In the village, one made a living from the earth; life was tied to it. In Horodenka, one derived a living from the labor of another, even if the two of you had nothing in common. The village, by contrast, had something resembling an order or arrangement. Everyone knew how everyone else lived and also what he or she earned. One lived with the livestock, the earth, and even with the routine changes in school semesters. In the village, troubles were never in short supply. Imagine if an animal falls down, or if drought devours the earth, or if suddenly, in the middle of spring, a hailstorm attacks and makes a heap of the seeds and blooming plants; or smack in the middle of summer, when fieldwork turns your hands into hot metal, there appears a rain-laden cloud and settles itself into a quiet, rested puff, and then BOOM! endless buckets of rain. You don't become gloomy, but rather deeply concerned. Then you peer at the sky and curse the foolish spring that delivers a hailstorm on its own seeds and blooms. Or, you throw your hands up in hopelessness over the turned around summer from whose clouds gush rain at the wrong time and in the wrong place.
In the village there lived poor and rich alike. When a hailstorm burst, or a drought appeared, or when a disease spread among the animals, it affected everyone equally. And so one person helped out another, because everyone was a neighbor.
It was totally different in Horodenka. There, you didn't extract a livelihood from the earth, but rather from other people. In the village, you looked toward the heavens and believed that all bounty came from there. In town lived the Polish estate manager Romashkin and the Jewish banker Yungerman; it was them we all looked up to. They could place fortune before a person, or they could just as easily ruin him. They themselves had their managers and brokers who were in position to dispense good salaries to others. One lived from the earnings of another, and so on down the line, to the least fortunate.
Horodenka was also built differently than the village. All around the village, cottages and gardens were laid out helter-skelter, spaced a distance from one another. The high quality places and the poor ones were all topped with straw roofs, and all the men wore the same linen shirts hanging out of their linen trousers.
In town, everything was different. One group, those who were bureaucrats, wore short-length jackets with buckled shoes, a starched collar in the stolyantse style, a prim hat, and gloves. They rode around in carriages. The others simply ran around barefoot and naked. Horodenka was built in rings. The first ring encircled the entire town. Here, most houses had straw roofs, with some having tile roofs. This is where the Ukrainians lived. Each day they brought a few potatoes, or onions, vegetables, string beans, lima beans, and chickens to the market.
In the middle ring stood houses with metal roofs and gardens with flowers, as you might see in villas. There lived the officials of the tax collection and justice bureaus, and of the municipality. The next circle encompassed the Jews, fenced in, as it were, by the rings.
What was the face of Jewish Horodenka? Smack in the middle was the market, surrounded by houses on each side. Further away was the post office, and further still was the Orthodox Church with an onion dome on the roof. It was whitewashed and spotless. In the dome two pigeons made themselves a comfortable nest. Through the market, Kaiserstrasse wound its way and intersected other main streets; the church stood in a T of perpendicular streets. In front of the church there hung directional signs indicating east, the way to the Dniester River, through the town of Ostemska all the way through to the Russian border; the West, to Kolomyja, Stanislav, and Lemberg; to the south to Zaleshchiki, which was known in Galicia for its carrots; and the north, to Obertyn, the town of horsemen and thieves. If you happened to ask someone the question: Are you from Obertyn, he would immediately reply, You, alone, are indeed the thief! Along the four directions lay forty-eight villages that comprised the municipality.
Kaiserstrasse cut the Jewish section into two parts, the high streets, and the low streets. The high streets had sidewalks with Belgian blocks which led to the courthouse, the first sizeable building on the west side, and then to the market and the church on Zaleshchiki Street, all the way to the Baron Hirsh School.
The town took the utmost care to keep the high streets immaculate. They cleaned and watered them down. The lower streets were never kept up. There once was a huge culvert there, the proval, and all the garbage and sewage was dumped into it. Early in the morning you could find people doing their business in the open water. Thus, it smelled from sewage, and if it rained or was very cold, you could choke on the odor.
