This article from the Biala Rawska Yizkor Book was written by Joseph Meyer Weber (1883-1958). Our translation was commissioned by his grandson Michael Schoeman, and it is published here with his permission. The original Yiddish text can be found on the website of the New York Public Library (Biala Rawska Yizkor Book, images 122-131).
My Birthplace: Biala Rawska
My city of birth that I will describe here is called Biala Rawska. It is about ten miles south of Warsaw, on the left side of the Vistula River. In my time (1890-1905), the majority of the population was Jewish, comprising about 300 families.
I’m not familiar with the story of the first Jewish settlers of the town. In fact, there was really no one in the town who knew this story. The inscriptions on the tombstones in the old Jewish cemetery, as well as in the shul, whose construction no one remembered, were witness to the fact that the Bialer community existed at the beginning of the 18th century. I use the word community, because there were individual Jews possibly living there already in the 17th century, and maybe even before that.
In Biala, contrary to Sholom Aleichem’s folktales, there were fewer poor people than rich people. That means, that everyone was poor, even the so-called “rich” ones. But according to the general lifestyle of those times, there were almost no real poor in the town because of the low standards of living that prevailed. An income of three rubles a week was enough to cover the needs of daily living for a couple with two or three children. Even the Rav of the town received no more than a fifteen ruble annual pension.
Since the earnings of most people in the town were enough for wages and for basic needs, a real pauper was only the one who went from house to house collecting handouts (alms). There were only a few such people in the town.
On the other hand, a rich man was someone that earned a few hundred rubles, whose hundreds became, in the way of things, thousands. These types of rich people were in large number in the town. But they lost their wealth (though they did not, God forbid, become poor) after they married off one or two of their children. They gave the new couple dowries, gifts, wedding provisions, furniture, and sometimes even room and board.
The Jewish population comprised about 29% small-scale merchants and storekeepers, 20% shoemakers, 15% tailors, 10% butchers, 5% wagon drivers, and 5% of those who worked in the religious professions, such as the rabbi, khazzen (cantor), shokhtim (ritual slaughterers),and about 10 religious teachers. There were a couple of hat makers, tinsmiths, carpenters, barbers, knitters, and one weaver. There were no Jewish professionals, such as doctors or lawyers. A number of shoemakers and tailors had workrooms (areas) in their one-room homes, and often employed a few workers, generally the local youths. They were called “tandaytnikes.” Other shoemakers and tailors worked in their homes only taking customized orders. These orders were mainly for boots or for clothing for the holidays (Yom Tov), also for wedding outfitting. The tandaytnikes would sell their materials at the fairs of the surrounding towns and villages, and sometimes to local customers.
The main source of income was from the farming population of the surrounding villages. The farmers would bring grain, fruit, greens, eggs, and dairy into the town. They would sell these products to a merchant or storekeeper and use the money they received to buy what they needed for their daily life. The landowners around the town borrowed money from the rich people and shopped on credit at the stores. Often they would sell their last bunch of grain or the wool from their sheep. The landowners, as well as the farmers, would sell their cattle to the butchers and their horses to the wagon drivers. A common Jew would rent an orchard from the landowner or farmer, and after this Jew, his wife and children would laze around for five months in their orchard, this “sadovnik” (lessee) would come back into town with tens of rubles as earnings, and frequently with more than a hundred.
Merchants and storekeepers did not wait until the farmers would bring their products into the town. They went to the villages and bought the products at the individual farms. The butchers and wagon drivers did the same. The lifestyle was inexpensive. The daily menu consisted primarily of potatoes, bread, other grains, and dairy. The cost of these products was low. Rent for a room was about 20 rubles per year. A wagonload of wood for heating would cost about three rubles. A travel ticket to a nearby city was around 20 to 30 kopecks. To go by train, you would often go only with connections (by pulling strings, “na blat”). Tuition for a young boy in cheder was about 10 rubles a year in the younger classes, and about 25 ruble in the higher grades. That’s how everyone’s income was enough for the basics and other needs, though some had to collect more money to sustain them.
