Religious Education in Poland: A Personal Perspective

by Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold
Published in The Jews of Poland Between the Two World Wars, Gutman, Mendelson, Reinhartz & Shmeruk, eds., University Press of New England, Hanover and London 1989:

My comments on some aspects of Jewish religious life in prewar Poland will relate to my experience in the heder, the Hasidic shtibl (prayer and study house) and the yeshivah, that is, to religious education in central and southern Poland, called Galicia, which were predominantly Hasidic. I am aware that the situation was different in the Lithuanian part of Poland, but it is beyond my personal experience.

I grew up in a traditional home; I went to a heder, then to a yeshivah; I prayed in a Hasidic shtibl, knew several Hasidic rabbis and was close to one of them. My father, a learned merchant, represented the ultra-Orthodox political party Agudat Israel in the city council of our hometown Radom, a city in central Poland with a population of 80,000, of which 27,000 were Jews.

I spent six years in heder, from 1930 to 1936. In the course of that time I learned the daily, Sabbath, and holiday prayers, a major portion of the Humash and Rashi, and a little Talmud. After my second year, I also had lessons in Polish language, history, and arithmetic four times a week, two hours a day. This change was introduced by the Polish government.

One generation earlier hadarim were small, consisting of a melamed – teacher and his assistant, and were usually located in his home. A child would first go to the melamed dardeki. After he had learned to read fluently and translate some of the prayers, he would go to the melamed who taught Humash and Rashi, and then to the one who taught Gemara – Talmud; each stage had its own heder. We studied all day long, with an hour’s interruption for lunch. The school year consisted of two seasons, winter and summer, with the High Holiday and Passover as vacations. Before each of the seasons the melamed would recruit his students in person by visiting parents. Classes were small, and contact between the melamed and the parents was frequent. When a child was first brought to heder there was a celebration, and there was a celebration at home when he began to study Humash; each celebration had a ritual attached to it. When the child studied Talmud, the melamed often came on Saturday afternoon to be present when the father examined his son on what he had learned during the week.

In my time, the heder was regulated by the Polish government, which for sanitary reasons forbade having a heder in a private home. To defray the costs of rental space, the melamed needed more students, and often several would join together and rent a larger place and establish a graded heder, where a child could attend through his basic education until he was bar mitzvah, at which point some would either go to work or study in a yeshivah, a bes-medresh (study house), or a secular school. Under this system personal contact with the melamed was lost, and the ceremonies were abandoned. In my time I never was in a class of fewer than twenty until I began to study Talmud.

The melamdim had no professional training other than the knowledge of the subject they taught, and often that was limited. Of the five melamdim I had, only Reb Hendel Rosenberg stands out in my memory. He was an energetic man who used his imagination, intelligence, and considerable gift of eloquence to interest us in the study of the Bible. He addressed us as intelligent children and we responded. His manner and bearing were dignified, and he commanded our respect. Of the other four, one was bored by his task and performed it routinely, the only excitement being provided by the students. While we recited our lesson, he would pace up and down the room like a prison warden, holding a ruler ready to slap the hands of those who were caught guilty of inattention or unruliness. My first Talmud teacher was so high-strung that at the slightest provocation he would tremble and stutter. In retrospect it has occurred to me that his nerves may have been frayed by malnutrition.

What we lacked was a personal relationship. We were treated as learning machines; we were there to acquire a certain amount of knowledge and the melamdim did their utmost to make us learn it. It was an adversarial relationship. It was not until I went to the yeshivah that I was able to identify with the institution and internalize the values of the subject we studied, namely the Jewish tradition.

The teachers of secular subjects were either non-religious Jews or Christians. They usually treated us well, and the stories and poems we read with them were interesting. Strangely enough, these teachers did not affect our general prejudice against Gentiles or secular Jews except, perhaps, subliminally. We thought that each teacher was an exception.

The difference between the secular teachers and the melamdim was not, however, lost on us. Here was a school dedicated to the preservation of a traditional way of life providing its impressionable students with attractive alternative models. But there was little that could be done about it. Secular studies were frowned upon in the ultra-Orthodox community, and no traditional Jews were trained to be licensed teachers of secular subjects. The community was ill equipped to cope with the regulations of the new Polish government.

