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




Kirshenblatt, Mayer (1916-2009)
Mother Blessing the Sabbath Candles,
April 1995
Acrylic on canvas
24 x 36 in.


We all wore our Sabbath best. We stood around the table, with Mother at the helm. She covered her head with a crocheted kerchief. Looking proudly at her family, she would stretch her arms in an embrace over the candles, cover her face with her hands, and pray silently. We then took off for the besmedresh for the Friday evening service, returning home after about an hour for the Friday night meal.

Saturday morning I picked up the coffee and milk from the baker, who was located on Narrow Street, around the corner from us. The coffee, a mixture of coffee and chicory, was in a pot. The milk was in a stone bottle, probably salt-glazed stoneware; it was beige with flecks and sealed with a cork. The milk would simmer in the bottle all night. By morning it was a deep yellow brown color and creamy; it had become thick like condensed milk. It was delicious. I can still taste it. After morning services I picked up the tshulnt and soup. The baker must have had about fifty customers. To this day, I don't know how he knew which pot belonged to whom. He was paid a few cents for his services, but not on the Sabbath itself.

The baker raised a nice family. One day he died. Someone took me to the shive, the mourning, and pointed out a glass on the windowsill. The water in the glass was quivering. I was told that the baker's soul was cleansing itself before escaping through the window to heaven.

It was customary that, on Saturday afternoon, after a heavy meal, people would lie down for a nap. When I was six or seven years old, there wasn't much to do then. I had a cousin my age, and we went to school together. We would play in our kitchen on Saturday afternoons. There weren't many toys to play with, so we used whatever we could find: we liked to line up the kitchen chairs and benches and play trains and wagons. Father would emerge from his bedroom, which was right next to the kitchen, and beg us, "It is such a beautiful day. Why don't you please play outside?" Not until I was a married man with children of my own did I understand why my father wanted to get rid of us on a Saturday afternoon.

My parent's bedroom was a nice room. The exterior wall was so thick that the windowsill was more than two feet deep. Mother filled the windowsill with plants: red geraniums, aloe vera, which we used for medicinal purposes, oleander in big wooden planters, and fuschia.

We kept the gramophone in this room. We got it from one of my father's aunts, Mime Maryem: she was my grandfather's sister. She lived in a small town. When she was about to immigrate to Canada, my father went to say good-bye to her and brought back her gramophone. We considered it the first gramophone in Apt, although others have also claimed that honor. With it came one record: Rossini's William Tell Overture.

This was the first classical music I heard. We played it incessantly. we would open the windows and all the neighbors would line up to listen to the miracle: some people wondered how a whole orchestra could fit into such a small horn.


The Gramophone.

Kirshenblatt, Mayer (1916-2009)
The Gramophone,
March 1999
Acrylic on canvas
30 x 40 in.

  Mayer talks about Shabbat in his family's home, as well as the furnishings in the family house. Listen to it.

Zmires: Saturday Dinner at Grandmother's.

Kirshenblatt, Mayer (1916-2009)
Zmires: Saturday Dinner at Grandmother's,
October 1994
Acrylic on canvas
24 x 36 in.


This painting shows the Sabbath meal at my maternal grandmother's. We sang zmires, Sabbath songs songs in Hebrew, so beautifully that neighbors would lean out of their windows to listen. We ate in the bedroom, which served as formal dining and living room on special occasions. The chairs my grandfather bought secondhand at an auction sale from the estate of a Polish nobleman. They weren't very good. Actually, they were broken and the springs were coming out. I didn't include the white slipcovers that were so patched there was very little left of the original fabric, because I wanted to show the color and the shape of the chairs.

My grandparents had separate beds, as was the custom among Orthodox Jews ( a man must not touch his wife when she is menstruating), and an armoire. The room was also furnished with a table, two benches, and two chairs. At one end of the room were two windows overlooking their private courtyard.

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