All the residents in the town were religiously disposed. They prayed three times a day, observed Shabbos, celebrated all the holidays (yomim tovim), fasted on all the fast days, blessed each new month and each new moon, did not taste any food before praying on Shabbos, washed hands and said “se’u yedeichem” (“lift the hand”) before eating [bread], then said the grace after meals; said “krias shema” before going to sleep and “modeh ani” upon rising every morning. Children that were already old enough to speak would have to say “modeh ani” or “brochos” blessings.
During Selichos time (the week before Rosh Hashana), children and adults alike would rise before daybreak and go to shul for the selichos prayers. During the yomim noraim (the time between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur), everyone in the town agreed, that “even the fish in the waters are trembling.” On Rosh Hashana, the entire town, women and children as well, would go down to the river and throw away their sins (tashlich). On the day of Yom Kippur eve, everyone would “shlog kapores” (swing a chicken around the head), and even a newborn had to do the same.
Every child had a religious upbringing, and the boys went to shul with their fathers. There were no misnagdim (those who opposed the Chassidim) or apikorsim (heretics) in the town, and each person in the settlement would travel to see his Tzaddik “leader” as frequently as possible.
The dominant role that religion held in the town had a destructive effect on the cultural side of life. Everything in the town was colored by religion. The babies were delivered with the help of a simple, unfamiliar woman who had experience of childbirth solely through the many births that she had endured. The religious view did not permit that a male, even a doctor, particularly a non-Jewish doctor, should take part in the delivery at all. If there were complications during a birth, the family would gather a minyan (10 men) who would begin to pray at the bedside of the woman in labor. If a woman in labor would was in a dangerous situation, they would tie a rope from her bed to the aron kodesh (Holy Ark) in the shul or in the beis medrash (place of learning).
When the child was born, they would hang shir hamalos notes (praises to God) around his bed so that evil spirits or demons should have no influence over the new mother and child, and every evening, a teacher and a group of young children would come and recite shema yisroel. When a young boy turned three years old, for the first time he went or was taken (carried, in fact) to cheder. He went with a little hat on his head and a pair of tzitzis or a tallis kotton on his body. In cheder, the little boy was taught the alef bais (Hebrew alphabet), and the gimmel (third letter of the alphabet) became a little bag of money that fell from heaven. In cheder, the boy also learned all the blessings, learned to be God fearing, and how to protect himself from evil spirits.
Later, when the boy grew a little older, he would learn Hebrew and how to daven (pray). When he would enter chumash cheder (the older classes where he would learn chumash or Bible), the teacher would explain everything in a religious context: Noah and the Patriarchs were painted as Tzaddikim and Godly people who fulfilled all the mitzvos (religious commandments), prayed wearing their tallis and tefillin all the time, and were always reciting tehillim (Psalms) and learning Gemara (Talmud). Moses was presented simply as a religious leader, a mediator between God and the Jews. A sort of chassidic rabbi on a larger scale. The boy, and later as a father as well, would refer to Moses as Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our Rabbi). The Prophets were portrayed as Godly people who were able to see the future’s events and whose task it would be to punish the Jews for disobeying God’s commands.
According to the teacher, the destruction of the Temple was the greatest tragedy in Jewish history because now there was no place to offer sacrifices to God, or perform the rituals and other religious ceremonies. The word galus (exile), meant exile of the Divine Presence, a tragedy of God, in which the exile of the nation of Israel played a distinct role. Channuka was celebrated because of God’s miracle in making one vial of oil that was enough for one day and yet one candle lasted for eight days. Something in the story of Channuka retained the word “Maccabi.” But this was only as a reminder that during Channuka a special prayer was to be recited among the regular prayers. Purim was celebrated because Mordekhai Hatzaddik was victorious over Haman the evil man. Pesach (Passover) had more of a relevance with its matzo and chometz (leavened foods), the seder, the four cups of wine, and Eliyahu the Prophet, rather than with the Jews leaving Egypt (yetzias mitzrayim). Shavuos is a holiday in honor of receiving the Torah. Tisha B’Av (the ninth day of the month of Av) is the day of the destruction of the Temple. No weight was placed on the fact that along with the destruction of the Temple the existence of the Jewish people went along with it.
