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[Page 773]

Lapitch and Til Eulenspiegel

By Yakov Davidon

Translated by Eial Dujovny

 

A

I had a city…
A city so small…
A small city had I
And what did she lack?
Three streets and one hundred and twenty houses. No more nor less. Barns equal in number to the houses - repositories for the foodstuffs and a home for the cows. Housed one animal to a pen, they provided the family sustenance in tough times. There was also a woodshed, a storage place for the crops, and last but not least a shelter for the household's primary source of nourishment - the potatoes that were cherished more than gold. These rested in the center of the farmyard in small, sealed quarters - protected from any internal or external harm.

And so it was that every morning during those long, white, winter mornings, the diminutive mothers, backs bent and fingers worked to the bone, entered the woodshed carrying a deep pan filled with burning coals. The frost constantly and futilely knocked on the walls of this shelter, day after day and hour after hour, as it strove to cause injury to the huddled potatoes that cringed in fear. The pan was placed on a gray bedding of cinders to the delight of the potatoes that smiled warmly and embraced one another. Warming-up their brittle insides they thus survived from one year to the next. Each day the top layer was removed for nourishment as the remaining layers shrank back ever further - pining for the impending fall - when new friends from the latest harvest would joyously spill over them, in a never ending cycle.

 

H

Surrounding the shtetl from all sides were thick forests, a far from negligible supply of building material and firewood from time immemorial, and the primary source of income for the villagers. Every winter, the lumberjacks ventured into the forests felling thousands of trees for transport to the Svisla River in spring. From there, deft hands bound the logs and floated them down to the Berezina River from whence they flowed to the Dnieper and the Ukraine.

Seeing as the forests were the major source of livelihood for the shtetl, it was from earliest childhood that the villagers saw in them the center of their lives - both for the present and into the future. A child looking at the surrounding view saw nothing but trees and trees and it was an indisputable fact that the earth and sky would never meet without a forest dividing them. These forests forged his character and marked his horizon into the future. For while these forests were destined to be the livelihood of adults, they were also the only hangout for the youth and the wellspring of their imagination from earliest childhood until their dying days on this earth.

The shtetl was so picturesque - heavy with charm - only just emerging from Chagall's paintbrush.

Two hills overlooked each other. Over one, towering in great splendor, the Pravoslavic[1] church sat adjacent to the bustling market that took place on fair days, holidays and special occasions. Facing the church from the opposite hill – placed as if deliberately to annoy – rested the synagogues built with rustic simplicity and the cemeteries that lay at their feet.

Between the two hills lay a slight valley with a slow-flowing stream that ran the length of the shtetl. Called Menashe's Stream (Menashe's Teichel) by all the villagers, regardless of whether they were Jewish or Christian, the stream was named for Rabbi Menashe, a children's instructor who lived adjacent to the stream and the bridge that crossed over it.

Crossing over both hills was the shtetl's promenade that led into the forest hangouts, which were reached by crossing a second bridge that traversed Malakh's[2] Stream (Malakh's Teichel). This designation was not meant, G-d forbid, to invoke the ministering angels, but rather for the sake of fairness, the stream was named after a Belarussian peasant called Malakh who built his home on the bank of the Danan stream.

The common characteristic of both streams was that they both discharged into the larger Svisla River that flowed from the seat of the Guberniya[3] in Minsk. Not a particularly deep river - it was possible to cross it on foot at several locations – the Svisla served as a recreational spot for communal bathing and was one of the most beautiful and colorful places in the shtetl.

The shtetl was a nationalistic place, nationalistic down to the very last bone in its body. Each and every boy and girl knew Hebrew - the language used for writing letters, both among the youth and between children and their parents. The traditional words “May our eyes behold Your return in Zion”[4] were not dead words or words of prayer but rather living words of flesh and blood that were uttered with heartfelt emotion and soulful longing.

While it goes without saying that there were religious Jews knowledgeable in the Bible and the Talmud, the villagers were also familiar with the Haskalah[5] and interested themselves in affairs of the world. Every third Jew had a set of the Mishna at home and every tenth person subscribed to Hatsfira[6] where Sokolov's[7] words brought one solace during trying times. Even the illustrated Hebrew newspapers for children - Olam Katan, HaKhaim ve HaTeva, Ha Shakhar andHaPrakhim[8]  - reached the village on time and had a great impact on the youth. It is not surprising therefore, that before too long a “rebel” and "uncouth” youth shook the shtetl to its core. The shtetl, where notions trickled as slowly as the waters of a tributary, now faced the devotees of the recently published magazine HaShiloakh,[9]  - the embodiment of the spirit and teachings of Joseph Klausner[10] from the blessed city of Odessa.

And yet the city was observant, following the time-honored traditions of our ancestors in Israel. There was even a Yeshiva in the city - The Lapitch Yeshiva. It had such a reputation that students from a radius of hundreds of versts[11] away flocked to study there (these arrived even from Bobruisk, Minsk and the distant city of Grodno). The residents of the shtetl, notwithstanding their small population, would save their last pennies to support the Yeshiva students.

