In My Town

Translated by Adam Prager

One Chapter of One Story


In memory of my teacher and friend, the Gaon Rabbi Shmuel Bialovlotski. hy"v
[May the Lord watch over him and restore him to life]

a) At the entrance of my town

There is a best place and a best time to tell a story, and so I will talk elsewhere of the day I left my hometown, why I did so, and what I discovered in all those places for which I left my town. Here I will describe what I encountered on my return, as well as relating to what happened in Buczacz during my absence. I will begin with my town, then talk about my townspeople, and along the way I will say a little about myself as a townsman would speak of a fellow townsman.

Mine is the town of towns. As to its age, it is most venerable, being one of the oldest communities of the Jewish Diaspora in Poland. As to customs, it is blessed with fine customs received from its forefathers, exiles from Ashkenaz, who received them from the scholars of Rome, who received them from the Gaonim of Erets-Yisrael, who received them from the great Talmudists, all the way to Moses who received them on Mt. Sinai. Concerning wisdom, there is no department of knowledge without its base here, especially the study of the Torah – the highest wisdom of all. Alongside wisdom, allow me to mention humility. In all of its history, Buczacz never chose a rabbi from among its own townsmen even if he were expert in all matters of Judaism.

While I was away from my town, it lived through stormy days, breaking a calm that lasted through most of the period from after the atrocities of 1648-1649 until my emigration to Israel. I don't know whether the gentiles were the cause of the eruption or whether the Jews were to blame, or whether these two explanations are actually one. For as long as we follow God's will, all gentiles in their lands see that we are the people of God and fear us. Once we cease to follow God's will, God ignores us, leaving us subject to persecution and humiliation by the gentiles. This has been so through the ages, from the days of Egypt till now, when our estrangement from God has grown.

From the pure joy of thinking of my town, I ignored the grave rumors that reached my ears on the way to Buczacz. These rumors described gangs of idlers returning from the war who were about to enter our town. Was it possible that something had changed in our town? This is what I asked myself. I sat up in my bed after a short summer-night's sleep and was ready to go further, feeling confident as in the days of my youth when our town was safe and tranquil and all the gentiles saw the Jews as the source of all livelihoods and no one would even think of the possibility that anything could change there till the coming of the Messiah.

Before the pillow under my head could wrinkle, I was out of bed, dressed and off to see the town. I had not seen it for quite a few years, except in my dreams.

b) The picture of the town

Since my town is not well known to you, I will try to draw it for you, at least insofar as one can describe a place inspired by the heavenly spheres themselves.

My town lies on hills surrounded by and intertwined with rivers and lakes. Pleasant springs flow down to forests thick with trees and full of singing birds. Some of the birds are natives of the land; others are foreign and have chosen to stay, for only a fool would give up so blissful a paradise. Whoever can distinguish between the different bird songs can tell the native from the foreign birds.

The streets and avenues in the town lie in contrast to the hills. They are the work of both man and nature, each complimenting the other. This is one example where the makings of God and those of man join together peacefully in a complementary manner. One can imagine that those same streets and avenues go back to times when peoples' hearts were pure and uncorrupted.

Along the main thoroughfares, houses of worship were established. Actually, they established themselves. After 1649 when the riots ceased, things began to return to normal; survivors of the Khmelnitski horrors trickled home. The town was mostly in ruins. Gentiles had occupied those houses that had remained intact; synagogues and study halls were devastated; the Great Synagogue was turned into a church. While Jews were searching for a place to build a house of worship, a fragment of a scroll from one of the ruined Torah scrolls started to flutter in the wind. Some say it fell from the heavens, for all knew that the spot on which it had finally fallen was sacred. A house of study for prayer and learning was built on it. This is the old Bet Hamidrash. When they prospered, the Jews built the Great Synagogue, a great monument, stronghold of the Jews, for in times of trouble – May we not see such again – Jews would come there to pray to our merciful Lord, guardian from all evil.

When the town had grown and developed, and the house of study proved too small for everyone, a second one was built, financed by a few homeowners. It consisted of one room for prayer and study, with books, a table, benches and a sink. People called this the New Bet Midrash as opposed to the already existing old Bet Midrash.

Past glory was restored to that generation. They were honored with a permanent rabbi, the true gaon, Rabbi Tsvi Kara, who left behind him as a blessing his book of responsa Neta Shaashuim, and was buried in the town cemetery. All the gaonim who preceded him were recruited to serve in other towns. But not R' Tsvi Kara. He resided in Buczacz till the day he was called to his residence above.

