Shtetl Routes. Vestiges of Jewish cultural heritage in cross-border tourism in borderland of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine


Shtetl Routes. Vestiges of Jewish cultural heritage in cross-border tourism in borderland of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine


NN Theatre

Berele Lamed-Waw-nik

From Jewish Majses. Stories from Józefów based on the Yizkor-Buch – a commemoration book of Józefów Jews. Shortened, improved and commented by Yaron Karol Becker.

Synagoga w Józefowie Biłgorajskim
Synagoga w Józefowie Biłgorajskim (Author: nieznany)

Ok, it’s enough beating about the bush and playing smart. It is high time to speak about genuine wonders, not some far-fetched ones, questionable in their “miraculous essence”. That is why I will tell you a story about Rebe Berele Ha-Shammash from Józefów (shammash in Hebrew), who was probably one of thirty six tzadiks, Lamed-Waw-niks, through whose piety the world exists.

Once upon a time, a good and honest man lived in Józefów. His name was Berele. Berele was a care-taker (shammash) of Bet Ha-Midrash (Torah House of study by the synagogue that can also be housed in the building of the synagogue itself, corresponding to the principle – Torah place of study next to its place of worship). Berele wasn’t an ambitious person. He didn’t demand much, nor complained much about life and its misfortunes. There were no fame or power cravings in his dreams. The scope of his everyday duties looked pretty simple: waking up the faithful of Józefów community before the morning prayer, taking care of the synagogue (to make sure it was clean, warm and bright in the shrine), and providing guests from far away with sleep accommodation after their long journey. The work he was entrusted with Berele handled properly, putting all his heart in it. Anyhow, you would find out for yourself a bit later – he had been be the one, touched by “the Finger of God”.

However, let’s not put the cart before the horse.

One beautiful day in Józefów was marked by arrival of a Jew from Tomaszów Lubelski and his blind wife. Strange though it may seem, they weren’t looking for a synagogue or some lodging, the reason of their visit was shammash Berele, to whom they had a curious request. The couple decided to turn to him at the behest of the rabbi from Bełżec, who was adamant, that it was only in Reb Berele’s power to help the poor sightless girl.

Upon hearing such news, thunderstruck Berele dropped to his knees. Shivering with fear, he started to wail: “Why has the rabbi from Bełżec singled me out? Who am I? What am I? I am nothing but a poor shammash, a beggar. What can I do? Nothing. I am merely suitable for one task – to wake up Jews for the morning prayer, to serve God…”

Eventually Berele addressed the guests: “What can I tell you? I do not know. Come back to that rabbi and tell him that shammash from Józefów doesn’t have a clue, what it is all about. And leave me alone…”

Bełżec rabbi saw red on the sight of those poor souls standing in front of him for the second time. He exclaimed: “I have already told you, that you must have turned to shammash from Józefów. He is the one who can help you!”

Having no other alternative, the lame ducks headed to Józefów again. There they swore to shammash to stay rooted to the spot even if they had to sleep rough for the whole year.

Berele begged them: “Reb Id, a good man, I am simply a humble insignificant shammash. What on earth can I do for you?” The couple, nevertheless, was determined: “Rabbi from Bełżec told us to come to you, since you would help the poor woman to see light of the day. Take pity on her, Saint Man!”

In response to such words, shammash raised his hands to the sky and, bottling up the tears and sobs, which were tearing his chest apart, called out to the God: “The problems we are facing are as immense and lengthy as Jewish exile! Who will help me?!”

The Jew from Tomaszów didn’t waste his words. He and his wife didn’t leave Bet Ha-Midrash night and day. Rebe Berele could not stand their misfortunes any longer. His heart went out to the poor couple and he provided them with a decent board.

One day at the crack of dawn, when Berele had just returned from his morning errands, having woken up the faithful of the town for an early prayer, a couple from Tomaszów emerged in the empty Bet Ha-Midrash. Devout woman dropped to her knees, entwined Berele’s legs with her arms as biblical Hannah in Shilo clung to priest Eli’s legs and cried out: “How much longer will you torture me? How much longer?! Do something! Help me!

A kind heart of our shammash could not resist such pleas, especially when he spotted crystal-clean tears in the eyes of the blind. Tear-drops were rolling of her white innocent chicks and falling on the ground. Then, for the second time Berele raised his hands in the direction of the sky and pronounced: “Dear God, I want to ask you something. Why have you given me this big heart that beats in my chest, if my hands are so weak and helpless… At least for once in life, give me a notion in the depth of my heart… What should I do? How should I treat this poor soul?” Suddenly, happened something impossible to explain. It is not clear what made Berele do the next move, but he put his hand in the hip-pocket of his trousers, drew a red handkerchief out and dried the tears of the crying girl with it…

On the following day the Jew from Tomaszów and his wife vanished. They say the girl, having seen the light of the sun, was dancing all the way from the central square in Józefów to Tomaszów, whilst her elated husband was scampering behind and shouting at the top of his voice: “Wonders, wonders in Józefów!”