The Orthodox had a consciousness of continuance of
their lifestyle admidst the swirl of change of the modern world. They clung to the Torah,
the Jewish religious tradition, for guidance in how to lead all of one's life. Life was a
continuum. Laughing, eating, drinking were all a part of life, yes, but not to be
emphasized, prided over, or enhanced over normal standards. The goal was always to be
self-aware and self-controlled, and those who went to extremes of behavior and lost these
things were shunned. This continuum is what kept the "Jewish Jew" going during
tough times, as the quote from Ahad Ha-am comes to mind: "More than the Jewish people
keeping the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jewish people (alive)."
The study of Torah was the shelter, though, of the Orthodox Jew. One
had never attained a "done" amount of learning of Torah; there was always more.
This is reflected in calling a man of letters not a "learned man", etc., but one
"who knows how to learn." A rich man, especially if he was relatively
unlettered, tried to marry off his children to Torah scholars. Learning was directly
associated with perfection of character; the term "aidele yid" ("beautiful
Jew") referred to a scholar.
There were two basic kinds of Orthodox. THe Mizrachi were the religious
Zionists, similar to the Modern Orthodox today. In general, they were modern-leaning
people, except for their commitment to traditional Judaism. They wore modern dress, and
made co-ed schools with general studies occupying 1/2 of the day, and Jewish studies
occupying the other half. Much of the next section does not, in part, apply to these
"Jewish Jews" were highly visible without taking any action.
This made them more threatened than other Jews from anti-Semitic attack. The male members
didn't shave. Women wore conservative clothing, especially the older generation. They also
wore wigs or kerchiefs for modesty. The men wore a traditional coat, and a silk coat
called a kapote or bekeshe on holidays. They also wore a special four-cornered undershirt.
In Congress Poland, a small black cap was used, while in Galicia, a soft, wide-brimmed
felt hat was donned. Many wore a straymel, a brown velvet hat with brown fur trimming, on
The Orthodox sublimated their pain through learning. Learning of the
tradition began at age 4 or 5 with cheder, the elementary school. Even the smallest town
had some sort of cheder (lit. "room"). Conditions were frequently difficult.
Broken windows were stuffed with pillows or rags to keep out the cold and floors may have
been made out of dirt. At five one was expected to be learning chumash, or the Bible. At
about age seven one started the Mishnah, the precursor of the Talmud. These small schools
(typically 15-30 in a class) were frequently taught by rabbis not from the town where the
school was located. Typically, a rabbi would come to a town and inquire of his services.
If the parents approved, he rented a room and taught there or in a study hall. This
traveling rabbi would go home for the High Holidays, and the festivals.
After independence, the Polish government required public school
attendence (or general curriculum). Even the Agudat Israel, the umbrella organization for
Chassidim, started making schools with Jewish studies in the morning and general studies
in the afternoon. The other choice was public schools. The government was frequently lax
with these rules, and some got away without going to public school. After one's bar
mitzvah, one could continue one's studies in a yeshiva such as the Bobov yeshiva. Many
families, however, were too poor to support their son past 13 and elected to keep him home
Pre-World War I Orthodox girls, since they were not required to study
the Torah at all possible times, were typically educated in Jewish law and basic Jewish
beliefs at home. After independence, however, girls started becoming less inclined to
follow the tradition. Boys, having structured programs, weren't as effected, but girls
were being increasingly influenced by Polish culture, without having a similar pride in
the Jewish heritage. A new school came about called "Bais Yaakov" ("House
of Jacob"a Biblical allusion to the education of women). Sarah Schenirer founded the
first school and developed many more across Poland. To train female teachers, she also
opened a Seminary in Cracow. When she died at 52, in 1935, there were almost 300 similar
schools in Poland and many more abroad. Eliezer G. Friedenson, an early supporter, wrote,
"What influenced the rapid development of BY most in such a short span of time was
the idealism of Sarah Schenirer and her girls. They suffered poverty and
hunger...sacrificing themselves for their ideal."