David Giora: Inside the great Synagogue

Since the day father abandoned the Minsk Hasidic shtibl, we were associated whole heartedly to the Great Synagogue.

This magnificent synagogue was built on the ruins of the former synagogue, which was built of wood and burned during a mysterious fire. A legend (or, perhaps, a true story) was circulating in our town that the ancient synagogue was burned down as a result of not accepting a certain rabbi for a position in our city. What does that mean?

Well, I was told that one day the city was without a Rabbi. A candidate came to the city, and the community officials decided not to accept him for the job. He went out of the city and outside, turned to his companions and said, “As you have shamed me, so shall you be shamed, the parishioners and all the members of the community”. At that moment a terrible fire broke out and destroyed the entire synagogue and its holy contents. It is hard to believe today that a great rabbi would issue such a curse that would lead to the destruction of a house of prayer over the objects of his sanctity, but a story remains a story.

How long was the place stood idly by I do not know. My grandmother, Chaya Leah, said that when the new synagogue was built, women removed their jewelry and buried them in the foundations of the synagogue in order to glorify its status.

When someone wanted to pray at the Great Synagogue, he must have had a Stat (i.e. own a seat, for which he paid good money). On Saturdays it was still possible to take up vacant space on one of the benches that belonged to the wealthy.

When my father prayed at the Minsk Hasidic Shtibl, he certainly had a place to sit, because there everyone was equal. In the Great Synagogue, in comparison, I have not had the privilege to be among those who sit in permanent seats, like my uncle Leibtz’a, my aunt Binie’s husband, who had such a seat.

On the holidays, on the other hand, and especially on the High Holy Days, the “simple” people (including my father) had the back benches near wide tables that did not resemble the benches on which sat the able-bodied. At the back tables there was always a terrible density, and it was mainly disturbing when you wanted to get out (for the bathroom, for example). Despite everything it was worth huddling to hear the singing and praying.

The Great Synagogue was located in a square of land that belonged to the Jewish community. In addition to the Great Synagogue, the square contained the Great Beit Midrash, located on Filsodskiigo Street, but the entrance was through the large courtyard, which housed the Great Synagogue. In the same block of buildings were also the offices of the community and community stores (di Kolisha Gesheften).

The main entrance to the synagogue’s courtyard was on Rinak steri, but it could also be entered from the east, that is, Berek Iosalaibitz Street. Near the entrance to the Great Beit Midrash was a smaller Beit Midrash called “Hevrat Mishniyot” where our acquaintance Velvel Orlovsky used to pray. On the northern side of the synagogue resided the ancient Jewish cemetery.

It is interesting to note that next to a synagogue, among the Jewish community stores, were a number of butchers’ shops. This would not have been considered unusual, had it not been for the fact that in one of them, right next to the entrance to the courtyard of the synagogue, used to hang hunted rabbits. From this I understand that they (perhaps?) did not sell kosher meat. Today it is hard for me to understand how it was that the city’s leaders allowed selling non-kosher meat at the entrance to the synagogue.

Behind the butchers’ shops were the public toilets for use by the worshipers. The synagogue had three women’s wards. Two from each side, one of which overlooked the burial ground of the ancient cemetery, and on the other side the courtyard leading to the Beit Midrash. The main gallery was on the second floor at the rear of the synagogue. In the synagogue was a balcony above the main entrance. I had never seen a anyone standing there.

The entrance to the synagogue comprised of three gates. One of them was always wide open, and the others were used in the rush hours. Stairs led all the way to the gates, so that there was a stairwell into the synagogue, as it is written, “From the depths I called you, oh Lord”.

On the left side was the Geniza. What was inside it? Many parchments and papers. I rarely went to look. I’ve always found it full and crowded. This side of the synagogue bordered the main entrance to the women’s section, so that it had no windows. Compared with that – on the south side and all along, was the tailors’ Synagogue. What kind of privilege was it for the tailors to be among the elite of the worshipers, who were honored in the building of the Great Synagogue? I do not know. I assume that when they built this synagogue, the tailors in the city formed a lobby and apparently contributed generously to its establishment, so they were partners in this great mitzvah.

I cannot help but mention the Holy Ark (Aron Ha’Kodesh) and the eastern wall of the synagogue and the ceiling. Father told me that for the decoration of the eastern wall and the ceiling, Christian artists were brought from Italy. I can only note that the eastern wall was pure wood. In other words, on the brick wall, beautiful wooden carvings were installed; including musical instruments such as violins, trumpets and all that were mentioned in the work of the Temple. At the beginning of the staircase, which led to the Ark, laid two lions carved of wood and holding light bulbs in the their open jaws (a photograph of the east wall is shown in the Siedlce memorial book).

The ceiling was a kind of heaven. What do I mean, “Heaven”? I could not imagine how a man climbed to such a great height and created such a wonderful kingdom of stars. More than once my father would pull my sleeve while praying, as I was looking up at the sky and counting the many stars.

All week the synagogue was almost locked, or rarely opened for special events. On Fridays and Saturdays, as well as on Jewish holidays, the synagogue was alive. On days like this, the place was too narrow to accommodate all those who wished to enter its gates.


Hebrew version written by David Giora.
Translated from Hebrew by Mr. Yuval Romano.