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[Page 223]

First Chapter:

Memories of the Past

 

The Legend of the Fortress[1]

by Rabbi Borukh Epstein

Translated by Odelia Alroy

In the previous century of the annals of the state, in the kingdom of the Czar Nicholas I, near the city of Bobruisk, the home of my great-grandfather and his family, the construction of a large fort, grand and strong, first-class and of impressive design was started; on it there were fortresses and enclosures, fearsome rocks and fortified walls, castles, lookouts, towers, ditches, hills and heaps, all were large and immense, huge and enormous—no expense was spared, no expense was too great and no work was too difficult. The hands of several thousands did the work, numerous craftsmen and countless supervisors.

And there was much commotion in the city and its surroundings, due to the enormous amount of material that was required for this great undertaking—and due to the many upper and mid-level administrators, craftsmen and artists, workers en masse who established their dwellings in the city, at the home of its inhabitants. These people earned their keep and some of that spread in different ways to the city people. And there was a saying among the Jewish inhabitants that in order for the town of Bobruisk to partake in the promise of the Torah “that the poor shall not cease from the land” it had to recruit some poor from other cities because it did not have its own poor at all.

Until today it has been given from generation to generation, fathers telling their sons of the peaceful yet busy life, loaded with satisfaction, pleasure and happiness, which accompany the wealth and G-d's blessing with a broad hand which flowed and flooded as a river into the town of Bobruisk; and the city bloomed and became beautiful and from day to day it grew in wealth and importance, and gave of its blessing also to the neighboring towns.


Footnote

  1. B. Epstein, Mekor Baruch, Vilna, 1928, pages 907-908 Return


[Page 223]

The Building of the Citadel[1]

by Yosef Eisenshtadt

Translated by Odelia Alroy

When the fort was built in Bobruisk, the Jewish children used to congregate near the site and would look with curiosity at the construction. The Czar was supervising the construction from time to time, and the children used to push to where he stood. Grandpa Yitzhak would call the children and warn them in the following words: “Children, don't enter the fire.”


Footnote

  1. Yosef Eisenstadt, “Family Legends” (Sh. Eisenstadt, “The Pioneer in Battle, in memory of the father and teacher,” Tel Aviv, 1965, page 255) The Eisenstadt family moved from Bobruisk to Brisk of Lita in 1860. Return


[Page 223]

The Way of the Torah[1]

by Yehuda Levi Epstein

Translated by Odelia Alroy

In Vilna and its surroundings, the order of learning of our rabbi, Eliahu the gaon [genius], Hasid of blessed memory, already took hold, and after that, Rabbi Chaim edited and constructed this straight learning in his yeshiva in Volozhin. Not so in our city, as we were far away from there, the learners walked in darkness and not in light. And I also studied in this crooked and spoiled order until my relative, the expert Rabbi Yosef Grayower from Slutzk, may his memory be blessed, came to us, already tasted and absorbed the learning, and he illuminated my eyes until I saw a new world in front of me while studying the Berachot tractate with Rashi's commentary and other commentators, and I could study the Shulhan Aruch [Code of Jewish Law], Orach Haim [“Manner of Life” portion of the Shulhan Aruch] with commentaries, and understanding of each one of those commentators and why this one decides such, and the other such, each one according to his own method in the Gemara.

And the last one, who did the most, was the sharp Rabbi Tevel, of blessed memory, who was then only about 24 years old, and became famous later as a gaon in Israel, and he was one of the greatest students of the yeshiva of the genius Rabbi Chaim, of blessed memory, in Volozhin. They took Mr. Aba as a teacher for me in the year 1817, and although that rabbi was not much older than I was, I recognized his superiority and obeyed him, and his learning was clear and profound, and we studied together several tractates by his way, afterwards we agreed to study the Shas [the six books of Mishna] together in order to increase our knowledge. And Rabbi Tevel was in our house a year and a half, and we studied together until his name became famous and he was appointed rabbi in the city Shtoiftz [Stolbtsy].

And I became a merchant afterwards for a few years and despite that, my heart did not empty completely of my earlier learnings, and afterwards I was swept to the community of Brisk of Lita in 1833 and I was successful with the help of G-d over a number of years, as a contractor....


Footnote

  1. Y. Epstein, from the introduction to the book “Yehuda's Gift,” Warsaw, 1877, page 4 Return


[Page 224]

From My Own Life[1]

by Elikum Tsunzer

Translated by Odelia Alroy

A. A Teacher in a Village Near Bobruisk

In the beginning of Elul [the last month of the Jewish calendar, usually falling in August or September] (1870) I arrived in Bobruisk, the state of Minsk, after long wanderings and I was unable to find a lace maker there for whom I could work and earn my living. For a few days I went about the streets looking for something that didn't exist. Eventually I found help in the person of chazzan Joel Ihumener (a well know chazzan in those times), who came to daven for the holidays in Bobruisk. If there is no work for a lace maker, why not learn something from a chazzan? I thought, and went to Joel Ihumener. He listened to me and he found that I have a fine voice and a good ear. He hired me as singer for two rubles (what a prize) for all the holidays. He provided me with meals at the home of the gabbai [sexton] of the shul with permission to sleep on a bench in the shul during this time.

The holidays ended. The chazzan paid me the two rubles and let me go…. Where? We both did not know. And anyway what was the force? The world is large enough, and there are many Jews, beware of the evil eye, what does it matter where I go…!

But it was very cold after the holidays and I only had my summer clothes. And while I still had capital (the two rubles from Joel Ihumener) I bought at the market a fur coat. People with weak nerves could faint with fright from the words 'fur coat'. Therefore, I hurry to calm you with the explanation that in those times, a fur coat was called a fur coat if it had a fur collar. The other parts of this fur coat had not a hair of fur on them. There were fur coats which didn't even have a fur collar, just a promise of a collar. That means the hope that in the future, G-d willing, it will be covered by a piece of cat or fox.

In several days, after I had paraded my fur coat in the streets of Bobruisk, I met a man who lived five versts from the city. He was looking for a teacher for his children. I asked to fill the position and I was hired. My wages were 25 rubles for the whole term (six months) with the right to sleep on the warm oven.

There is a curse in this world, that a Jew eats so that he can live. For the Christians the curse is reversed, the Christian lives so that he can eat. My new boss discovered a new curse, not eating and not living, not living and eating. That's how I pushed away the time. And to pass the time takes a bit of bread, baked from flour which is made from oats and barley, a plate of groats into which they would pour a few drops of oil in order to enrich the troubles. During the weekdays no meat entered the house and they ate the cursed bread and the thin groats in which even the Jewish “chappers” [literally, “snatchers”; these were men enlisted by the community to find “recruits” to meet quotas imposed for the Czar's army] would have found it hard to catch a groat. But for Shabbos, the country dweller would bring a sheep's head and from this head even I would get excited about a meager bone. The same oil that was used for cooking was also used to light the house and before such light I would sit for six hours and would get hoarse, screaming at my three “students” who were no better at learning than the peasant village children. It is natural that after such difficulty after six hours with the three “oxen,” I would smell the groats like marzipan and I would grab it.

My clothes tore and it was then 25 degrees of frost, I almost got sick from cold. In order to dress a little better I asked my employers for my wages. Several times he weaseled with empty excuses. Pesach time he promised me the news that he wanted me for a second term. And then he would give me money, however much I needed. Not having an alternative I remained and went about the whole time naked and barefoot. Chol Hamoed Pesach I wrote my song “The Eye” in which I sang about my own problems.