And here is a miracle! Despite the small number of inhabitants, the shtetl was divided into two camps that prayed in two separate synagogues - one for the Hasidim and the other for the Mitnagdim. The former knew not what piety was about and the latter knew not who or what they opposed.[12] The former, who comprised the minority, never in their lives knew the Baal HaTanya while the majority knew the Vilna Gaon only from his picture that graced their walls.[13] After all, the echoes of this struggle were too distant and unrealistic. The tangible difference between the two factions was the prayer liturgy. For some reason one was called the Sephardic rite because it recited the prayer Hodu before Barukh SheAmar[14] , while the other, the Ashkenazi rite, reversed the order. Reason demanded therefore two separate synagogues that would be called by different names.

The Ashkenazi synagogue (which was slightly larger) was called by the villagers Di Shul and the Hasidic synagogue was called Di Shtibel . Yet after the fire that damaged both of the synagogues, a makeshift shack was shared by both groups and was dubbed Balagan[15] . How such a strange sobriquet came to be applied to a synagogue, only Lapitch folklore can truly convey.

Yet if both factions parted ways during prayer, both shared a valuable asset - the village Rabbi who was there to fulfill the spiritual needs in the name of one and all. Aside from his religious duties, he concentrated in his hands all the “portfolios” of secular leadership. He was the mayor, the foreign minister, and the justice minister for all - single-handedly passing judgement between man and G-d and man and his neighbor - judgements without recourse to appeal by any other institution.

And since we are discussing the shtetl Rabbi, it is important to mention the rabbinic dispute that left its imprimatur on the village and which was not forgotten up until the Nazi's exterminated the shtetl.

In the same way that in Bobruisk, years were counted in relation to the “Great Fire” i.e. so many years before or after, in Lapitch, time was counted relative to the “Rabbinic Dispute".

This occurred at the turn of the century, when Rabbi Hendel, the widely accepted and beloved Rabbi, died.[16] Immediately after his death, a controversy erupted over the selection of his successor. As is usual in such a case, there were several contenders for this post (Do you think this is a simple matter? A rabbinic post representing 120 families. As the number of families, so the number of …). Among those contending for the post, there were two who rose above the rest with the help of their supporters. Neither side was appeased until both rabbis were appointed to represent this "enormous” community.

Tempers flared and the citizens divided into opposing camps that derided each other. This in turn led to an outbreak of violence within the synagogues and elsewhere that led to serious injuries and the death of one of the rabbis. Even the rabbi's funeral was disturbed by such shameless, derogatory remarks as: “A burial for Peretz Smolenskin's donkey!”[17]

In the end the authorities intervened and arrested the majority of the shtetl's residents, incarcerating them in the district jailhouse.

Only at this point did the passions subside. The villagers realized the seriousness and absurdity of their situation and in their distress decided to seek out the help of … Bobruisk.

So it happened that a delegation from Lapitch appeared before the Rav Damta[18] of Bobruisk with a request that echoed the plea made a thousand years earlier by the Princes of a crumbling Russia to the Varangians.[19]

"Our land is broad and large but there is no order in it. Come and rule over us and establish order and well being”.

For his part, the Rabbi chose to respond favorably to the request and sent along his young son, Khaim Tzvi Shapiro, who was welcomed with open arms and the consensus of both sides. From that point forward, the rule of law and order prevailed in the shtetl. The young rabbi was successful in all his endeavors and his statements were accepted as the word of law by the entire village.

And so it came to pass one day that Rabbi Shmuel Moshe Shapiro, the aged rabbi of Bobruisk passed away, and his son, Khaim Tzvi was forced to depart from Lapitch to take up his father's seat in Bobruisk. Yet he did not abandon the shtetl, leaving in his stead another member of the famous Shapiro dynasty, his cousin Isser Shapiro, the son of the Gaon Rabbi Rafael of Volozhin.[20] Rabbi Isser sat on the rabbinic seat in Lapitch until he was forced by the hostile Soviet government to give up his post. He emigrated to Israel and to this day[21] he serves as the famous headmaster of a Yeshiva.

It was not mere coincidence as we mentioned earlier that Lapitch turned to Bobruisk in its time of need for assistance in settling the rabbinic dispute. For Lapitch, there was but one center, a center lying some 60 versts away through the thick forest that both directed and defined its path - the one and only Bobruisk.