How did these unattractive melamdim in the drab surroundings of a heder affect our learning? My heder education was linked directly to my life, which was centered around religion. The people among whom I lived and from whom I received personal validation prayed three times daily, read the weekly portion of the Bible, studied Talmud, Midrash, commentaries and codes, observed the holidays and festivals, and lived by the laws. Regardless of how poorly I was taught these subjects in heder, they were necessary for my life and I learned them.

As our expectations were not high, we were not disappointed. I remember once overhearing my father saying to a friend, “Look who are the educators of our children, people who have failed in every other endeavor.” This is not to say that there were no melamdim who were inspiring and whom students remembered fondly throughout life. When I was a child, an old man used to visit us periodically on the Sabbath; my father received him as an honored guest and treated him with great respect. This was his melamed in the elementary heder.

After bar mitzvah I began to think about what to do with myself. The yeshivah ketanah (junior yeshivah) into which I had graduated from heder was no improvement; if anything, it was worse. I was still not interested in studying Talmud seriously, and it did not help that the melamed was a nervous man given to shouting at the slightest provocation, which happened all too often. In the course of my year there I became a prankster, and in a fit of rage the melamed swore that eventually I would end up an apostate.

Some of my classmates in heder went on to the gymnasium. In Poland, secular education generally meant a break with tradition. I was of the middle class, and learning a trade was out of the question. What remained was working for my father, and for that I was still too young. Besides, my father had hoped that I would become a talmid-hokhem, a Jewishly learned man. In my case this definitely precluded becoming a rabbi. Already my grandfather had forbidden my father to study a section of the Yoreh Deah – part of the Shulhan Arukh that is essential for a rabbi – with the explanation, “I’m afraid that in a pinch you may become a rabbi.” The rabbinate was in decline, often surrounded by intrigue and factional quarrels, and some middle-class, traditional, learned Jews did not wish it upon their sons. Like my father and grandfather before me, I was expected to study Talmud until marriage; then I would receive a dowry, be married, spend a few years on kest (supported by my in-laws) studying, and eventually go into some business.

Before the First World War young men, upon finishing heder, would study in a local bes-medresh or shtibl; in Galicia these conventicles were called kloiz. As soon as a group of Hasidim was large enough to afford rent, they would establish a shtibl, furnish it with an ark, Torah scrolls, tables, and benches, and acquire a basic rabbinical library. There were Hasidic shtiblekh in every town and city, each bearing the name of the locality in which their rebbe resided. Rebbes with a large following, like the ones of Gur (Gora Kalwaria) and Belz, would have a network of shtiblekh throughout the country. In addition to being a place where the Hasidim gathered mornings and evenings to pray, the shtibl was also the place where they spent their free time in study and fellowship.

In the shtibl and bes-medresh you could find different age- groups side-by-side. There were the zaydene yunge-layt (silken young men), as promising newly married, scholars were called. They were on kest so that they could fulfill themselves in learning. Then there were the batlonim, those whose wives earned a livelihood to support the family while they spent their time studying. Then there were older men who no longer worked, but sat and studied. Alongside these mature scholars, some of them masters in rabbinical literature, and also under their tutelage and supervision, sat those who had recently finished heder.

It was a unique, voluntary system of higher education. There was no administration or budget. The older scholars who had achieved a reputation for their erudition and depth of learning instructed the younger ones and kept an eye out for a promising young Talmudist, whom they would bring to the attention of the rabbi. Though young, some of them only thirteen, having become independent scholars, they needed no further surveillance than that provided by the ethos of the shtibl. Studying Torah was a great mitzvah, and being a young scholar in the shtibl was a privilege few would abuse.

These young men spent the whole day from dawn to midnight studying, except for Friday afternoons, when they prepared themselves for the Sabbath. Their preparations included going to the mikveh, the local bath. To make up for the time lost on Friday, some of them would spend the whole of Thursday night studying. On winter evenings after supper, one could find in the shtibl three generations of a family sitting side-by-side and studying.