On Shavuos he also weaseled out with lame excuses and after Shavuos when I started strongly to demand my money he found a clever way to get rid of me. He went to Bobruisk and came to the community and declared that if they paid him well, he would give them a “soul.” They paid him 25 rubles and gave him a “snatcher” and two Cossacks who would bring me to them.

Not knowing what danger was sweeping over me I searched out my corner and went to sleep. Suddenly I felt a thick hand grab my young body and shake me.

I awoke, opened my eyes and saw the three strangers. One held a lantern and shone it in my eyes.

“What do you want?” I asked.
“Nothing lad! Get up!” answered the snatcher.
“Get up? What for?”
“You will come with us to the city!”
No, you'll see! Get dressed young man, but fast!”
“I don't want to, I don't want to go!”
A fiery slap dazed me. They wrapped me in my torn clothes, three men and I into a wagon and brought me to Bobruisk. There they enlisted me in the army.

 

B. In the Barracks

In order to seek out the “concealed,” Czar Nicholas I ordered every Jew who had not registered to be recruited as a soldier. A “concealed” was one who didn't have a passport. And it is self-evident that those who had not registered couldn't get a passport. The order gave everyone the right to snatch a young man or boy who didn't have a passport and substitute him as a soldier for someone in his own family or for another family. For the leaders of the community in those dark times who always looked for ways to enrich themselves with Jewish blood, the order opened a new way of earning a living. Every Jewish community sent out its snatchers on all roads where they awaited their prey. Into their hands fell the unfortunate Jewish young men and small boys who didn't have passports. Others who had passports were unable to evade them. They would tear up the passports and capture the “concealed.”

The captured would be bound as sheep, brought to the city, and locked up in the barracks. There they would be held for weeks until the recruitment would begin with these unfortunates. They were not too fussy. If they were weak, sick, or had some defect, it didn't matter. They enlisted them as soldiers, dressed the soldiers in uniforms and march, serve the Czar! They awarded these “souls” to those families that paid a good amount and the deputies pocketed the money. Private parties also made a business out of this. They would snatch small children and sell them to the communal “leaders.” The period is known to us Jews as the time of the poyemanes [the snatched ones], that is, the time of the chappers [snatchers].

In those dark times, hundreds of these “sales of Joseph” occurred daily. The rabbis from the small villages gave their approval to this murder with the interpretation that the children of their own villages are more of a mitzvah to safeguard than strange children from strange villages. The greatest rabbis shed tears quietly about the open murderous acts, but they had to keep quiet for three reasons: first, it was an order of the Czar; second, they were afraid of the deputies who could have told off the rabbis if they had opposed the bloody murders, and thirdly, they were afraid of the decree which would have sent them to Siberia. Those were times when people sacrificed other people, often with the approval of the government.

And I was one of the unfortunate sacrifices when I was 14 years old. I sat in a barracks for five entire weeks. The community waited for the recruitment. I had no way of getting free. How? Where would help come from? What kind of miracle? For the poor sheep that lie in the slaughterhouse, there is no hope to remain alive. Whether they are traif or kosher they must go to slaughter and it was the same for me. Whatever, I will be a soldier I will have to serve the Cantonists [special school where underage children were trained until old enough for formal military service] for many years. They will give me to a muzhik [Russian peasant] in a village a thousand miles away in Siberia. There I will have to pasture pigs, chop wood in the forest, doing whatever the muzhik wants and getting beaten for every trifle. If I get out of this grave I will first begin the real hell with all its frights. The Russian army, the marching with 30 pounds on my shoulders, the fiery lashes, the blows, and the thousand other conditions. More than anything, it pained me when I remembered my unfortunate mother. The lonely, desolate widow. She lived with her husband for 21 years and when an angry fate took away her breadwinner, then she had only sufferings, because she never had any pleasure. Her only treasure were her two orphans, and she was robbed of both. Bad animals did all of this. And who? Not wild animals in the forest, only her own people, people with hearts of wolves!

With such thoughts I went around the entire time that I sat with the other Jewish sacrifices in the dark barracks. These very thoughts awakened my feelings and I remember sitting in the barracks. I wrote my poem, “The Poyemantzes,” which has 108 verses. The theme of this poem I took from the prophet Haggai.

The prophet Haggai came to the priests and asked them, “Does a person or a government become holy when a person or a garment touches the holy meat of sacrifice?”

“No, it does not become holy!” answered the priests.
“And does a person or a garment become unclean when they touch something that is unclean?” the prophet asked.
“Yes certainly they become unclean!” answered the priests.
“That's how it is with the entire people,” Haggai called out painfully. “No good, no clean, no holy thing clings to them, but the unclean do cling. This means that living among strange nations we learn not the good fine things but only the bad, the unclean.” The decree from the “Poyemantzes” was proof for our Jews from that generation, but they came out badly in that trial. Since they snatched their own brothers and sold them into conversion and eternal trouble, they covered up for the whole world the true character of their customs.

That is, in short, the content of my poem “The Poyemantzes” or “Brought to Trial and Judged Guilty.” Not in my own blood did I dip my feather when I wrote this poem, but in the blood of all my unfortunate brothers; not my pain alone clings to the verses but one hears in the trembling laments and screams all of Israel.

And how sad, how heartbreaking was the picture of the barracks. Eighty lonely, pale, thin, hungry, half-clothed souls lying on the ground on a bit of dirty straw. The majority were torn from their mothers by a tyrannical hand and they don't yet comprehend the deep loneliness that awaits them in the future. Also here in the barracks not knowing their dark fate, they laugh, tease and play with each other. But the older ones looking at them forget their own troubles and cry lakes of tears. Twice a day the iron doors are opened and delegates of the community leaders bring several loaves of bread and several pots of soup that is dirty even for dogs. If anyone dares to demand or ask he gets grabbed by his hair and slammed against the wall with such force that his bones tremble and shake.

“I want to go to my mother,” cried a child aloud.
“You'll see her in the next world, have patience” answered the Jewish Antiochus and laughed….
“Let me go home! I want to go back home!” moans another little bird.
“Wait a few days!” roars the human tiger. “You will have a big home!” It stretches from Bobruisk until Archangelsk!”
It becomes night. Everyone lies down and reads the bedtime prayer. Others, the older ones, say the psalms by heart until they fall asleep. They are like a whole flock of sheep waiting to be slaughtered. They lay one on the other on the dirty straw, a disaster, a sorrow, and loneliness have united in one body. From moment to moment a heavy sigh escapes from the breast of a parent. The young sleep quite peacefully and happy smiles sweep over their pale faces. What are they dreaming about? Surely that they are sitting on their mothers' laps and the worried mother combs and curls their hair!

Among the eighty “Poyemantzes” [snatched ones] that went with me in the barracks there were some with very good singing voices. I formed a choir with ten and taught them my poem. We would sing it several times a day and no eye would be dry and no heart undisturbed when the sad melody and the words would pour over the barracks. Even the delegates with the stone hearts with iron nerves who guarded us day and night would cry with us.

Tisha B'Av passed and it soon came the night before the morning on which we were to be led to slaughter to “Priam.”

 

C. The Liberation

That help was closer to us than we reckoned, no one knew.

Purim (1855) about a half-year before I was caught and all the paymonik [snatched ones] were locked in the Bobruisk barracks. Czar Nicholas suddenly died. Alexander II ascended the Russian throne and the Paris Treaty was signed. The Crimean War ended. One of the first orders that Czar Alexander II gave was to free all paymanikes [snatched ones] from the barrack.