While all considered the Metropolis to be Minsk, that city was but the central showpiece. People would travel there “once in a jubilee” in order to observe the wonders of the 19th century. In Minsk, one could observe the Konka, a tramcar pulled by horses on rusted rails along Zakharovy Street. This street was proclaimed the undisputed longest street in the world (Do you sneer at this assertion? This street measured seven full versts in length.) Looming over the street was Poliak's dizzying six-story "skyscraper” wherein resided the Gubernator[22] who intimidated all those around him. No less amazing was the Minsk "innovation” - the annual Svisla River flood. This was the same shallow river that would come back to life every spring and overflow its banks, flooding large portions of the city as it formed a miniature sea that was surely a sight to see. Just one more of the wonders of this world…

It bears mentioning that after 1917, theyear of the revolution, Minsk's appeal increased. The various party headquarters and the Belarussian National Council were located in the city. This also included the Zionist movement and HeKhalutz[23] and even the Zionist newspaper Der Yid[24] . Sometimes local people were called to the city to participate in the general and regional assemblies as well as for local HeKhalutz activities. It was during those years that the shtetl's bonds with the metropolis strengthened greatly. Do you sneer at this assertion? More than 100,000 inhabitants lived in Minsk! Most of them Jews!

Yet, Minsk was not Bobruisk. Bobruisk was a real mother to Lapitch, supplying the shtetl with all of its economic and spiritual needs. It is a fact that the village decided all of its business dealings based on the standards common in Bobruisk. Every month the merchants and shopkeepers of Lapitch would head out on their carriages through the thick forests to Bobruisk. After buying ample supplies, they would return to their homes along the same road. The exception to this rule was the forest merchants who, of course, traveled by third-class train. Most of them actually did not even pay a fare, but rather sufficed by "making a donation” to the railroad guard. Eventually a fourth-class (cheaper fare) was added to the train that was called by the mostly Jewish passengers, Ozer Dalim.[25]

These trains were full and overflowed as they passed from Lapitch through Vareitzi, Osipovich, Yasan and Tatarka only to empty out in Bobruisk and Berezina.[26] These travelers, who were among the ranks of the well off, stayed for the most part in the Merchants Hotel or Kupcheskaya Gostinitsa where financial deals were made. These deals involved long-term credit, but did not, G-d forbid, revolve around banks, accounts and signed contracts. A simple handshake followed by a shared LeKhaim! (To Life!) would be enough to clinch a deal. Never did a Jewish merchant go back on his word or repudiate a promise made to an associate. Such an act would have carried the stigma of a sullied name and public ostracism, not only for the perpetrator but upon his children and their descendants. It bears noting that bankruptcy, (Unsetzer) heaven forfend, was reason enough to break off all relations with someone. This was even to the point of breaking off engagements, since no man would willingly agree to have his son or daughter marry into the “family of an Unsetzer “. It is no wonder then that bankruptcies were extremely rare in those days - in contrast to the presently accepted norms in commercial and industrial circles.

Yet, not only was Bobruisk the Ezer KaNeged[27] of Lapitch in economic affairs. She also provided the shtetl with spiritual nourishment: reading and school books, sometimes the actual teachers, plays and stage props for the theater lovers, the political and party lecturers and guides, religious artifacts, and even the humorous works of “Der Tunkeler".[28] The latter were delivered on the eve of holidays and were ravenously swallowed up like the ripe grapes over which one would say the blessing of SheHekhiyanu[29] every year on Rosh HaShana.

 

B

The Rabbinic dispute left a deep impression on the inhabitants of the shtetl, and as was previously noted, major occurrences and daily events were calculated in relation to that extraordinary episode. In the aftermath of this storm, the shtetl calmed down. The episode was analyzed repeatedly from all sides until everyday life slowly got back on track. The new Rabbi radiated a positive spirit that blanketed one and all. Incomes were meager, yet attainable in the end. Everything in Lapitch was heading down the straight and narrow and would have peacefully fallen into place, were it not for the angry assault of the Jewish incarnation of Til Eulenspiegel that descended upon them.

Til Eulenspiegel[30] ? How did the hero of German folklore find his way to the shtetl?

Well, not exactly Til Eulenspiegel. The villagers certainly never heard his name, even though his spirit appeared among them during those romantic years at the turn of the 20th century. The legendary figure manifested himself in the body of one of the shtetl youths known in jest as Sholomeika.

I never met him nor saw his face, yet I have a faded memory of a mischievous facial expression. Then again, it is just as likely that my imagination has conjured up these facial features since from the dawn of my childhood I was regaled morning and night with different and amazing stories. All of these imaginative stories of a jumbled way of life formed a wide and varied tractate of occurrences that shared a common subject - Sholomeika.

Such as the time when Sholomeika publicly shamed the Rabbi. He engaged the Rabbi in an endless hairsplitting argument regarding a contested Talmudic point and beat him in front of the eyes and ears of all those in the synagogue.

Or the time that Sholomeika ambushed the girls of the shtetl who were swimming in the waters of the Svisla River and stole their clothes from the shore. Were it not for the girls of the adjoining village who came to their rescue, they would certainly be standing naked by the river to this day. To top it off, when the girls finally made it home at night, each one found her clothes perfectly folded in a pile by her house. And as the storyteller was sure to interject – “That pervert knew their clothes down to the last button!”

Or the case of the ghosts that appeared at the gates of the downtown cemetery, scaring everyone to death on the eve of the 9th of Av.[31]

Or the time that the shtetl's Rabbi went at dawn to dip himself in the Mikva[32] only to find a woman's undergarment, (I am prevented by modesty from further elaborating) among his clothes.

