The rough shouts of the gentile youths bouncing basketballs waken us from our dream of the past and eventually drive us out of the building, shuddering at the realization of what has become of this once-holy place.
The present takes on an even gloomier aspect when we meet with the few remaining Jews of Baranowitz. For sixty years they have had no contact at all with the Torah. To think what they once were . . . a community famous all over Europe for its single-minded devotion to Torah, people whose bustle on the street "couldn't possibly disturb a person's Torah study." When a bochur from the Mirrer Yeshiva married a young woman from Baranowitz, R' Yeruchom spoke ecstatically at the wedding: "To marry a Baranowitzer meidel is in itself a treasure worth half a nedunya!"
These were the people who were practically starving, yet willing, gladly, took in the yeshiva bochurim, one and all, for "eating days," sharing what they themselves didn't have so as to keep their beloved yeshiva functioning.
R' Leib remembers the day he took leave of his old melamed to go off to learn in Baranowitz. His teacher thoughtfully asked, "How is a boy from a family as poor as yours going to have money for food?" When young Leib answered that he would go out for "eating days" with families, like the other boys, the melamed said to him, "I hope that the posuk will come true for you, `Oheiv yomim lir'os tov' -- loving your eating days and seeing something good on the table!"
Like the old melamed, the bochurim never ceased cracking jokes about their "eating days," but the jokes had an edge to them; hunger is no laughing matter, and poor food and not enough of it is no solution for the problem.
They told, for example, of the boy who dreamed of winning the state lottery. "And what would you do with all that money?" his friends asked him. "What kind of question is that?" he shot back. "Obviously, I'd build a house with seven stories. Then I'd rent each story out to a different baalebos, all of them well-to-do of course, and then I could get decent meals every day of the week!"
Sometimes an overly solicitous baalebuste could create problems just by being so attentive. The questions would rain down on the poor bochur's head: "Where are you from? What do your parents do? How did you travel to Baranowitz? How long did it take?" And the boy, too embarrassed to eat while someone was talking to him, would sit there hungry while his food (none too abundant to begin with) got cold.
One day one of the bochurim in Baranowitz excitedly told his friends about a solution he had found to this problem. He had just tried it out, and it worked perfectly! "The moment the baalebuste started in with the questions, I didn't wait for her to ask, instead I gave her the whole story in one shot: `I'm from Eishishok, I have a father but my mother died two years ago, I have six brothers and sisters but we manage all right because my sisters help out in the house, my maternal grandparents live in Slutsk but my father's side come from Vilna, I'm in the second shiur in the yeshiva and I like it. . . .' The poor lady was so bowled over that she got out of the kitchen quick and I had my lunch in peace."