One night when we were sleeping in the barrack, we were awaked by a tumult in the street. The noise came from closer and closer to us and soon we heard them rapping on our iron doors and shutters.

“Children, wake up! You are free, free!” someone screamed.
“A decree from the Czar that you should be let out!” screamed a second.
“Praise G-d children. Daven Hallel” several voices screamed at once.
This news was for us like the blast of the shofar which woke the dead to bring them back to life. With a cry of joy we leaped from our empty barracks and washed and davened Hallel. I was the chazzan and my choir accompanied me. After Hallel we joined hands and danced a Jewish Karahod [a circle dance]. It was a tragic scene in which one had to laugh and cry. After the dance I wrote a song, “The Savior,” and I accompanied it with a fine melody.

At 10 o'clock in the morning it was decided to release us from the barracks. The Bobruisker gevir [rich man] Reb Itzhak Rabinovitch lent 40 rubles to the synagogue for the mitzvah of opening the door of the barracks. A while before people assembled near the barracks, men and women, young and old, and with great impatience awaited the moment when the barracks would be opened and we would go free. Everyone blessed and lauded the good Czar Alexander II who issued the manifest that nullified many bitter edicts of his father.

The lucky moment came when the gevir, Itzhak Rabinovitch, with the appropriate blessing unlocked the door and the whole crowd sprung from the barracks. The town chazzan made a special blessing for the Czar and sang from Psalms. Then I and my choir stood on the table and sang my song, “Brought to Trial and Found Guilty.” The audience broke into a great cry, but the song had another effect. The audience was so roused against the community leaders that they would surely have ripped them to pieces if they had been there. However they were smarter than they were religious and they hid. At the request of leaders, I sang two of my sons, “The Savior” and “Better Taken than Given,” which slandered my employer the countryman who sold me to the community for 25 rubles instead of paying me my wages. The song evoked a storm of wild cries. There were many who wanted to run to that village and take revenge, but the gevir Itzhok Rabinovitch quieted them and gave them his guarantee that he would settle the score. Then they opened the door for us, all so and we left the barracks. The gevir, Itzhak Rabinovitch took me into his carriage and took me to his home.

In the first two weeks that I was in the gevir's house, I became a bit of a gevir. I was very nicely dressed and I had a capital of 100 rubles. My wealth, like my trouble, I got in a remarkable way. In time the gevir Itzhok Rabinovitch sent for my employer whose three geniuses I tutored and after he honored him with several fiery slaps, he told him to pay me 50 rubles in wages which was due me for two terms and the 25 rubles which he received from my soul from the community. This fine man argued that he was poor and could not pay but this did not help. The gevir sent two Cossacks to him and they took everything they found in his house. A few days later, he came with 75 rubles and redeemed his things. I suddenly became a rich man with a capital of 75 rubles! In that time and in my situation I believed that I was half a Rothschild. Besides, I received small sums of money from the guests who would visit the gevir and for whom I used to sing my three songs which I authored in the barracks.


Footnote

  1. E. Tsunzer, Entire Works, New York, 1920, third part, pages 20-31 Return


[Page 230]

Memories[1]

by Avraham Yaakov Papirno

Translated by Odelia Alroy

After my father lost his position in the lumber trade in Bilovizh [Bialowieza, Poland], he finally decided, after 18 years of separation, to return to his family. The arena for activity in Kapoli [Kapyl] was too narrow for him, and after he finished up his dealings in Kapoli, he moved with his family to his native town—Bobruisk.

The transfer to the new place brought many worries to my parents, but above all, they were sorry because of my situation: I was already 19 years old and still unmarried, what a shame. And to hide this shame was impossible: on my cheek and chin already were seen with energy and chutzpah the hair of my beard exposing to many the breaking of the way of nature and good tradition. Special means were taken, that soon resulted in the desired outcome. I married the daughter of a rich sharecropper.

Bobruisk was controlled by conservatives, just as it was in Kapoli, but this orthodoxy was more varied, since the inhabitants were divided here into Hasidim and mitnagdim [Orthodox Jews] who competed with one another in their level of observance. While the mitnagdim of Bobruisk already made peace with the Hasidim (Chabad hasidim), each one of these two groups had its own synagogues and rabbis. The chief rabbi of the mitnagdim was then my uncle, Rabbi Eliahu Goldberg (the one who when he was young in Kapoli, left the service on Yom Kippur in order to take care of the severely ill who were left without care, in order to cook food for them.[2] The chief rabbi of the Hasidim was Rabbi Hillel from Paritch, student and right hand of Rabbi Mendel from Lubavitch. The Hasidim used to travel to Rabbi Hillel as to a true tzaddik [righteous man], although he was known as a mere chozer [one who repeats], because he did not teach the people for himself but as a student of Rabbi Mendeli, as he repeated and explained his Torah teachings. Although Rabbi Eliahu and Rabbi Hillel differed very much in their religious outlooks, they respected one another, and they were also respected equally by the two communities, Hasidim and mitnagdim because of their complete reverence for God.

 

I

Despite the strict religious observance, life in Bobruisk was not so dark and monotonous as it was in Kapoli. Here too there was much poverty, but there were also many wealthy men. Because of the fort that stood in the city and plenty of forests in the area, many contractors and lumber traders lived in Bobruisk. They lived gregariously, often not out of love of luxury, but in order to appear wealthy the contractors often undertook deals that were much above their financial means; and if the deal was going to result in a loss, that could bring bankruptcy, the contractor undertook a second deal, hoping that the latter would save him; and if it turned out that the latter was useless too, he would seize the third deal, the fourth deal, and so on. To think where all of this would lead him—he had no time. For the time being it was necessary to say that “the wheel should turn” because if the wheel stopped, even for a moment, his status as a rich man would come to an end. In order for the wheel to turn, there was a need for credit, much credit, and for this the contractors had to pretend, to blind people by the wealth of their home, by the diamonds of their wives, with generous contributions, by expensive trips, etc.

In Bobruisk, there were then about ten hidden and open maskilim [enlightened men] with whom I soon became acquainted. All were dedicated devotees of the Enlightenment and Hebrew literature and in their homes all the current problems of Jewish life were discussed with enthusiasm, new books were critiqued, debates were conducted about important articles that appeared in Hebrew periodicals that began to be published

Periodicals! Such a novelty! Their publication, by itself, was one of the signs of the new times, and their relative success indicated that ideas of enlightenment generated roots among the people. The young Hebrew press served as a potent instrument in the hands of the enlightened to spread the new ideas among the masses. The first periodical, the weekly HaMagid [“The Preacher”], began its publication in Lyck, in Prussia, at the end of the 1850s; after it came HaCarmel [“Mount Carmel”] in Vilna, and HaMelitz [“The Advocate”] in Odessa. Needless to say, our circle received all of these. The day this or that periodical arrived was a true holiday for us. We couldn't wait for the periodical to be delivered and we rushed to the post office to receive them, and we used to read them while walking in the street. And how we read! We read with enthusiasm, we read from A to Z, from the headlines to the advertisements. Everything was important here; everything was written in a literary style, all was saturated with love to the “divine Enlightenment.” Not only serious articles and poetry, but also short reports about fire or about a bathhouse that collapsed in one of the obscure towns, had to end with the invocation of the necessity of “the Enlightenment.” The contributors were not paid a fee and none of them even thought to receive a fee for such a sacred deed; on the other hand, they had the moral satisfaction—not a trivial thing in those days—to see your own article printed in the periodical. Not just a poem, but also an ordinary report, made the author famous, to some extent immortal.

