Chapter 1
Early Childhood, Family & Education

Chapter 2
Religious Life

Shabbat & Festivals





Religious Study & Prayer


Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5
Kretinga & Neighborhood

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8
Emigration & Journey


Chapter 2 : Religious Life

Subsections :  Shabbat & Festivals  | Passover  | Pentecost  | Tabernacles  | Shamash  | Religious Study & Prayer  | Controversies


Shabbat & Festivals   [back to top]

In my eighth or ninth year I began to notice differences in the standard of living which existed between the boys at my cheder. For tuck most boys brought a slice or two of black bread, unbuttered in some cases, washed down by a glass of cold water. Two new pupils, who joined the cheder, were in a better position. They brought a boiled egg each with many slices of thickly buttered bread! Their prestige was thus enormously raised in the eyes of all the other lads in the cheder, tinged with a little envy. It will be gathered from this episode that eggs were a luxury not often indulged in by the average Jew of Krottingen. They were usually only served at the Sedorim on Pesach and on Lag b'Omer. Besides being treated to them at home on the latter, a minor festival, we were also presented with hard boiled coloured eggs by our relatives. We thus luxuriated in that delicacy for many days after Lag b'Omer, having one every day as long as they lasted. We were also treated to pancakes on Lag b'Omer, as well as to "bob", boiled broad beans, which evidently likewise came under the category of "luxuries". Bob also figured largely on Purim and they were included in the "Mishloach Manot", exchanging presents of dainties between relatives and friends on that day.

Besides the ordinary necessities of life provided for us, we also enjoyed certain luxuries which, though confined to "the pleasures of the table" on Sabbath and other festive days, were much appreciated by us. They proved to be an unfailing source of joy and satisfaction and were vastly conducive towards making the Sabbath and Festivals veritable "Days of Delight". The meals served up on Friday night and Shabbat were delicious and plentiful and having challe throughout the Shabbat instead of black bread was also a great treat! We derived very great anticipatory pleasure from looking forward to the specially prepared tasty dishes of Sabbath and Yomtov.

However the gastronomic enjoyment of the Sabbath was merely a contributory factor to the vast spiritual elation experienced that day, a real "Oneg-Shabbat", which by far transcended any material pleasure which I could conceive! The joyful, buoyant spirit which prevailed on Friday night and Shabbat day was equally shared by all the members of the family, by the whole community, by rich and poor alike, though obviously in varying degrees. The almost miraculous transformation that took place, from the mundane working weekdays, with all its hardships and worries, to the serene, restful and happy day of Shabbat, is still fresh in my memory. The very atmosphere out of doors seemed to have undergone a complete change, as was the expression on the face of every Jew. The harassment and perplexities which were so noticable on their faces on weekdays, gave way, as if by magic, to a pleasant appearance of peace and tranquillity the moment the head of the family returned from the steam-bath (or from the river in the summer) and changed into Shabbat clothes. The father was then ready, together with his sons, if he had any, to go to the Synagogue for Kabbalat-Shabbat, to receive the Shabbat.

The attendance at the Friday night service was equal to that at the Shabbat morning service, save for some very young boys during the severe frosty weather who, to their disappointment, were denied the pleasure of accompanying their fathers to Shool on these nights. The Shool was usually filled to capacity by the time Mincha, the afternoon service, started. Immediately after the conclusion of Mincha, the Shabbat service would begin, with psalms and that beautiful hymn of "Lecho Dodi", "Come my beloved", in honour of the incoming Sabbath.

Preparations for the Sabbath usually began on Thursday, the market day, when most of the provisions were brought in for the Holy Day and how fortunate a man considered himself when he was able to hand his wife a couple of roubles to buy the necessities for Friday night and Shabbat. many a Jewish family subsisted for the whole week on an exceedingly frugal diet, denying themselves essential food in order to provide a plentiful supply of savoury dishes for Shabbat. Some even managed to buy occasionally a special delicacy "Lekoved Shabbos" in order to adorn the festive meal in honour of the Sabbath!

