Preachers and tailors

By B.Y. Bialostotzky

First published in “Lita” pp 1214-1217. 

I spent some time in Keidan in 1905, when I was about 12 years old. My father took me with him as he traveled as a maggid [preacher] among the towns of Lithuania. He wanted to teach me Gemara by himself, which is why he took me with him. Thus I saw many well-known towns.

In every town, my father had to report to either the gabbai [congregational administrator] or the shamash [synagogue caretaker] regarding his sermon in the synagogue. I remember that my father always preferred to go to the shamash rather than to the gabbai. The gabbais were frequently angry and haughty, while most of the shamosim were kind-hearted and friendly Jews.

I remember that the gabbai of the large beit-hamidrash [study house] in Keidan said to my father: “It would be better if you moved on. At the moment, we have here the preacher of Shirvint [Širvintai] and the preacher of Mozyr [Mazyr]. What do we need a third maggid for?”

But the shamash of the beit-hamidrash, on the other hand, said to my father: “Our Jews will hear you. Those other two will move on soon.”

Keidaners loved to hear a preacher. The local tradesmen, in particular, embraced preachers. In other towns of Lithuania as well, people loved to hear the preacher. Maggids fulfilled an important function in Lithuania. Their influence on the public was not less than that of various Hasidic “wonder workers” in the Ukraine, Poland and Galicia. But instead of bringing miracles, the preacher would bring ethical teachings and lessons that sank deep into the heart. Avraham Reisen, our great author from Koidanov [Dzerzhinsk] in Minsk province, described such preachers lovingly in his stories.

From Lithuania came the classic preacher, who practiced in Vilna at the time of the Gaon. He was known as the Dubner maggid. From Lithuania also came the remarkable Kelmer maggid, who described hell in his sermons no less vividly than did the Italian poet Dante in his “Inferno.” The preacher of Grodno, Elyakum Getzel, also practiced in Lithuania. He was a remarkable sermonizer who had many students follow and preach after him. My father also saw himself as a student of Reb Elyakum Getzel. Similarly, two famous preachers – the maggid of Shirvint and the maggid of Mozyr – also strongly influenced the public. Some of the preachers displayed a bit of what we would today call popular acting or theatricality. The preacher would arrive with melodies, little songs, poetic pictures and parables. There were preachers who also used humor in their sermons. They had profound words for more educated Jews and they knew the secret of simple words for the simple masses and for Jewish women.

Some of the preachers also included messages of social justice in their sermons. The great maggid Elyakum Getzel used to establish societies, mainly of workers, and preach simple sermons to them separately, so that they would better understand. He would also study Mishna and Chumash with them, and tell them wonderful parables . . . From his workers’ societies arose many Jewish cultural and labor activists. Other preachers in Lithuania behaved in a similar manner. Their ethics were not just ethics of the individual, taken out of a book, but frequently contained social ideas.

I heard the Maggid of Shirvint, and I still see him as if alive today, a broad-shouldered Jew with a wide, bony face and a high forehead. His preacher’s chant was a sort of enthusiastic challenge to God. There was something revolutionary about him. He made claims against the public, but he also pronounced claims against the creator of the world. Why was the suffering of the Jews so great? Naturally, he soon became reconciled with God and returned to attacking the public…

Two or three years after I was in Keidan, I found the same maggid in a tragic state, in Shirvint. He became fond of alcohol and would drink to intoxication. This situation brought him to a sort of insanity. I saw him lying in a side-room of the synagogue in Shirvint. From time to time, the old preacher in him would stir, one of his past sermons would spark in his brain, and he would run to the pulpit. He would start preaching in a singssong voice, not caring if anyone was in the synagogue to hear him or not. There, on a mattress in the small side chamber of the Shirvint synagogue, he gave up his soul.

The second preacher whom I met in Keidan sermonized melodically. He was more musical and undeniably theatrical. He wore a cape, and his fair hair and blue eyes cast a mischievous light around him. He was closer to the modern type of preacher, who appeared because of Zionism – a “lecturer.” Zvi Hirsch Maslianski, who lived and worked for a long time in America until his death, was, it seems to me, the father and the classic example of all these orators. Masliansky’s influence in “the old country” was mainly in “Greater Lithuania” – in Kovno, Vilna, Grodno, Minsk and Suwalk provinces.

Let us now return to my recollections of Keidan. The Shirvinter and the Mozyrer went their way, and my father preached his sermon. After the sermon, an old tailor took him for a cup of tea. He lived next door to the synagogue. In his apartment, we found two young tailors, his apprentices. Later, a few other tailors arrived. It was as if the tailors of Keidan had a historical pact among themselves.

A few days later, I heard from the mouth of the old tailor himself about a unique historical event. This was the true story about the rebellion and uprising of Keidan’s tailors which took place at the beginning of the 19th century, in 1815 or thereabouts.[1]

The story goes that once, the leading citizens of Keidan grew furious with a tailor because he dared to come to synagogue wearing a velvet yarmulke. At that time only a rich man, a person of property, was permitted to wear such a thing. The tailor was fined. This incident angered the tradesmen of Keidan, and a revolt broke out. There were bitter arguments, and even fistfights. The incident came to the attention of the count, and later even reached Petersburg.

This was no minor matter: The tailors and handworkers of Keidan were not about to let anyone spit in their cereal – no way! Eventually, the rich folk were forced to submit, and the tailors of Keidan always recalled with pride the uprising of their great-great-grandfathers, so that they could come to synagogue with velvet yarmulkes on their heads and silk coats on their bodies, just like the haughty men of property.

[1] See “Lita“: Vishnitzer, Dr. Mark, “Jewish Craft and Artisan Guilds in Lithuania.”

Translated by Chaim Charutz