Soon I happily also became “immortal.” I wrote a letter to the editors of HaMelitz in which I described in dark colors the chevra kadisha [burial society] of Bobruisk, which was run by the conservatives, extremists, and the best of citizens. I dropped a letter in the mailbox, doubting and not hoping to be honored in its publication. How happy I was when I saw, when I opened after some time, a fresh edition of the HaMelitz, my fully printed letter and underneath my name and the name of my family; including all of its letters. King of the Universe! Is this a dream, a false imagination?

I grew in my own eyes, and it seemed to me that also in the eyes of others. It appeared to me that in the synagogue and on the street, everyone knew what became of me and they were looking at me with much respect.

However, as is well known, nothing is given in this world for nothing, and this happiness of mine was no different: I paid dearly for it. When the powerful members of the chevra kadisha found out about my report, they became enraged, especially because of the fact that I described and showed the greed and indifference of the chevra as the truth. A special meeting of the chevra kadisha was called, I was put on trial, and a severe punishment was decided upon, i.e. kvurat hamor [burial of a donkey], that means the cancellation of my right to attend funerals, and burial outside the cemetery fence. This terrible sentence was written in the book of the society so that others would know and be afraid, shocked me by its injustice and cruelty. But after I realized that I would not have to face this shameful burial now, but only after I decide to die, and quite probably [that] I might die elsewhere, outside the range of the hand of the chevra kadisha of Bobruisk, I relaxed. And out of this incident that caused great commotion in the city, only remained a proud realization of the author's honor that I received and the glory of the martyr for truth and justice.

After I came out to the arena with the powerful enemies of light, I waited for another opportunity to fight with them. This opportunity was not long in coming. The rabbi of the Hasidim in Bobruisk, Rabbi Hillel, whom I mentioned above, published a pastoral letter in which he forbade by excommunication, the Jewish women in the city from wearing crinolines. The reader may not know the meaning of this word, but at the end of the 1850s and the beginning of the 1860s, crinolines were in the mouths and before the eyes of all. They were women's dresses of bold appearance: very narrow on the hips, widening downward, ending at the bottom with a hoop made of fishbone or steel, that measured several harshins [about 28 inches]. They looked like a pyramid with a narrow tip, at the same time that the upper part of the body was widening, naturally or artificially, and it was like an upside-down pyramid standing on its tip; in short, this was a fantastic and elegant fashion, and the daughters of Zion, who since the days of the prophet Isaiah were enthusiastic followers of fashion, rushed immediately after this fashion passed the long way from Paris up to the Jewish quarters, to seize it with all their might, and as was their custom, they surpassed this by enlarging the circumference of this hoop immeasurably. However, there is nothing in the world that is perfect, and this wonderful fashion too was associated with a minor discomfort: when a lady sat down, and especially when she lay down, the hoop lifted up together with the dress. And this is the reason that our rabbi became angry about the evil desire awakened by the crinolines and published his pastoral letter. It isn't hard to describe the grief which overcame the daughters of the pretty gender among the Hasidic community when this prohibition was issued. This grief became stronger out of envy towards their neighbors, and friends of the mitnagdim [Orthodox] community, who were not subject to this command by Rabbi Hillel, and who continued to walk with crinolines. Out of compassion to the suffering by the pretty gender and out of anger at the interference by the clergy in the field of womanly clothing, that is none of their business, I described this “incident” in a venomous-humoristic tone in a letter to the editor of HaMelitz. Tzederboim rushed to print it along with a long and pointed comment of his own. The letter, as expected, led to a storm of rage among the Hasidim of Bobruisk. To my good fortune, I was careful this time, and giving up the glory of authors, I signed the letter with a false name, but everyone pointed to me as the author of the fresh article, and only the lack of decisive proof saved me from excommunication. My friends among the hidden enlightened and among the Hasidim warned me not to go out alone into the street at night.

The name apikoros [non-believer] stuck to me forever after my poem Emet veEmuna [Truth and Faith] appeared in the periodical HaCarmel, in which I compared the truth to the great light (the sun) and faith to the lesser light (the moon). To stay in Bobruisk with this name was quite inconvenient, so I decided to carry out my previous plan without delay—to enter the rabbinical school, especially since the support period that my father allotted me was about to end.

It's now or never I thought, and when I received my wife's consent I began to prepare to leave.


Footnotes

  1. Chapter 17 of the memoirs of A. Y. Papirna, “Perezhitoye,” Volume 3, pages 359-363. Papirna lived in Bobruisk during 1859-1862 Return
  2. See page 275 Return


[Page 233]

From Once Upon A Time

by Yisroel Kopelov

Translated by Odelia Alroy

A. The Riverbank[1]

Sunday, or a holiday, a market day, or as mother used to call it “Auction Day” the entire routine of the day was changed. First, my mother got up, and she practically picked up the house “Quick, Quick why are you dawdling?” she prodded the girls and they understanding the earnestness of the day didn't let themselves stay in bed. Not dead, not alive, they sprung out of bed in a great hurry, running, entangling, looking for a sock, a shoe, barely dressing and leaving. What we will eat or drink, who can think about such things? Mother, barely dressed, holding her coat in one hand ran out of the house like, G-d forbid, from a fire. The girls would, while running , braid their hair, or tie their shoes, nothing trivial, we have to run to the shore . To the shore, to the shore. “We shouldn't be late for the shore mother would scream with anxiety, quick, children, quick run straight to the shore! do you hear? To the shore!”

The first to the shore, early in pious communion, ran the storekeepers—women. The men, because they had to daven, put on tefillin and not forget the Shma, came later. And perhaps one might find a young man who was more interested in business than Torah and was too lazy to set himself up in business, but to earn a kopek, wanted to buy from on and sell to the other. The women wouldn't allow him any merchandise; when they would remind him that it was time for prayers, they would curse him and drive him away. In truth, it sometimes happened that a young man who had been chased, took the ferry to the other side of the shore, went far away to the green inn and fooled the women and grabbed a fat bite…

But how many of those were there and when did that happen? Which Jew would so easily brush away the praying? If people would learn about it they would stone him! No, few risked that and therefore in the early morning the women drove him away with their curses.

Here comes a Gentile—the women approach him. They look, search, tap his wagon in every corner.

“What do you have, Sir, anything to sell?” asked a Jewish woman.
But suddenly another Jewish woman recognizes that the man usually does business with her. She calls him by name and asks after his wife Avdotia.
“Oh, such a diligent housewife. Such an honored guest. It's been a long while since I've seen you. How are you? Wait a while, I can't climb on the wagon like a man”…and she climbs on the wagon.
The farmer didn't even get a scent of this woman because he owed her money for salt and he didn't have any idea of paying her today…. But he couldn't get out of it and was willing to ride with her to her shop…. The other woman, following the customs of the shore, got away from the wagon and left with Jewish woman with her Gentile.
“It was probably so fated! Her luck! If G-d wills do you need brains?” They comforted themselves.
But the women didn't always obey the customs of the shore. The temptation to the Gentiles merchandise was often too great and they could not withstand temptation. Several women would latch on to the Gentile, run after the wagon, scream and curse. One middle-aged woman, seeming apparently that she wouldn't make any deals with the Gentile began cursing the other women, the lucky ones. And that is how the fire of the shore wars burn.
“Oh, G-d, heavenly father, you should have pity and send a plague, a cholera, on one witch so that there should be nothing left of her. May her brood roll away—the bastards! Did you hear about it? She attached herself, like a spot—may she attach herself to the Angel of Death—she grabs the prizes—may her teeth ache her…. For who? If I told, I had a quarrel with her. She doesn't allow anyone to live, grabs the bite from the mouth, may she be crippled!”