The moment youngsters woke up on Friday morning, they were conscious of the fact that it was erev Shabbat, from the pleasant odour of freshly baked challah. The baking was a regular function carried out by the Jewish housewife in the early hours of the morning and as a foretaste of the Sabbath for the children, and adults too, buns were also baked from the white Shabbat dough and served at breakfast. Except for the head of the family, who was engaged in his business or at his work, every member of the household usually assisted in the preparations for, and ushering in, of the Shabbat. Even Cheder boys lent a hand in it, since they finished cheder at noon on Friday, even in the long summer days. Most of the latter were quite eager to perform some function "lekoved Shabbos", considering it a great Mitzvah to do so. My voluntary duties were suszukleiben the arbes, picking out the defective peas from the sound ones and polishing the brass candle-sticks. The peas were one of the ingredients used in the Shabbat cholent, a tasty dish stewed on the Friday and kept hot till the next day in an oven next door to us, which belonged to Reb Feivel Susman, commonly known as Feive Bereles, a grandfather of Sidney Simon, the well known London barrister. As Feive Bereles had a very large oven, he placed it at the service of a number of his neighbours in the street to keep their Shabbat dinner hot overnight. All pots and pans were brought in by the womenfolk just before Shabbos and after they were put into the oven, its heavy iron door was sealed with loam in order to retain the heat till the next day.

The collecting of the cholent and "kugel" was usually done by the menfolk after their return from Shool on Shabbat morning. Sometimes there was a little confusion in sorting out the various utensils and they often had to remove the lids and examine the contents before the food could be identified by its respective owners. It thus caused the kitchen to fill with steam and an assortment of pleasant aromas from the cholent and kugel. The latter was a steamed pudding and enriched by raisins, syrup and goose fat, a very tasty sweet. This pudding was a regular traditional, almost ritual, sweet for the Shabbat mid-day meal, a delicacy relished by everyone, without which the meal was incomplete.

I polished the brass candlesticks with a home-made substance, namely, brick-dust, which was a formula in general use. Brick-dust was free of charge and it was efficient for the job. A soft brick could easily be picked up either in one's back yard or in the street and the scrapings of the brick, moistened with a little water, was easily made up into a workable paste. Using this simple primitive polishing material, I managed to make the candle-sticks shine with a mirror-like brightness. I was not satisfied unless I brought them to that bright condition and as this was done "Lekoved Shabbos", it was a labour of love and I derived considerable pleasure and satisfaction from the performance of this regular erev Shabbos job.

Besides the above mentioned voluntary duties undertaken by me on Friday afternoons, after returning from Cheder at noon, I was quite happy to assist in other little jobs at home whilst the Shabbos preparations were going on, especially during the long summer afternoons. Even when they tired me out a bit, I all the more enjoyed the subsequent bathing in the river, which was a regular practice by everyone erev Shabbos throughout the summer, save, of course, for the nine days of Ab.

The first of the prescribed Shabbat meals, the one on Friday night, began with Kiddush, the sanctification of the Sabbath over a cup of wine, which like the candle-light, symbolizes joy and cheer. A further distinguished feature of the Sabbath meals, besides the special tasty dishes served, are the zemirot. These songs are unique in their peculiar blending of the sacred and the secular, the serious and the playful. As the Jews of the past generations sang these Sabbath table hymns, they forgot their weekday burdens, worries and sorrows and they enjoyed complete mental and physical relaxation.

Another feature of the Shabbat was the frequent presence of an Orach (guest) at the Shabbat table. The orach, usually a poor Jew and occasionally a yeshiva bachur, a Talmud student, would be invited and brought home from the synagogue as a guest for Friday night and Shabbat day. After the evening meal, the head of the house, together with the orach, and sons, if any, usually devoted an hour or two to sacred study, either the Sedra of the week, or a few pages of Midrash or Mishna, whilst the daughters, if any, sought diversion in reading the weekly paper or some secular book, especially those who were familiar with the German language, which provided a great variety of reading matter. Altogether the family usually spent the Friday evenings at home in happy repose, either by themselves or with relatives and friends.

