Hassidim in the Town

by Aaron Tapuchy (Jablonka) of Tel Aviv

Translated from Hebrew by Jerrold Landau

The Hassidic movement, that begin its sweep from the areas of Ukraine, Podolia, Volhynia and Polsia, forged a path for itself into central Poland. It penetrated the large, central cities that were fortresses of Torah and Halacha (Jewish law), and also did not pass over the hundreds of towns that were scattered throughout its borders and the numerous villages that were far from the large gatherings of Jews and the centers of Torah, and for the large part were bastions of boorishness and ignorance.

The gloomy and penetrating reality was that Polish Jewry always was a fruitful ground for the rooting and spreading of various variegated revolutionary movements.

The Hassidic movement was received by the Orthodox masses as a comforting and redeeming messianic movement. Therefore, the masses were drawn towards it. In it, they saw an endless “wellspring” of joy and enthusiasm, a non-failing source of exaltation, loftiness, hope and faith, a gateway to ultimate redemption.

The influence of the Admorim and their courts on the masses of Polish Jewry strengthened from day to day. They spread their protection upon the masses, and imprinted their spiritual stamp upon the way of life of the masses.

The elderly, youths and young men, including large scale merchants, craftsmen, men of deeds as well as poor folk who lacked a livelihood – all of them would be enchanted by the magical personality of the holy Admor. They would travel to the Rebbe in order to grasp his hand, receive a greeting, ask his advice, and to hear words of Torah from his mouth. From near and far, they would gather in the Rebbe's courtyard in order to live for a short period in his precincts. They would cleave to the Tzadik more than to their own families.

They would stream in from all corners of the country. Some were broken and weakened from the tribulations of the journey. Many had swollen and wounded feet from so much walking by foot (dozens of kilometers), and other bodily afflictions. Nevertheless, as soon as they would reach their destination, they would immerse in a kosher mikva (ritual bath) in order to purify themselves from all the filth of body and spirit. Refreshed and purified, they would make haste to greet the festival in the precincts of the Tzadik. They would hurry to find places in the synagogue, and they would stand for long hours in order to merit to see the countenance of the Rebbe, and to bask in his radiant splendor and spiritual nobility.

For dozens of years during the end of the previous century and the beginning of the current century (until the Second World War), Polish Hassidism was considered to be in the era of two Hassidic courts – the two most famous Admorim in the entire Jewish world – Ger and Aleksander.

The shining illumination of Hassidism had great influence. It broke out from the Hassidic courts, affected all that passed by, and shone its holy glow upon the length and breadth of all Poland. It brightened and illuminated the skies of the dark, gloomy exile that covered our people in those days.

Ger, a tiny town near the capital city of Warszawa, turned in to a metropolis of Hassidism. On festivals, it was like the Jerusalem of below. The Rebbe's synagogue was like a miniature Holy Temple, and the large courtyard surrounding it, filled with Hassidim who made the pilgrimage for the festival – was like the courtyard of the Miniature Presence. The Polish capital of Warszawa served as the center of business and secular pursuits for the Hassidic world during the days of the weeks. Tiny Ger – the capital of Hassidism and holiness – served as their spiritual capital for the Sabbath and festival Jews.

A special small train (Kolika in Polish) was provided by the government to transport Hassidim from Warszawa to Ger. It was always filled to the brim with Hassidism who were making the pilgrimage.

Our town of Czyzewo was non-Hassidic from a geographical perspective, for it was surrounded by a ring of towns of zealous Misnagdim, who were a consecutive and natural continuation of the Lithuanian region. Nevertheless, this fact did not change one iota the way of life and thought of the Hassidim in our town, most of whom were faithful to the courts of Ger and Aleksander. From this perspective, they served as the “border guards” who faithfully protected and guarded the Hassidic movement on the frontier of the Lithuanian influence.

In 1915, at the time of the First World War, the large synagogue that served also as the home of the prayer rooms (shtibels) of Ger and Aleksander Hassidic groups was destroyed. Then, small prayer quorums and prayer rooms in private homes were organized on a provisional basis. The situation continued in that manner until the end of the war.

In 1918, the large synagogue was rebuilt, along with a large, splendid women's gallery. This renovation did not leave any room for the Hassidic prayer rooms, and they were forced to find new accommodations for themselves.

