Yom Kippur of the Villagers.

Yom Kippur of the Villagers by Chaim Dov Armon Kestenbaum. 

Submitted and translated by Kate Flatow. 
This article is part of the book "Ozar G'nasai" [From  my Treasure  Chest] written by Chaim Dov Armon Kestenbaum z"l, Kate Flatow's father.

A third of Jewry was murdered, old communities were destroyed, among them Kehilat PRZEWORSK.

The community was established during the wanderings from west to east in the 13th century, when our people escaped from Germany and France during the persecutions of the crusaders.

Many years ago lived in Przeworsk Hagaon Rabbi Moshe SOFER, the author of “Or Pne Moshe”, a book about Torah and Midrashim. He was a pupil and friend of Rabbi Moshe “The Great’ and many other great scholars and Zadikim.

“Vaad Arba Arazot” met annually in Jaroslaw to confer about current problems. Usually they moved to Przeworsk, when they wanted to discuss secret matters – away from the vigilant eyes of the authorities. They explained this move with the wish to pray at the graves of the Zadikim.

In honor of this holy community and others, these memories are dedicated.

At the beginning of 1920 I arrived in Przeworsk (from Berlin) to visit two of my sisters (Lea & Gittel-Gisa GAMS-KESTENBAUM). Everyone, young and old received me with great love and affection, something which I shall never forget. I had the honor to speak before the congregation in the Great Synagogue. This was immediately after the San Remo conference, in which the decision of allocating the mandate on Palestine to Britain was made.

I spoke about the future of our National home and in a more distant time about our Jewish State.

The synagogue was full – men, women and children.

On the 20th of Tamuz the same year, I was again invited to speak in the great Synagogue. This was the day of the “Johrzeit” of Herzl. Again the synagogue was packed full, which as a young man gave me great satisfaction.

Before leaving Przeworsk in the summer of 1920, the Zionist Youth Movement gave a warm farewell party for me. This took place in the upper floor of R’ Elimelech FLIEGELMANN’s house. I scolded the young people for not being more enthusiastic in public matters. I told them about the “curse” of an old rabbi “that there will never be a fire”.

I will try as far as the “Angel of Forgetfulness” will not interfere, to recall some people from those days. Where shall I begin?

For the High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur, we the villagers from the nearby villages, old, young and children came to town (Przeworsk) in order to pray together with a big congregation, as the saying goes: “with a great Kahal you honor the King”.

The children of the town, “the white crowd” received us, when we arrived in our carts from our village (Debow-Dembow) with the cries “here come the sour pears”. Those are the small pears, which all the year are hard as stone and sour as vinegar, but in the autumn become soft and sweet as honey.

This apparently was symbolic of the village children, who during the whole year live among the peasants and hardly pray a solitary prayer, but at the Time of Mercy and Slichot, come into town and become soft and dedicated to everything holy….and G-d fearing like all “Adat Israel”.

We crowded into the long and narrow rooms of R’ Moshe Leib BRUNNER. A thoughtful and kindhearted man. The members of his family received us with great warmth and we, the guests from the nearby villages, knew to appreciate the kindness of this noble family.

Before the last meal before the beginning of the Fast our father (Hersh Zwi KESTENBAUM) went to pray the afternoon prayer Mincha in the Chassidic “Klois” and to say “Al Chet”. Also to receive the traditional “thrashings”. Grandfather R’ Mordechai GAMS (father of my mother Kreindel GAMS) went to the Great Synagogue for the Mincha prayer and to receive the “thrashings” from R’ Yossel the “Long”. Also to pay the “Nedarim” which had accumulated during the past year and to distribute coins in the charity bowls. At the same time Grandfather “planted” a large candle in the sand-box. In the same sand-box stood a large Channukah Menorah, made of brass crafted by an artisan.

At the meal, before the fast, we all, the grown-ups and children spoke only softly. The meal was salted sparsely, in order not to be thirsty during the fast. After the meal and the blessing grandmother D’vora and Mother lighted the candles and said the blessing with tears in their eyes and prayed for a Good New Year and “Chatima Tova” for the whole family. 

Immediately after the candle lighting Grandfather and after him Father, blessed us children (according to age) with a long blessing, which included the sentence “May G-d light your eyes with Torah”.

Before “Kol Nidre”, father accompanied us to the Great Synagogue, in order to receive the blessing of Rabbi Chaim Zvi Ashkenazi, blessed be his memory. After receiving the blessing father went to the Chasidic Klois, where the prayers were held in the Sephardic version. We stayed on in the great synagogue in which we prayed in “Nussach” Ashkenaz.

