Over the next week, we’re going to be exploring Shabbat observances in different times and places beginning with what is for many, the archetypical Shabbat: Shabbes in the shtetl.
Jacob Biber recalls life in the shtetl of Maciejow, Ukraine, before World War Two:
“Every Sabbath while I was growing up Father would take me with him to shul. I remember the early-morning darkness as he and I hurried to the synagogue. We were always the first ones awakened by the voice of Aaron, the junk peddler, who went from street to street calling the Jews to prayer with the cry, “Wake up, wake up to serve the Creator. It is the purpose of living.”
“Father and I were usually the first to enter the synagogue. The kerosene lamps and candles provided a dim light that cast shadows on the white walls and stained-glass windows. The echo of our footsteps in the huge hall seemed to make the sculptured and painted lions, tigers, eagles and camels on the walls come alive. On the east wall, above and around the ark, were representations of Moses and his brother Aaron presenting the tablets of the Ten Commandments… When the synagogue was filled, we would sing the psalms.
“At home after shul, my father would examine the week’s studies I had done in cheder..My mother, dressed in her best, served us a wonderful meal, and the whole family joined in singing sweet religious songs. We would have conversations about the chapters of the Bible, and sometimes Father would tell us of his life in the barracks during the years he had served in the Tsarist army. He would also tell us about his life in the coal and seltzer business in America. Some of the Jews in New York he told us of, could not remember which days were the Jewish holidays, and they would ask Father about them when he made his deliveries.
“My mother knew how to read the Bible in Yiddish translation, and on Sabbath afternoons the women from the neighborhood would come to the house to listen to her reading, wiping the tears from their eyes as they listened to the story of Isaac’s binding, or the story of Joseph being sold to the [wandering merchants].
‘The Sabbath brought remarkable peace to the faces of our parents. But they also watched over their sons so that we would not commit anything that was a sin on that day, such as touching fire, or walking a longer distance than the Sabbath limit allowed. We were respectful sons and obeyed most of the laws, but after the Sabbath dinner when our parents were resting, we would walk to the barns, where most of the Jewish youth gathered. We secretly played soccer there in the summertime and skated in the winter, but we were very careful not to tear our clothes. Torn pant would give away the secret of where we had been.
“At sundown we would go once more to the shul, then return home to end the service in the evening, with a special prayer sung by Father as he lighted a candle. The prayer was a parting from the Sabbath and a welcoming of the week ahead, during which we would be occupied with the troubles of this world and the saving up of good deeds, such as aiding the poor, to help us in the next. To the Jews, this world is a “corridor” to heaven. Our parents worked very hard to accumulate good deeds for the world to come. They also worked hard for food and clothing in this world for their three sons.”
Biber’s warm memories of Shabbat are made realistic by the notes of minor discord he inserts here and there. The secret soccer games, the skating, all of which are not in the spirit of Shabbat, if not outright prohibited. He shares that his brother, Ben, was beginning to drift away from tradition, and was more and more absorbed in “modern literature” – code-words for all the 'isms' of the early 1920s. While Biber recounts the family’s pride in their father’s position as the Jewish calendar expert to the Jews of New York, the boys still sneak off for their forbidden pleasures.
This juxtaposition of love and respect for parents and their tradition, coupled with pulling away – whether in secret or more openly – perfectly captures the conflict of Jewish life of the time. In Jewish homes across Poland, father and sons return from synagogue in their Sabbath-best just in time to see the teen girls of the family troop off to the theater dressed a la mode.
In spite of this fraying family fabric, Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg (better known by his pen-name, Achad Ha-am), the founder of Cultural Zionism, famously acknowledges, “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.”
How would these issues, simmering under the surface have played out? We'll never know for certain, since the Holocaust interrrupted the process. But we do know that Shabbat's power to unite the family, to uplift and nourish its adherents, and to infuse peace and calm deep into the home, is undeniable and still endures.