“May she be mute, dear G-d!” With a prayer tune and a crying voice called the woman who had entrapped the Gentile.

The others do not stay in the background.

—“Aha—she's busy? She should have a bellyache! The nerve. The world is too little! Her Gentile! Did you hear? It's a joke…. Her own Gentile? Did she buy him? Maybe she had him herself—What? She has no shame, blinded eyes—may she be stuck with pins and her bones broken! Psst, psst—a trifle. What business do I have with her? The whore—Perhaps the thief won't get enough. Did you see? I'll get a mitzvah—driving the dog to convert. Don't you think I have children? I'll get even with her.”

“Hear—there are no momzers [bastards] in my family, no converts either, and my sisters had no bastards. So, that's good! But woe is me, with whom I have to argue. That I have to stand in the same Ave. as she! That's the greatest pity. But if I were like you— Ha?....” And the first one shot back, and started to cough.

“Oh, what a good G-d we have ! You are choking—a miracle from heaven—indeed—You will soon hit people in the street. Everything is hers—all the Gentiles”, all the merchandise, all the customers—did you see—a Rebbitzen—did you see what a commotion she makes! May agony strike her….”

The lucky woman who snared the Gentile, not knowing, coughs and seeing the other women cursing, spits in her face. The other woman does the same. A spit for a spit and one catches drops of trouble, they tear the kerchiefs one from the others heads until everyone is bareheaded.

With a scream, she cried “Gevalt! Women—have pity. I'm here bareheaded.”

“Feh, feh, those on the sidelines mixed in, put a kerchief on her bare head and separated the women—one here, one there.”

“Go already—go away with your Gentile” they advised and threw me envious looks.

The onlookers begin to go away. They discuss it and take sides. Which woman is right? Some say this one, some the other…. Seldom does it happen that the strength of justice is that strong on either side, that it gets worked out in the new curse words, in spitting or in slapping and tearing beards and payess. The sad part however is that it is a shame, a great pity for both women, mothers and children, worthy housewives, who in the heat of anger spoke so about each other. G-d knows such superstitious thoughts.

Soon after the first minyan, the men folk came scurrying. The small merchants, who have nothing, have nothing to lose and live from hand to mouth, fall upon each Gentile who appears. All cries of justice are nullified. There is no more such thing as “your” Gentile. As long as he has a bit of merchandise, he's theirs and pleading doesn't help.

A Gentile gets off of a wagon full of merchandise. The crowd is drawn to him as to a magnet. A woman recognizes him as her Gentile, and she begins her well known formula: “Ay, ay Ivanishke, how are you?” But before she can approach the wagon, he is surrounded by a big group of small merchants who top the wagon and bid for a price.

The woman screams, cries: “Thieves, he's her Gentile, he owes her money, she already has a claim on the merchandise, who hears her?” The competitors raise the price, bidding each other up heatedly! They know full well, that business from such prices is unlikely, but they are so competitive, and perhaps because there is no business, they tear at each other all the more. They begin scolding each other, first in Yiddish, then in the vernacular, so that the Gentile can judge who is right. They call each other all sorts of vile names and sometimes it goes to fists…. One pleads with the Gentile, as he bends his head over, that he shouldn't allow this band of thieves and swindlers to carry out a catastrophe! “Here, you have your money see?”—and he stuffs two new ten ruble notes into his bosom. (His hands are occupied holding the reins) “You understand, you'll have no tricks from me, here you have cash, drive away the dogs from here and drive the merchandise to me!” screams one and looks at the others as though he were the victor. “Hey, be careful,” should out the others as though a great danger occurred. “Better guard yourself from this man, you've probably heard about him. He's a thief. Never mind, do you see his ears, that's how you'll see his wares, or money. Never mind, from his hands you won't come away dry. Hear, do you want a good true high price for your wares, come – on my wife and children, you won't get a higher price. Come, bring me the merchandise. I tell you, you won't be sorry,” screams another small business man, seating himself next to the Gentile and pulling the reins out of his hands….

The farmer this whole time enjoyed the bickering and still not knowing the right top price, got a bargain.

“Oh, brothers—you're fighting in vain,” he says to the merchants with a naïve tone and a pleasant manner. “It's a sin for your trouble—the merchandise is already sold. And for what a price….” He mentions a price, and it's clear that he is lying: “No, for nothing, it's not my habit to change my mind. If you really want the merchandise, one of you will have to raise the old price. And whoever will raise most, to him will I sell—but hurry it up. The day doesn't stand still. I haven't eaten yet today!”
Comrades, hearing such talk, with such overblown prices, regretted the whole affair, wanted to forget all about it and shake hands. The entire day they decided there should be harmony. And they decided amongst themselves, who should be with the Gentile and who should stay away, guarding and not allowing competitors. The crowd began to dwindle. One of the group a double disappointment, startled him by saying that we wanted to adjust the price which had become too high. Only two people remained with the gentile and they hadn't been as obvious before.
“So, What do you say?” one asked the Gentile. “Will you take my price?” And mentions an altogether different amount.
The Gentile smelled a rat…he understood or didn't understand what was happening. But there were not competitors. He wished them all dead. He had almost succeeded, allowed himself to be asked. The second merchant had, appropriately, quoted no higher, and they reached an agreement. The Gentile brought his wares to the partners—who had, they said, storehouses not far away at Sender Zalman Yara's, the innkeeper—a good and comfortable spot.

It is understood that in transit and upon weighing the merchandise became much smaller in quantity. The produce slimmed down. There had been too much of a to do about it. The Gentile scratched himself behind his head with wonder, he said he thought it should have been more. But when he added the pint of 80 proof whiskey and a delicious freshly cooked fish and broth, which “the not so bad Zhids” gave him, and he was content, lauded the Jews but even more the whiskey.

The Jews though not in high spirits, were quite content and not put upon. They thanked and praised the one above for a good livelihood, which he sent them that day.

And G-d did indeed send help to the other merchants. They caught a farmer who had several hives of honey, severed knots of cooked wax and a few measures of linseed—so much merchandise for one Gentile seldom happens…. Anyway, for his linseed, they gave the farmer a fair price and because they wanted to be on his good side they didn't negotiate too hard for the honey—on account of the honey and the hives, then the empty hives—but when it came to the wax. the merchants got a meaty bone! They decided that the price of the wax must be the same as the honey. They argued that wax and honey are the same, that there is no such thing as honey without wax, and that by reason and justice, the Gentile deserves no more for the wax than for the honey!

The farmer screamed loudly, translated—“Honey cost five ruble a measure, and wax—40?” he argued, he squeezed the honey, cooked the wax and derived perhaps a few pounds of wax from the pood [a little over 36 pounds] of honey. But it didn't help. “If you don't want it different,” said the merchants, “take back your merchandise!” But since the honey had already been emptied into the big vats and mixed with the contents in it, so the Gentile really couldn't take back the honey. They made an agreement and paid the farmer separately for his trouble, for his squeezing and cooking the wax and making it into a ball.

People on the sidelines, who were drawn to the tumult and screaming, nodded their heads. Others smiled; others said that it was a desecration of G-d's name—open thievery, and such things do no favor to the people of the market place. But the merchants paid not the slightest attention to those words. They reached an accounting with the farmer, who was not too happy, but they were very happy. They thanked and praised the one above for his charity and for the clever idea, that they had never before even dreamed of.

