By Yerachmiel Itzkowitz
Donated by Ari Itzkowitz
Translated by Yehuda Benari
The Room of the Dead
The rising spires of the cold* Synagogue of Klezk, inspired in many observers memories of the Temple in Jerusalem. Its high ceilinged main hall made it taller than any other building in town. Along its southern wall, as though meaning to lend it support, stood a low structure, originally intended to serve as an elementary school, but which for some unknown reason, had never been completed. Its windows were open to the elements, and our local burial society used it to store its supply of picks, spades and shrouds. At night, I would go out of my way to give it a wide berth. I was certain that the dead gathered there to pray My aunt once told me how Getzel, the teacher, had passed close by one night, and had been called in to join the spirits in the reading of the Torah portion of the week. He was careful to first remove his jacket, throw it over his shoulder and walk backwards up to the bima where the Torah was read. He recited the proper blessings before and after the portion was chanted, and thus saved himself from death.
My oldest brother was a shoemaker by trade, and his shop was lit by two large lanterns. Once, hours before Yom Kippur, the caretaker of the Synagogue came to borrow the lanterns to help light the women's balcony during the next Yom Kippur services. I was twelve years old back then, and I slept with my brother in his shop. The night after the holy day, we were awakened by a loud knocking on the door. One of my brother's clients, a non-Jew, and himself a shoemaker, urgently needed a pair of shoes that very night, for he had promised them to the wife of a local Polish aristocrat. My brother agreed, and told me to dress and hurry over to the cold Synagogue and return with the borrowed lanterns. No, I won't go, I shouted, suddenly cold, and my bones trembled at the very thought of the dark building. If that's the case, said my brother, I'll go myself. It was clear that he would not be deterred, and since I was afraid to remain alone in the shop, I had no choice but to follow. I grabbed a packet of matches, and with quaking knees, ran to catch up. To my great relief, we found the building securely locked, and I, of course, wanted to turn around and go home. However, my brother would not give up. He decided to break in through the abandoned building along the southern wall. I, meanwhile, was shivering with fright at the thought of passing close to the burial society's collection of shrouds. The door to this building was locked as well, but my brother climbed on to my shoulders, and entered through an open window. Suddenly, several goats who had sought shelter in the abandoned building, burst out through the other windows, bleating in protest at being disturbed. By now, my whole body was quaking in fear, but my brother opened the door from the inside, and ordered me in. I lit our way, striking match after match with shaking fingers, as we climbed to the women's balcony. My brother lit one of the chandeliers, and light spread to the farthest corners of the hall. The birds who had been sleeping on the glass dome of the Synagogue awoke and their song filled the sanctuary. My heart filled with ecstasy, and in my mind's eye, I saw the rows of benches standing upright in awe as they listened to the bird's musical prayer. Thus I stood, wrapped in my daydreams, until interrupted by my brother's voice, Come on, grab the lantern, and let's get going.
I never did hear the dead at their prayers.
The Water Barrel
One morning, out of the blue, our mother ordered my brother to empty all the water containers in our house. This took place just two hours after my brother and I had labored to fill them from the well. Why? I asked in astonishment. Our neighbor's daughter just died, explained my mother, and the angel of death cleans his bloody sword with water from the three nearest houses.Naturally, after this, I was afraid to enter our house at night, since our water barrel stood in the hallway near the door. To approach the hallway, I had to pass through a dark porch, and fear of meeting that shadowy figure with his drawn sword, filled my heart.
Some days later, as Passover approached, our family joined several others in baking Matzos in our neighbor's kitchen. One evening, when the work was done, my father sent me home to bring a clean cloth to wrap the freshly baked Matzos. I was afraid to go home alone. I knew that refusal would bring a stinging slap in the face, but I was ashamed to admit my fears. I decided to wait until some chance passerby would pass close to my doorway, and thus have someone nearby as I opened the door. Meanwhile, my father, impatient at my tardiness, hurried home to bring the cloth himself. As he passed me, I ran after him. He had already entered the house, and I found myself standing alone in the shadows at the entrance to our house, a step away from the water barrel. As I opened the door, it seemed to me that I heard a girl's voice faintly singing nearby My blood froze in my veins, and I stood frozen at the threshold. My father, having no patience for spirits, lifted me by my two arms, and shook me until my senses returned and feeling flowed back into my limbs like hot needles.
There lived in our town a poor woman by the name of Rebecca, who one day killed herself by jumping into the town well. She had suffered from terrible headaches, and had warned her father that she would put a violent end to her misery if he would not pay her passage to Minsk, the provincial capital, to consult with a famous doctor. When her father learned one night that her bed had not been slept in, he ordered that the well be searched. Just as she had warned, her body was soon found, and when poor Rebecca was pulled from the well, only one sandal was left on her foot.
A few days later, rumors circulated in town that Rebecca had been seen wandering in her shrouds, with one foot sandaled, and one foot bare. The townswomen whispered that her spirit would find no rest in it's grave, because of her grave sin.
One morning, the owner of the local sawmill discovered that his stocks of wood had been tampered with during the night. He hired a watchman, who soon saw the figure of a woman enter his yard shortly before midnight. The watchman wakened the mill owner, and showed him where he had spied the intruder. Who's there? cried the owner. It's me, Rebecca replied the figure. What are you doing here? came the next question. I'm collecting wood. The dark angels have decreed that I must gather the wood for my own pyre as punishment for my sin. The mill owner trembled, his strength deserted him, and he stumbled backward. With an effort, as though ashamed of his own cowardice, he gathered courage, and approached the shadowy figure. Rebecca strode toward him, a large bundle of wood on her shoulder. Once again the mill owner withdrew in fear, this time for good.
