderful events, which would enrich our fantasies and our desire for the wide, unknown, world.

It was completely different with Janis. His colorful table with books was incomparably richer than the others. Unlike the others, he did not come for one day. He would remain with us for at least five or six days, and the negotiations between us learners and him regarding a kopek would take place the entire time, but eventually we reached and agreement. For a “sixer” one could get a book from him to read, and then return it. There were also story books that one could get for no more than two kopeks to read. If one did not have the 15 kopeks that he demanded as a guarantee, it was sufficient to leave one's gartel with him, and which Beis Midrash lad did not have a gartel?! Of course, he recognized us all from previous years.

The fact that he always came during the vacation period, when the constantly cross rebbe was somewhat milder to the students, and the discipline was weaker helped the enterprise. It was easier to find a bit of time to go to a corner of the courtyard and covertly read a book or two.


Our Childlike Glances Behind the Partition [6]

Years and decades have already passed since those days when Janis used to come to us with his colorfully arranged book table. So many stormy and bloody experiences have taken place in my life during that time. Many personalities, beloved and august, have been etched in my memory during that time. Many became fuzzy and then arose again. However, throughout the entire time, the image of Janis the bookseller remained alive before my eyes, with a latent shine emanating from his tanned face, shining over the title pages of his books, from the books on morality and Hassidic stories, which took a place of honor on the table together with the prayer books, the large ones from the Ar'i and Rabbi Yaakov Emden, and the small pocket prayer books, megillot, books of Psalms, Selichot books, books of petitions; as well as the collections of letters and books of fate, resting in the shadows, as well as all the other touching stories that so teased our childhood fantasies.

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For all my life, I loved books, important, old and new, well–bound and weakly bound, literary and scientific, in which all the various problems of life are dealt with, matters of great importance in the world. However, I have never forgotten the enchanting curiosity and great influence that the soft–cover story books on Janis' book table had upon me, which I read with such suspense, and which filled my heart with indescribable longing.

In truth, for the most part, there were books for primitive readers, stories for yearning boys and girls with dreams about princes and princesses, about love and revenge, about poor orphans, about robbers and convicts. In those times, however, those were lofty and strong themes. they developed our reading and thinking skills to a large degree, and strengthened our humanistic opposition to injustice and our appreciation of human rights.

Reminiscences and memories from those wonderful stories go through my mind, such as: “The Story of Three Brothers,” “Sanctification of the Divine Name by a Righteous Convert,” “A Friday Night in the Forest,” as well as the jolly stories of Simcha Plachta, Hershele Ostrolopoler, Efrim Greidiker[7] and Motke Chabad[8]. In those books, we laughed and made a racket with fantasy life somewhere in the wide world, and with the wit and wisdom of Jewish folklore. A desire to read many more of those stories remained in our hearts, until we became more mature and began to take interest in the literature of our classicists, with new books from Yiddish, Hebrew, and world literature.

In the Beis Midrash, among the regular learners, sharp minds and diligent ones, there were also those who desired to catch a glance of that which takes place behind the partition[6]. For them, Janis had a special sack of completely different books, those such as “The Book of the Covenant,” “Pathways of the World,” and others, even “Ahavat Zion” by Abraham Mapu[9]. To those books, which Janis hid from an evil eye, Yoel Linecki's “The Polish Boy” also belonged[10], which we obtained a bit later, and which captivated us.

The negotiations surrounding those books always took place in the late afternoon hours or after the Maariv service, when the crowd had already dispersed. It was seldom within our power to purchase those books, despite the fact that Janis

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did not ask for a high price for them. For the most part, we borrowed a few copies from him to read, and Janis' book thereby passed form hand to hand. Janis had the desired reading material for each of the youths.

– – – For long years, I, along with many other Zgierz lads, who later became regular readers in the secular library, had feelings of gratitude for Janis, who gave us our first knowledge of books, and thereby made our lives more interesting, poignant, and exciting, like the lives of the heroes in their respective books.

