July 20, 2024
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July 20, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Part I: Reb Nachman Arrives in America

Rabbi Nachman’s perilous journey from a small town in Poland to Bergen County in the spring of 1849 took almost four months. He shipped out from Gdansk on a lengthy, storm-tossed sea voyage, stopping in Hamburg, Germany, Bristol, England, and, finally, Philadelphia on a four-masted schooner that carried mostly freight and few passengers to the United States. Back in Miedrycicz in Poland, Nachman, at 25 years old, had learned the trade of a vinegar maker, or, in the local phrase, an “essek macher.” His Polish skills would serve him well in the new land of America, he thought, as vinegar had many industrial and domestic uses worldwide.

“I’ll find a job somewhere making vinegar,” he confidently concluded as he made his way from the busy waterfront where he had disembarked. Philadelphia was a bustling city, and as he walked, he noticed not far away a pawnbroker’s shop with a mezuzah on the doorway. Inside sat a fellow Jew at a desk, making entries into a large notebook.

“Excuse me,” began Reb Nachman in his broken English. He introduced himself in one or two short sentences and the storekeeper smiled:

“My name is Gottleib. Yakov Gottleib. Welcome to Philadelphia!”

Gottleib, situated as his shop was near to the harbor, was familiar with new arrivals and soon made arrangements with some friends to provide a place for Nachman to stay while he was getting settled in his new country.

“We have a small but thriving kehillah here, with one kosher butcher and a shul with a minyan—at least on Shabbos and Yom Tov!”

All this was good news to Reb Nachman. With directions from Gottleib, he found his way to Liberty Street at the corner of Boston Road and the red brick home of Dr. Henry Schwartz, the parnes of the Jewish community in Philadelphia. Nachman stood at the tall entranceway for a moment before raising the large brass knocker.

In a moment, the front door opened to reveal a uniformed man who announced himself as follows:

“I am Jeffers, who should I say wishes to see Dr. Schwartz?”

Before Reb Nachman could answer, a short, busy man with bushy sideburns, no beard, but wearing a satin skullcap on his head, interrupted:

“I’m here, Jeffers; from the looks of things this visitor has traveled quite a distance to get here. Let’s offer him a place to sit down and something to eat or drink!”

“As you wish, sir.”

They led Reb Nachman into what appeared to be a library of some sort, with tall bookcases on all sides filled with every sort of volumes imaginable. Schwartz sat opposite Nachman on a comfortable sofa chair.

“Brink us some cakes and water, if you will.”

Jeffers disappeared for several minutes, returning with the requested items. Nachman accepted the glass of water offered him, but hesitated to taste any of the cakes displayed before him.

Schwartz, who spoke a smattering of Yiddish, began to converse with the new arrival. (For the reader’s convenience, I will translate all that passed between the two new acquaintances into English even though the words were originally expressed in a combination of English, Hebrew, Yiddish and Polish):

“We bake all our own breads and cakes, rabbi, so you can partake.”

Reb Nachman thanked his host and selected several pieces of sponge cake; it had been a while since he had last eaten, so he downed them with gusto. After this brief repast, Dr. Schwartz invited the rabbi to remain as his guest “for as long as it took to get settled.” As it turned out, as it was Friday, and Reb Nachman knew no one else in Philadelphia, he eagerly accepted the generous invitation. Dr. Schwartz, whose wife and daughter were visiting relatives in New York for the summer, was happy to have a guest in his large house in their absence. He graciously showed Reb Nachman to an upstairs room where he could make himself at home. Reb Nachman stretched out on the comfortable bed, a distinct improvement over the hard-backed pallet on which he had reclined on his rocky trip across the Atlantic. The rabbi soon fell asleep and dreamed of faraway Poland and his now-distant family.

Downstairs, Dr. Schwartz decided that, despite the language gap between them, he would make an effort that night to learn as much about his new guest as possible:

“Tell me more about your vinegar business back home,” asked Dr. Schwartz, as they finished their Friday night Shabbat meal later that evening. Schwartz held a doctorate in chemistry at the university in Philadelphia and was familiar with all kinds of fermentation processes. He wondered if the Poles utilized the same methods used in America to produce their vinegar.

Also around the Shabbat table that night sat Schwartz’s neighbor, Anschel Ross, who was fluent in both Yiddish and English; with Ross’ help, Dr. Schwartz was able to converse in more detail with Reb Nachman who was quickly reaching the limits of his familiarity with the English language. The gist of Reb Nachman’s reply follows:

“We use what you might call ‘double fermentation’ to produce vinegar in Poland: First we convert sugar or starch into alcohol and then we subject the alcohol product to a second fermentation that produces vinegar. You see, the word ‘vinegar’ means ‘sour wine.’ In Poland we use it mostly as a food additive or preservative, but also as an antiseptic:

“Do you have pickles in Philadelphia, Doctor?” suddenly asked the rabbi.

The doctor assured Reb Nachman that they did indeed.

“Then you use vinegar exactly the way we do back home,” Reb Nachman suggested.

Dr. Schwartz turned the discussion of vinegar in the following direction:

“You know, we have need in our growing country of people with knowledge of producing important materials such as vinegar; I’m certain given enough time I can find some kind of work for you, Nachman, in this field. Let me explore the situation after Shabbat. I’ll take it upon myself to help you get started.”

“Thank you so much!” was all the rabbi could say wholeheartedly.

“Before we retire for the night, however,” added Dr. Schwartz, “tell me something about your family back in Poland. I’m interested in how Jews live in different parts of the world.”

“We’re simple folk, really,” said Reb Nachman. “We study the holy books, attend yeshivas, but most work in professions as well. With notable exceptions we are not what you would consider wealthy, but in my family we don’t measure wealth strictly in material terms: modesty, spirituality and communal responsibility are of equal or more importance in my family.”

“What a noble sentiment,” thought Dr. Schwartz. “Your parents did a good job in instilling those qualities in their children.”

“It goes back further than one generation, I would say,” replied Reb Nachman. “For you see, according to our family traditions I am a direct descendant of Rav Yehudah Loew, the Maharal of Prague!”

“That’s amazing,” exclaimed Dr. Schwartz. “The Maharal and his works are well known in these parts. Why, even though he lived almost 250 years ago, he is recognized today as one of the greatest legal scholars, philosophers and moralists of his time. Not to mention his legendary exploits in defense of the Czech Jewish community from the religious bigotry of their neighbors!”

“Yes, indeed, we are very proud of the Maharal and his accomplishments. According to my great-grandmother, who inherited several of his original manuscripts, the Maharal kept a secret diary that described in minute detail how he created the famous Golem that protected the Prague community from false blood libel accusations, though I don’t know if it exists or its whereabouts.” (Reb Nachman was not being completely truthful in regard to the Maharal’s manuscripts, for in fact as we shall learn he had brought one such volume with him to America.)

“Fascinating, just fascinating,” mused Dr. Schwartz. “We’ll talk more about this tomorrow, Reb Nachman. I must learn more about your illustrious ancestor!”

Joseph Rotenberg, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Link, has resided in Teaneck for over 45 years with his wife, Barbara. His first collection of short stories and essays, titled “Timeless Travels: Tales of Mystery, Intrigue, Humor and Enchantment,” was published in 2018 by Gefen Books and is available online at Amazon.com. He is currently working on a follow-up volume of stories and essays.

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