At that time, at the outset of the era of independent Poland, bands of murderous Polish robbers and murderers roved around our region, and instilled their fright upon the travelers along the roads and upon the affluent Jews who lived in villages. In the village of Godlowa, which was next to the Czyzewo train station, lived a Jewish family consisting of a childless husband and wife. Gedalja the grinder, as he was called, owned a large windmill and a well-ordered village farm. One night, the Polish pillagers murdered both of them, Gedalja and his wife.

The relatives of the murdered family donated their house (a wooden house, which was taken down and transferred to the town) to establish a Talmud Torah in their memory. The two Hassidic prayer halls of Ger and Aleksander found their homes in this house. At a later time, the Hassidic followers of Amszynow and Sokolow set up their places in a small room in the attic.

While we are discussing the Hassidim of Czyzewo, we should step back a bit and discuss the differences in approach and style between the Ger and Aleksander Hassidic factions, as they appeared before our eyes at that time, and as they continue to live in our memories until this day.

The Hassidim of Ger were extreme by nature. For the most part they were scholars, and they were accustomed to leaving their homes and families prior to the festivals in order to travel to the Rebbe. On the other hand, the Hassidim of Aleksander were also knowledgeable in Torah, but did not particularly stand out in scholarship, and bore no complaint about that. They would suffice themselves with a trip to the Rebbe on occasion for a regular Sabbath. The Hassidim of Ger were very particular about the traditional garb, with shriveled pant legs rolled up into their stockings, collars without ties, etc.

Their exactitude in this area knew no bounds. Young people who desired a white collar with a tie would be forced to remove the tie before entering the shtibel. Zealots such as Reb Berisz Frydman, Reb Abrahamel Szwarc, Reb Sane Stocinski and others, wearing their shtreimels stood on guard to insure that nobody would break the conventions. If, despite all these efforts, someone managed to enter the shtibel wearing a tie, they would stop the Torah reading, and the violator would be forced to immediately remove it. If he would not, he would be forced to “leave the shtibel immediately and forever”, for there was no compromise among the Hassidim of Ger! It was impossible for there to be. On the other hand, the Hassidim of Aleksander dressed each in according to his desire, without concern for such Hassidic conventions. There were even those who strutted along in white-heeled shoes, as was the fashion at that time. Hassidic elders such as Reb Szmuel Zelig and Reb Mordechai Hersz did not pay attention to this type of thing. Indeed, the son of the latter was known as the chief “dandy” of the Hassidim in the shtibel…

This tendency toward extremism and separateness also characterized the Ger Hassidim in the communal and social realms. Here are a few illustrative examples:

When the law of compulsory education was passed in Poland, and there was a danger the Jewish girls would be forced to study in mixed public schools (boys and girls together), and would also have to study secular subjects, the Hassidim of Ger in our town found ways to circumvent the law. To protect against this, they established a “Beis Yaakov” girl's school. They acted similarly in their struggle for the education of the boys. When a progressive school called “Cheder Metukan” was established in Czyzewo where secular studies were also taught, the Hassidim of Ger arose and established their own school by the name of “Yesodei Hatorah”, where a small amount of secular studies were also taught. They did this in order to distance the children from the Cheder “Mesukan” (Metukan, in Ashkenazic pronunciation), as they nicknamed to the “Cheder Metukan”. They behaved similarly in their relationship to the activities of the communal institutions. Hassidim of Aleksander would be able to sit under one roof with members of Mizrachi and general Zionists in the running of the charitable fund, and were able to act in a unified fashion for the benefit of the residents of the city. On the other hand, the Hassidim of Ger would not agree to such joint activity, and they founded their own, separate, fund. All arguments made by representatives of the Joint did not succeed in convincing them from refraining from taking such a step, which threatened the existence of the funds, since the Joint would not be able to support the two funds simultaneously. No! They had to act on their own. There was to be no joint activity with others, that's that!

In truth, it should be noted that the Hassidim of Aleksander agreed in their thoughts with the deeds of the Ger Hassidim, but they would never be so brazen as to do such acts of disunity, as the Ger Hassidim often did. Apparently, the Hassidim of Aleksander realized that they had whom to depend upon…

As is known, the power of the Hassidim of Ger was great even in the political realm. The Agudas Yisrael movement was the work of their hands. They founded it and reared it throughout all the years.

