As sundown approached, and Shabbat drew near, Sarah took two fresh halla loaves from the rack. She left, hiding them under her apron. Once outside the bakery, she held one in each hand, placed behind her back. She knew that the poor Jews in Szydlow, a small town in southern Poland, bought the little they could afford as the Friday sun sank.
As she walked, the hallot always behind her back, out of sight, they were taken by the needy. Just a muttered or whispered “Thank you.”
She never saw their faces. She did not want to see them in their neediness; her glance would enhance their shame. “To give in secret,” not to know the recipient, not to shame them.
She returned as her husband, Israel David, was closing and locking up. “Yoh, yoh, Sureh,” he said in the Yiddish accent of the area, “Yes, yes, Sarah, I know, I know.”
This is a true story.
Such was the practice until the Nazis came. She, once plump and smiley, widowed and wizened, was marched off toward a distant ghetto. She died on that march.
Yes, yes, Sarah...
IN THE nearby town of Lagow, it was time to light the Sabbath candles. Gittel gathered her four daughters by her side; the two sons were already in the New World. “Wait a few moments before we light them.” By lighting the candles she was defining the entry of Shabbat.
“Wait a few moments. Perhaps there are still Jewish travelers on the road. Give them a few moments to get home so they shouldn’t desecrate the Sabbath.”
This too is a true story.
WHY WRITE about bread when we enter upon the days when bread is forbidden? The Passover Seder begins with the Aramaic words, usually translated as “This is the bread of affliction.”
They could just as well be translated “the bread of suffering,” or the “bread of poverty.” I prefer the translation, “This is the poor bread our ancestors ate in the Land of Egypt.”
Poland before World War II had many poor and unemployed Jews, afflicted by official anti-Semitism and living in poverty. I seem to recollect reading that a third of the 3 million Jews pre-WWII lived with help of funds sent by the Joint (the American Joint Distribution Committee) or from relatives. Of course, it also had comfortable middle-class Jews, and the very rich: bankers, industrialists, and the like. Sarah, the baker’s wife, knew that there were hungry Jews, poor Jews, and shared loaves with them.
Gittel, worried about making Jews transgress the Sabbath, ended up bed-ridden in Canada, afflicted with an increasing paralytic palsy that today would be called Parkinson’s disease.
What describes both is a natural compassion.
Theirs was simple and true compassion that stemmed from their souls. It was an almost inevitable result of living among Jews who practiced Judaism without fanfare, who practiced simply. Not for them the ostentation. Not for them the $10,000 wigs, and the fancy clothes for the Jewish Easter parade which characterize too many synagogues in too many countries. Their wigs were plain, their clothes, within their limited resources as fine as possible, perhaps some hand embroidery. A string of pearls was a treasure saved for Shabbat and holy days.
Just natural compassion. At another time, I might ask why, if they were so compassionate, did they end life as they did. But it is the eve of a joyous holiday, so I will put off for another occasion that old Talmudic conundrum: How is it that a righteous man can have a hard life, and the evil man “has it good”? The compassion of these two women was, to use a term proposed by the brilliant American professor Haym Soloveitchik, “mnemonic,” a remembered and imitative Jewishness, customs and practices handed down by example. Sarah and Gittel did not go by the book. They could not go by the book, because they could not read that book. They were able to read the prayer book, and psalms, but not the literature of Jewish law.
Today, more and more people go by the book, the written letter. There are many reasons for this, ranging from yeshiva-inculcated strictness to the need of new-born religious men and women to rely on the book because they did not have someone to imitate.
I hope, sometimes even believe, that most of us wish to act with compassion and many of us do. I hope it comes from the heart and not just from a book of laws. Natural compassion for the afflicted, for those who eat poor bread, feelings and action not tethered to the book but tethered to the soul.
These stories of Sarah of Szydlow and Gittel of Lagow are true. How do you know, you ask? They are true because they were witnessed by their offspring, who related the stories to me.
Sarah and Gittel were my grandmothers.
While enjoying the bread of freedom, we can create in our homes and land the example of compassion which becomes ingrained. That is why I write this, a tale worth telling. A story of poor Passover bread. A story of travelers on muddy roads and treacherous paths. A tale of compassion. A tale of two grandmothers.Avraham Avi-hai has served across six decades in many official and public capacities in Israel. He is an author of both serious studies and fiction. His columns on Israel’s early prime ministers dwell on their human face. This column is dedicated to the memory of his old friend and comrade Yehuda Avner.