In the Great Synagogue the atmosphere of the holy day was almost electrifying, sort of holy innocence. The lighted candles shining from the candelabra, which hung from the high ceilings and the burning “Johrzeit candles” added to the atmosphere. A thick layer of straw was spread on the floor. All the men wore white “Kittels”, Talitot and white yarmulkes. Each yarmukels had a silver band, which added to the festive air.

Suddenly the voice of the old rabbi was heard, as he announced, with the Torah-scroll in his arms “Or zarua l’zadik ule’jeshire lev simcha”. This sentence was his opening to the traditional “Kol Nidre”. 

The old Chasan R’ Leibush Nachum, a scholar who had finished the Shass several times, the whole Babylonian Talmud, started first with a low and trembling voice “Kol Nidre – Nidrana lo Nidrei v’assarna lo Assarai u’Shvuatana lo Shavuot” and R’ Idel and his choir helped the old Chasan. The second time the Chasan raised his voice an octave and you can already hear the violin-like sound, together with the choir, who sing like musical instruments. The third time the voice is high and strong, the wonderful repeat of Kol Nidre and finally, like a victorious hymn “W’nislach l’kol Adat Jisroel ki l’chol ha’am b’shgaga.

At the entrance of the synagogue on can see some of the gentile “intelligenzia”, dressed in festive clothes, who have come to see and hear prayers of the Day of Atonement.

At the tables on the west side of the synagogue sit the “simple” people, the coachmen, the porters, the peddlers. The family of the coachmen and at their head R’ Yoel, are Cohanim and next day they will, all together – almost like a troop of soldiers, ascend the pulpit to “bless your people Isroel with love”.

A little late arrival the two academics of the town, the lawyer Dr. Alexander KARP, a man with a sharp mind, whom the gentile lawyers envy, and the physician Dr. Joseph SILBERSTEIN, both draped in silk Talitot, sort of narrow scarves, on their shoulders. A place near the Eastern Wall is vacated for these respected men.

Who can still remember all the lovable people of bygone days? Everything was so intimate and romantic.

After finishing four chapters of the Psalms, we go to the old Beth Hamidrash, next to the synagogue and there we hear R’ Simcha Shochat finish the prayer with a fresh and young voice, even though he was already an elderly man. Here we meet public figures of those who pray “Nussach Ashkenaz”” R’ Sisha WEINBERG, R’ Abraham HERBSTMANN, R’ Jaacov HAAS and many others. 

From the Beth Hamidrash we continue to the Chassidic Klois, where you can still hear R’ Moshe Shochat say the “yaalot” with great devotion.

In the Klois the prayers stay awake all night. Some say chapters from the Psalms, some say Gemara, some Mishnayot Yuma and some read in the holy Zohar.

R’ Gimpel ROTHENSTREICH concentrates on “Keter Malchut” and “Shir Hayichud”, the liturgical hymns of the poets who lived in the “Golden Period” in Spain.

R’ Eisick ENGELRAD, elder of the town, studies Mishnayot Yuma.

R’ Shmuel ENGEL, together with his sons, studies a difficult problem in Massechet Sukkah. R’ Shmuel and R’ Zecharia Adolf study Mishnayot.

On Yom Kippur morning one can hear R’ Yossel “the Long”, call “to the synagogue”. Together with Grandfather we hurry to the Great Synagogue, which is still almost empty. 

R’ Neta SPIELMANN already stands before the pulpit and reads “Nussach Sinai” the Torah blessing.

I stand and my thoughts rise high above, through the rounded ceiling. I see how up there they sit and discuss each one of Israel. I hear clearly the rushing of angels’ wings…only the strong blow of the Shamash on the leather pillow, he did so apparently at the request of R’ Itsche Mendler ADLER, the chief gabai, releases me from all these lofty thoughts and bring me back to reality. 

And what do I hear? R’ Mordechai Yoel ASHKENAZI, the brother of R’ Chaim Zwi Ashkenazi, start with the blessing: “Baruch Hashem Elokenu hanoten la’shechvi Bina’. His voice is hoarse, but the version is from “Sinai”.

It is my strong desire to commemorate all the holy, honest and innocent souls. The souls who come nightly to pray in the Great Synagogue and because of them I had great fear to pass from the old market to the narrow Jewish street. 

 May their pure souls be bound together with the life of our people forever.

Translated from “Ozar G’nasai”, the book written by our father R’ Chaim Dov Armon Kestenbaum, may his memory be blessed, a collection of essays, reminiscences and stories. 


© Copyright 2017 Kolbuszowa Region Research Group. All rights reserved.

Compiled by Susana Leistner Bloch and Neil Emmer

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