Kirshenblatt, Mayer (1916-2009)
In the Oyel at the Grave of Reb Mayerl, October 1996
Acrylic on canvas
24 x 36 in.
"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 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 kvitleh, 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 prayer book 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 di yidishe gas, which means the Jewish Street, all the way 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). 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 oyel, a little hut in the cemetery that housed the graves of holy persons. The literal meaning of the word oyel (Yiddish) or ohel (Hebrew) is tent. Only the holiest men were honored this way. There were graves for three holy men in the oyel--Reb Mayerl, Reb Yekele, and Reb Shmilekhl. Hundreds of people crowded the path to and from Reb Mayerl's grave. They had to run a gauntlet. Beggars lined up along each side of the path and pulled at the corners of the kapotes, the long black coats or caftans, of all those who passed. They vied for their attention and implored them for a few pennies. This was before my time."