A good part of the Shabbat day, as well as on Friday nights during the short winter days, used to be spent in the study of the Bible, the Talmud or other sacred Hebrew literature, either at one's home or in the Beth Hamedrash, or in the Klaus, where some elderly pious men usually assembled for the study of Talmud etc. Shiurim were conducted regularly at the Beth Hamedrash by lay men of the community, learned Baalei Battim of whom there were quite a number in the town, including my father and Reb Ore der Shochet. The Since the Beth Hamedrash was rather large two or three shiurimI could be held simultaneously, such as Midrash, Mishna and Sedra. Also a small group of "Tillim-Zogers", chanters of the Psalms, used to occupy one of the tables in the far corner of the Beth Hamedrash. If the Rav conducted a regular shiur it must have been in the Klaus. This was a small house of study near the Shool and Beth Hamedrash, where elderly devout Jews spent some hours daily in quiet meditation of the Talmud or other sacred books. The weekday services were also held there and were attended, I believe, by the Rav and Dayan. The latter, though being a profound lamdon, Hebrew scholar, suffered from a bad lisp and was therefore unable to expound the Torah publicly.

On Sabbath afternoons, or on Friday night during the short days, there were often Droshes delivered by Maggidim (itinerant preachers) to whom the masses used to flock, especially those who possessed little Jewish scholarship. Most of these Maggidim usually had a fund of parables and witty sayings and stories to illustrate their texts and they thus regaled and were in great favour with their audiences. The most famous Maggid in my boyhood days was Reb Chaim Zundel Maccoby, who was commonly known as "Der Kaminitzer Maggid". I heard him first preach in Krottingen when I was quite young. Though at my immature age I could not have understood much of his Drosha (sermon), I sat through at least two of these. I remember that he spent a full week in our town and besides preaching on Shabbat, he delivered three or four Droshes on consecutive evenings during the week. Each one lasted between two to three hours and the Beth Hamedrash was filled to capacity for every one. I next heard the Kaminitzer Maggid in Sunderland in 1891. His son, EM Maccoby, was head of Mathematics at the Bede Collegiate School in Sunderland for about 40 years.

On Shabbat, besides prayer and study, some time was also devoted to social intercourse, visiting relations and friends, entertaining visitors as well as to rest and relaxation. A great asset Krottingen possessed was a beautiful park, one of the finest in Lithuania, it was said. This belonged to Graf (Count) Tishkesitz, a Polish nobleman, who spent some months there with his family during the summer. It was situated at about half an hour's leisurely walk from the town and was at the disposal of the towns-people on Shabbat and Festivals. The Graf, who was ground landlord of Krottingen was well disposed towards the Jews, with whom he often engaged in very friendly conversation when they visited the park. He also manifested his friendliness towards the Jews in other ways. Most of the Jews availed themselves of this open invitation to visit the park with its beautifully laid out beds of flowers, extensive grounds, woods and lakes. In very hot weather, one could rest in the shade of lovely trees, reclining on the various benches provided for the visitors. The well constructed road leading to the park and lined with trees all the way, also made the walk a very pleasant one. The mass of Jews on a Shabbat afternoon, strolling along so leisurely and all looking very happy was sheer joy to behold. The menfolk, as a rule, walked in groups and were usually engaged in discussions or ordinary conversation. The wives and daughters were likewise walking in groups, a little behind the men, whilst the youngsters who accompanied them were playfully amusing themselves by running about between the groups. All were dressed in their best Shabbat clothes, which invested that long procession with a festive and colourful spectacle.

Much as the men and their sons, who may have accompanied them, enjoyed the outing, none of them failed to return to town in time for Mincha in Shool. The womenfolk occasionally stayed in the park a while longer but they always returned home to be in time for Shalosh-Seudot, the third of the formal Shabbat meals. During the short days of autumn and winter, this meal was often partaken of when the sun was beginning to, or had already set, and though like other Shabbat formal meals, was also accompanied by the singing of Zemirot, one felt a slight emotion of sadness in their intonation because of the imminent departure of the Holy Shabbat day.

Immediately after Shalosh-Seudot (during the short days), the father and sons returned to the Synagogue for the evening service. At home, the shadows gradually deepened and turned the room into almost complete darkness. The daughters, with a half-suppressed sigh, began to cast off some of their Sabbath finery, whilst their mother, in the fast waning glimmer of light, recited the soul-stirring chant "Gott fun Avrohom, Yitzchok un Yaakov, der heiliger Shabbos Koidesh geit shin" (G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Holy Shabbat is passing away).

