Tales of the Talmud Society

by Dr. Hyman J. Epstein


Dr. Chaim Yakov Epstein
Dr. Hyman J. Epstein

Dr. Hyman (Chaim Yakov) Epstein (1881-1951) was an active participant in Jewish affairs in early 20th century New York, helping to organize the Bronx Jewish Hospital and the New York “kehillah” which for several years oversaw religious and civic life of the city’s large Jewish community. He wrote several sketches of life in Keidan, including this one, which was published (in Yiddish) in “The Keidaner” the bulletin of the Keidaner Association of New York. 


The schism between the leaders of the main Keidan shul and those of the smaller kloyz 1 was well known throughout all of Lithuania.  This, however, was only a “difference of opinion” – not, God forbid, a quarrel of the heart. In the end, Keidan had only one cemetery, one communal meat tax and one rabbi. The kloyz had only a religious magistrate, Reb Meishl the judge. Certainly there was zealous devotion to the holy books; for example: The study house’s Talmud Society competed vigorously with the kloyz’s Talmud Society. The kloyz scholars, led by Reb Yankl, the teacher Reb Nachum and Reb Shmuel Meyer, took pride in outdoing their counterparts from the study house, who were learned Jews, but hardly “persons of renown.” Every evening the members of the two societies would sit around long tables near the western wall and study a page of Gemara.2 One “reader” would recite a passage, and each participant would try to best him, posing difficult questions and arguing over fine points. Sober, dark and angry they would appear, with no sign of joy on any face; thus did they conduct their studies, day in and day out.

There were times, however, when the entire atmosphere would change, and a holiday mood would appear around the Talmud Society’s long table. Those were the times when they reached the conclusion of a tractate or a book in the Mishna3 . Then, solemn faces would light up, and on the table would appear a couple of bottles of liquor, cookies, herring … “L’chaim!” they would toast each other. And after someone recited the traditional prayer concluding study of a Talmud section, they would all go home in a state of bliss.

Once every seven years, the Talmud Society would celebrate the conclusion of an entire cycle of Talmud study. That was a holiday for everyone in the town. Even though it was the middle of the week, the windows of the study-house were all adorned with colored paper lanterns, and the chandeliers inside were lit with burning candles.

No “takhanun” 4 prayer was said, and the cantor, Dovid Feinzinger, prayed with his choir, accompanied by some of Keidan’s klezmorim 5 on their instruments. His “ato khoyneyn” 6 melody, which he had composed in honor of the holiday, was sung by the entire town for years afterwards, and became a kind of “national anthem” of Keidan.

The holiday would last an entire seven days, and each night one of the Talmud Society’s members would host a feast in his home, thus carrying out the traditional “seven days of feasting” with music by the cantor and by the Keidan klezmorim.

Now it came to pass one day, and it was during the year when the Talmud Society of the kloyz held its seven-year cycle celebration. Reb Berchik, the kloyz cantor, had prepared a melody for Psalm 30 for the occasion, but because he couldn’t read music, he was unable to teach the melody to the Keidaner klezmorim. So the musicians played their own marches, and Reb Bertsik and his choir sang the prayers themselves.

At the feasts, which were held each night, each householder tried to surpass the others in entertaining the people. One such feast was held in the home of Reb Meishl Shatenshteyn, in German Street. Reb Meishl, a scholarly Jew and a grain merchant, was also a contractor to the army. Two cavalry batteries were stationed in Keidan, the Fifth and the Sixth, and Reb Meishl provided oats for the horses of the soldiers; therefore he was on intimate terms with the military officials.

The colonel of the Fifth Battery, Grinfeld, was a good-natured person who was kind to the soldiers and officers under his command. He was a favorite of all the children, who greatly enjoyed watching when he mustered his troops.

The colonel of the Sixth Battery, Goleshchapov, was by contrast a very strict commander, who used to beat his soldiers within an inch of their lives if they did not respond quickly enough to his every whim on the parade ground. The people of Keidan forgave him his cruelty, however, because of his military orchestra, which he maintained at his own expense.

On Saturday evenings, when the young people of Keidan would go strolling on Langer Gas (Long Street), Goleshchapov’s brass band would give a concert in the middle of the street. He did this intentionally, to brighten the Sabbath for the Jews.

So it was during that week of the kloyz members’ celebration, when Reb Meishl Shatenshteyn was hosting the feast at his house. The crowd was in high spirits, eating and drinking royally. Reb Bertsik and his choir boys had sung until late in the night, and only the klezmorim were missing from the party. Suddenly, to the surprise of all assembled, the entire brass band of the Sixth Battery appeared, marching into the house one after the other, with all their instruments: trumpets, clarinets, drums, brass cymbals … Thus did Colonel Goleshchapov use his orchestra to pay honor to Reb Meishl Shatenshteyn and add to the festivities.

Unfortunately, as they say, “man plans and God laughs.” The band had hardly begun to play when everyone realized the danger in allowing such a noisy band as this one to play in the middle of the night. It would shake up the whole town, the babies in their cradles, the householders of the shul, not to mention the innocent goyim who lived around German Street, such as the priest, the German baker, the “tooth charmer,” and even the apostate Doctor Layne.

After a long deliberation it was decided: The band leader should be invited to the table for some refreshment, and his half-asleep musicians – after each had received a drink, a snack and a few coins cigarette money – were thanked for not playing and sent home to their barracks.


Translated by A. Cassel. 

Footnotes

  1. A small shul, or synagogue.
  2. Technically part of the Talmud which comments on the Mishnah, more commonly used to refer to the entire Talmud.
  3. The collection of post -Biblical laws from the 2nd century C.E., which form a central part of the Talmud.
  4. A prayer of supplication, traditionally omitted from daily services during times of celebration.
  5.  Itinerant East European Jewish bands, employed most typically at weddings and other festivities.
  6. One of the 18 benedictions said during a traditional prayer service.