The Great Peace

(A folk tale about Czyzewo in the past)

A. Wiewiurka

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

It really has only one name. Czyzewo, but it is really two Jewish shtetlekh [towns]; and not because a river, a bridge or a forest divides this tightly compressed shtetl [town]. It is two shtetlekh because two Hasidic sects, Gerer and Aleksanderer, carried out sharp arguments that ended with this: there were two rabbis, two shoykhetim [ritual slaughterers] and two shamosim [synagogue officials who assist the rabbi] in the shtetl.

This happened when the old Aleksanderer Rebbe [the head of the Aleksanderer dynasty] died and a large group of his Hasidim, not strongly approving of his son, conferred and began “traveling” to Ger. Earlier, most of the Czyzewo scholars and rich Jews, also including the Rabbi, Reb Yonale, were from the Aleksanderer group. The Gerer was the smaller party. Now, however, both parties were equally large. As the rabbi was also among those who had gone over [to the Gerer], this greatly irked the remaining Aleksanderer. It had been their right for so many years to choose the rabbi and the shoykehtim in the shtetl – they decided to bring a separate rabbi, an Aleksanderer Hasid.
Said is done; on a beautiful night, another rabbi was brought into the shtetl.

Six wagons traveled with him. Moshe-Josef Melamed [religious school teacher], with a torch (flare-sticks) in his hand and a lot of cheap whiskey in his head, danced in front of the wagon on which the new rabbi sat, and, with his hoarse voice, grated, “Long live the king.” A group of Hasidim drank and sang Aleksanderer melodies the entire night, “to the great displeasure of the Gerer,” so that the entire shtetl shook and, in the morning, the shtetl had two “men of great distinction.”

The Gerer were insulted by this: is it possible to “Encroach upon the rights!”… Bring in another rabbi, when Reb Yonale has been the rabbi in the city for 30 years and what kind of a rabbi! A gentle Jew who would give away his soul for a Jew… They were furious and three days later there remained no panes of glass in the windows of the Shniek [second one] (that is how they referred to the new rabbi)… Who knocked them out we do not know to this day; suddenly a stick had knocked on the panes, the glass shattered and the stick vanished.

It should be understood that on the same night, the window panes of the Rabbi, Reb Yonale were knocked out. Moshe-Josef Melamed had knocked out the windows here; he actually did it gracefully, not hurrying and after each blow, he stuck his drunk red face in the window pane hole and looking right in the rabbi's face hoarsely shouted:
– Old drunk, I have excommunicated you! The shamas and two Gerer Hasidim chased him. In the middle of the market a large crowd came running from both parties. Hands crawled into beards, fingers entangled in peyes [side curls], slaps reverberated and flew from cheek to cheek and when the battle ended, the crowd saw that a minyon [10 men necessary for organized praying] of hats lay trampled in the mud. Quietly and ashamed, they bent over, each taking his hat, and went home.

From then on, Czyzewo became two shtetlekh. The “Gerer” realized that the two shoykhetim were “Aleksanderer.” They decided to appoint their own shoykhet. The deed did not please the shoykhetim; one of them, Shimkha Bunim, thought about it and went over to the Gerer. The two same shokhetim remained, but divided – one showed the slaughtering knife to the old rabbi and one to the new. The butchers were also divided – the Gerer bought meat from theirs and the Aleksanderer from theirs. And when all of these matters were arranged, the true quarrels really began.
Moshe-Josef Melamed went around and swore on his word that the old “senile one” could not decide any question and Chaim-Moshe, the melamed from the Gerer “congregation,” simply argued that the Shniek is a sheygets [pejorative word meaning non-Jewish boy or man, also used when referring to someone whose piety is being questioned], a transgressor.
The rabbis themselves said nothing. Reb Yonale was a Jew, a naïve person and continually admonished that quarreling was an ugly thing and he would say, smiling into his beard, that if one rabbi is good, then two rabbis are certainly good! Why in Warsaw, not to give an evil eye, are there so many rabbis… It is tolerable; Czyzewo, a very considerable kehile, does not have to be ashamed…

The new rabbi, too, was a Jew, a quiet one. He would circle up and down across his beis-din-shtub [religious courtroom] in his flowery robe, listening to all that was told to him and quietly shake his head with his long, black beard, then go to his seforim [religious books] cabinet, take out a book and look and it always appeared that he did not know what he had been told…

The Aleksanderer stopped persecuting the old rabbi as a result of an actual occurrence. A poor Jew, the wife of a wagon driver went to the new rabbi to ask a question about a chicken that had a broken wing. The chicken was treyf [unkosher]. There probably was bitterness in her heart. Incidentally, she was afraid of her husband, who shouted that he did not need a chicken for Shabbos. She thought about it and went to the old rabbi with the chicken. He examined it: treyf. However, the rabbi saw her tears. He said to the woman: Show me the chicken again. I will look again. Perhaps I will find a rabbinic approval. He took the chicken and went into the kitchen with it. In a second, he came back with a chicken in his hand. He gave it to the woman and said with joy: yes, the chicken is kosher.
The Jewish woman ran away happy and in two hours the entire Aleksanderer public cooked like a kettle: the “old one” had made fit a treyf chicken!

