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

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Placing kvitlekh on the tomb of Reb Mayerl

Apt may not have been a major moment on the Polish map but it was an important town on the Jewish map. Apt was known as a rabbinic town. It was the home of many famous rabbis. Reb Mayerl had a great reputation as a religious scholar and a holy man. He had many admirers. One of the most important dates in the life of our town was the anniversary of the demise of Reb Mayerl in 1723. I read in the memorial book for my town how people would come to Apt from near and far to visit his grave. They would pray, recite the psalms, light candles, and leave kvitlekh, written petitions, on his grave. They hoped that he would intervene with the Almighty on their behalf. People would request a groom for an unmarried daughter, a male child, a cure for an ailment, or economic success.

For the note to be effective, it had to be written in the Holy Tongue. Although most Jews could read the prayerbook in Hebrew-Aramaic, many did not know how to write in the sacred language. Anyone who could write Hebrew would trundle out a table and chair and set up shop along the Jewish Street, which ran from the synagogue to the Jewish cemetery. In the two centuries since Reb Mayerl's death, the town had developed a whole new industry--shraybn kvitlekh (writing petitions). For a few pennies, the town's teachers and their students would write a petition. They had a very busy day.

With petitions in hand, the followers of Reb Mayerl would go to the cemetery. There was much coming and going from the oyl, a little building on the cemetery that housed the graves of holy persons. The literal meaning of the word oyl (Yiddish) or ohel (Hebrew) is tent. Only the most holy men were honored in this way. There were graves for three holy men in the oyl: Reb Mayerl, Reb Yekele, and Reb Shmulekhl. Hundreds of people crowded the path to and from Reb Mayerl's grave. They had to run a gauntlet of beggars, lined up along each side of the path and pulled at the corners of the kapotes, the long coats, of all the men who passed. The beggars vied for their attention and implored them for a few pennies. This was before my time.