Translator's footnotes

  1. Song of Songs is associated with Passover. back
  2. A cryptic statement, probably referring to the fact that he is a Christian. back
  3. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sambation back
  4. See https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias–almanacs–transcripts–and–maps/aryeh–leib–shpola back
  5. A hymn sung a Shalosh Seudos. back
  6. The term here is pargod – which refers to the mystical partition between G–d and the rest of the celestial realm – i.e. between the unknowable and the knowable. back
  7. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hershel_of_Ostropol and http://www.museumoffamilyhistory.com/yt/lex/G/greidiker–efrim.htm back
  8. See http://www.museumoffamilyhistory.com/yt/lex/M/motke–chabad.htm back
  9. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_Mapu back
  10. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yitzkhok_Yoel_Linetzky back

A Wise Person is Better than a Prophet

by Shimon Kantz

Someone gave over a sum of money to Rabbi Mendel Weksler as a dowry for his daughter. Reb Mendel was a student of the Gaon Rabbi Avraham of Sochaczew. When his son, the Admor Rabbi Shmuel, set up his own Beis Midrash and Yeshiva, he appointed Rabbi Mendel Weksler as the head. Reb Mende l was also the head of the Beis Meir Yeshiva of Krakow. His noble appearance gave him a certain charm. He gave off the impression that he was someone who was very distant from all life wisdom. He was a man of the spirit, with fine character traits. Once, when he came home, his wife was waiting for him. She gave over the money, and he put it in the upper pocket of his coat.

A bit later, he noticed that the money was not there. The members of the household were distraught over this, but Reb Mendel was completely quiet, and expressed his faith that the money would be returned to him.

He immediately sent for a certain young man who was a frequent visitor to his house, and ordered him to return the stolen money.

At first, the young man denied this, but he finally admitted and returned the entire sum of money to the Rosh Yeshiva. This was a wonder to us.

Rabbi Mendel Weksler said to him: “I am not a prophet or son of a prophet, and I did not do this via a portent, but rather through logic.”

To the amazement of all those listening, he continued and explained: “I remember that young man from when he was a lad, and he studied the Talmudic discussion of the four types of custodians in the Tractate of Bava Metzia[1]. That lad asked a question: 'How can they impose an oath on the custodian, given that he does not have the stolen goods?

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Perhaps the custodian earlier gave the stolen goods over to another person, so during the time of the oath, the stolen goods were not in his hands, and he did not take a false oath. In any case, he is a thief.' At that point, I had the thought that he would be a thief.

Then, his listeners understood that a wise person is better than a prophet.


Rabbi Mendel Weksler of blessed memory served in a holy position in the city of Krakow, as the head of the Beis Meir Yeshiva. His generous traits were as large as his scholarship. I learned a great deal of Talmud and its commentaries from him. The great principle that he taught us from the doctrine of Hassidism remains with me to this day: There is no desire as the desire of wisdom.

His image stands before my eyes: Short, with a higher than average forehead, a small beard, and a facial appearance that expressed decisiveness and certainty. Love, refinement of the soul, warmth, his essence, delight, and interest radiated from his face to us, his students. His interest was above all, for he was graced with a rare trait of broad view and exacting perception. He knew how to delve into the depth of every detail, while simultaneously grasping the whole with a general view. Therefore, his personality was so radiant, rich, and variegated, imbuing loving warmth onto his students. This is what bound him to us. It seems to be the same with the older people with whom he came into contact. Everyone revered his wonderful memory, both in Torah and in the matters of the world.

To this day, I regard him as the richest soul of any that I got to know during my studies. Above all, his Torah was only one of the components of his personality. Nobility of the soul and emotion testified to the greatness of this exceptional man. His natural modesty testified to the purity of his soul. Therefore, all of his students esteemed, revered, appreciated, and loved him.

Translator's footnote

  1. Some background on the four custodians: https://www.chabad.org/therebbe/article_cdo/aid/92294/jewish/Mishpatim–Four–Custodians.htm back

About Everything and Somebody – In the Holy Tongue – A Fine Yiddish…

by Avraham Ch. Shapira

Blessed be G–d, Friday, eve of the Sabbath, 5631 (1871), Zgierz

In the honor of my dear son, beloved as my own soul, prominent and well–rounded, G–d fearing, a Hassid, and intelligent, Rabbi Rephael Yaakov, may his light shine; and his modest, intelligent, praiseworthy wife, may she live; and to my dear, pleasant grandchildren may the live Shalom and Yesha, all good things.

