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

The Great Synagogue

Yakov Hetman, Sefer izkor le-kehilat Luboml [Yizkor book of Luboml], Editor: Berl Kahan, Tel Aviv 1974 (H, Y, E 390 pages)

The Great Synagogue

The Great Synagogue was the glory of the city and source of its pridethough not the center of its religious life. The Jews of the city pointed from afar to the fortifications surrounding it, to the slope of its thick wallsbut they did not hurry inside. It had majesty and mystery and even ceremonybut no warmth. To the non-Jews this was the representative synagoguebut to the Jews it was a minor place of worship.

During the week no one prayed there, and only on the Sabbath were its doors opened wide, though only a few minyanim [groups of ten men for prayer] came. The regular worshippers were largely the common folks, and there were very few householders (baaley batim). This was also the only place in the city where the service was conducted according to the Ashkenazic rite, whereas in the rest of the places of worship they prayed in "Sephardic" style, according to Chasidic custom.

But in spite of this, and sometimes unconsciously, the synagogue was the symbol of the greatness of the Jewish community in the town and the place for mass gatheringsin times of trouble and sadness, festivity and mourning. During holidays and festivals, and on those days when the "congregation should be called together," people instinctively came to the Great Synagogue.

The Great Synagogue was a brick structure of mammoth proportions, basically square, and there were windows about two stories high looking out of the thick walls. Above stood an encircling parapet with turrets in the middle, each one with two round holes. The whole building resembled an ancient fortress, and it was obvious to all that the round openings served as firing slots for thedefenders of the fort.

The synagogue was located in the center of town, at one corner of the marketplace. Its front the eastern side, facing the marketwas separated from the market by houses belonging to the Getman-Hetman, Natanson, and Shapiro familiesthough the top of the synagogue looked out above these houses and could be seen from afar.

From the three other sides, there were no houses close to the building and it was possible to pass close to it except for a fenced-off section on the southern side. The entrance to the synagogue was through the poolish [anteroom], with doors on the north and south. Outside, next to the southern door of the poolish, they used to set up the chuppah on Friday afternoons for young couples being married, and inside the northern gate was the genizah, where all the tattered remnants of unusable holy books, outworn tefillin [phylacteries], etc., were brought.

Within the poolish, on the synagogue's western wall, was the grand entrance in the shape of a high, broad arch resting on grand pillarsand the heavy, double wooden door, fortified with thick iron plates. The key to this door was no ordinary key, but a rather solid piece of metal, a foot long, and whoever was entrusted with it was the classic "key keeper."

And here, precisely next to the main entryway, one stopped momentarily to glance at the alms box, of which we could see only the outer metal door and the large lock that fastened it. Secondly, one looked to see whether any non-Jewish farmers and their families who had come to pray to the Jewish God in times of trouble were leaning against the wallsfor it was a known factt hat if a horse had been stolen or the pigs died of the plague, it was a proven panacea to come on market day to the gate of the Great Synagogue, to make a contribution and then kneel down and pray.

Now we are inside, in the front part of the synagogue, above which is the women's section, and so the ceiling is low. Here, next to the entry, are traces of heavy iron chains, and they said that these were remnants of the koneh, the place where punishment by whipping took place.

On both sides of the gate are two huge locked wooden chests. What was inside them? This was revealed on the night of Simchat Torah, when hundreds of imperfect, and therefore unusable, scrolls were taken out and used for the processions. And another large chest stood nearby, filled with sand and the foreskins of the children who had been circumcised. A huge antique chair stood thereElijah's chairon which it was customary for godfathers to sit when a circumcision took place in the synagogue.

Finally we are standing in the interior of the synagogue. All around, at the height of one and a half stories, are smooth stone walls, and above that, at the height of the second story, high, arched windows, in which one could see the width of the walls, about three feet thick; and above the windows, as if at the top of the third floor, the curving arches of the synagogue roof, from which chandeliers of crystal and ivory hung down until they virtually reached the levels where the people sat.

All around on the walls, under the windows, and on the retaining wall of the women's gallery on the western side, were pictures of variousscenesthe primeval ox and the Leviathan, musical instruments from the Temple and emblems of the 12 tribes. Only the eastern wall was pure white, without pictures or adornments, and against this background stood the magnificent Holy Ark, with the two traditional lions on either side, as well as engravings of various tree branches.

This was no ordinary ark but a grandiose artistic creation, sculpted of stone and painted in a rainbow of colors. The lectern for the prayer leader was below, in a hollow below the floor level of the rest of the synagogue, so that the phrase "from the depths have I called you" could be carried out literally.