In order to make him feel as comfortable as possible, a spacious house with two rooms, plus a kitchen for his wife, was built for him. One room was called "the summer house" while the other, in which an oven was installed, was known as "the winter house." R' Kara was also given a spacious area for his sukkah, on which very spot, years later, a large bet midrash was built. I shall speak of it later on. After it was observed that R' Kara walked daily from his house to the Great Synagogue, the townspeople lay square stones along his route. Square stones were also laid around the synagogue, creating a floor of sorts around its walls. I knew an old man who knew an even older one who recalled that as a child his father pointed out to him the Gaon, with pipe in mouth on his daily walk. While walking, R' Kara would reflect upon the many questions he received concerning the halakha. Our teacher, the Gaon, was an affable person, always ready to respond to scholars, except those who turned to him in order to brag of their own knowledge. These he would send on their way in a jesting manner, his eyes smiling, constantly puffing on his pipe. Scholars would come to visit him to discuss problems of halakha and if they remained until the time for afternoon prayers [minkha]), they prayed there in the study house, except in the month of Elul and on the High Holidays. In line with the practice of our forefathers, from the first day of Elul to the night of Simkhat Torah, R' Kara conducted all prayers at the Great Synagogue.

Following the death of our rabbi, the Gaon, head of our rabbinical court, his position was inherited by his son-in-law, the Gaon , the pious R' Avraham David, a holy man of God, a gaon in revealed as in secret matters, venerated throughout the land , who illuminated the way for many through his books of sacred knowledge. I have already hinted in one of my books at how he came to be our rabbi, how he was commandeered in the middle of the night at his home in the town of Yazlovits where he served as rabbi, and how he was literally carried from his bed all the way to his house in our town. I will not repeat what I have written, even though it is only hinted at. I will, however, add this: it is to his credit (may it protect us) that he built a small temple and instituted the Sefardic rite in his prayer service. This rite was already in use by the Bet Khasidim [House of Hasidim] that was built a generation earlier. Most of the people called this hasidic center "the clowns' chapel" ["leytsim shilikhl" – Yiddish shilikhl 'little shul']. The new hasidim, the disciples of the Baal Shem Tov of blessed memory were looked upon in our town as a bunch of clowns due to their strange movements and dances during prayer and due to their dress. Townspeople felt no compunction about speaking of their house of prayer scornfully.

After the death of this tsadik there was disagreement as to who would inherit his place. Some wanted his son to replace him, while others opposed this. The deceased himself had stated before his death that he did not want his son to inherit his position, though he held him worthy of it. Our tsadik was said to fear it would become a custom for sons to inherit the positions of their fathers. A situation could arise whereby the rabbinical chair would not always pass to the most worthy candidate, which in turn could lead to the position being desecrated.

The son did not inherit the position; however, he and his family lived in the chosen rabbi's house. The rabbi chosen was our teacher, the true Gaon, R' Avraham Teumim, author of Khesed leAvraham. The tsadik's son lived in the rabbi's home and expanded his righteous father's study house, which was called the Rabbi's Study House. In recent generations people have been calling it "America," since most of those who come there to pray stem from different places, just as in America the inhabitants originate from many different countries. Before the Rabbi's Study House was built, there existed the Tailors' Synagogue. If you want to know why the tailors had their own synagogue, read my book Oreakh Nata Lalun [A Guest for the Night]. Once the town was larger and its inhabitants more numerous, other houses of study and prayer were built. If you wish to know more about them, this too you may find in Oreakh Nata Lalun. However, there I altered my town's name. But now, after those profane madmen have annihilated its Jewish inhabitants and the town is no more, I call it by its name Biczacz, as our forefathers of blessed memory did, or Buczacz as it is written in the history books.

Now I return to the Great Synagogue.

c) The Great Synagogue of our town

From my love for the sacred, I will spare no effort in describing our Great Synagogue. Our Great Synagogue is shaped like an erect ark and has a stone floor on all sides. It is narrow on three sides and wide at its front, its walls are smooth and look like old parchment, When I was a small child, I thought the Great Synagogue was a hand phylactery. But because it was larger than a man's phylactery and even of a giant's, I wondered whose it was. That was the first wonderment of my childhood. One day a relative took me to the old study house where I saw old men sitting with books before them, and one man among them was teaching them as a tutor teaches little children. I heard him say, "How is it that the Almighty [hakadosh barukh hu] puts on phylacteries [tefilin]? And what is written in those phylacteries? And who are like the people of Israel, one people in all the land?" And I knew what I knew.