I would now like to relate an incident told to me by my father from the time when he was a young scholar, before the First World War. He had been studying at the large bes-medresh of Radom, where he had gained the reputation of a baal masber, that is, as having the ability to explain complex and difficult Talmud passages clearly, simply, and succinctly. Consequently, so many of the younger scholars turned to him for help that it interfered with his own studies. At that time the Hasidim of the Piaseczner Rebbe had become numerous enough to afford a shtibl of their own, and it was just beginning to be used, mostly by Piaseczner Hasidim. One day, when the number of interruptions reached the limit, Father gathered up his books and moved into the new shtibl. Their set of Talmud, published in Warsaw, was not edited as carefully as the Vilna edition. When Father came across textual mistakes, particularly in the commentaries, which were printed in very small letters, he would, after careful consideration, suggest a correction on the margin.

Among the people who were studying in the shtibl was a recently married man, Itchel Morgenbesser, with a reputation for erudition. One day Itchel came across one of Father’s corrections, he called him over and asked, “Who gave you permission to make corrections in the text?” When Father tried to defend his corrections, explaining his reasons, Itchel, being a hot-tempered man, lost his patience and told him he was too young to have presumed.

No one had ever before treated Father so slightingly, and, being certain of his ground, he was determined to vindicate himself. At home, in his father’s library, was the Vilna edition of the Talmud. Father rushed home, pulled out the volume, and sure enough the text read as he had corrected it. Instead of eating supper, he rushed back with the volume to the shtibl. When Itchel saw the reading in the Vilna edition, he paled; he had insulted a young scholar, had accused him of ignorance and arrogance. Itchel was beside himself with contrition and begged Father to forgive him. That incident, my father concluded, was the beginning of a lifetime friendship between them.

The shtibl and bes-medresh produced lomdim, people who were thoroughly versed in Jewish traditional literature, particularly the Talmud, its commentaries, and the codes. Here the rabbis and lay leaders of Polish Jewry were educated, including many of its political leaders who were elected to represent the Jews in the Polish Sejm (House of Deputies) and Senate. The culture of ubiquitous learning also produced a language of its own – lomdish Yiddish, the “scholar’s Yiddish.” The very term lamden (scholar), though from the Hebrew root l-m-d, is a Yiddish creation that returned into modern Hebrew in its new meaning.

This whole religious civilization, which was under attack by secular Zionism and socialism, was dealt a crippling blow during the First World War. Poland and Galicia became the battleground of Russians, Austrians, and Germans. Galician Jews fled before the Russians to Vienna and Hungary. Polish Jews were evacuated by the Russians from all the frontline towns and villages. Some towns were completely destroyed by the battling armies. People lost their moorings, their social standing, their livelihood, and along with them also their authority over their families. The German occupation, which was generally favored by Jews, introduced a Western mode of living that was attractive to many of the young who were tossed about by the war. At the same time, the success of the Russian Revolution made it seem as though the messianic promises of socialism were about to be fulfilled. Indeed, for several years at least, Jews enjoyed unprecedented freedoms in the new Soviet Union. In addition, the Balfour Declaration gave Zionism a measure of reality it did not have before. Under these circumstances, the traditional way of life was in decline, and the study of Torah was at an all-time low.

During the 1930s, when I was growing up, the situation had changed drastically. Of the fifteen shtiblekh in Radom, only one was populated by young Talmudists. The others were used for daily and Sabbath prayers and stood empty the rest of the time. Here and there one would encounter a young scholar on kest spending the day studying in the shtibl, or a few older men. What only recently had been the accepted norm became in my time an exception. In the large cities like Warsaw and Lodz one could still find shtiblekh filled with young men studying, but on the whole the traditional community was on the defensive and losing ground. In an effort to save the remnant, yeshivot were organized creating supportive environments, with teachers and spiritual guides to protect students from the corrosive influences of the political and ideological movements active in the Jewish community.

By the time I was old enough for more advanced studies in Talmud – that is, during the late 1930s – there were already many yeshivot in Poland, including a whole network of Keter Torah yeshivot sponsored by the Hasidic Rebbe of Radomsko, who was independently wealthy and used his fortune to support the yeshivot. At that time also, the Musar yeshivot spread from Lithuania into Poland. These yeshivot, called Beys Yosef after Rabbi Yosef Yoizl Hurwitz of Novaredok (Nowogrodek) who inspired them, emphasized the study and meditation of ethical and moral literature alongside the study of Talmud. They had even set up exercises to help students break habits and character traits that made them vulnerable to outside influence or interfered with the pure service of God.

