The Museum of

       Shabbat and the Jewish Holidays


Paint What You Remember
Shabbat and the Jewish Holidays in Opatów, Poland
as told by Mayer Kirshenblatt



There were three major bes-medrushim in town: Upper besmedresh (oybn-besmedresh), Old besmedresh (alter besmedresh), and New besmedresh (nayer besmedresh). Upper besmedresh was so named because it was upstairs and almost at the top of Broad Street on the south side of the street. Old besmedresh, which was next to the synagogue, was so named because it was the oldest of the three; it was also called Lower besmedresh (inter-besmedresh) because it was lower on Broad Street. New besmedresh was located on the di vul, also known as di alte valove and, in Polish, as ulica Starowalowa (Old Rampart Street), which ran parallel to and behind Broad Street.

Kirshenblatt, Mayer (1916-2009)
Saturday at the Holy Rabbi's Table
Acrylic on canvas
36 x 48 in.


There were also several Hasidic shtiblekh (little prayer houses). Every Hasidic group used to get together. They would pray, sing the rebe's melodies, and expound on his wisdom and miracles. I remember the Gerrer Hasisim. There was also a Belzer besmedresh, very small, established and supported by a childless couple, Yoykhenen Sukher and his wife, to immortalize themselves. Yoykhenen was known as Yoyne. Hasidim would make a pilgrimage to their rebe for the High Holidays and for other holidays if they could Even though they could not afford to buy food for the table, they managed to travel to the rebe, to be in the presence of the holy man. He would sit at the head of a large table and preside over the gathering of his followers.

This event was called a tish (table). After the rebe tasted the food, his leavings (shiraim), which were considered holy because of his touch, were eagerly grabbed by his devotees. They pushed and shoved, they almost trampled each other, to get a little taste of the kigl, a noodle pudding.

Although the majority of the Jews in our town were very observant, not that many were Hasidim.

Lower besmedresh was a single-story wooden building attached to a private brick house next to the synagogue, which is the traditional location for a besmedresh. Lower besmedresh was the town besmedresh; it belonged to the kehile, the official Jewish community. It was the oldest house of study in Apt, which is why it was also called alter besmedresh, and was thought to be even older than the synagogue.

One of my fondest memories is hearing a traveling preacher (baldarshn) tell stories on a Saturday afternoon at Lower besmedresh. After the Sabbath noon meal, it was customary to get a nice afternoon nap. Upon arising, we partook of a snack called shaleshides, the third Saturday meal. My grandfather would then go to Lower besmedresh for the afternoon and evening prayers. If there were a preacher in town, I would join him. Between the afternoon and the evening services, it was customary for a visiting rabbi or preacher to tell stories. I wish I had the stories they performed from the Zohar, from the Kabbalah, stories about magic, devils, good spirits, bad spirits, miracles.

As a young boy, I found these stories intensely interesting. We were enthralled. The stories took you out of your daily, miserable life. They fired your imagination.

At the conclusion of the preacher's speech, the evening service was performed. Who paid him I don't know. He could not solicit money on the spot because Jews are forbidden to carry money on the Sabbath.



Baldarshn: Preacher.

Kirshenblatt, Mayer (1916-2009)
Baldarshn: Preacher
July 2005
Acrylic on canvas
20 x 24 in.

Although it was hundreds of years old, New besmedresh got its name because it was the last of the three to be built. This besmedresh was known by the old-timers as the besmedresh of Rabbi Yankev, who was one of the three rabbis buried in the oyel, the hut in the cemetery. It was on Old Rampart Street. There were no houses beyond this besmderesh, only a path up a hill leading to a ravine; the path was called di intergas, Back Street, or intern vul, behind Rampart Street. My grandfather went to New besmedresh on Friday nights, Saturday mornings and holidays. Why he did not go there during the week, why he went to Lower besmedresh instead, I do not know. He bought a place at New besmedresh, a specific seat on a bench, near the window. No one else could sit there. He always sat in the same place, along the southern wall, with his back to the window. The most expensive seats were those near the eastern wall. They would action off each seat, which was called a shtuet, a "city," on the eve of Yom Kippur. The money went for the upkeep of the besmedresh.

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