Or the time that “vulgar” pictures dropped out of the pocket of the city's richest man, just as he was enduring the whip lashes for the Vidui[33] on the eve of Yom Kippur.

Or the time that the “ Dubno Magid[34] ” suddenly arrived in the neighboring shtetl of Khalui. The entire shtetl was abuzz. Was it possible? The greatest Magidof the generation came to Khalui to descant? How? Why? What for? Yet on the other hand, who knew the ways of the Dubno Magid? Perhaps he just happened to be in the vicinity? Perhaps he was visiting relatives, a friend, or an acquaintance?

On the holy Sabbath, following the afternoon nap, the entire shtetl, without exception, showed up at the synagogue. And not in vain did all these people toil. This was an unforgettable experience. The sayings of Khazal[35] together with popular fables emanated from the revered Magidand enraptured all those present. Was this a minor event? The Dubno Magidin person!

Yet after a few days it became apparent that neither a bear nor the Magid[36] had spoken! It was none other than Til Eulenspiegelof Lapitch who had honored Khalui with a grand sham that prompted waves of laughter in all of the neighboring shtetls. He brought a bearded, Sitra Akhra[37] impostor who whipped up a decent sermon on his own.

How he tricked them, the scamp! And no wonder. It was long suspected that the people of Khalui were related to those of distant Khelm.[38] It was not a coincidence that they were dubbed the “goats of Khalui” ( Khaluier Tzigen).

It was several weeks later that all of Lapitch turned out in the synagogue to hear the sermon of the Magidof Minsk who never arrived. For some reason, even though his sermon was announced in advance, the Magidnever appeared. The next day, all the notables of the shtetl received a postcard with the following words:

Lapitcher Bok!(billy-goats) You mocked the goats and turned into billy-goats! From this day forward, your sobriquet will no longer be “ Lapitcher Kutchshmas[39] ” but rather “ Lapitcher Bok“.

Signed: Khaluier Tzigen.

And the time that Sholomeika …

Or the time that in so and so's house …

And the time … Or the time … And the time …

And since then up until today, any shtetl youth with exceptional talents was dubbed “Sholomeika". If a boy behaved badly, he would also be called "Sholomeika". A girl who misbehaved was none other than "Sholomeika's girlfriend". In fact, any “out of the ordinary” event was (Save us, oh Merciful One!), none other than a "Sholomeika maiyseh(event)". Indeed, even the Rabbinic Dispute would never have happened were it not for Sholomeika.

In short: There was the sky and the earth and Sholomeika.

 

C

When the revolution arrived and the first Zionist speakers appeared at the party gatherings, the speakers would “split flames” like Sholomeika. If someone was organizing or crashing a meeting, it was as clear as daylight - Sholomeika yet again.

And what did boys and girls do in the evenings if not “Sholomeika acts"?

To this day, I remember the first Zionist speech given in the shtetl. The speaker was Israel Ritov, the son of the Osipovich Rabbi. He arrived clandestinely and shared his vision of the future of Jews in the Land of Israel, in the women's section of the synagogue.

The next day the synagogue was abuzz:

“Did you hear? Some low-life Sholomeika was here promoting prostitution in the holy place! And this happened, of all places, in the women's section…”

“What nonsense are you talking about prostitution? What does this have to do with Sholomeika? This was a typical Zionist speech and the speaker was none other than the son of the Osipovich Rabbi.”

“The son of the Osipovich Rabbi? They say that he is a charming young man … Yet this does not take away from the fact that he is a Sholomeika eight times over… “

“Did you hear? A “Sholomeika event” in the women's section…”

And during that anarchic year of 1920, as the entire region turned into a battlefield between Poles and Bolsheviks, a “pilgrim” appeared on one of the Sabbaths. He too was from nearby Osipovich[40] , his name was Yehoshua Ritov, the brother of the first Zionist orator, who came to spread the word of Aliyah[41] (the post was not functioning at that time). One needed to obtain a Polish passport in the district center and from there to make it to the capital Minsk. (The Poles had temporarily captured the entire Bobruisk district, thus granting the legal right to immigrate to Israel. One hundred and eighty pioneers from the entire surrounding region took advantage of this opportunity.)

And immediately this was common knowledge throughout the shtetl:

"They say that a young Sholomeika arrived from Osipovich and …"

"He is none other than the son of the Osipovich Rav …"

"You see! How many Sholomeika sons does he have, that Zionist Rav?"

And after that new Sholomeika returned home by foot, we sent our own Sholomeika to the nearby shtetl of Khalui. They sent a messenger to Svisluch and from there a messenger was sent to Berezina. It was a Zionist “tam-tam" in the Belarussian jungle that cried out “House of Jacob - rise up and embark!”[42]

And after several days we set out - the first five ambassadors of our shtetl - on our way to Israel. The entire shtetl escorted their ambassadors as far as the nearby forest. Businesses were closed and even school was let out - "It was time to embark to Zion!"