In a category all by itself was Yeshivat Hakhmei Lublin. Though founded as recently as 1930, it enjoyed a reputation of excellence and distinction from its very beginning. Its founder, Rabbi Meir Shapira, one of the most gifted rabbinical leaders of interwar Poland and a renowned Talmudist, was fully aware of the socio-political conditions in the Jewish community of his time. In 1919, at the age of thirty-two, he was already chairman of the educational committee of Agudat Israel of Poland. A year later he became its president. In 1923 he was elected deputy to the Polish Sejm, from which he retired a year later to devote himself to his educational goals.

At that time Rabbi, Shapira was already planning to establish a national yeshivah in Poland that would recapture for its students the dignity they deserved and needed to become the leaders of the next generation, “a yeshivah that would raise the glory of Torah.” He is quoted as having said “I have a dream of a great yeshivah, more beautiful and larger than any before. In my time, yeshivah students will no more spend their nights as watchmen in warehouses and eat like beggars every day in a different house. I’ll build them a royal palace.” This is what he proceeded to do. When I visited the yeshivah in 1937, I was impressed by the spaciousness of its halls, the attractiveness of the living quarters, and the quality of the food – not at all what one had become accustomed to expect of a yeshivah.

Lublin was more than a yeshivah; it was meant to be a model institution to raise the image and dignity of yeshivah studies. It was to serve as a symbol of renewed Orthodoxy. Rabbi Meir Shapira was a follower of the Rebbe of Czortkow, a descendant of Rabbi Israel of Rizhin. During the hagigat ha-torah – celebrating the completion of the Talmud under the daf yomi system, which took place in the spring of 1938, I met two of Rabbi Israel’s descendants, the Boyaner and the Sadegerer rebbes, and I can testify that their bearing and manner were princely.

Rabbi Meir Shapira was concerned with tiferet (beauty) in its esthetic sense. Long before he was a famous rabbi and leader, when he was still a young man on kest in the home of his in-laws in Tarnopol, he was among the founders of a society called Tiferet Hadat (Beauty of Religion). Unlike Polish Hasidim, particularly those of the Kock (in Yiddish, Kotsk) school who had no use for esthetics, he, as a son of Galicia and a follower of Czortkow, had not only a feeling for it, but appreciated its significance for contemporary Jewish youth.

When the \plain\f0yeshivah opened in 1930, thousands of guests, among them the rabbinical, Hasidic, and lay leadership of religious Jewry in Poland and representatives of the government and the press were present at the opening exercises. No yeshivah had ever opened in such an impressive manner. During the decade of its existence, the yeshivah became the pride of traditional Jewry in Poland. Press coverage, particularly by Dos Yidishe Togblat, the organ of Agudat Israel, played an important role in spreading and enhancing its reputation, not only in Poland, but also abroad.

The attractive building has remained intact and is now occupied by the Medical Academy of Lublin. During a visit to Poland in the spring of 1984, Prof. Chone Shmeruk of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, protested the absence of any marker designating the origin and former use of the building. In June, 1985, a celebration took place in which government and university officials and representatives of Polish Jewry dedicated a plaque stating in Hebrew, Polish, and Yiddish, “In this building was Yeshivat Hakhmei Lublin in the years 1930-1939.” Even in its demise Lublin is the only yeshivah in Eastern Europe that has a marker.

Just about the time when I was thinking about what to do with myself, a friend of mine returned from the preparatory of the Lublin yeshivah. He had spent a year there and came back a changed man. He was only fifteen, one year older than I. I had known him in heder, where both of us were irrepressibly boisterous, but now his whole manner had changed: he had become sedate, soft spoken, almost dignified, just what I thought a talmid-hokhem should be. I was also impressed by the way the older and more established scholars treated him as one of their own. I liked what I saw. After questioning him about the preparatory, I made up my mind to go there.

