A Day in Czyzewo

Shmuel Abarbanel/Tel Aviv

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Czyzewo, a shtetl [town] like all Jewish shtetlekh, a market, Jewish shops, a beis-medrash [also known as a beis-hamedrash – house of prayer or synagogue], several Hasidic shtiblekh [one room houses of prayer] and Jews, Jews who on Sunday morning walk from praying with a talis [prayer shawl] and tefilin [phylacteries], stop at the market, have a conversation, politics, business, notice a strange young man, approach him [and say], “Sholem aleichem [hello], where are you from? Who are you looking for?” That is how I saw the shtetl 35 years ago.

However for me the words sound very different; my heart beats with distant memories. I remember my youth, faith, doubts. An entire ball of thread of experiences awakens and I see them alive. Still more, the first time that I heard the name “Czyzewo,” it was bound with mystery, secrets.
An actual occurrence: 5685 [1924 or 1925], Sokolow [a shtetl in Poland], in the Rabbi's yeshiva [school for older boys], a tired summer day, we sit engrossed in a lesson by Reb Simkha Rosh Yeshiva [head of the yeshiva], some sort of difficult “school of thought,” some sort of small thought constantly ticks and disturbs, “How is a Litvak [someone from Lithuania], a misnagid [opponent of Hasidism] the head of the yeshiva?… ” Suddenly, the door opens a little, quietly, quietly and a strange figure appears, a tall, thin Jew with a long, pointed, gray beard, on his head a sort of compromise of a Jewish hat with a Lithuanian cap, with a sack on his back, and comes in, makes a movement with his hand that we should not be interrupted, sits down for a minute, for the moment on the last bench near the door and is quiet. After the lesson, young boys approach, say hello. He answers with a cold, stiff hand and does not say anything; young boys become uncomfortable. A strange person; who can he be? They look at him intensely. Before nightfall, he prayed Minkhah [afternoon prayer]. He stood straight for an entire hour; he did not move. He recited Al-khet [first words of the prayer recited on Yom Kippur asking forgiveness for one's sins] on a regular day. Later, he ate bread with onions, drank cold water, all so quietly. Perhaps he is dumb? However, no, someone, somewhere quietly asked a question – When is the rebbe coming? After all, where could he be? He slept at night on a hard bench in the beis-medrash, rose at midnight for study and prayer. Perhaps only a penitent? Perhaps only a lamed vovnik [one of 36 righteous men upon whom rests the faith of the world]?… This was somehow more plausible to our 14-year old reasoning. We were filled with secret longing…
He sneaked around so full of mystery, without speaking, for several days. But the same morning when the “rebbe” came back, he tied up his sack and ran away. Where did he run?… The young know – he probably went to “stand watch” in a city where there are no righteous men…But…see…he still strides with his sack on his back right to the rebbe's room…
When the shamas left, a bold group lunged for the keyhole. They heard some strange words: “Czyzewer Rabbi… A virgin… Simkha Sanoker – (there was such a person here with us, a somewhat elderly young man with wild, disheveled peyis [side curls], blazing, famished, yes, a scholar, a literal child prodigy, an assiduous student, studied the entire night, held his feet in cold water).
– Rabbinical chair, in the future, a small dowry, kest [room and board provided to a son-in-law]…

They came to us, a little ashamed, disappointed, explaining that they think it is only a matchmaker, But no! Now we know with certainty it was not so simple that a sort of lamed vovnik was here and had brought a woman for Simkha… Very great things can come out of this… Someone even uttered the word “Mosheikh” [messiah or redeemer]…
But where is he? Not here! Vanished! Out through the kitchen! And perhaps not out? Just disappeared?…
The idea lingered that Czyzewo is somehow tied to secret world…

The next year I did not hear more of the cold, subtle argumentation and split hairs of Reb Simkha. My unease chased me through Jewish shtetlekh with young Breslover Hasidim. My soul was at ease, Likutei Moharan [Teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov],stories of rebbes, Hasidic dancing at common meals, oh, how good!… But one still has to study! I was cast-away to Bialystok in the Noworadik yeshiva, in a dim, half dark building on the “Khanajkes” [an area of the city].

Sad, closed off young men who repeat musar [ethics – religious study stressing piety], torture themselves and moan. They do not study in all cases. I thought I would find here “a synthesis of learning and manners.” I found only sadness and fear, fear of the world, fear of transgressing. No bright ray of light… It was so sorrowful for me and I would simply cry quietly from longing for our style [of study]. Reb Avraham-Yafa, the mashgiakh [person who supervises kashrus (kosher laws)], the handsome, majestic Jew with a yellow-blond patriarchal beard, with a mild smile, noticed my mood in my eyes: – With you, Shmuel, there is no sadness, but melancholy – strengthen yourself. – Take yourself in hand, he said to me… I choked… I could not… only when I firmly decided to leave there did I discover that “even a small coin was nowhere to be seen.” I did not have traveling expenses. But this did not frighten me; I knew that Jewish towns would not abandon a young man who was traveling to seek a place of learning.