The next night, three burly young men replaced the old watchman. This time, the mill owner accompanied them, and sure enough, Rebecca appeared once again. To their amazement, she showed no fear as she advanced towards the four men. The three brave young men gaped at one another and froze in their tracks. What are you waiting for, you cowards, grab her, shouted the mill owner. Good to his word, he leaped on Rebecca, but fell to the ground in a dead faint. The mysterious figure flitted away among the dark piles of wood, and disappeared.
Fire, Fire, Help shouted our three young heroes. The entire town awakened at their cries, and lights winked on in the surrounding houses, and lit up the streets as well. The local volunteer fire-department arrived first at the scene; with tools in hand and torches held high, the search began. The quaking watchmen pointed out where the ghost had been last seen, and very soon, she was pulled out from among the piles of wood in the yard. But instead of the wandering spirit of poor Rebecca, the figure under the bundle of wood was none other than the old Jewish woman who made the rounds of the town every Friday, selling clean sand to spread on the floors before the Sabbath. She was sent on her way, with the stern warning that next time, she would end up in the town jail.
The Bewitched Ritual Bath
One of the rooms in our town's bath house had been set aside as a Mikve (ritual bath). Every Friday, the furnace was lit to heat the water for the townsmen to bathe before the Sabbath. However, the Mikve, which was fed from a deep well, remained cold. In order to immerse themselves in the freezing water, the women of the town had to descend 18 steps. Finally, the women's complaints of their unfair discrimination became intolerable, and a town meeting was called. It was decided to rebuild the Mikve at a higher level, and work began immediately. The new Mikve was built above the well, it's walls and stairs were lined with new tiles, and the floor was honeycombed with outlets. Gronem, the water carrier, was ordered to fill the Mikve with water from the river. Everything was progressing as planned, and a party was planned to inaugurate the new Mikve. The next day, the whole town gathered to celebrate. But lo and behold, the Mikve was dry; all the water had mysteriously drained out. The wise men of the town took counsel, and concluded that the walls of the Mikve were too thin to hold water, it had all seeped out. The walls must be reinforced.
Work began the very next day. A ditch was dug around the original walls, and filled in with cement and gravel. Gronem once again filled the bath, but to no avail. The next day, the water had once again mysteriously disappeared. It was clear that the Mikve was bewitched! Someone must be found to lift the spell! Nonsense, declared one of the more rational townsmen. We must find a professional builder who can give us expert advice. Now it so happened that in the very next town, lived an engineer. He was urgently called in for consultation, and explained that the well-shaft beneath the Mikve was drawing off the river water which had been used to fill the bath. Only a steady stream of water pumped from the river, and warmed by a pipe of hot water from the bath house furnace would provide a permanent solution. And thus were the women of our town able to cleanse themselves in warmth and comfort each month, and come to their husbands as pure as on the night they were wed.
(from the archives of Yeda Am)
* The main synagogue of town was usually unheated, because of it's size, and was used for services only during the High Holidays and on Passover. Daily and Sabbath prayers were usually held in a smaller study hall which doubled as a synagogue, and could be easily heated. Return
Translated from Yiddish and corrected with reference
to the Hebrew version by Paul Silbert
In 1670 a criminal complaint was submitted to the provincial governor in Novogrodek by the assistant judge Krasnovsky, in which the Jews of Kletzk were accused of murdering the wife of his servant Heliash Yevchitz. The chief accused: Hoshea Tzepersky, Leyb Sertzovich, Gershon the Leaseholder, Hirsh Yankovich, Shloyme Nakhumovich, Leyb Gershonovich, Ayzik Zilbovich, Yokhanon Abramovich and Mordekhai Khaimovich. All of the rest were accused as accomplices to murder.
The murdered woman, Yevchitza Izrailovna, was of Jewish origin, the daughter of a Vilna Jew, Shmuel ben Israel. The aforementioned woman had changed her religion and had married Heliash Yevchitz and been his wife for a period of ten years.
According to the record of the complaint, the deceased departed from her house on the 19th of June, 1670, arriving in Kletzk on the 22nd of June, in order to purchase various articles and products in the marketplace. In her purse she had more than 400 gold coins. There she met with Hoshke Tzepersky, who promised to change the money for her without any profit to himself. She went with him, with her things, to his dwelling. He took her into his workroomand took the money for himself.
Afterwards, it is related in the original, Tzepersky straightway informed the Kletzk Jews about the presence of the female apostate in his dwelling. They arrived at the place, stopped up her mouth, and murdered her in the manner in which they kill the Christian children whom they kidnap. The plaintiff was unable to indicate clearly the scene of the crime.
Afterwardsthe record sets forththey threw her body in a stream, or buried it somewhere in a swamp, and divided the money among themselves.
The aforementioned information the plaintiff derived from various persons. The accusation was directed not only against the Jews of Kletzk, but also against the father of the murdered woman, as well as her close relatives and acquaintances, with whose knowledge and assistance the aforementioned deed was accomplished.
Such, in brief, are the contents of this bizarre criminal complaint. The outcome of the affair remains unclear. No other sources about it are in existence.
According to all indications, it would appear that the woman had by her own free will decided to run away from her husband and return to Judaism. There is no doubt that she associated with Jews from Kletzk in order that they might help her to carry out her decision. One may assume that her parents in Vilna also knew and helped her to run away and settle down in a hidden place. It appears that all these particulars came to light later and the accusation was liquidated as groundless.
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