The Great Quarrel

Hyman (Anshel) Kowadlo

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

I left Czyzewo for America in 1906 at the age of 20. The events that I will describe took place a mere 10 years before my departure. They are deeply engraved in my memory so that whenever I think about my old home they swim before me as if alive. I see them as if they had just happened, although 60 years have passed since then.

Czyzewo had a population of various classes, as in other neighboring shtetlekh [towns], merchants, small traders, artisans, wagon drivers, dorfs-geyer [peddlers who went from village to village selling their goods], among them Hasidim from various shtiblekh [one room houses of prayer], and misnagdim[opponents of Hasidism] who prayed in the beis-hamedrash [house of study, also used as a synagogue]. Various quarrels would take place and small disputes over various kehile [organized religious community] matters. But it was rare when such a quarrel as I will describe here happened.

In the earlier years when my narrative begins there were two shoykhetim [ritual slaughterers]. One of them was Rabbi Josef Leib, of blessed memory, who, already advanced in age, wanted to give up the craft and there was a search for another candidate for his position.

Among all of those who announced their candidacies was a young man from Vizne who in addition to being a good
shoykhet and mohel [circumciser], was also a qualified khazan [cantor]. And he showed his mastery on a Shabbos at which the new moon is blessed. The beis-hamedrash was fully packed with listeners, even the Gerer and Aleksander Hasidim shtiblekh that were located on the second story over the beis-hamedrash, also came to hear him. The women's section was also full. They could not rave enough about the khazan with his choral singing, the sweetness of his prayer and blessing of the new month captivating the entire congregation.

After the rabbi of the city at that time, Reb Moshe Yoal, blessed be the memory of a righteous man, saw the Vizner's khalef [slaughtering knife] and the writings from many prominent rabbis and shoykhetim who had provided witness to his kashrut [observance of the kosher dietary laws] and abilities as a shoykhet and mohel, he was hired as the khazan in the beis-hamedrash and it was demanded of the city dozores [synagogue wardens] that they hire him as the shoykhet. At that time he also had the opportunity to show his abilities as a mohel specialist.

And here the quarrels began. The Hasidic group, particularly the Gerer shtibl, left in a great tumult, against the nomination of the Vizner as shoykhet. In no way would they permit a khazan in Czyzewo to be employed as shoykhet who while praying sings with notes just like a klezmer and cuts his beard with a scissors. They immediately found a young man from Śniadowowho was a good shoykhet and mohel and also a good bel-tefilah [person who recites the prayers in the synagogue]. But after the people in the beis-hamedrash heard the Vizner, by no means did they want to change from him to another one. And little by little a quarrel flared that was transformed from cursing to fighting and reaching the spilling of blood. The shtetl was divided into two camps. And in the course of two years not one day passed that some bloody fighting did not take place between the Hasidim, followers of the Śniadower side, and the opponents of Hasidism, followers of the Vizner.
It quickly led to police involvement because of the frequent fights and the denunciations that were made to the police by both sides and this led to frequent arrests and trials.
The fight would often take place on Friday night when the Hasidic shtiblekh would place young people, and even older people, under the window of the beis-hamedrash in order to listen to the Vizner prayers. They would be attacked by people from the beis-hamedrash and it became a bloody fight until the police intervened and arrested several of those fighting.

The butchers attended the beis-hamedrash and belonged to the Vizner side. The opponents would only employ the other shoykhetim [ritual slaughterers] to slaughter the chickens, although the rabbi of the city, may the name of a righteous man be blessed, did not forbid slaughtering by the Vizner.
The fires of the quarrel flared to the highest level on a Shimkhas-Torah [the celebration of the conclusion of the yearly reading of the Torah] during the hakofes [circular procession with the Torah scrolls] in the beis-hamedrash, led by the Vizner khazan and his choir. Several young people from the Gerer and Aleksander shtiblekh stopped in the antechamber, perhaps without bad intentions, but beis-hamedrash attendees suspected that they would rush into the beis-hamedrash in order to disturb the hakofes. Terrible fights broke out and a tumult began in the entire shtetl. The shouting from the beaten to bloody and the cursing of the crowd actually reached to the very heavens and while the local police were powerless and could return order to the shtetl, the head of the post office telegraphed the district police chief in Ostrowa and gendarmes and police arrive from there and carried out many arrests. Several dozen people were arrested on yom-tov [religious holiday] and were placed in Christian wagons and immediately taken to jail in Lomza. Mass beatings ceased, but because of various secret police agents and informers from one side or the other, there were always more arrests.

Many of the arrestees were freed after a short time, some of them because of a lack of evidence showing their guilt and others who were successful in establishing their innocence.
It appeared as a calming of the mood had begun and life in the shtetl welcomed a more normal character. But as a result of an accident that occurred, the almost muffled ardor of the quarrel again broke out. A fire happened at the house of Zanwl Edlsztajn and several of the men from the beis-hamedrash were arrested on the charge of setting Zanwl's house on fire. It was said: those from the Hasidic side had pointed out the misnagdim to the police, that they had a hand in the fire. In the course of almost an entire year, the arrested were investigated. The examining magistrate came to Czyzewo often in connection with the investigation. However, he could not get any direct proof and everyone was freed.

In time a tragic event happened: When Tuvya, of blessed memory, was freed from suspicion of taking part in setting fire to Zanwl's house, he wanted to show that the suspicion was groundless. He was afraid that this would disturb his earning a living as a butcher. Before the reading [of the Torah] on a Shabbos, he went up to the bimah [elevated area from which the Torah is read] in the beis-medrash and swore on the Sefer Torah [Torah scroll] that he had no connection with the fire. But he died the same year. Some of the people saw in this a punishment from heaven for swearing falsely. Others said that he had a heart attack because he could not bear the heartache of the shame because of the false accusation. The quarrel ended when the Vizner khazan received a contract from an American town, where he became the khazan, shoykhet and the mohel.