Not a soul remained in the shtetl, they all, without exception, fulfilled their Zionist duty. At the time of leave-taking, even the diehard Communist of the city, a friend of mine in the shtetl Soviet, found the time to pull me aside to whisper in my ear: “Don't forget, Sholomeika,” he smiled and patted me on my shoulder, “to do something for the people of the shtetl. Don't forget in whose hands you are leaving them…"

The poor guy thought that the five of us could perform miracles for all those "longing for Zion” once we arrived in Israel …

 

D

Once we arrived in Israel … through countries and borders hitherto unknown to us and unknown to our fathers or our elders… Poland, Galicia, Czechia, Austria, Yugoslavia, Italy, Egypt…

Arriving in Israel… The preparatory training in Kalandia, (Atarot in Hebrew) construction work in Petah-Tikva, (the first construction crew of Akhdut HaAvodah[43] ) the construction of the military barracks in Jenin and again among the Biluim[44] group - this time in Haifa… and in the meantime - - - a member of the Petah-Tikva worker's council, a delegate to the second Histadrut[45] congress, a member of various committees of the Haifa worker's council and…

And the Israeli excursion season had arrived. From one settlement to another and from one point to another in Judah and Galilee… all completely unorganized. A couple here, there five people and at most a minyan[46] … From mountain to valley and from valley to mountain and back again around again. Food supplies? Man Dekar Shemam.[47] You can find supplies at any construction and surfacing crew along the roads… Lodging? Every single bed of every single crew is available upon arrival… Worries? Who knew and who thought about a future back then? The past melted away, the future was concealed and only the present remained. Twenty springs on your balance sheet, the blood of youth in your veins and a broad land on your horizon (How large Israel was in those days!) Rise up, brothers! Step up and discover her treasures and the wealth of her multi-colored landscapes - a gift of the Lord above…

And so the two of us strolled on a spring morning in 1923 - both of us former residents of that small Belarussian shtetl. We left Tiberias and headed to Safed through Rosh Pinah on a winding path. On the next day we went down a wadi through Makhanayim, stayed overnight in Ayelet HaShakhar and by way of Khalsa went to Tel-Khai, Kfar-Giladi and Metulah.

Metulah… Rows of Arab huts with red-tiled roofs that had long ago faded to gray… How gray and depressing was this sight in comparison with the stirring spectacle of the valley overlooking Tel Khai on one side and the grandeur of Mount Hermon on the other.

For its part, Metulah seemed to us like one of those dark, unplastered homes in the Jewish diaspora that were left as reminders of past destruction. Was this the romantic Metulah we had heard of so often? And where was the famous oven? Surrounded by silence… the village was quiet and restful. Here and there in the distance, we spotted farmers tending their fields, yet the village was completely silent and there was not a living soul in sight.

We continued down the street and saw Arabs working in yards and barns. We could not get anything out of them because we, of course, did not know more than a word and a half in Arabic. Besides, they threw us these distinct glances. These were not angry glances, such as we had occasion to see in other cities. Rather, mocking and disparaging looks that made us uncomfortable. On the other hand, we were hungry and thirsty and looking for some place where we could eat to our heart's desires. In the end, we ran into a Jewish farmer, - one of ours who, although he was dressed like an Arab with a Kaffiye, was undoubtedly a Jew. He stopped and glanced at us, measuring us from head to toe. Oddly enough, his glance, like that of the Arabs we had previously run across, was also belittling and contemptuous.

"We… We are looking for the oven."

"Oh,” he said, “The oven? Of course, of course to the oven… A Vozishnes Metziya[48] ! Well there! Everyone comes to see the oven. They probably think that they bake tasty dishes in that oven… Tell me, please, do you also work on occasion or do you spend your entire lives wandering about looking for Puste Mayses,[49] Divrey Orva Parakh![50] Ovens and what not?"

We felt uncomfortable and looked around, hoping to escape. He felt this and apparently decided to come to our rescue.

"So be it. If of all things your heart desires an oven… you should head down this way."

Slightly embarrassed, we thanked him and turned towards our goal.

"Hey, lads! Wait a moment!"

We turned towards the voice where we saw a Jewish man[51] beckoning us from afar and walking hurriedly to catch up with us. We stood and waited for him.

The man was in his late thirties, wore khaki shorts that were buttoned to shoulder pads above a rough khaki shirt in the “battalion” style of that time. A pair of serious eyes surveyed us from head to toe.

"So I see that they tried to play a tasteless joke on you. This… This is their special brand of humor."

"We would like to find the oven."

"I gathered as much. I was peeking through the window and saw that rascal pointing towards the cemetery and the stupid smiles on the face of his Ishmaelite friends. You are not the first ones he has fooled in this way. He's actually not such a bad guy, but he likes to tease 'greenhorns' who have just arrived in Israel. Come with me and I will show you the way."