In our town, there was Reb Szlomo Calkes (the son-in-law of Reb Icchok Hersz Melamed), who was the founder of a branch of “Shlomei Emunei Yisrael”, the first incarnation of the Agudas Yisrael faction. He was one of the young zealots of the Ger Hassidim. He was G-d fearing, an accomplished scholar, extremely erudite. Having received his rabbinical ordination, he at times assisted the rabbi of the city.

The Hassidim of Aleksander did not participate with him. They stood at the side, and even opposed this political organization. These two Hassidic factions were very different in their activities. Ger symbolized might, brazenness, short-temperedness, and negating the fellowman. On the other hand, the Hassidim of Aleksander were quite the opposite – they were even tempered, patient, and solidly bourgeois from the perspective of Torah merged with the ways of the world. The points of commonality between the two Hassidic camps were that both worshipped according to the Sephardic rite, and both of them loved melodies, despite their differences in styles of singing.

With regard to melodies, there were on occasion “thefts”, and there were conflicts between the musicians of Ger: Reb Szaul Hersz, Reb Yehoshua Nissan, Reb Chaim Yudel and Matel-Chaim; and the musicians of Aleksander: Reb Zelig Jankel, Reb Jisrael Icchok Janowski, Reb Jeszaja Gorzlaczani, Reb Botsze Elias, and Reb Lejzer Bitner.

The two groups both felt themselves as the spiritual guardians of the worshippers of the large Beis Midrash, and both expended their energies on their behalf. That is to say, they served as cantors on the High Holy days in the Beis Midrash. Reb Szmeulke Fiszels served as the prayer leader for Shacharit (the morning service) on the High Holy Days, and after his passing, his place was inherited by Reb Yehoshua Nissan of the Ger Hassidim, and later on by Reb Lejzer Bitner of the Aleksander Hassidim. They similarly helped out with Torah study: Reb Jisrael Jona Ratszkowski of the Ger Hassidim taught the daily page of Talmud in the synagogue. In the Chevra Mishnayos group, Reb Jisrael Tyktyn of the Aleksander Hassidim taught Mishna publicly. Both of them, the Hassidim of Ger and the Hassidim of Aleksander, attempted to bestow of their spirit and their erudition upon the worshippers of the synagogue, who were Misnagdim, simple Jews, men of labor and toil.

In portraying the spiritual portrait of the lofty people of the Ger, it is fitting to add a few general points. In contrast to other Hassidim who were particular about the splendor of their clothes and their outward appearance they did not pay attention to such meaningless details at all. Rather, their thoughts were focused on the celestial spheres, as if they were always searching for rectification of their souls from the internal unease that was always afflicting them. Love of G-d from the perspective of “with all your heart and with all your soul” was actualized with them. They dedicated much of their time to the purity of the body and soul. Reb Berisz Frydman often repeated the adage of the Kotzker Rebbe, that is to say: “The I is a silent thief, stealing from the person and poisoning him without them knowing. The poisoned person does not know that he was affected. A person has to look in deeply to himself in order to search out and find this hidden thief, the 'I', and to uproot it from his heart.” In the language of the Kotzker, “expelling it from himself in order to be free from all influences and motives.”

For the most part, the Hassidim of Ger did not travel to the Rebbe to request healing for the body, but rather for ascendancy of the soul… The pure young man Reb Binjamin Jeszaja or the lovely pair, Reb Icchok Tombek and his friend Reb Avraham Yossel the teacher and others like them always felt that a layer of dust was accumulating on their souls and impeding their spiritual improvement. Therefore, they set out on a journey to the Rebbe to shake themselves out, to renew themselves, and to investigate the imperfections and cracks that came upon them since they were last at the Rebbe. Without stop, they always were engaged in self-examination, and the adage “Do not be righteous in your own eyes…” was always upon their mouths.

Thus were the Hassidim, and thus were the shtibels in our small town of Czyzewo where we children absorbed our first influences. We are still sustained to this day.

Indeed! The chain has not been severed.