Moshe-Josef Melamed and an entire gang rushed into the rabbi's house with tumult and screaming. The rabbi saw such a large group. He sat on an armchair and calmly asked:
– Jews, what do you want? However, the clamor grew larger: Unpure chicken … chicken … unpure deciding religious questions. The rabbi became angry and cried out:
– You are yourselves unpure!… It was lucky that the rebbitzen entered and the crowd learned from her that the rabbi had given his own slaughtered chicken to the woman…
The Aleksanderer left the “old one” alone after this deed. But then the parties themselves became even greater enemies. They did not intermarry; as far as possible they did not do business with each other and fathers-in-law became angry with their own sons-in-law who belonged to the opposite side.

The commandant, who had reigned over Czyzewo for three days, did not want to permit speculation about which of the two sides was correct and who was the true rabbi – he sent for both rabbis and informed them that in the morning, no Jewish soul should remain in the shtetl.

Just as the old rabbi and his shamas left the commandant's house, the new rabbi arrived with his shamas. For a moment, both rabbis looked into the others eyes and each went his way. This was the first time that both rabbis had seen each other and understood each other.

In time an entire Gerer group was assembled in the small Gerer synagogue and, also, a number from the other side. The rabbi stood on the bimah [elevated area on which the Torah is read], his hands trembled and his voice also shook.
– It is a temptation… A dark time… as a verse states… I ask you, Jews, to stop wringing your hands… and I ask the women not to cry… do not let enemies think that we have, God forbid, lost our faith in our God… thus is His will… Let everyone take what he can and, in the morning, we will leave the city.

But now there was a great lament from the women who stood on the chairs, their faces wrapped in shawls and the rabbi had to interrupt his prayer. The shamas banged twice on the table. Women suppressed their sobs. The rabbi spoke further with anger: – I decree that there should be no crying… Where Jews go, the Divine Providence goes with them… God does not leave, God forbid, his people… Everyone should calmly pack what they can and when the day begins we will leave… Until God will take pity…
The crowd quickly approached, each ran to see what he could do. Moshe-Josef Melamed ran around to his businessmen and asked for at least a half month. Jewish women quietly pinched their cheeks to hold in their crying as the rabbi had requested.

Although the entire shtetl knew the sad news, the Aleksanderer group, however, was in its small synagogue and again heard the news from their rabbi. The new rabbi already knew that the old rabbi had decreed not to cry; he agreed and also issued the same edict.

And in the morning, both Czyzewos gathered at the bridge. The Aleksanderer with their rabbi, shamas and shoykhet at the head and the Gerer with their rabbi, shamas and shoykhet at the head. There were no wagons and horses in the entire area. They were forbidden to stop in any shtetl;
the crowds went with children in their arms and packs on their backs. Both rabbis and shamosim carried Sefer Torahs [Torah scrolls]. A Jewish woman could not restrain herself from crying; she stopped, remained behind the crowd and sobbed into her shawl.

The neighboring shtetlekh which they passed through were already empty of Jews. Several gentile girls called after them: “Zydi do Palestini. [Jews to Palestine].” Gentile boys twirled a pig ear from their waists, but the crowd went farther, farther silently, each group with its rabbi. Their eyes did not look with hate, but one did not speak to the other – angry is angry! They were in the Przerewer forest at night and it was here they were to remain overnight and to go farther in the morning. Several men with the rabbis remained to stand on guard and the remaining spread out silently on the ground, among the trees whose branches shook.

The old rabbi, Reb Yonale, stood and looked at the sleeping crowd. He saw the children huddled to their mothers' bosoms because of the cold; he heard the uneasy, sighing breathing of those sleeping. He saw God's children strewn in the forest like lonely, wandering, homeless animals. It strongly tugged at his heart.

He turned away from the remaining guards to the side, fell to a tree, clung to it and began to sob: the Almighty… The…Almighty…

Something touched him. He looked around – the new rabbi stood near him, his head sunken on his chest like a tree that bends in falling. – “Excuse me, Rabbi,” – he murmured quietly and stuck out his hairy hand to Reb Yonale.
And in the morning, as the crowd awoke to wander again, there was one Czyzewo. At the head went both rabbis and behind them an exhausted congregation and in their mournful eyes shone a new light of hope.