After the evening service the men returned home in a subdued way, wishing each other "Gut Woch", a good week. In every Jewish home the benediction of "Havdolah" was recited. This is the religious ceremony which marks the outgoing of the Sabbath. Havdolah means separation between the holy and profane, between light and darkness and between Israel and the heathen peoples. It is followed by Zemirot prayers, beginning with that beautiful poem of Hamavdil, "May he who sets the holy and profane apart.." There is also a light meal, called "Melave Malkah", escorting the "Queen Sabbath". Like the three traditional Shabbat meals, it is also accompanied by the singing of zemirot, as well as often by a discourse on the Torah by a Rabbi or lay man.

Not everyone could afford the time to prolong the holy day of Sabbath by observing the ceremony of Melava Malkah. For most of the Jews in those days were obliged to resume their regular every-day work at the termination of the Sabbath. Whilst the sound of zemirot was still heard issuing from some of the houses, this often mingled with that of rattling keys, removal of shutters and clashing of doors in the market place, where Jews were busy opening their shops. The Yomim Tovim, the Festivals, played a wonderful part in my life. I particularly revelled in the Shalosh-Regalim, the three Pilgrimage, or Harvest Festivals, Passover, Pentecost and Succoth, Tabernacles. The celebration of these Yomim-Tovim brought indescribable joy into our lives. In addition to these were the notable days of Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur, which made a deep and lasting impression on the youngsters.


Passover   [back to top]

The Festival of Pesach was to me always the most enjoyable and exciting of the Yom-Tovim. This was partly because the preparatory period was so much longer than that of the other festivals. It actually began on Chanukah when the fat of a goose, we usually bought for the feast, was rendered and preserved for Pesach. The residue of the fat, called gribenes, when fried with onions and eaten with mashed potatoes made it a most savoury meal, which used to be relished by all of us. Soon after Chanukah, father started preparing the wine and mead for Pesach in the making of which he was highly skilled. Then shortly before Purim began the baking of Matzos. This was done by regular bakers in town, working night as well as day shifts, right up to Pesach. The matzos were baked separately for each customer, whose youngsters were permitted to be present and joy of joys, they were even allowed to stay up all night if their Matzos were baked then. During the process of baking, a special oblong Matzo, called a "miltz" was baked for and presented to us youngsters, no mean treat!

Soon after the Matzos were baked, just allowing them to cool off, they were put into a large white sheet, tied at each end, through which a long pole was passed, and the lot was hauled on the shoulders of two men (the Matzos being rather tough, there was not any risk of breaking them) and they were delivered to the house. As the carriers of the Matzos were followed by all those who were present at the baking, this formed a very lively procession, which often included some juvenile friends of the younger members of the family, who were invited to take part in the procession, which was considered a great privilege.

On the same day or following day after the delivery of the Matzos, the function of making Matzo-meal was undertaken by some of the older members of the family. I was not big enough for the job. This was done by a rather primitive process. A number of Matzos were put into a huge wooden mortar, called a stuppe and standing on a stool in order to reach well over that implement, they were pounded with a heavy wooden pestle until the Matzos were pulverised. There were only a few Jews in town who owned a stuppe but these served the whole community. Its owners were willing to lend them free of charge.

During any of the above Pesach preparations, part of our living room was meticulously cordoned off, as if with an iron curtain, from all contact with Chometz in any shape or form. We children were warned strictly against crossing the "boundary" without first carefully turning out the pockets of our clothes, lest some crumbs should be furtively lurking inside them. From Rosh Chodesh Nissan, when the four weeks holiday from cheder commenced, the time was spent by us in ever increasing joyful anticipation of the forthcoming festive week of Pesach.

In that part of Lithuania where Krottingen is situated, signs of spring were already noticeable shortly after Purim, when the late winter thaw set in, gradually releasing the earth from its icy grip. This was followed by slush, which in turn rapidly gave way to dry, fresh and mild weather. During the last few days before Pesach every part of the house was thoroughly cleaned, with the assistance of a hired "Goye", the only time in the year when half a ruble was spent on domestic help! She whitewashed the walls and ceilings, scrubbed the floors until they shone and covered them with layers of golden sand, which was swept up Erev Pesach. Then all the Pesachdike utensils were brought down from the loft and the glass and china were carefully washed and set out on the scoured and paper-lined shelves. The beautiful multi-coloured glasses always fascinated me.I was only too willing to lend a helping hand in all these preparations for Yomtov.