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur were Days of Awe, because in the heavens people would be judged and God would be deciding who was going to live or die in the coming year. Other than the fact that chumash was learned with a religious perspective, in general the learning went according to “כצפחות בדבש”, a system that can be translated as a taste of honey, “as a woman that has conceived and will give birth to a boy, etc., etc.” [this is a quote from Leviticus 12:1]
The regular boy did not go any higher than “chumash cheder” with his learning [that would be around ten years old], as if to say “the boy doesn’t want to study.” So, the father would take him to work or would give him as an “apprentice” to another local tradesman. And that’s how a boy grew up to be a Jew who could hardly daven (pray). The children of more prominent families, who had to take in more learning, because these children, God forbid, cannot be made into shoemakers or tailors, were sent to “gemara cheder” (more advanced learning). There, the Talmud was mainly studied, along with the commentaries, post-Talmudic commentaries, and other religious texts. Not only did they not learn world history, geography, etc., but not even Jewish history was touched. Teaching the children Hebrew, grammar, etc. was considered unnecessary and dispensable, even though the teacher himself had a solid knowledge of these subjects.
In the town, there was a government elementary school, where children learned to read and write Polish and Russian, arithmetic, etc. The education was free of charge because most of the residents were already paying a school tax. However, none of the Jewish boys went to this school because since the Czar’s picture was on the wall, they would have to sit with their heads uncovered, something a Jewish boy would never think of doing. From the time a boy left his cradle, until the final moments of his life, a Bialer Jew would never remove his hat or yarmulke from his head, except at the barber or when bathing. And even if one could sit in school with his hat on, this Jewish boy would still not attend this school because the cheder took up his whole day and evening, from 12 to 14 hours a day. For the same reason, the cheder boys did not go to Mendel Schreiber, who taught writing and reading, and aside from that occupied himself with watch making. His students were all girls.
The only place where a boy could learn to read and write was in the cheder. The teacher would write a grizel “גריזעל”, an example of letters or a complete sentence and would give this to the boys to copy. Meanwhile, the teacher would have a nap and a quick bite to eat, whiles the boys were busy with their writing. When the teacher roused himself from his snooze, he would examine the boys’ writing and test the boys’ reading, and right after that, would continue on with learning chumash or gemara. Since most of the writing time was dedicated to Yiddish, math, and correspondence writing, and very little time to Polish and Russian, most of the Jewish boys knew a little Yiddish, a bit of math, and practically no Polish or Russian. If a Bialer Jew needed to write a Yiddish letter, he would have to go to a “קענער” or someone that “knows how” to write the address on the envelope. So, this education system resulted in the educated ones in the town possessing a greater or lesser knowledge base in Talmudic and religious books, being able to write a letter, and knowing a little bit of addition, subtraction, and multiplication. But even this “educated one” could not respond to a question with a grammatically correct and sophisticated Hebrew sentence, nor was he able to name three or four Jewish kings in chronological order.
In this sort of cultural situation in the town, naturally, there was no need for literature. Part of the residents were not even able to daven. The rest of them would occupy their free time with learning Talmudic texts or with reciting Psalms. No one had any idea about Mendele Mocher Seforim, Y.L. Peretz, M. Spector, Sholom Aleichem, Y. Denizon, etc. The names Shomer, Tannenbaum, etc. [all of the above were pioneering Yiddish literary figures of the era], were a little familiar only to the youth that worked for a little bit in the larger cities such as Lodz and Warsaw, and they would also tell about the existence of theater and actors. They would also bring folk music into the town which the mothers would use as lullabies for their children. Also, some of Goldfaden’s pieces were used in Purim plays. [Abraham Goldfaden, 1840-1908, is known as the father of Yiddish theater.] There was no newspaper in the town. The seforim (religious books) in the Beis Medrash (study hall) comprised the only library in town.