But not every day is a holiday—not always and not often did not merchants win from these shenanigans. Sometimes they would meet a Gentile—a snake, a murderer—who would immediately bring several Gentiles and beat up the Jews. Or they would go directly to the police and they would drag the Jews to the police where they would rest for a few days, receive a few blows, pay damages, anguish, shame—and also lose an entire day for which they long awaited and was important for them.

The shore was for us an exchange place. It was happy, lively, active, if you earned or if you didn't—you were involved…. The flaw was only that it only happened on Sunday, this market day. Every other day in an entire year, the shore was null and void. The merchants would lie down there and rest for the whole day. It was very hot in summer and very cold in winter. Autumn and spring one would soak in the rain and the cold lake wind would slap the cheeks without mercy, chap the faces and change one's appearance.

A merchant could be spotted from afar. He would arrive home broken, like a wreck. Tired, anxious, angry and not seldom drunk. From among these Jews were the first who beat their wives and for whom the Jewish home became a hell.


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B. A “Good Jew” Has Come[2]

The city was bustling. Everyone was rushing somewhere. They were burdened and tired. The faces were flushed. At holiday times the crowd was in an elevated mood. The teachers let their pupils out of cheder earlier. The heads of the yeshivas—the yeshivas' boys, and even the storekeepers in the market kept their shops half-holiday. One half of the door was closed, the entrance open; but they stood and conversed quietly.

No men were seen in the streets. Somewhere a misnaged [Orthodox Jew] blundered into tour midst or as my father used to call a misnaged, a Tavan.

“See”—he would say. “This too has eyes, wings, a rear but he is dead…. It is just not a living fish!”
Therefore, he attracted many Jews. Like at Tashlikh [a custom performed on the New Year]—dressed in long frock coat, and belts and fancy hats. There were many carriages, endless carts, assorted wagons and all kinds of transportation. But the greatest number of people walked.

In the house opposite us, on the corner, where Bertshe Getzil lived, they scrubbed and washed, cleaned and prepared exactly as before Pesach, although it was an ordinary Wednesday soon after Pesach.

Even the paved road, which was untouched, except for royal celebrations, or when the Governor came, today was being cleaned and swept by soldiers and constables, with gilded brooms. They smoked their tobacco and carefully cleaned the dirt into piles on the sides of the road.

Everyone who remained in town—the caretakers and Gentile sausage sellers included—looked eastward and waited for something to come from there.

And so it happened. Soon was heard the sound of kapelye [a band]. The well-known melodies of our wedding music came closer and closer. And we clearly heard the well-known lively playing. It didn't take long and masses of Jews appeared, they danced and pranced; whoever could, hopped, jumped, danced in rhythm. Others tumbled on the freshly cleaned road. Just as though it were Simchat Torah.

Afterwards many carriages came, coaches and phaetons, so many came closer and closer that one couldn't see the beginning or the end. At the end came a large carriage, with four well-groomed horses.

There was a great tumult and then a scream:

—“The Rabbi is here, the Rabbi is here—blessed is his coming—the Rabbi is here.”
Quickly, as an arrow from a bow, the horses were unharnessed, important Jews in their gabardine coats, harnessed themselves and pulled the wagon. When they stopped for a minute another group of Jews replaced them and so on. The Jews who were lucky to be closer to the wagon, looked for the opportunity to touch the wheel, the axel or the harness to have this privilege. Pulling and leading in this way, step by step, with song and dance, they reached Bertshe Getzil's house, where Reb Leibele Kapuster, Reb Mendele Libavetsher's oldest son, was staying.

Two Jews making a bench with their hands brought Reb Leibele into the house – into a secluded room.

The Gabbai, a tall strong Jew with a stately appearance, selected the most important people and invited them to enter. The rest of the crowd, still singing “Blessed be his coming, come in peace”—began to dissipate.

All day Thursday and half of Friday they disturbed my room but afterward I remained a resident at Bertshe Getzil's home.

The Rabbi was in the room almost the entire time, but the house was full of people. In and out, out and in. And only a select few were allowed to go in to see the Rabbi, and only for a short while. After the welcoming of the Shabbat, after the beginning prayer and before maariv—the house was so packed with people, that it was crushing. The crowd came to listen to the Torah, which the Rabbi would recite. One stood on top of another. They stood on the benches and windows; They pushed and they shoved, each wanted to get closer to the Rabbi and it was very tumultuous. But suddenly, it became deadly still. As though by some divine power, the noise stopped and with bated breath the crowd remained, each in his spot—Reb Leibele appeared, quickly approached the prepared seat in the middle of the hall around which there was a big circle so the Rabbi would be free.

The Hasidus [Hasidic philosophy] he said softly and quietly explaining an issue to his intimates. From time to time he rubbed his handsome brow and often gave a deep sigh. His Hasidus lasted longer than an hour. The crowd that actually head and understood the Hasidus (my father was one of them) was in seventh heaven.

Psh, psh, it's already evening, they said to one another. They were pleased with themselves. A satisfied smile, the joy and look of the eyes, the strange manners and the deep but sweet tunes were witness that Reb Leibele raised them high, very high on his spirited wings and took their souls far far away…

The evening prayers (maariv) didn't last long, but the Hasidim, warmed by Reb Leibele'sTorah, davened until quite late. Here stands Avrum bar Yermiahus, a tall Jew, with a bright loving face, with clever eyes and a high brow, a known Hasid and a learned man, somewhere in a corner near a brick oven and repeating for the tenth time; Shma Yisrael! He prays so heart fully, it touches me. He gives it ever so many variations; he signs like a small child, intones like a pleader and then he rises like a field marshal after a victory. first he sings softly, semi-softly like one in love; so strange his sad and gentle tunes, slowly eats deep until the root into the soul. And then he begins to speak plainly, simply and argues with clear words; “Shma Yisroel! Shma Yisroel!”

In another corner, near the window, stands Elikum-Mordechai. An ordinary Jew in appearance, but he had a big name among the Hasidim. He would preach and had a great reputation in the Tzaddiks' court. He stands still as a pole; one hears not a sound from him. He doesn't move a limb. He stands with his head bowed and downcast eyes, from which tears fall to the ground, like from a roof after a rain and I think that he doesn't feel anything.

Yudele Chaves—a fired-up Hasidish young man—a clever fellow—runs around here and there in the hall with a force like a horse that has torn loose from its cart: he doesn't see anyone, he doesn't hear anyone and if one doesn't get out of his way, he would climb over you in haste and thrashing around. Yudele runs and smiles, his face is fresh, happy and lively, he runs and continues to count his fingers. He caught the spirit that he was missing, and Reb Leibele helped him find it….

Pineh Avreml Beinstein was banging the wall with his fist with great enthusiasm, snapped his fingers sand, nodded his head—as though he agreed with that idea, and with eyes closed tightly he has gone to the highest planes, high, high in heaven.

When I came home, the Sabbath candles were almost out. My sisters were already sleeping. My mother did not even say anything but it was obvious that she was not too happy with such a Sabbath supper. Happy over-joyed was only my father. A new skin covered him.

On the next day, Shabbos, as people were leaving all the synagogues, they were still reading the Torah at the Rabbi's, they called Reb Leibele to maftir [the last person called to the Torah on the Sabbath; he also reads the Haftorah]. The blessings over the Torah and the first prayers of the Haftorah Reb Leibele said almost like all other Hasidim. Maybe with a bit more fervor, more involved, but nothing new. But when he came to Jeremiah's speech in the chapter, it was not just saying the Haftorah—what trop [symbols indicating how a phrase should be chanted]—but an outpouring of soul in a prayer with true feeling.