We looked at him incredulously and suspected a new joke. He felt this and added as an after thought:

"I see, lads, that you do not have complete confidence in me. Don't worry! I myself am also practically a new immigrant, even though I have been in Israel for more than three years. I am a member of the Jewish Battalion that was recently disbanded by the British. I was about to settle at Tel-Ades (Tel-Adashim) with the remainder of the battalion when I caught a bout of the flu and came to relax at this resort town. Do you understand me? I have a special 'sentimentality' for this town that dates back to the days of Trumpeldor[52] and Tel-Khai.”[53]

We both looked at our interlocutor. We saw his sad eyes, overlaid with a veneer of charm and a glimmer of youthful folly. As he mentioned Trumpeldor and the events of Tel-Khai, a hint of redness suffused his pale face and gave him a slight romantic quality that dissipated as soon as he returned to the topic at hand.

"So, you wanted to see the famous oven? Come with me, this way, to the right, to the side of the mountain. Fear not. The path is narrow, but you can feel sure-footed as you make your way. Now to the left, around that hill… A few more careful moments and we will arrive at our destination."

Shortly thereafter we sat together inside the oven's canyon and looked in amazement at the waterfall[54] that streamed in front of us. Descending from the mountain heights the water fell noisily into the round wadi and shattered the water of the small lake into shards. In our eyes, this was a glorious and miraculous sight, one of the wonders of creation, or perhaps it was the eighth wonder of the world that had just been revealed to us.

We forgot all worldly cares and even forgot about our guide until we heard his voice rise above the roar of the pounding water.

"Yes lads, the first time I came here I also sat as you do now, even though I have seen waterfalls a hundred times larger than this one.."

"A hundred times?” We looked at him with visible disbelief.

"Yes, my friends. I have seen the Niagara Falls. Don't forget that I am an American or, to be precise, a citizen of Argentina. I did however visit the United States."

Only then did we notice his English tone of voice.

"Yes, I am an Argentinean who came over with the rest of his friends who volunteered for the Jewish brigades. Several, including myself, stayed in Israel. We managed to fight at Tel-Khai and even laid the groundwork for the settlement of Kfar-Giladi… And you, my young friends, judging by your accents you hail from Russia - the land of my birth. Right?"

"Yes. From White Russia."

"Which city?"

"Bobruisk."

It was understood that we could not tell him the name of our shtetl. It was accepted in the twenties that all the new immigrants were only born in cities. And so it was that all those from the Ukraine were either born in Kiev, Yekaterinoslav or Kharkov. Residents of Wohlin - from Zhitomir. While Galitzianers went so far as to claim that they were Viennese.

"Bobruisk? Berel's[55] city? A small but charming city."

"Have you been to Bobruisk?"

"Have I been to Bobruisk? Have I ever! In my youth I was there often and I even studied there for a short spell. Tell me, is it true that they have already paved Muraveyskaya Street? In my time, by the Oborot,[56] they even publicly circulated a photo of the street with a pig wallowing in the mud.

We all laughed from the bottom of our hearts.

"That's true. Even we saw that photograph. But that was a long, long time ago."

"Yes, the Roshcha[57] with it sparse growth of trees - yet still so enchanting on summer nights. The Poligon[58] that was so reminiscent of the green village. The banks of the Berezina. I had a friend - “Yosel the Lame,” he was called. A bright and witty boy. We hung out together in those days. Nu, today he is known in the Jewish world and has earned international recognition. He is a regular contributor to The Moment.[59] He is none other than Yosef Tunkel, whose nom de plume is Der Tunkeler. In America they say that he is the most brilliant Yiddish humorist in “ Yurop“. Over here, of course, no one can compete with Moshe Nadir.[60]

"You were friends with Der Tunkeler?

"Yes. I even helped him publish humorous pamphlets for the holidays - in Hebrew. I remember many of his jokes from those pamphlets. For example, one of the pamphlets opens with an 'editorial piece' that states:

'Seeing as our city has grown and developed in the last couple of years, it will soon even outgrow Minsk, the capital of the province… (In parenthesis: And not, perish the thought, in the number of pigs but rather in the number of people…)'"

"Surely you recall that the people of Minsk were known as Minsker Khazirim.”[61]

Again we laughed.

"What about his famous joke concerning the Hasidishe Rebetzin?”[62]

"The Hasidishe Rebetzin?"

"Now, now. Nothing scandalous, of course. He would put on the spot a certain religious teacher, who among other things taught Russian grammar. This is how he explained the essence of nouns to his class: a noun is something you can grasp (In Russian the same word is used for grasp and hug).

Here one of his students interjected:

“Rabbi! Is the Hasidic Rabbi's wife also a noun? She would, after all, be impossible to hug…” (The poor Rebetzin was famous for her prodigious girth.)

Again we laughed.

"What about the stories of the Sobachy Ryadin the marketplace?[63] Or the party-goers at the fireman's ball and the red lantern by Tatyanovskaya… Or… Hey, lads, it seems to me that you are not from Bobruisk. From the vicinity perhaps…"

"Yes, we are not from Bobruisk, but from the vicinity."