Your precious letter arrived this week, and I was very happy to hear of your health, and that of your proud family – –. Regarding the marriage suggestion [shidduch] in Komarno, I do not know what to answer the shadchan, for I do not know the man

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and his household, and especially his son. Regarding this, I ask you to investigate and inquire about the matter, and especially about his son. Since it is close to you, I am alerting you that you should be able to investigate that matter. You asked me to tell you about[1] men's clothing – as it seems now, three or four inches shorter, the suit is cut as it was before, with one Polish cut in the rear. The peyos are cut. And for women – their own hair or deep caps. Anything more, I do not know. Hersh Ber Szwarc was with me. He said that Shimon Waldenberg came and told him that he must move[2], an he wants to rent a dwelling from him. I do not know what to tell him. I told him that you will be hear after Yom Tov. I do not believe that he will return the 15 rubles to you. He also told me about the fathoms of Dobre, which is now 50–200 Berkne and 100 Dembowa, 50 Kiwena[3].[4] To this, write an answer by return mail as to what to do. I did not receive a response to the letter. There is nothing new. Your father sends you greetings and hopes for your success. He blesses you with the blessings of the Passover festival, to protect you, so that you may rejoice with your family and all who are with you as you see fit. Yosef Tzvi Kahana Szapiro


(A copy of a letter from my grandfather Reb Yosef Tzvi, may the memory of the holy be blessed, Kahana Szpira of Zgierz)

Translator's footnotes

  1. Here, the letter switches from Hebrew to Yiddish – hence the title. back
  2. Wording of this phrase is very unclear. back
  3. Here, the article switches back to Hebrew. back
  4. These are likely local terms for types of cloth. I could not identify them in a Polish or Yiddish dictionary, but they appear to be based on Polish names or places. back

Capital and Livelihood

by A Ch “ Sh.

My grandfather, Reb Yosef Hirsh of blessed memory, once complained to the Rebbe, Rabbi Henech of Aleksander, that he has no livelihood. The Rebbe told him, “Reb Yosef Hirsh, they say about you that you once earned a hundred thousand rubles from one business transaction, and you say you have no livelihood?” My grandfather answered, “It is indeed true, but the small change for daily livelihood is not always available…”

Connected to the answer, the Rebbe once said at his Sabbath table celebration:

“I once heard from a pedigreed Kohen that if one earns a great deal of money at one time, this does not mean that one has a livelihood, but only that one's capital has increased… From this we learn that we must do a great deal of mitzvot and good deeds, not only for the reward of daily livelihood here, but primarily so that our capital there (i.e. in the World To Come) will be greater.”

(heard from Reb Avraham Yitzchak Szapiro of blessed memory)

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Three I Knew

by Z. Fisher

Every city has its crazies (an old proverb)


Chaskel the Fool

Uncannily, I will present to you the characters of the people who went about with wild shabbiness, with their craziness. Their lives, their silences, speaking, and deportment were incomprehensible to us. Often, we would think that they were carrying something sinister and dark within themselves. However, this thought evoked great pain within us. The disguise endlessly wove images of lost souls with sad experiences. They were not foreign to their surroundings, even in their complete shabbiness. On the contrary, they were moving shadows of the Jewish street, of the city. No, not shadows, but veritable human beings, unfortunate people.

There were three city fools whom we remember from our childhood. My childhood fear recalls the fool Chaskel, a man of average height and wide shoulders with a black, disheveled beard. He was poor, but whole and clean. His face was always tied with a red kerchief tied over a velvet hat. His eyes burned with a black fire, like a hungry wolf.