With a unique Hasidish tune, full of heartfelt sweetness, Reb Leibele expounded on each phrase and each word of the phrase. Often he sang with a high voice but when he came to a certain passage, he cried so hard that he was like a child who cried so hard he couldn't catch his breath. The audience was disturbed and frightened. Someone even screamed. “Water.” But the Rabbi gave a deep sigh and went on with the Haftorah. Saying the Haftorah took three quarters of an hour. He was soaked from sweat and tears. Apparently all his strength was drained: and with all his might he leaned on the Gabbai and dragged himself back to his room. The audience, the true Hasidim, were elevated: they smacked their lips, winded their eyes, oohed and aahed.

The entire Shabbos they did not set a prepared table. Reb Leibele ate his meals in his room. Later, he recited Torah again—a deep one as the cognoscenti said. He first came and visited with the audience at night. At a long, prepared table, decked out with all kinds of delicacies, whiskey and wine, the leaders of our town sat.

There were known Hasidim learned Jews, wealthy men, important businessmen and pious people as well as the ordinary shul goers.

When the Gabbai appeared and immediately behind him Reb Leibele, everyone stood up and started to sing the “Lubavitchers' new tune.” And with what enthusiasm they sang. they forgot about everything! They forgot about their debts and suffering, their worrying about earning a living—even about the Diaspora—it seems they forgot everything and delved into the tune. Their faces radiant with joy. The inner joy was reflected in their eyes and heard in their voices.

But suddenly the singing stopped. A police officer and a pair of soldiers with guns appeared at the door. The entire group of Jews was like frozen. Many faces turned white from fear and they cringed from anguish and pain. The gevir [rich man] Lozinsky went over to the uninvited guests, talked to the police officer, gave them some cognac and food and got rid of them. Lozinsky smiled, telling that the police officer, passing by, wanted to know what the celebration was? And now he knows—he became richer with a 5 ruble note.

The previous tune was no longer sung. They tried—but it wouldn't come. The attempted, tried other tunes, sang bim-bam, snapped their fingers, but it wasn't the same. The earlier mood was gone Reb Leibele talked about all sorts of matters about the Diaspora and the soul, told wonderful stories about his father and grandfather, the old Rabbi Reb Schneur-Zalman. The crowd listened intently with open mouths. They applauded but the shadow of the police, many his name be obliterated, hung like a black cloud over the hall and over all those assembled. They sat until quite late, they ate and drank. Some Hasidim snatched scraps form the plates that were being taken away from the Rabbi Leibele, but only a few and half embarrassed.

The entire week that Reb Leibele was with us, was spent in saying Torah and in singing, except what he collected from contributions.


[Page 241]

C. Nicholas I Visits Bobruisk[3]
(From My Father's Telling)

When I saw with my own eyes the wildness and cruelty of Nicholas, may his name be obliterated! The terror of the Jews once came to us in Bobruisk for a big maneuver. The black hear knew him, they said, that several corps assembled in the barracks. It was a beautiful summer Shabbos, still warm, a real beauty. The whole town, everyone, Jews and Gentiles, went to the barracks to see the Czar and observe the maneuver. The area where the maneuver was to be was roped off. We stood for hours and watched how they fired the cannon; how horses jumped over mounds and over deep holes; soldiers ran, threw themselves on the ground and fired guns. There were many interesting events. But who can remember them. It became dusk. The maneuvers were apparently over. The Czar, those knowing said, was impressed. The maneuvers were carried out. He rubbed his hands together and said, “Good men, very good, excellent!” And everyone shouted “Hoorah!”

Father stopped there. Tears choked him. He reddened like fire, his whole face flamed, and banging on the table until all the dishes shook he screamed:

Believe me. I swear, if I would have had a pistol or a gun, I would have shot him like a mad dog, I would have been right, before my people and before G-d…!


[Page 242]

D. Fires[4]

Fires were nothing new for us. Every Monday and Thursday they occurred, over the stove, as if to spite us, in summer and in the middle of the night, when it was so delicious to sleep and there were no dreams of the Rabbi or cheder. It made no difference where the fire was, it could have been in another part of town, the first thing one did was wake the children, dress them and quickly pack the bags. The children crying, faces pale, things are falling, we are rushing, the poverty sticks and we harm ourselves more than the fire. It happened that a stall burned and the owners lost good merchandise, furniture. Our people were frightened. Fires were a plague. A town of wooden houses we were afraid because of the fortress. If one house caught fire, others would quickly catch as well especially in summer, when the roofs were dry as bone. And if there were a wind, it was especially dangerous. Quarter after quarter would go up in flames. The market, the schools, half the town would disappear in an hour or two in a fire. We even had a “Firefighting Brigade” but it consisted of six old nags harnessed to six little wagons. On each was a dried barrel and a thin old hunched fireman would have to run a verst or two to the Bobruike for water. In the meantime the whole town could burn. Not seldom did this happen, that the water ran out of the barrel, before it reached the fire. The nags received plenty of lashes, but they pretended not to notice and barely moved. The firemen screamed, “Whoa, Whoa”. The open barrel of water shook and water pilled, but it didn't put out the fire. and a town of Jews were ruined.

The screams and cries of the children, the moaning and wailing of the women, the groaning of the men mixed in the air with the crackling of the fire, with the thuds of the falling balconies, with the shattering of glass and porcelain utensils, the flames and thick smoke, like wild animals, surrounded and threatened the bystanders with death. The fathers ran around as though poisoned, the mothers carried the children, others held on to their aprons and tore the hair from their head. One runs around bewildered and asks everyone, what date is today? And when he finds out, he falls in a faint—just yesterday his insurance on both houses and store, furniture's, was over and he is left a pauper.

The next day, the remaining chimneys like tombstones, bare witness. They came to search in the ruins, perhaps something remained whole and the women cried so bitterly, as if at the grave of their fathers. There was immediately a shortage of food, but a dispatch to Minsk would soon bring help.

For long weeks, and often months, Jewish merchants would wander in the military fields, eating dry food, sleeping on the bundles of bedclothes, that they snatched and not undress or change their clothes.

Shabbos, they said their prayers then the lucky ones cooked and brought their cholent there. They prepared enough for all. One time another disaster happened… The eruv [a ritual enclosure around the community] broke on Shabbos and the wives, boys and girls, who carried pots to the people, were stranded. But our clever rabbi allowed us to bring the food to the hungry and lifted the Shabbos restriction.

Slowly, slowly the community recovers. Some earlier, some later and a new town gets built up. The poor erect shacks, stoves, and stalls. The rich build ever nicer houses than before. and life resumes in its old patterns. One begins to catch ones breath, to establish oneself again—but, aha, another fire. Again cries, troubles, despair and sadness.

Years and years it went like that. The first disaster was not forgotten and already there was a new and bigger one until—until Jewish youngsters founded a volunteer fire department.

Hundreds of them would come running by day or by night, with axes and buckets and they would work quickly. Aside from that, there was a special division that would pack the belongings of the nearby houses and stores, like experienced people, and drag the furniture upstairs, not allowing the dwelling should catch fire.

But that was many years later, when I too participated in the department. When I went to Cheder, there was no volunteer fire department and there were many fires.