"What is the name of the shtetl?"

"It won't mean anything to you. It is a funny name… Lapitch."

"Lapitch. You are from Lapitch - Lapitcher Kutchmes?

"Do you know Lapitch?"

"And how! I also lived there. Who are you and what are your names?"

"My last name is Davidon."

"Davidon? Davidon? The name is not familiar. Where did you live there?"

"By the village."

"By the village? That's strange, I also lived thereabouts. You must be newly arrived to the shtetl."

"And you?” He turned to my friend.

"Margolin."

"Margolin? My last name is also Margolin. Which branch of the Margolins do you belong to - the Amalekites[64] (a shtetl epithet) or those who lived by the village?"

"By the village."

"Hmm, are you Mikhel's son? My name is Sholem, Sholem Barukh Layzers. I was known in the village as…"

"Sholomeika!” We both jumped up, greatly surprised.

"Yes, Sholomeika. Have you ever heard this name before!"

"Have we ever? Not only have we heard the name, but we have also felt it on our necks and our flesh. Sholomeika. This is not a word to be taken lightly."

At this point, the three of us embarked on a prolonged conversation without beginning or end. We talked until twilight forced us to go back to the village to look for a place to sleep.

All the same, the conversation lasted well into the night.

Yes. This was none other than Sholomeika. The serious and sober man who was before us was none other than the Til Eulenspiegelof the little Belarussian village - the topic of discussion of the entire populace and the secret object of dreams and longing of countless of the shtetl girls.

 

H

On the valley road from Afula to Sajra awhite hill rises on the left, where a small grove of trees provides shade for some calm and silent tombstones. In the center lies a modest tombstone with the following inscription:

Here lies buried Shalom Margolin.

This is the eternal resting place of Til Eulenspiegelof the distant Jewish shtetl. On one side The Hill of Morah and on the other Mount Tabor shielding the modest tombstone at their feet from their grandeur and the winds. In its way, this was a symbol of the turbulent spirit of the vigorous youth. A spirit that was especially conspicuous there - between the mischievous charm of Ein-Dor and the steadfast cliff of Mount Tabor - until finding its resting-place between them.

Ein-Dor[65] and Mount Tabor[66] and the valley between them - it was these secret forces that “unknowingly” fueled and propelled the Jewish soul for thousands of years. The same forces that bestowed the spice of life to the Jewish shtetl, wherever it may be.