The culmination of the long awaited event, the Seder, commenced in the evening immediately after returning from the service in Shool. We settled down to the recital of the Haggadah with explanations from father. I fully understood the usual custom of eating rather sparingly during that day, so that we should appreciate and savour the mitzvah of eating the Matzos on the first night of Pesach. The seder, the most notable Jewish home service and festival meal of the year, was impressive with my father wearing a kittel (a white shroud worn by pious Jews at the Sedarim and on Yom Kippur) and leaning against white covered cushions.

Whilst recording the wonderful pleasure I experienced in my boyhood during the festive week of Passover, the memory of an extremely mournful Pesach comes to my mind, when we lost my dear mother, oleho-Hasholom. This occurred three weeks before this festival, while she was in her early middle age, when I was in my eighth year. This seemed to have a most shattering effect on me. When my mother became seriously ill, our sister Rivkah, aged 10, our youngest brother Tevke, about four year`s old and myself were taken away from home by a relative of ours and we did not see my mother again. Apart from remembering that I was present at her burial and recited the Kaddish (memorial prayers) at her graveside, I have no recollection of shiva (seven days of mourning) or the presence of my elder brothers.

Besides, Pesach I also eagerly looked forward to Shavuot and Succoth. Shavout, being at the height of summer, as well as the beginning of the bathing season, offered promise of abundant enjoyment, especially for us youngsters. Although it only lasted two days, I enjoyed every minute of it, spending most of the time in the open air. Sometimes I used to take long walks with my cheder pals, either to the park or in the very hot weather to the nearby lovely woods. We sat in the shade of the tall trees and played on the expansive fields near the woods.


Pentecost   [back to top]

On the first night of Shavuot, after the evening meal, I was thrilled to be allowed to accompany father and my elder brothers to the Shool, where special prayers "Tikkun lail Shavuot" were read for two to three hours, lasting until dawn the next morning and ending with the Shacharit service, the morning prayers. There were usually intervals during the night when light refreshments were served, which were particularly relished by us youngsters. Boys considered it a great privilege and took much pride in being permitted to stay up that night with their elders and to take part in the sacred prayers. It gave me quite a thrill coming out of the Shool into the street so early in the morning in the fresh air and just as the sun began to rise. Upon our arrival home, we generally retired to bed for a couple of hours sleep and afterwards we returned to the Shool for Keriat Hatorah and Mussaph, the second part of the morning service.

The festival of Shavuot is noted for milchike (milk produce) savoury dishes served in addition to the regular festive fleischike (meat) meals. Those most relished by the youngsters were blinzes and cheese cakes. Blintzes are oblong shaped patties made out of milchike dough (a mixture of flour, milk, eggs and butter) and filled with cream cheese. They are then fried in butter, sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon and served hot. A variation of these, called "saltenosses" are similar to these except that they are stewed in cream and served cold. We also had pancakes as well as cooked milk dishes, farfel and lokshen, often served in the evening, before the termination of the festival.


Tabernacles   [back to top]

The third of the Shalosh Regalim, Succoth, was verily the "Season of our gladness," to old and young and old alike. The high light for us youngsters was, of course, the Succah. Although the preparations for succoth only lasted a few days, they were nevertheless most enjoyable days for us. Excepting for a small number of permanently built succahs, the vast majority of Jewish householders had one put up regularly every year. The sound of hammering which was heard throughout the town from the day after Yom-Kippur until the eve of Succoth was like sweet music to us youngsters. A start was usually made immediately after the termination of Yom-kippur, even though only a stake being driven into the ground soon after breaking the fast, which was symbolic of the performance of the Mitzvah. The actual erection of the succah usually began on the following morning, and the building of these structures continued all the time throughout the town until erev Yom Tov, when they were covered with the schach, consisting of the branches of pine trees. Most of the succos were very fragile constructions, which a strong wind could easily have blown away, as they were made of thin boards by the head of the household or by one of his sons, if he had any, in amateur fashion. Its owners, however, were confident that they would last out intact for the duration of succoth, which hopes were usually fully justified. To us youngsters, these amateurish, home made temporary abodes, appeared as if they were the finest architectural products !

