I was born in Lancut, in the province of Galicia, Poland, on the 5th of Tamuz 5693 (June 29th, 1933). Lancut was then a relatively small town in it’s geographic area, but saturated with Jewish piety, Torah scholars and Chasidim. My father, R. Moshe Spalter, alav hashalom (o.b.m.), his father and fraternal uncles, were all Chasidim of the Bluzhover Rebbe, o.b.m. At the age of five or six I had peyot (side burns) reaching down to my shoulders, and I used to tie them around my neck like a scarf!
I was a rather precocious child – one might even say a wonder child, or child prodigy – known in Hebrew and Yiddish as an iluy. I recall, for instance, that at age between five and six – probably five and a half, I was once raised onto a pulpit in the Great Synagogue of Lancut (which still stands) and I delivered a lengthy derashah (Torah Discourse) in the presence of and to the utter amazement of all the great Torah-scholars, (including my father o.b.m.) Of course seventy-five years hence I do not recall a word I said, but the matter stands out in my mind as an actual fact.
(photo credit: Liraz asherov)
At approximately age 3 the male tot was clad in a pair of tzitzit (a four-cornered wool or cotton sort of vest/undershirt with fringes hanging down from each corner – eight in number. (See Bamidbar 15:37-41 and Devarim 22:12 and commentaries to both texts). His hair, which wasn’t shorn from birth till three years was cut at that age in a public ceremony that was considered a sacred custom bordering on a actual mitzvah (commandmentt). Anyone honored to cut a small strand of the child’s hair viewed it as a great privilege. The participants drank a toast, wished each other “l’chaim” and to the father that the child grow up to be a true Torah observant Jew and a scholar as well. The ladies gave similar blessings to the happy mother. A meal followed – if not an entire meal (considered a semi-mitzvah meal) – then at least refreshments: cake, crackers, wine, schnapps, sodas and more were served and pictures were taken.
Needless to say that during the entire joyous ceremony the boy was showered, or more correctly, smothered, with numerous hugs and kisses by each and every participant, while the parents looked on, beaming with pride and joyful tears, bursting with happiness. Soon after this memorable ceremony, and even before he learned to read, the lad was taught specially chosen verses from the Torah, which he memorized and thereafter recited each morning.
Anywhere between 1-6 months after the “chalake” or “upsherenish”; namely ”haircutting ceremony” (depending on the development and readiness of the child) came the “Induction into Cheder Ceremony”. I began going to Cheder at the “ripe” age of three/three and one-half. It took place in the following pattern:
The custom then in Galicia was that the little boy was wrapped in Mommy’s biggest shawl or a blanket, covering him from all sides and keeping him comfy, safe and sound from inclement weather. Then he was placed in a horse and buggy cart, hired expressly for the trip and taken to the domicile of his paternal “Zeidy and Bubby” (Grandpa and Grandma) in the company of an adult. If one of his parents was free to go along, of course he or she went. If not, another relative or friend “delivered” the precious goods. Such a trip was likely to last several hours if Bubby and Zeidy lived in another town or village.