[Page 244]

E. Be With Reasonable People[5]

A Jewish wedding, when I was a cheder boy, was the greatest event, not only for the couple, but for the parents. It was a topic to talk about for years and years, to relate and remember. For the ordinary man, this joy was difficult, like crossing an ocean. He wanted to make the right match, give a dowry and a wardrobe, like everyone else, and make a wedding supper that one would not be ashamed of. One had to hold fast for other reasons: It shouldn't harm one's credit for other matches…others were really extravagant and were left impoverished, almost flattened, as long as they put on a beautiful wedding! They mortgaged houses, stores, borrowed from usurers, pinched one's cheeks as long as the paint should remain.

It often happened, that after an outstanding wedding the important host, took money from orphans and widows and he received more curses than blessings for the wedding.

Not seldom, it would happen that a son of Torah, a respected person would be unable to bear the shame and would die. The gall would burst and he would pay with his life!

Lineage, honor, “being equal” was more important in the dough from which Jewish life, in my time in our town, was kneaded. At weddings, circumcisions, in shul, at charitable affairs when a young boy was brought to cheder—each time only one idea was remembered to show oneself off!

To dress oneself—to go out among people—one allowed oneself to spend one's last groschen [a coin of low value]. Dare not ones enemies rejoice! Alone at home, when no one saw, one scrimped and managed with whatever…no white bread or roll was seen from Shabbos to Shabbos. A thin dish of groats, a potato, a cucumber with bread, a bit of sour cream and herring—were the main delicacies in even respectable homes, and it is no wonder that our Litvish [Lithuanian] Jews were pale, thin, emaciated—indeed, starved!

When it came to a draft, it was trouble. There was simply no one to draft. The rich and healthy were unable to be drafted and the poor—they lied. They are not suitable, the doctors would say.


[Page 245]

F. The Nabor [Draft][6]

Opposite our house was the place where young men were held until they were sent off to the military service. Soon after Succoth, they would begin the snatchings and the captured ones were held in the Sbornia until they were sent off to the military, around the New Year. The work of the community was not to improve the candidates, they should be fit for soldiering, but this seldom worked. A poor tailor-boy, emaciated, a water carriers lad, an exhausted yeshiva boy, such types surely couldn't be made ready.

For entire days they recited psalms, little by little they fasted, they cried and moaned and said prayers, that the one above should have pity and release them from the Gentile hands. The community was unable to prevent Jews from fasting and crying in such a time of trouble! So the military service was terrible for the community and the candidates—who had much to tell about for many years—they remained deathly sick from their diet here.

The community would have to ransom them or supply other boys who would sell themselves for a few hundred rubles and go and serve. They were called okontikes. They would stuff themselves with the best, call for the musicians, dance and have a wild time. One time a poor boy sold himself as an okontike. When they asked him before the enlistments, as was the fashion, what he wanted, he cried out with great ecstasy: forty kopitkes [kopeks] worth of beans and bread.

The request from this okontik remained in the town as a saying for generations.


[Page 245]

G. The Marriage Brokers[7]

We had quite a few matchmakers. One didn't have to invest any capital in this business, one didn't have to risk much (except perhaps with two young lives—as they were strangers), no great faith, except talking, was needed, so there were many practitioners.

Aside from a few percent of professionals, for whom match-making is perhaps the only means of livelihood, whatever teacher, caretakers, torah reader or just any idler added match-making to his long list of occupations.

Too successful, it is understood, the match-makers did not become, because for each match four or five of them attached themselves, as one does to Challah, barely waiting for the blessing, but each had a crumb of a few kopikeh. First they awaited schnapps and something to eat to snatch a good meal and a kopeks.

The boys and girls knew full well that the money was wasted. But how can you not get involved with matchmakers when it's time to make a match. Even a cat can cross your plans. And one must allow oneself to be found because otherwise you could remain single.

About the matchmaking, there would be curious tales. About one prospective father-in-law. it is told that he came to a nouveau riche man to discuss a match for his daughter. When the other learned to whom he was speaking about a match he was astounded:

—“What do you mean, do you think I talk about matches with just anyone?”

—“Get out of my house, you arrogant fellow!”

The man stands and smiles and says:
—“Now, I first see what an even match it is . Letter for letter, word for word, my other in-law screamed at me in the same manner and drove me from the house….”
It was told that the match was completed and the father-in-law was always bragging about it.

But Shepsel, the matchmaker was extraordinary. They called him “Shepsel the land-shadchan” [matchmaker]. He didn't go to just anyone, with ordinary people he didn't occupy himself, but he made matches between the important and the rich. He arranged matches for people from far away, from Mohilev, Minsk and Vilna. It also happened that he even went as far as Warsaw. Shepsel soon became well known: he was clever and he conducted his affairs in a business-like manner. He had a book, which he arranged alphabetically, and he listed the names of the towns and the prospects each in their proper place. He had a pointed and accurate description of the status of people, their pedigree, the dowry and board and he made his own account of the virtues and the faults of the brides and grooms

Shepsel's custom was to first meet with the groom or bride before he made the introduction. He had a good sense to find who was suited to whom.

Shepsel was careful about telling too man lies or exaggerating and so people had respect and trust in him.


[Page 246]

H. The Pogroms of 1881[8]

Suddenly, on the first of March 1881, the new arrived that the Nihilists killed the Czar!

All the people trembled, like an earthquake had struck. Both Gentiles and Jews got nervous. In the stores, in the shuls, in the baths and in the churches they talked about this. The Gentiles almost all bewailed the great loss. Among the Jews there were just a small number of free-thinkers, my father, for example, who ate their hearts out over this tragedy…. But for the most part, the Jewish people were troubled and the reason was that they were afraid that the new Czar would be even worse.

Our few young people were full of joy, but they ran around, like poisoned, one to the other asking; what should we do, how can we help? And not knowing how, that is how it remained.

But soon afterward. born on dark wings came the sorrowful news of the first pogrom in Kiev!

Jews were disheartened by the frightening news. They let down their heads and walked around town with anguished hearts and asked themselves: “From where will help come?”

The Gentiles and especially those who dislike Jews, held their heads high and with looks, taunted the Jews—their neighbors with whom they had until now lived in a friendly manner.

In Bobroisk, where one then knew little of the outside world, in town, where everything belonged to Jews, with their Jewish customs and ways, where Shabbos one never saw a living person in the street, except when Jews were going to and from shul. And perhaps if a foolish Gentile brought a wagon load of wood to sell, he either had to bring it back or wait around until night and then ask a Jew whom he knew to buy it from him for a very cheap price: In Bobroisk, where the biggest market day was Sunday, and he Gentile churches were empty, when on even a festival—a holiday in the Czar's family—they had only half the door of the store closed, like half a holiday—and that only for a short while.

And naturally, knowing that he would receive a present for the New Year or another holiday, he never not chatted or was not buddy-buddy with the Jews—even in Bobroisk, we then felt that Jews are in the Diaspora—and the clanging of the pogroms threw a trembling, bitter fear and covered us with a black mood with a fright—that previously it would have been hard to imagine.

But the young people were the first to recover. They began quietly discussing, organizing a “Samaaborone”—a self-defense group—so that if there was a pogrom they could oppose them.

How our “Samaaborone” would have ended, not having any ammunition but their then fingers, it's not hard to find….But it was some consolation for them. The preparations along gave them a big of courage and eh older people believed in our strength and calmed down a bit.


Footnotes

  1. Amol Iz Gevein [Once Upon a Time], New York, 1926, pages 45-63 Return
  2. ibid, pages 109-117 Return
  3. ibid, pages 167-169 Return
  4. ibid, pages 188-191 Return
  5. ibid, pages 243-244 Return
  6. ibid, pages 244-245 Return
  7. ibid, pages 300-302 Return
  8. ibid, pages 371-3722 Return

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