As our succah was a permanently built one, I was denied the pleasure most of my pals enjoyed by watching it being erected, and even give a helping hand in its construction. Ours was originally built at the rear of the house to serve a dual purpose, that of a Succah and a warehouse. For father had for a time carried on a wholesale flour business, and used it as a store-house during the year; and before Succoth had part of it partitioned and prepared it as a Succah. That part had a moveable roof, which was easily manipulated, so that we were able to keep it perfectly dry all the time for the duration of Succoth. Besides the novalty of having all our meals there, and using it as our home for the week of Succoth, we also enjoyed the fragrance of the Schach, the pine branches.

The Succah was also largely used for entertaining during Yomtov, as we had a number of visitors, relatives and friends, in the mornings for Kiddush. We also used to have a number of them coming in the afternoon, when father was often asked to deliver a short discourse appropiate to the festival, to which he readily responded. During Chol-Hamoed we usually passed the time in the Succah playing games with my friends, and sometimes I visited them in their Succah. So altogether this "Season of our Gladness" proved to be a real delightful time for us.

It was quite a cheery sight when coming out of shool after the evening Service, seeing the Succohs standing at every house on both sides of the shool gass, all lit up; thus giving a festive air to the street. On the way home, they were noticed all over the town, the shafts of light coming out of them through their windows piercing here and there the darkness of the streets.

The culmination of the "Season of our Gladness" was, of course, on the ninth day of this longest festival of the year, namely, Simchas Torah. The celebrations actually began on Shemini Atzeres, the Eighth Day of the Solemn Assembly, on the previous day. For immediately after dinner on that day, the final meal eaten in the Succah, most Baalei-Habatim of the town set out for the Beth Hamedrash or private houses, where dissertations on Siyum-Hatorah were given by the learned men of the town. These laymen were appointed by the various Chevras, or societies, to act as their Rebbes, in an honorary capacity, of course. They conducted Shuirim regularly for them and occasionally delivered sermons. Besides the Chevra Gemara, to which only scholars or students of the Talmud were qualified for membership, there were several chevras of a lower grade, whose members consisted of those belonging to certain trades or business. One or two, I believe, were those exclusively of the artisan class, to one of which Chevra my father was the Rebbe for a certain time, namely, "Chevra Burstinikess."

At the conclusion of the discourse on Siyum-Hatorah and the Mincha Service, refreshments were served, and afterwards all the members of the respective chevras conducted their Rebbe to the shool. These groups, formed into processions, made their way to the Shool; and upon their arrival in the Synagogue, a warm cheer of welcome was accorded to each group by all those who had already assembled there. And whilst all the congregants stood by, the Rebbes were conducted to their seats.

A large number of extra lights were specially lit in the Synagogue on Simchas Torah night, the shool being filled to capacity with the joyous congregation, and it thus presented a most bright and colourful scene; the memory of which lingered in my mind for quite a long time. The evening service, together with the recital of Atah Horaitah, (Unto thee it was shown...) each verse chanted by the Chazan and repeated by the Congregation; and the Hakafot, which was accompanied by singing and dancing with the scrolls of the Torah, together with the reading of the Torah, usually lasted until very late in the night.

The service on Simchas Torah morning also used to be considerably prolonged, and it didn't finish until two or half past two. Not unlike the present day custom in orthodox synagogues, every member of the congregation was honoured by being called up to the reading of the Torah. Boys under the age of thirteen were called up in a group, and standing under the canopy of a Tallis recited the blessing in unison. The Kriat Hatorah used to take much longer than in these days; as all those recieving an Aliyah, were treated to a drink and cake. The recipient of the honour, recited the brocha on the latter in a loud voice, which was responded to by the congregants with a hearty "Amen." The signal honour of Chatan Torah and Chatan Bereishis was, I believe, usually bestowed upon the Rav and Dayan.