Through his black–bearded face, one could barely see his mouth, from which one always could hear a wild roar, like a wounded lion. The bit of face that could barely be seen through the beard and kerchief was twisted from tribulations. It was hard to know whether this was from constant tooth pain, or whether he was badly pained over the fate of a person, a type of melancholy… In fact, he did not stop making strange grimaces that instilled fear. Even though he never went through the street without his tallis bag under his arm, the children and young wives ran from the sidewalk when they encountered him. Nobody

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understood what the grimaces and roars from that bearded, taciturn man meant. Therefore, imaginations ran free regarding his experiences.

In truth, Chaskel was not a true Zgierzer, for he came to us from a nearby town. However, since his daughter worked as a servant for a Zgierzer household, he also had the privilege of being considered one of our own city fools.


The Fool Moshe

After Chaskel, I recall the crazy Moshe. We rarely saw him on the street. His time was in the summer, especially on the very hot days… He was an irritable person. He would always shout and scold, always with harsh complaints about the world. However, it was hard to understand what he wanted from the world, and what he meant.

We would especially hear him in the cemetery on Tisha B'Av, when he would wander among the gravestones, shout and threaten with his fist toward heaven, “They will slaughter me… will shoot me… they will hang me… and finally, I will be taken to the world…”

This was repeated every Tisha B'Av. His heartrending shouts resonated over the entire cemetery. Jews, righteous women, tried to calm him. However, he did not stop shouting with a shrieking voice for hours.


Yankel the Fool

Yankel came to our city after the First World War and remained with us. He had nobody here. He was alone, a stranger. People said that he had come from central Russia, where they had enough of his craziness, and sent him back to Poland. They also said that he came from a fine home, but one could not get from him any details of his past or previous life.

He was firmly built, and middle aged. His dark face with an intelligent appearance was covered with a short, black, prickly beard. He seldom raised his eyes. His head was always tilted toward the ground, as if he wished to peer into the depths, filled with secrets.

He would pace over the long street for entire days and beg for a groszy from

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the passers–by. Summer and winter, he wore a fur hat on his head, and a worn–out, long, heavy winter coat. The large, deep pockets were stuffed with spoons and pots. Tin kettles hung from around his belt, in which he cooked the collected products. He would cook in a corner of a Jewish courtyard and then share the food with the poor people in the poorhouse.

One can tell various anecdotes and stories about the crazy Yankele, which played out in grotesque, comical situations not only regarding Yankel, but also regarding those who laughed at him.

Among others, it was also told about how a wealthy, Hassidic lad once saw Yankel take a groszy from a gentile on the Sabbath. The lad lectured him, “Yankel, you take money with your hands on the Sabbath?”

“What are you talking about?” Yankel answered him with a question, “A groszy is money according to you? Are you the same beggar as I am…”

This repeated itself another time. Again, they saw how he took money in his hands on the Sabbath, and told him that this is a sin. He again answered, “This, Polish groszy, is money for me… is also a sin for me…”

Yankele never bothered anybody. Everyone would move out of the way, and therefore, he would always go in the middle of the street. He seldom talked. Only if someone asked him something, would he raise his head, look at the questioner with his dark, calm, perceptive eyes, and answer with a joke or a witticism.

One would not always laugh at his witticisms. Often, his jokes would leave one with a feeling of sadness, like a scorn on the heart.

Yankel fit in with the long street, for he was a living part of that street for many years. People got used to his witticisms and craziness.

Yankele was one of the first victims when the Germans occupied our town during the Second World War. He disappeared from the long street, and he was never seen again.

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Three I Knew

by Moshe Tzvi Eiger
(From his booklet “To a Son – and Daughter)

To the rabbi of Zgierz

Vanity of vanities says Kohelet[1]
There is no benefit of wisdom over folly
Together the wise man, the fool, as well as the animal –
It is the same to the eye, and the same thing happens to them.

We are still occupied with this law
And there are many opinions and disputes among the halachic decisors:
There are those who say – and I shall rejoice with joy –
For the folly of the fool is better than wisdom.
For the more wisdom the more vexation;
And pain and bitterness – with understanding and knowledge.
The wise when they act turn toward the fool
And in reality, there is no person wiser than the fools…

And some say: there is some[2] wisdom for the fool
For is not the folly of the wise better than the wisdom of the fool.
Silliness rests upon the head of the fools
And loftiness and proper spirit for the person of the spirit.
The satisfaction of the wise for one hour
Is better than all the enjoyments of the fool. For he has the contentment.