To my surprise my father, whom I expected to leap at the idea – for this was the first sign of my becoming serious – instead rejected it saying, “Ben-Zion, if you want to study you can do so right here. I studied in a bes-medresh and in a shtibl, and I am no am ha-aretz (ignoramus).” My father had no use for famous brands even when it came to yeshivot. I know that he did not approve of the mannerism of young Hasidim: their neglected appearance, their long peyes (side curls), their exaggerated piety, their wallowing in tales of miracles performed by the rebbes. Still less did he like their complete lack of concern with political and practical affairs of life. He was afraid lest I become like them. This was 1937, just after the Great Depression. At that time he had already concluded that the future of Jews in Poland was bleak and had decided to settle in Palestine. He may have had different hopes for me. Had he sat down and told me what he had in mind, most likely he would have persuaded me, but he did not, and I was already beyond being brushed off by a mere criticism questioning the seriousness of my intentions.

In a sense my father was right: I was completely taken by the idea of being a student of that famous yeshivah. What he did not realize was that I needed it. Like so many of my age at that time, I, too, was at a parting of the ways. The bes-medresh and shtibl had ceased to be centers for young men, and if I was to continue in the traditional path I, too, needed the added support of that attractive yeshivah.

In the fall of 1937, despite my father’s objections, I went away to the yeshivah. It was located in Rachow, a small town an hour’s ride by bus from Lublin. Upon arrival I met Rabbi Isachar Leventhal, the rosh yeshivah (principal), and Rabbi Shmaryahu Fensterbush, the town rabbi, who was its president. Both had studied with Rabbi Meir Shapira in Lublin. Their dignified bearing and friendly, but restrained, welcome made a strong impression on me. After a short conversation, I joined the other students for supper. There were about forty of us from all over Poland and Galicia, between the ages of fourteen and seventeen, mostly sons of Hasidic families.

My transition from a boisterous boy to a serious young scholar was short, almost abrupt – an act of will. What made it possible was the supportive environment of the yeshivah, where I was with others who were going through a similar experience. From early childhood we were raised with the belief, which we recited in our daily prayers, that the Torah was a divine gift of love and that studying it was the greatest mitzvah. Once we decided autonomously to act on our beliefs – and that was the case with most of us – the result was a life dedicated to the service of God in prayer and study with a fervor only people of that age are capable. We spent all our waking hours studying and praying, careful lest we waste a precious moment of time idling. That is where I first encountered the concept of bitul zman (nullification of time). In our society killing time is not altogether negative, but in the yeshivah, time not used in either study or prayer, with the exception of tending to basic needs, was wasted, nullified. For us, time was Torah.

We began the day with independent study, and so did we end it late in the evening. I remember one night a fellow who slept across the room from me sitting up all of a sudden and reciting a page of Talmud in his sleep. In the course of one term, from after Sukkot until Passover, I underwent the biggest change in my conscious life. During the Passover vacation at home I encountered a former classmate from heder who had gone to the gymnasium. After several meetings I persuaded him to drop secular education and come with me to the yeshivah, for which I was granted permission from the rosh yeshivah only after I guaranteed that I would personally tutor my friend and bring him up to par with the rest of us. I kept my word. I remember studying with him twelve hours in one day to prepare him for an exam. David Potashnik became a devout Jew and a scholar. His interest in traditional life was kindled by my enthusiasm, and both of us were nurtured and sustained by the yeshivah.

Outside the yeshivah, the world was divided between Poles and Jews and these further divided between religious and secular. We knew that only one generation ago most of the secular were religious. We felt threatened and closed ranks to protect the remnant. It is difficult to say what the face Polish Jewry would have been had it continued. Study of the traditional community has just begun. With all of the success and strength of Agudat Israel in a national, municipal, and communal elections, I am of the opinion that his strength was from the older generation awakened to the dangers threatening them. Another ten years and the polls would have registered a decline reflecting the continued flight of youth from traditional life to secure for themselves a political and economic future either in Poland or abroad. The impressive movement of return to tradition that we are witnessing in the past fifteen years is new, and the first one since the Haskalah began to make inroads into traditional Jewish life in eighteenth-century Germany.


© 1991 Ben-Zion Gold

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