After the congregants returned home from Shool and partook of the festive meal, most of them repaired to their repective Chevras, at various places of assembly. There, together with their Rebbe, they passed the rest of the day in joyous communion, partly in social intercourse and feasting and partly in "Divrei-Torah". This took the form of the Rebbe entertaining the company with a discourse in a lighter and more popular vein than the regular Shiurim, such as expounding Haggadic passages of holy scripts relevant to the spirit of the day. He would also quote some wise sayings by our sages, or relate certain legends to be found in the Medrash etc. , all of them having a direct bearing upon the joyous Festival of Simchas Torah. Such "Divrei-Torah," expounding of the law, were always listened too very attentively and was enjoyed by the average Jew, even by those who had but a moderate knowledge of Jewish lore, or by those to whom the Talmud was altogether " a closed book. "

My father, who was the rebbe of the Chevra Burstinikess for a time, occasionally took me to these gatherings on Simchas Torah afternoon. Although father was neither a Rav nor a Chassid (there were hardly any Chassidim amongst Lithuanian Jews), yet the respect and reverence shown towards him by the members of the Chevra, reminds me of the homage paid by Chassidim to their Rebbe, with which I am always impressed when I happen to be in their company. I immensely enjoyed these Simchas Torah gatherings and felt reluctant to leave the joyous assembly early in the evening when father sent me home with someone. It would have made it too late for me to stay till the end, as the members, together with father, did not disperse until about midnight The name "Burstinikess" might seem rather intriguing to those hearing it for the first time. This name, I might explain, is derived from the German word Bernstien, amber, which in Yiddish, was called bursten.


Shamash   [back to top]

Judging by our local Shamash, they were the hardest worked, lowest paid and most harassed communal functionary in town. During the period of mourning for my mother, of blessed memory, when I attended service regularly three times daily, no matter how early I arrived in the Beth Hamedrash, the Shamash was already there, busy attending to various matters. He was also the last person to leave the Beth Hamedrash at night. His manifold duties must have kept him going almost all day without a break.

One of the functions of the Shamash was to give the signal for the commencement of the service. He did this by giving a couple of sharp resounding raps with the flat of his hand on the leather covered cushion on the Omed, the Reader's desk. Even when there were several repetitions of the service, usually that of Mincha, no-one would dare to commence before that manual signal was given by the Shamash! He evidently looked upon that function as a Mitzvah, a religious precept.

The Shamash, in addition to his meager stipend, earned a little from seasonal jobs, which he did "on the side", such as taking round the Etrog to some houses on Succoth, on which to recite the blessing by women and girls. He also had the monopoly for the sale of Aravot, or Hashanot on Hashanah Rabba, spending hours the previous night in tying the willow twigs , five to each set. He also engaged in "Mishloach-Manot", an interchange of gifts on Purim and other such occupations, such as delivering verbal invitations to weddings.


Religious study and daily prayer   [back to top]

Besides the three outstanding personalities of Krottingen, there were other notable Jews of learning and great piety. These men were looked up to and highly respected by the members of the community and they vastly contributed towards the high educational standard in Talmudic and general Jewish erudition for which Krottingen was noted. There were also a certain number of ordinary baalei-battim in town who, though they could not be classed as lamdonim, yet were sufficiently familiar with the Talmud to enable them to learn a "blat" Gemara, a page of the Talmud by themselves. Many of them made a regular practice of devoting an hour or so daily to its study, at home or in the Beth Hamedrash, either before or after attending the morning or evening service.

There were only my brother, Elye, and myself at home during the eleven months recital of Kaddish in memory of our mother. My three elder brothers were away from home for most of the time. Bere Arye was studying at the Yeshiva in Shavel. (He was the grandfather of the well known novelist, Gerda Charles). Hirshe, the second eldest brother, ten years my senior, was studying at the famous Telz Yeshiva, whilst Shmere was learning privately in Plungyan, at its Beth Hamedrash. Elye usually davened (prayed) in the Shool or Klaus, whilst I did so regularly in the Beth Hamedrash. Upon my arrival there in the early morning, some 15-20 minutes before the service, I always found a number of men and a few Yeshiva-bachurim engrossed in sacred study. The former usually sat at the table, leaning over the tomes in front of them and being absorbed in silent meditation, whilst the latter stood at the reading desks, audibly intoning the Gemara, in rather mystic, colourful tones. The middle aged and elderly men were just ordinary baalei-battim who worked very hard to gain a livelihood for their families. Some of them were shopkeepers and others were engaged in petty trading of some kind.