And the wise say: To everything there is a time,
And if you cannot bear wisdom alone,
Say to folly: Behold you are my sister!
For wisdom is a bit better than folly.
I myself tend to the path
That the folly of the wise is better than the wisdom of the fool;
And since some say one way, and others say the other –
I ask of his honor to decide upon the law…

Intermediate days of Sukkot, 5692 (1931)[3]

Translator's footnotes

  1. Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 1:2. The next few lines are paraphrases of various statements from Kohelet. back
  2. The word used is obscure, and the translation of 'there is some' is a conjecture. back
  3. Kohelet is read in the synagogue on the Intermediate Sabbath of Sukkot. back

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The Jews of Zgierz

by The Editorial Committee

– – The common folk, as well as praiseworthy, dear people, families who struck deep roots in Jewish tradition, and whose character is – modesty, proper behavior between man and G–d, and no less between man and his fellow. They were quiet and modest during their lives, they occupied themselves with various types of livelihood, which encompassed the needs of their lives during those times. They loved the movements, and had a joy of life even though their livelihoods were as difficult as the splitting of the Red Sea. When they had a bit of rest from their labor and toil, they would sing with a full heart and proper emotion, “My soul blesses … You have garbed Yourself in splendor and glory.”[1] When they recited “The Heavens tell”[2], their intention was that sky, the one above their heads.

They were G–d fearing and devoted to the traditions of their ancestors, but also happy with their lot in the life of this world. They were not overcome by oppression, and did not know the taste of despair. Even though they were prepared to groan at all times, the Jews of Zgierz still had happy faces. A taut thread of grace and pleasantness was upon the face of the Jews of Zgierz, even though they were almost always immersed in the tribulations of the exile.

The Jews of Zgierz encompassed all the various hues of Polish Jewry. The order of life of Polish Jewry was in the city, as well as the spiritual stance of Polish Jewry, with all its ways, ideas, and imaginations, all images of the spirit, of the human spirit and the spirit of Israel, as well as in the winds blowing with the understanding of the times.

Indeed, the way of life of the Jews of Zgierz was similar to that of other cities. All Israel are brothers. Nevertheless, brothers differ from each other in appearance, ideas, and nature. Even more so, Jewish communities differ from each other in ways of life and paths of the spirit. Every community has its unique extra soul[3]. It is impossible to explain everything, but neither are we exempt from explaining a little of the recognizable signs and uniqueness of the community and its members, with their personalities and images.

In truth, the internal essence of a person is one of the mysteries given over to the heart. Anyone who examines it in a simple way errs in practicality or with exaggeration, with switching important matters with unimportant ones, or by misrepresenting the essence of the matter. Nevertheless, we have permission to state that they city was beloved by its Jewish residents despite the bundles of tribulations that they endured there. Life there was bitter, the surroundings were inimical, there were decrees and persecutions, but the Jewishness was sweet. Livelihoods were difficult, but Torah flourished. The Jews fulfilled the commandments there in poverty. They lived a modest life, but nevertheless a vibrant life full of content, a richly Jewish variegated and wonderful life.

Our city was young, but we were able to build within it synagogues for prayer, schools and Yeshivas for Torah, as well as charitable and benevolent institutions. Jews of means and impoverished Jews – all found their spiritual nurturing in our square letters in which they studied and worshipped.

With all this, the people of Zgierz tell in this volume of noble, scholarly personages, as well as of those modest, anonymous people, in whose honor nobody delivers a festive speech. They are simple, poor people, but those who knew them and are expert in their way of life can tell about them and describe the wisdom, morality, the holiness, and all the sublime traits that they possessed and that come to the memory in splendor, kindness, and glory.

Translator's footnotes

  1. From Psalm 104. back
  2. Psalm 19. back
  3. The extra soul generally refers to the additional soul granted to a Jewish person on the Sabbath. Here it refers to a unique spirit, over and above the common spirit of all Jewish communities. back


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