To the left of the prayer lectern was a high stairway that began as a framework of a decorated metal archway and brass crafted doors, continuing upwards until it reached the Holy Ark itself, where on both sides there rose a metal retaining wall, on wooden stands. The ark was sculpted of stone and reached almost to the ceiling, fashioned of carved pillars, cherubim, crossbows, flowers and plants, and other artistic forms, one atop the other until they arrived in a position of cherubic wings, spread out to each other; and all this painted in beautiful colors...

When I saw for the first time colored pictures of the ark in the Holy Ari Synagogue in Safed, I saw a resemblance in the figures and colors to the synagogue in Luboml. Only when I managed to actually visit the synagogue in Safed did I see that there was no comparison. Its ark is nothing more than an artistic wooden carving of the outer frame, possibly using as a model the ark in Luboml or a similar one elsewhere. But this cannot be compared to the one in Luboml, which was carved out of stone, rising more than one story high.

This ark ennobled the entire Great Synagogue, and when the priests stood on the stairs leading up to the ark, one next to the other, blessing the people "with love," it was as if wings spread out from on high and covered the people below. From these steps the fiery words of rabbis and preachers, and lectures by guests were often heard. Embittered women often ran up and down those stairs, to open the ark and to try to reverse and avert a terrible fate with their tears and wailings.

And in the middle of the synagogue stood the lectern (bima). Four thick stone pillars supported a giant dome, and in the middle, on a raised platform, reached by stairs on both sides, north and south, stood a large oak table for the reading of the Torah. This is where the shofar was blown, this is where the departed souls were recalled. And note that in the Great Synagogue the memorial services were unique, lasting a long time, for it was the custom to read aloud from the community ledger the names of all who had died, a figure reaching into the thousands. Here, too one could see and touch the two ancient Torah crowns, which according to the inscriptions were more than 400 years old.

Throughout the year it was a bit sad to come to the synagogue. The place was too large, too imposing for the sparse number of worshippers, who came as if to honor the holy place. But during two months of the year, Elul and Tishri, the synagogue wore majesty and greatness and drew many thousands. It was a custom that on the New Year all the old Torah mantles were put on the walls. Metal wire was strung beneath the windows and all the mantles were hung there on ringsmantles of many ages, sizes, and colors, shining with silver and gold, gleaming with scarlet and azure.

Suddenly the synagogue took on a new look, the glorious look given by velvet and embroidery, the gleam of letters and colors, and one never tired of this beautiful sight, looking for the remnants of the distant past.

And through the entire month of Elul, until after the High Holy Days and Sukkot, it was possible to learn the history of the synagogue and of the Jewish community in Luboml. The most attention was drawn by a huge, grayish-white Torah mantle whose permanent place was to the right of the Holy Ark (to the left of the viewer). What was special about the mantle, which was six feet long and thirteen feet high, was the fact that its decorations and letters were not embroidered but composed on layers of silver sewn directly onto the mantle. Miraculously, the letters remained on the material for hundreds of years, and it was possible to read the year it was dedicated-500 years earlierand the name of the donor, as well.

Unfortunately no one thought of copying exactly what was on this mantlenor did anyone think of copying down the ages of the Torahs themselves.

The special atmosphere was heightened during the High Holy Days. Nowhere else was there a shofar as curved and as large as the one in the Great Synagogue; nowhere else was there an ancient Pinkas [ledger] with the names of thousands of those who had passed away; and nowhere else was there a chest full of hundreds of defective Torah scrolls.

On the eve of Yom Kippur, when the floor of the synagogue was covered with fresh hay so people could walk without shoes, the fragrance would reach you and fill the air with a unique sort of feeling: and when the women's sectionsthe one at the upper exit across from the Holy Ark, and the one below in the northern, low-ceilinged section of the synagoguewere filled with the weeping an d shouting of hundreds of women praying, it was an unusual experience, not an everyday occurrence; and when, on Simchat Torah evening, the synagogue filled with men, women and children, in addition to non-Jews who came to join the Jews' celebrationit was a sight never to be forgotten.

It's unlikely that this scene could have been repeated hundreds of Jews carrying hundreds of Torahs, dancing through the hakafot (traditional processions). It was a wonderful scene when they lifted the covers of the two huge runks and started to distribute Torahs to the whole congregation, without limit, more and more, hundreds of Torah scrollsand the crowd came and pushed itself in and the wave kept pushing, and the hearts warmed up and faces became excited. This night of Simchat Torah was the greatest night of the Grand Synagogue.

The holidays passed and once again the synagogue stood in awesome loneliness, while still serving as a point of pride and a basis for tales about the prayers of the dead at midnight, of spirits and devils and leprechauns and other fanciful figures landing on the roof. A few boys were brave enough to try climbing up to the outdoor doorway of the roof, but they would not dare go inside. This is where imagination and egends ruled.

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