They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust

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The Black Wedding

The memorial book for Apt recounts how a holy rabbi helped the town during a cholera epidemic in 1892. Every few days someone died. In a community of about six thousand, that was a calamity. Prominent citizens went to the holy rabbi, imploring him to say a few prayers to the Almighty. Maybe the epidemic would subside. The rabbi thoughtfully replied, "Let's try a wedding on the Jewish cemetery. Perhaps the dearly departed will intervene with the Holy One to help." It is considered a great mitsve, or good deed, to help the poor to marry. All that was needed was a bride and groom.

The matchmakers got busy. In town there was a young bachelor who was supported by the community. His job was to clean the communal bath. Each week he drained the water and replaced it with a fresh supply. He also kept the fire going in the mikve, the ritual bath, so that the water would always be hot. He lived in the hegdesh, a room where the burial society kept the implements for cleaning the dead for burial. Itinerant beggars also slept there. On being approached, the young man gladly accepted.

Now a bride was needed. There was in town a young lady, an orphan. In Yiddish, it is enough to have lost one parent to be an orphan. This woman had lost both parents. She was what is called a kaylakhdike yesoyme, a round orphan, because she had absolutely no relatives. In exchange for a place to sleep on top of the oven, her daily bread, and a few cast-off clothes, she did the housework for a well-to-do family. She received no wages. On being approached she also gladly agreed.

A proclamation was issued in the synagogue, the houses of study, and the Jewish schools that a black wedding, a shvartse khasene, would be held on the cemetery at a designated time. Everyone was to attend. On the appointed day, the whole town, including people from the surrounding villages, streamed into the cemetery. They gathered near the oyl, the little building housing the graves of holy rabbis. The sexton brought a wedding canopy. The bride wore a donated wedding dress. The rabbi conducted the ceremony. Many people shed a tear on this solemn occasion.

The community donated gifts and food. A table was set up with a small barrel of vodka, glasses, and large joints of roasted mutton. Everyone wished each other a long life. When the assembly was already a little tipsy, Yankl Krokowski, the badkhn  or master of ceremonies, stood on a stool and announced that the time had come to call out the wedding gifts. Seeing as this poor couple had no home, the appeal went out for cash donations. Everyone reached into their pockets and in a short time the iron pot was full of money. When it became too heavy to hold, Yankl set the pot down on the table. He regaled the company with jokes and songs. The band struck up a lively tune, and everyone, men, women, and children, danced. Reb Zvi Hirsh, who officiated at the wedding, stepped into the large circle of dancers. Small in stature, head held high, his eyes looking toward the sky, his beard and sidelocks flying, Reb Zvi Hirsh began to dance. He invited the newlyweds to join him in the obligatory mitsve tants . The merriment continued late into the night. Sure enough the epidemic subsided in a few days.