In the first years of the 20th century, there were already a few boys studying in the Beis Medrash who subscribed to Yiddish papers and read Mapu, Smolenski, and other writers of the Enlightenment (Haskalah) period in the most secret fashion. But when the town discovered these goings-on, there was a terrible outcry. That’s how the cultural life looked in the town at the time.
Medical care in the town was exceptionally poor, and hygiene was generally an unknown concept. There was lots of illness, but nevertheless, the mortality rate was within a normal range because the fresh air that the winds would blow from the surrounding fields, gardens, and forests, along with the nourishing, fresh foods helped prolong the life span and overcome illness. Speaking of issues of illness, it is worthwhile to mention that the words “illness” and “sick” were not uttered in the town. Instead, the words “sleepiness” or “sleep” were used. The “sleepy” behaviors mentioned were mainly colds, typhus, pneumonia, etc., all of which began with the ayin horo or “evil eye.” In the town, they didn’t know about heart disease, cancer, blood poisoning, etc. It was only that these types of towns were “taken over” by sorcery, apoplexy, or were just “caught.” If anyone took to being “sleepy,” he would take home remedies that a neighbor would recommend, for example cupping or leeches.
A doctor was called only in situations where the illness had worsened. When the “sleeper” was almost at the end, a minyan (quorum) of ten men was assembled and they recited Psalms for the sick person’s benefit. Sometimes his name would be written on the Holy Ark in the shul, and sometimes a new name would be added to his original name, a name alluding to a long life – such as Chaim or Alter (meaning the “old one”). Sometimes a family member would run to his Rabbi for a blessing. When the sick person was in his last minutes, they would say he had “passed through” it.
No dead person was buried in a casket. There were side boards placed in the grave, and afterwards the body was positioned in the grave with his talis and shrouds on his body, and small pieces of shards were placed on the eyes. They covered him with boards and buried him with the earth that was dug out of the grave. The only organized group that existed in the town was the chevra kadisha, a group of ordinary Jews whose job it was to prepare the body for burial, and then to bury it.
In the town, there were no community activities. The three communal buildings – the shul, the beis medrash, and the mikva (ritual baths), could all be on the verge of collapse, but no one would even think about calling an assembly to think about this issue and raise funds for this cause. The remnants of these buildings would have to wait for the death of a member of a wealthy family, and the chevra kadisha undertook to do the final rites so that the family would donate a substantial sum to the community, part of which would go to “le’chaim” events (meaning festive occasions), and the rest would go to community needs.
The cemetery (“דאס גוטע ארט” the good place) served as a place of burial as well as a feeding place for cattle and horses. Only in 1923, when an American came to visit his father’s grave and he became aware of the situation with the cemetery, he used his American dollars to make sure that cattle and horses would not come near the graveyard.
In the town, there were no benevolent organizations, no unions or political parties. The settlement was divided between those from an elite ancestry and the ordinary folk. And the elite ones were divided into groups, each one to his sort. Each group was called by the name of the city in which their Rebbe or Tzaddik lived, such as Gerer, Alexander, Amshenover, etc. Each group kept a distance from the other and all the groups distanced themselves from the ordinary folk. The result of this was that neither the festive nor tragic occasions bore a true united, harmonious character. For example, Purim and Simchas Torah were very spirited in the town, but the festivities were not united. In fact, each group was to its own.
The only time, in my days, when there were political factions in the town, was when we needed a new Rabbi. There were two candidates: one from the Gerer chassidim, and the second from the Alexander chassidim. The town was divided into two sides: the Gerer side and the Alexander side. In those times, being called a Gerer or an Alexander chossid had great merit. This was the only time that the prominent people were counted along with the regular people.
May this description serve as a gravestone to my deceased town of Biala.
About the Author (written by his grandson Michael Schoeman): Joseph Meyer Weber was born in 1883, married in 1905 and immigrated with his wife, then named Ella, in 1906. They lived at first in Manhattan on the Upper East Side, where he owned a confectionery store and then in the 1920’s moved to the Bronx where he changed his business into a wholesale tobacco and candy store. (What a treat for a grandchild!). He and Ella (changed to Helen) had five children and 11 grandchildren, and both lived until 1958.
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