Now that I have discussed the building's shape, I shall go into further detail. Part of it is sunk into the ground, for "from the depths I cried out to God" [Psalms 130: 1]. It has twelve windows for the twelve tribes, one of which lies above the Holy Ark on the eastern side. It is made of various pieces of glass through which a spectrum of light passes. Because those lights are constantly in motion, I believed as a child that one gleam of the sunlight of the Land of Israel glowed within them. And even today, after reading science books and studying about the sun, I find it most difficult to set aside this notion, even though it does not go hand in hand with the laws of nature.

Four quill pens on each and every finger are not sufficient to describe the splendor of the Great Synagogue and also that of the old study house and of all the other study houses in our town. As to height, there were taller buildings among both the gentiles and the Jews. As to illumination, lights from other buildings shined more brightly. However, past midnight, when all the lights in town were extinguished, the lights of our study houses shined with the light of the Torah. As regards height, tall and solid buildings collapse, but he who raises the Torah raises himself and continues to grow. This was said of previous generations that loved the Torah.

d) From Torah to Tefilah

When the sun has begun to shine and it is time for prayer, all arise from their places. The aged gird their loins and wrap themselves in prayer shawls and adorn themselves with their phylacteries. The young men gird their loins and adorn themselves with their phylacteries. Small boys, below the age when it is obligatory to put on phylacteries, gird their loins and recite blessings and prayers and say "amen" and "vayehe shemaya raba." No one stops praying to hold a friendly chat or for conversation of any kind. If you witnessed a man distracted from his prayer, you could be sure he was not from our town. It is not an accident that after the congregation's "mi shebeyrakh," the sheliakh tsibur [cantor] blessed the congregation. And how did he bless them? That God Almighty hear their prayers and make all their wishes come true. These are the words of the prayer: "He who blessed our forefathers, Avraham, Yitskhak and Yaakov, will bless all those who abstain from speaking during prayer in the synagogue from the moment the cantor commences with the words 'baruch sheamar' until the end of the prayers." This blessing was brought from the first exiles of Ashkenaz. And why does it not mention the reading from the Torah? There is no need, for never has any man thought of interrupting at such a moment, not even a whisper to his neighbor. Why do I mention all this? For if one will say that it is impossible for people to assemble together and abstain from conversation, I will say that in our town that was the custom.

e) Messiah

A tale of Elijah the prophet, of blessed memory, that happened to visit our town during a circumcision [brit mila]. In those days a baby was circumcised at the Great Synagogue immediately after the morning service [tefilat shakharit], before reciting the "Aleynu" prayer. A large chair beneath a canopy of red silk cloth was situated at the western side of the synagogue, below the women's gallery. This was the chair of Elijah the prophet, the angel of the circumcision. On the day of a circumcision, the chair would be carried down by ladder and placed beside the ark. Everyone would then wait until the infant was brought and it would be circumcised.

One day the son of a pious and modest scholar, a splendid man of good deeds, was to be circumcised. Father Elijah who loves the people of Israel, especially the humble, arrived an hour before the ceremony in order to stand among the Jews while they prayed to their Father in heaven.

On his arrival, Elijah found that the Jews had finished their prayers, for they would pray from the first signs of dawn. However, they were still standing, and were reciting the Thirteen Principles, as is the custom before a circumcision when the baby's arrival is delayed, a custom intended to prevent prayer from turning into conversation.

Elijah saw them standing together in one group reciting in unison: "I believe in the coming of the Messiah and will wait for him no matter how long he tarries." Elijah reflected on this and decided it would be a good idea to tell the Messiah about it.

After the circumcision, Elijah flew off and went straight to the Messiah. On his arrival, he turned to him and said: "Our righteous Messiah, if you were only to see how the townsmen of Biczacz await your arrival, you would immediately rid yourself of your shackles and hasten to redeem them." The Messiah heard these words and said to Elijah, "I shall go and see." He covered his wounds with shackles and his shackles with rags and set off for our town.

On his way he came across a place where it was time for the afternoon prayer. He entered the synagogue to pray and found it full of congregants, with a cantor standing before the ark and repeating the prayer. But most of the Jews were talking, their voices drowning out the prayer. The Messiah shook his shackles out of pure misery, but they could not be heard since the conversation was louder. He turned away from them and returned to the gates of Rome.

He still sits at the same spot while we await his arrival each day.

S. Y. Agnon