The Museum of

       rites of passage

From the book "The Polish Jew: His Social and Economic Value," by Beatrice C. Baskerville, 1906.

Krasnosielc, Poland
cir 1910

In the Polish ghetto a girl of twelve and a boy of thirteen must think of getting married. If the boy happens to be a Rabbi, or rather to give promise of becoming one, there is little difficulty about it; his parents will be besieged with offers from people who either have no sons of their own at all or else none with Talmudistic capabilities. When the boy happens to be an acknowledged Rabbi, he can generally ask whatever dowry he likes, for he is the best match in the settlement, and he knows it. After a suitable wife has been found the parents arrange about the dowry, which is paid, as soon as the engagement is completed, to the boy's parents. There are three separate copies of the contract, which is drawn up in such away that the boy, his father and the girl's father must all agree to its withdrawal from whatever business it is invested in before the money can be touched. These contracts are placed in some Jewish bank, and the engagement is looked upon as settled. If, however, it is broken off within the year, the bride must return any presents she has received, and the side which breaks off must pay all the costs of the betrothal. Any disputes which arise are tried before the Kahal, which pronounces judgment.

During the year of the engagement the betrothed pair do not see each other; in fact, they generally make each other's acquaintance on their wedding day, and whilst they are engaged the young man is supposed to solely frequent the society of his own sex. The parents make all arrangements, often without consulting then children.

When a Polish Jew marries one of his daughters his great idea is to get all the world to know about it. Now­a-days the announcement of a Jewish engagement often appears in the Polish papers, espeeially those in Jewish hands, which tell all it may concern that Icek Morning--star of Lodz is betrothed to Rachel Finechild of Radom, or words to that effect. But the Jew of the ghetto cares nothing for Polish papers--neither he nor his friend can read them; so he sticks to the good old custom of having the ceremony in front of the synagogue. .As this is impossible in a large town, a courtyard is chosen instead. The religious part of the ceremony is the same as if it were held in a synagogue, but according to the Talmud any learned man can perform it. In fact, at one time no religious ceremony was necessary at all. It was sufficient for a boy to give a girl any trifle, such as a small piece of money, or a piece of bread; if she accepted it, she was his wife. In cases where the girl had rich parents the custom was so much abused that witnesses were considered necessary to make a marriage valid, because a boy would go to his bride's parents and startle them with the news that he had married their daughter and was coming to live with them.

The orthodox ghetto marriage takes place in the evening, and by the light of lanterns which the chief guests hold. All the world and his wife are there; the bride's parents make every effort to astonish them with the richness of the reception and general arrangements,so that a family will be half starved for weeks before and after the wedding in order that the feast may include some dainty or a bottle of wine. The bride, with a cloth over her eyes, is brought by her parents into the courtyard where the ceremony is to take place and the bridegroom by his. The guests then sing and dance whilst the young couple make each other's acquaintance
--that is, the bride's eyes are uncovered whilst somebody asks her if the young man pleases her. When she answers in the affirmative, her hair is shaved off close to her head, hops are thrown over her for prosperity, and the Rabbi performs the religious part of the ceremony, during which the bridegroom breaks a glass. After this, the marriage feast is eaten, the newly married pair being conducted thither with songs and noisy manifestations of joy.

After the feast the bride and bridegroom are conducted to a separate room and locked up in it for some time, whilst the guests dance and sing. When the Jew are very pious, the men and girls do not dance wit each other; each sex has a part of the room to twirl round in to the accompaniment of music which has very little melody about it. The elder men stand in one group looking on, and the women in another.

There is often a clause in the marriage contract which states the length of time the young pair is to live wit the parents of each; but as a rule they live with the bride's parents until the father-in-law sees what the boy is fit for, whether he will be a Rabbi, a factor or merchant, etc. It not unfrequently happens that a boy leaves his wife and children after he has been married a few years to live in one of the Bethamidrashes and study the Talmud, free from all domestic cares, or runs away from home to exchange his halat for a short jacket and learn something of the world outside the ghetto. If his wife is of a pious stock she will not receive him into her father's house again, and a divorce is the usual consequence. Considering that such couples often have a family of half-a-dozen children before either is twenty-five, that they live with one and often two families of equal dimensions in one room, that they rarely get suflicient food. to keep body and soul together, it is not surprising that the physical condition of the larger part of the Jewish emigrants leaves a great deal to be desired.