The morning service was generally followed by at least half an hour's Shiur of Mishnah, which was attended by all those who took part in the service. Simultaneously with the shiur, there was usually a small group of Tehillim-zogers, reciters of the Psalms, in a far corner of the Beth Hamedrash, who found greater satisfaction in its recital.

Mincha usually commenced early in the afternoon and was repeated at short intervals, of half an hour or more, until sunset. It thus afforded an opportunity to all those desirous of joining a communal service for those prayers to do so at everyone's convenience, either during or after their business or working hours. If one happened to arrive in Shool after the last minyan of Mincha, he would still be able to daven (pray) "Tephillah b'Tzibbur", communal prayer, as there was always sufficient men in Shool to make up a minyan.

During the interval between Mincha and Maariv, a number of Shiurim were conducted, both at the Beth Hamedrash and the Klaus, such as one on Gemara, Chaye Adam (laws and customs of Israel), Midrash and Mishna.

The Maariv service used to take place soon after the completion of the shiurim. By then the Beth Hamedrash would be filled with a large congregation, roughly about 10 minyonim, a hundred adults and youths over 13, besides young boys, who joined in the communal service. This was conducted with intense ardour, by men who had a perfect understanding of the Hebrew and who rendered the prayers in a warm, stimulating tone.


Controversies   [back to top]

Leizer der schneider was once the centre of a very heated controversy in town. He had aspired to become a member of the Chevra Shas, (the six orders into which the Mishna and Talmud are divided). This society was devoted to the study of the Talmud and ranked as the most distinguished amongst the various societies of Krottingen. Only those possessing a knowledge of the Talmud and interested in its study were considered to be qualified for membership of Chevra Shas.

Leizer der schneider, though being an orthodox Jew, not unlike the majority of the artisan class, lacked such qualification and when he applied for membership he offered a substantial donation to local charities if he was accepted. As a person of some substance, Leizer enjoyed a higher status than other tailors in the town. His application was viewed favourably by some of the members but opposed by others, who felt it would lower the prestige of that august society. The division of opinion was not confined to members only but was vehemently argued amongst the whole community as a matter of very great importance. Unfortunately I cannot remember the outcome of this argument.

That controversy reminds me of a certain method often adopted by some local Jews to resolve disputes or grievances that arose in the community against its leaders. This was known as "Makiv die Kriah", preventing the reading of the week's Sidra on Shabbat morning in Shool. At the completion of Shachrit and just as the scroll of the Torah was taken out of the ark, a couple of stalwart young men would mount the steps in front of it and thus prevent the removal of the Sepher Torah from The Aron Hakodesh. This interception of the service naturally created a great commotion in Shool and would caused arguments, lasting about an hour. The disturbance would quieten down, as a rule, after an assurance was given by the parnas or other responsible person in authority that the matter in dispute would definitely be dealt with in the forthcoming week. Complete order would then soon be restored and the Chazan would continue with the service. This form of protest would not happen in the presence of the Rav or Dayan.

I distinctly remember one occasion on a Sabbath morning in Shool when the service was held up by this process over an apparently great crisis in the community, which caused a tremendous upheaval. Despite the greatest efforts made by the leaders of the town to put an end to the tumultuous agitation, this continued for at least a couple of hours. It was only after a most solemn pledge was given by the leaders of the congregation that the matter would receive their serious attention soon after the termination of the Shabbat, that the disturbance ceased, thus allowing the Chazan to proceed with the service. During that time not a single person left the Shool until the service was concluded. The importance of attending the public service at the Synagogue on Shabbat by old and young alike, especially listening attentively to the reading of the Sedra, was deeply ingrained in the mind of one and all. To depart from Shool before Kriat Hatorah was absolutely unthinkable. Nor did it ever happen that a boy, even before barmitzvah, and much less an adult, failed to attend service in Shool on Shabbat mornings, even in inclement weather, unless this was due to illness.

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