Translator's footnotes

  1. Russian Orthodox Return
  2. Malakh means angel in Hebrew Return
  3. An administrative unit. Guberniyas are roughly the Russian equivalent of States. Return
  4. Taken from the daily Amida prayer. Return
  5. Secularist movement. Return
  6. The clarion call. A pro-Zionist Hebrew language daily that was the first in the Hebrew press to create a vast reading public. Return
  7. Nahum Sokolov (1859-1936) Hebrew writer, pioneer in modern Hebrew journalism and president of the World Zionist Organization. From 1886, he was the acting editor of the daily Hatsfira. Return
  8. Small World (7 volumes, starting in 1893 Edited by Eliezer Ben Yehuda. A beautifully illustrated children's magazine), Life and Nature (Vilna 1905 – 6. A children's magazine), The Dawn (published from 1868- 84 by Perets Smolenskin. Aimed at the diffusion of the Haskalah) and The Flowers (Lugansk 1908 – 14. A children's magazine). Return
  9. This is a play on words as Shiloakh means tributary. Founded in 1896 by Ahad Ha-am (Asher Hirsch Ginsberg, 1856-1927) the journal was devoted to Zionism, Jewish scholarship and belles lettres until it ceased publication in 1914, on the eve of World War I. Return
  10. Joseph Gedaliah Klausner (1874-1958) literary critic, historian and Zionist. Served as the editor of Hashiloakh for 28 years. Return
  11. A verst is a Russian unit of measurement roughly equivalent to two-thirds of a mile. Return
  12. This is a play on words. Hasidism is derived from the Hebrew root for righteousness or piety and Mitnagdim from the root to oppose. Return
  13. The writer is referring to Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyady (1745-1813) proponent of Hasidism and founder of the Chabad (Lubavitch) Hasidic movement, who was also known as the Baal HaTanya after his most famous work, and his vehement opponent Rabbi Eliyahu Kremer of Vilna (1720-1797) who was better known as the Vilna Gaon or Genius of Vilna. Return
  14. These are two prayers from the daily morning service. Return
  15. Means chaos in Russian and Hebrew. Return
  16. A row of trees in the forest path was named after him. Return
  17. Peretz Smolenskin (1840 or 1842-1885) Hebrew novelist, editor and publicist. A leading exponent of the enlightenment and an early advocate of Jewish nationalism. He is best known for the important Hebrew monthly HaShakhar that he founded and published until his death. Return
  18. Aramaic for the Rabbi of the city. Return
  19. The Varangians were Scandinavians who appeared in Eastern Europe in the ninth century as pirates and traders. According to tradition, Varangian leaders were invited to be the first princes of Kievan Russia. Return
  20. Rabbi Rafael of Volozhin preceded Rabbi Moshe as the Rabbi of Bobruisk. Return
  21. Refers to the 1960's. Return
  22. Governor of the Guberniya or province. Return
  23. The pioneer. This was an organization established by Joseph Trumpeldor (1880-1920) to organize and prepare young Jews for settlement in Israel. Return
  24. The Jew. A Zionist journal published in Minsk in 1917. Return
  25. Roughly: “Alms for the poor.” Return
  26. The Berezina stop was in Bobruisk on the other bank of the river. Return
  27. Means something like better half. Literally “opposing help" Return
  28. Nom de plume of the famous Yiddish humorist Joseph Tunkel (1878 - 1949). See previous article. Return
  29. A prayer said in thanksgiving, on special occasions for having been “kept alive and sustained”. Return
  30. A German folk hero who was called “a rogue with a merry heart, a liar, a cheat and a trickster, who yet was loved by all who enjoyed a jest and thought laughter the cure for most ills.” See Picard, Barbara Leonie, German Hero-sagas and Folk-tales, Oxford University Press, Oxford, Great Britain, 1993, pp 130-149. Return
  31. A fast day that commemorates the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Return
  32. Ritual bath. Return
  33. Confession service. Return
  34. Jacob Ben Wolf Kranz (1741-1804) He was a Darshan or preacher who wandered from shtetl to shtetl and shared homiletic discourses. Return
  35. Khazal is an acronym for Khakhmeinu Zikhronam LeBrakha or “Our wise men, blessed be their memories". Return
  36. Comes from the Hebrew saying “Neither a bear nor the woods.” Meaning that it was nothing of the sort. Return
  37. Sitra Akhra is Aramaic for “The Other Side". In mystical literature it refers to a lack of godliness. Return
  38. A mythical village inhabited by fools. Return
  39. A Kutshma is a type of winter beret. Return
  40. 20 Versts away Return
  41. Aliyah literally means an ascension, but it refers to immigration to Israel. Return
  42. Isaiah (2:5) See Biluim footnote below. Return
  43. Literally “The Work Union". A Zionist labor party founded in Palestine in 1919 that aspired to mold the life of Jewish people in Israel as a commonwealth of free and equal workers living on its labor, controlling its property and arranging its distribution of work, economy and culture. Return
  44. Biluim is an acronym formed by the Biblical passage “House of Jacob – Rise up and embark!” (Isaiah 2:5) This was an organized group of young Russian Jews who pioneered the modern return to Israel. Bilu was a reaction to the 1881 pogroms in Southern Russia, when the ideology of Jewish nationalism began to replace that of assimilation. Return
  45. Histadrut – literally Federation. Refers to and is an abbreviation for the General Federation of Labor in Israel that was founded in 1920 – the largest Jewish labor union in the world. Return
  46. Literally a quorum. Means ten people in this case. Return
  47. Aramaic for “What has this to do with anything?” Return
  48. In Yiddish. Means “A remarkable find!" Return
  49. In Yiddish. Means “Foolish things" Return
  50. Aramaic for “Foolishness”. Literally means “Crow be gone!”. The saying is based on a Talmudic story from tractate Baytzah, p 21, where Rabbi Huna is accosted by someone who incessantly asks questions until the Rabbi finally tells him to “Be gone!” Return
  51. The original literally says “one of ours". Return
  52. A military formation of Jewish volunteers in World War I who fought in the British army for the liberation of Israel from Turkish rule. Return
  53. Joseph Trumpeldor (1880 – 1920) was a famous one-armed Jewish war hero who died at the battle of Tel-Khai. He established the He-Khalutz movement in Russia, to organize and prepare young Jews for settlement in Israel. His last words were reportedly “Never mind. It is good to die for our land." Return
  54. It is so named because it resembles an Arabic adobe baking oven. Return
  55. He is referring to Berel Katznelson (1887-1944) A central figure of the second aliyah. A leader of the Zionist labor movement, educator and writer. Return
  56. The turnaround. Return
  57. Russian for grove. Return
  58. The name for the park adjacent to the old city walls in Bobruisk. Return
  59. A Yiddish daily newspaper that was published in Warsaw from 1910 to 1939. Return
  60. Psudonym of Isaac Reis 1885-1943). Yiddish poet and humorist. Return
  61. Yiddish for Minsk Pigs. Return
  62. Yiddish for Hasidic Rabbi's Wife. Return
  63. Russian for Line of Dogs. Return
  64. A people of the Negev and the adjoining desert, a hereditary enemy of Israel from wilderness times to the early monarchy. Return
  65. En Dor is where (I Samuel 28:7-25) King Saul consulted a witch shortly before his death on nearby Mt. Gilboa. Return
  66. Mount Tabor is where the prophetess Deborah assembled the tribes for the battle against Sisera the Canaanite (Judges 4:6). Saturday, April 15, 2000 Return

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