I arrived in “Lapy” on a Friday (the first train station on the way to Czyzewo). Instinctively, my feet led me to the beis-hamedrash and there I experienced one of my greatest disappointments. I saw him from afar through the open door… My heart began to beat fast… Yes, this is him then… My former lamed-vovniki; he was cleaning the beis–hamedrash with a large broom in his hand, sweating. Angry, he greeted me with complaints: (Now he did speak, oh, did he speak?!) – Lapy is not a community cashbox – there is no money for Hasidic young men who are escaping from yeshivus [religious schools for young men]…

Insulted, shamed, I hung around for several hours at the train station and in the evening, at Minkhah time, I returned to the beis-medrash. Demonstratively, I took a gemara and sat down to study aloud. After welcoming the Shabbos, a young man invited me for Shabbos. Sitting at the table, I asked him a question about the shamas. He made a motion of contempt with his hand, “Nonsense, a Jew, a villain, an ignoramus. Every summer he goes from house to house begging, proposing matches, presenting himself as a righteous man, a hermit who studies in order to serve God.”
In a bed made of rolls of textiles, I lay late into the night unable to fall asleep. In my head “false righteous men” and lamed vovnikes were tangled. Everything became “doubt”… I thought the first crack in the thick wall of my edifice of faith.

My host gave me a zlote [Zloty – Polish coin] on Shabbos night. He took it from the gabbai [assistant to the rabbi] so that I would be able to come again. I arrived in Czyzewo on Sunday, during the week of Shavous [holiday celebrating the receiving of the Torah] 5686 [1926].

A quiet town. At the large market stood circles of Jews and they talked, accepted greetings and answered evasively and inquired about the rabbi. I had a small connection to him. Maybe I will meet Simkha Sanoker there; that would be so good. On a side street, on slippery stairs, I entered the beis-din-shtibl [small religious court room]. The rabbi welcomed me with a warm smile, questioned, consoled, spoke and taught, served tea (I was ashamed to ask about Simkha). Later, he sent for several young men, told them of my situation, asked that I be helped. They took me to the Gerer shtibl with them. We conversed on the way and they were happy with me. We became friendly.

There was a noise in the Gerer shtibl, a tumult, they were praying, they conversed, Hasdisic, joyful. I was again comfortable, so close, so familiar. Little by little, the older group dispersed. Meanwhile, several young men left to go through the shtetl to collect money for my expenses, brought me “lunch” and I remained alone. I looked around me and saw strange things – the other door led to the “Aleksander shtibl.” Was it possible? Ger and Aleksander Hasidim under the same roof? Was it really that way? – Yes! It was! I would have to speak about it everywhere…Useless hatred…I saw young men wearing white collars with neckties, so cleanly dressed. It was a sin in other, deep Polish provinces, strange, they would have to think about it…

Everyone quickly returned to the room; they brought an entire treasure for me. The gemaras were not even opened. A conversation occurred about something I did not expect, a conversation that surprised and scared me. It seems that they had gathered thoughts which they had to express to someone new, a stranger. When I told them about Simkha Sanoker, the one who was supposed to be their rabbi's son-in-law – everyone threw themselves into the theme of “purpose.” It had already become clear to them that there is no purpose in sitting and studying, waiting for a rabbinate. There were no longer any available shtetlekh; in general, there were already 10 kest-eidems [sons-in-law supported by their fathers-in-law while they study] waiting in each shtetl. Life in the small shtetlekh was difficult. Without zest and purpose, one must escape, escape to Warsaw or perhaps even to Eretz-Yisroel, do academic study.

I sat confused by the new themes before me. My attempt to try and carry out a conversation about “Breslover Hasidism,” whose “messenger” I was considered, did not help. The group warmed up and became daring; we went out for a stroll, saw the shtetl. The conversation continued with each separately and when I sat in the back of the room at night at Minkhah time, eating evening bread near a young man whose parents had a restaurant, the young man took out from a box behind the bed several editions of Literarishe Bleter [Literary Pages], and from there read ideas and poems with enthusiasm, I felt that something

was breaking in me. Something new had been revealed for me.

Late in the evening, when several people came to me – I do not remember their names (the faces stand clearly before my eyes) – and accompanied me to the train station, it became clear to me that “Sokolow is not my place and purpose.” I am going home, home to seek a “purpose.”
If I did not find a purpose, but only wandered on new paths – Czyzewo, you were the cause of this.

I remember you, Czyzewo, you are a holy loss. I cry at your destruction along with your former inhabitants.