There is a difference of opinion about the origin of this custom. The Talmud says that when a woman is married she has no business to please any man, as her mission in life is fulfilled, and since a woman's hair is her beauty, she must hide it. The original order appears to have been to cover it with a close-fitting cap. But later on, as the material with which it was to be covered is not specified, the Polish Jewesses began to wear wigs on their shaved heads. Some old Jewesses wear close-fitting caps today. Of course the progressive Jews, even in the ghetto, do not make their wives shave their heads; all that are a little bit educated have dropped the custom altogether, and it is, like the very long halats of the men, a sign that the wearer belongs to a pious family. Another version of the origin is that a Jew must never have his hands soiled by grease, and that, as his wife's hair is greasy and he cannot always be washing his hands, the best way out of the diftieulty is to make all brides shave their heads.


The position of the women in a pious Jewish household is rather paradoxical. A strict Jew will not sit down to eat with his wife or take food from a woman's hands. In other households, less orthodox, the fathers and sons sit down first and are served by the women, who eat afterwards. In others again, the two sexes eat together, but the men sit on one side of the table and the women on another. Other distinctions are made. For instance, in the provincial settlements, the men and boys go to the "house of prayer," as the synagogues are there called, before the women and girls. In the large communal synagogues they attend the same service, but stand in different parts of the building. The men are exempt from bathing, unless they like it, but it is the business of the Kahals to see that women of the community observe the commands relating to the mykva, or ritualistic bath. On the other hand, the women take a small part in the religious life of the really pious Jewish household. They are not supposed to say many of the prayers; they do not wear the tephilen, or the Laws of Moses written on parchment and strapped on the head and arms, as the men do when praying on week-days. These tephilen are also fixed to the doors of their rooms. The origin of the custom will be found in Deuteronomy, ch. vi., which says: "Thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets before thine eyes. And thou shall write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates."

But at the Feast of Tabernacles, called Kutki in Poland, the women often take offerings of an apple, a piece of willow and of palm to the house of prayer.

During the seven days of this feast, which lasts from the fifteenth to the twenty-second of October, the Jews in the Polish ghettoes and settlements may be seen sitting in queer little tents usually made out of rags, with the top open to the sky or the ceiling of the room according to the state of the weather. The women often sit in them too. But in pious households, the men and women do not share the same tents. The days are passed in praying, and the food eaten there. This custom is observed as a reminder of the time when the Children of Israel were brought out of Egypt and had slept in tents in the wilderness. While the feast lasts the Jewish shops are shut and no work or business done, except for a few hours once or twice during the week, when it is a "free holiday," that is, one on which they can do a little buying or selling.

The Talmud allows a man to beat his wife if she curses him or makes light of his parents. The Kahals used to have the power of imprisoning a man who beat his wife wrongfully. Today, they can only reason with, or, at the most, excommunicate him.

In practice, the domestic arrangements of the pious Jew work out rather differently. If he is progressive he does not keep so strictly to the laws laid down in the Talmud for the regulation of his home life, and will not hesitate to sit down at the same table with her, allow her to use his chair, etc.; whereas, if he be a pious man, devoted to the Talmud and the contemplation of its obscure teachings, his wife has to work for him and their numerous children. Once in possession of the purse-strings, she rules the household, and not infrequently relieves her feelings by throwing the wise man's soup at his head instead of letting one of her sons serve him with it. The wives of these Rabbis are generally hardworking, energetic women, and a Jewess who does a factor's work in one of the settlements, or hawks and sells things in the Jewish quarters, almost invariably has a pious husband at home or in some Bethamidrasz. Her children when old enough will help her, and as a rule the father wants for nothing as long as he lives, and the chances are ten to one that his first-born son will follow in his footsteps and find a wife to work for him. His happiest days are spent in waiting upon other wiser men, or giving advice upon important questions to some great Rabbi.

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