From a visit to Berdichev in 1911
by Hillel Zeitlin
If a visitor to Berdichev wishes to hear a typical Jewish melody, let him listen to Reb Nisson Belzer’s protégé. If it is Berdichever Chassidic song he desires, he should go to the Karliner shteibel (small synagogue).
When the holy Shabbos departs, and the Berdichever week arrives with its barrenness, darkness and destitution, the Karliner Chassidim are still aflame. Their ecstasy has just begun, and they don’t even dream of bidding farewell to the Shabbos Queen. I heard their singing from afar one Motza’ei Shabbos and couldn’t detect even a hint of sorrow. Now they are sitting in the palace of the Divine Presence — how can they bother themselves with hunger and pain, poverty and gloom? To be sure, each one of them has his own bundle of suffering at home. To be sure these burdens are difficult to bear. To be sure, many have aging daughters to marry off, bills and rent and tuition to pay, and an empty money-box to cover all expenses. If G-d so decrees, he must attempt to heal wife and children — and one is himself a bit sick. Old age encroaches, one’s strength begins to fad, the world is stricken, there is no sustenance. Tear yourself apart, but what will you accomplish? One sits at the King’s table, and when the Holy One, blessed be He, is present, there is no room for worry. We Jews have a G-d who lives forever. The merit of Shabbos will stand by us. The old Karliner Rebbe is surely a good advocate over there. Besides, why worry when we know that everything our Father does is for the good? ” Even when I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me …” However, if he would like to hear an altogether different sort of melody, if he would like to hear a melody born of the deepest and most difficult sorrow, if one would like to see ecstasy which is not the result of emotionalism or fervor but only of the most profound, lucid knowledge, if one would like to to see how men can actually walk upon the earth and yet not be here, let him forbear to traverse the muddy Berdichever streets, let him cling to the crooked alleyways, let him pass by the ancient cemetery, the broad desolate field where the night-shadows fall on orphaned hills, and where one lonely, leafless tree at the edge of the meadow can bring one to tears. Afterwards, let him also pass the so-called “Lebedige (Lively) Shul” — the shul nearest the old graveyard. Let him pass by many other such shuls, let him absorb the Jewish dejection and the special melancholy which can be felt in Jewish settlements. When the divinity of Shabbos is about to depart from her children, and dark reality peers out with her lackluster eyes, let him then betake himself to the shteibel of the Breslover Chassidim.
Let him bring along his own broken spirit. Let him prop himself up in a dark comer and hear sigh after sigh from the Breslover Chassidim. who sit around the table, listening to their Rebbe’s teachings. Let him feel in their sighs an expression of the speaker’s words, “Such a yearning for G-d that it is unbearable.” Let him listen well to what is being said. Let him not trouble himself that this or that interpretation of Scripture is not so smooth or tidy or may be open to various objections.
Let him hear the main point. Let him hear the tenor of the words, the greatest of simplicity that emerges with the greatest wisdom, the most profound insights mentioned in passing without any indication that here whole worlds have been laid bare, gradually touching upon everything that exists on earth and raising it up to the heavens.
Let him feel here the cosmic pathos which after the moment of inner liberation must be transformed to cosmic joy. Let him feel that here hovers the spirit of the great rebbe, Reb Nachman of Breslov, who lifts men up from the darkest depths of hell to the highest everlasting light. Let him later observe how silently, one by one, the Chassidim leave the table, join hands, form a circle and begin to dance. In this dance not one awkward move can be detected, for every turn, every gesture, every inclination has been refined, ennobled, sanctified to the loftiest level.
You look, but you cannot believe your eyes. They seem to be ordinary people, simple Jews, not great scholars, perhaps not scholars at all. They look like common laborers and porters, yet such inwardness, depth of feeling, and clarity of insight, such spirituality in every gesture, every footstep, and every note of song is impossible to find elsewhere.
All the days of my childhood were spent among Chassidim, and in my life I have had occasion to hear and to see various kinds of Chassidic singing and dancing, including some exceptional melodies from the old Chabad Chassidim. But I never heard or saw anything equal to what I experienced in that poorly lit, forlorn shteibel of the Breslover Chassidim in Berdichev. Their joy is a true joy, and their song is a song of redemption. They are free men. Say what you will, these people, particularly when among themselves, are no longer in exile. They are always at home — in G-dliness. Outwardly, they may seem less impressive than other Chassidim. But one who has an eye to glimpse what is going on within the next fellow to G-d- must be astounded by the honest, wholesome rejoicing of these people when through their dance, they talk. As we approach the Breslover shul, my companion, whose sympathies do not lie with the Chassidim, whispers, “Here we must walk more quietly.” His observation is appropriate. A certain quiet holiness rests upon this shteibel. Quiet is the sigh, yet is splits the heavens. Quiet is the discourse, yet it penetrates to the depths. Quiet is the dance, but through it you seem to be carried away, in spite of yourself, to other worlds. Quiet is the melody which suffuses your very being. Everything is quiet, everywhere.
Aside from the Chassidim, a number of Jews come here from off the street. They come by chance or out of curiosity, not always innocent of a penchant for laughter or scorn — yet all remains quiet here. Everyone must listen. By his own choice or otherwise, the scoffer will be a scoffer no more. He must become sincere. This in itself testifies to the power of the spirit: that which is noble and strong must overcome that which is base and inferior.
During his exposition the speaker remarks, “The Jewish people must teach all the nations that there is a G-d in the world.”
One of the scoffers comes over to me and murmurs, “He means that gentiles should attend his sermons…”
A little later, I see that very same scoffer watching everything with an expression of utter seriousness. He doesn’t care to laugh anymore.
As the dance becomes especially beautiful and joyous, I observe a fourteen year old boy, one of the curious, tell his friend, “It would be so good if all Jews could be this happy with their faith!”
Indeed, it would be so good, my child, so good…