The tiny homes, sthtiblach, stood one next to the other, because it cost less to build on to a neighbor's wall. One house rested against another. It stood and held on to the other like a shivering, swooning person, afraid to stand unaided, alone. Here lived the poorest of the poor: shoemakers, sewing machine operators, carpenters, metal workers, barrel makers, millers, furriers, bakers, and all sorts of draymen and carriers toiling men who loitered about all day in order to earn five coins for bread for the blessed household. They all waited desperately for Tuesday to come, when Jews and Gentiles from the surrounding forty-eight villages would come together in the market place; they made their living hauling for the Tuesday market.
A portrait: All at once, total confusion and congestion, a rushing about. Then, more congestion, more rushing about, as if the world were turning topsy-turvy. The high- market arena turns into the horse and livestock market, which is usually located on the outskirts of town, on the meadowlands (toliki). The stallions had caught a whiff of their mares or of just-maturing foals and whinnied wild songs of courtship in their direction. The poor cows have not been milked today, their udders full of milk; they mourn forlornly for someone to relieve them. The sheep bleat, crying longingly for green fields. But the greatest outcry comes from the pigs. They squeal as if pieces of living flesh were cut from their bellies. In the midst of the cacophony, the handlers and the brokers break into a sweat. They scream and bargain with one another, their eyes popping out of their sockets. They shake hands - a klop of one hand to the other resoundingly. Okay, okay, we have reached a price. The profit is all of three guilders. The purchaser is ready to take possession of the horse, the cow, the sheep or the pig, but is still anxious to make another three guilder. Another pounding handshake, another deal is made. I'll meet you halfway, one says to the other. A guilder and fifty cents more! They agree on a price of two guilders, and then drink it away with a toast: Maharitch (a go-with-fortune toast), L 'chaim, and a blessing for the health of the animal.
Trading was on a smaller scale in the state-owned market. There, the poor peasants sold their chickens, geese, ducks, grain, flaxseed oil, and their homespun linen. From there, they'd go to the clothes markets and buy colorful kerchiefs, glass beads, wool to weave into shirts, sugar, salt, pots, matches, or herring. The storefronts are teeming: whiskey is being devoured along with beer, cider, rum; they eat fatty sausages and kielbasa. All are happy and somewhat drunk.
People hurry about in a frenzy, some, with frightened, searching eyes. Here a child is lost; there a thief has been caught. A snorting horse crashes into the earthenware pottery for sale. There's a moan, then a scream. A non-stop cussing, and then the sounds of hundreds of wares for sale being shouted out. Merry-go-rounds turn and beckon. And within it all an overpowering sense of poverty emanates from the side streets; it is the need to earn a few cents. Carpenters are trying to sell their storage chests and barrels; shoemakers, their boots, and shoes; furriers and tailors, their suits of clothing. If you go there without cash, you barter goods with the peasants for wheat (grain), chickens, geese, ducks, and eggs. The women give nothing away. They sell challas, cakes, kuchen, boiled beans, and piroges stuffed with potatoes, cheese, meat, sweet cherries, sour cherries, or blackberries. Everybody seems to be rushing about and shouting. Everything, everybody, wants to get out. People agree on a price, then change their mind in an effort to cheat you out of a penny.
For us young folks, it is a wild holiday. We're happy just being included in the tumult. We carry kvass in glass urns to sell. It's sort of a mixture of apple juice, and a home-concocted brew of Feivel Kvasnick, who would smack us in the ear if we didn't sell his brew. We hated him and even made up a song about him:
Feivel, Feivel, give me kvassIce was added to the kvass, so that when it melted it resulted in a colder and more watered-down brew. We sometimes would eulogize our product, begging, and even sometimes threatening people to buy:
Freeze it up and kiss my ass.
Fresh kvass, it's something niceOr:
It's delicious, and cold as ice.
Buy our kvassAnd if threats did no good, I would shout:
Don't be an ass
It's the latest, it's a treasure
Go and drink it. What a pleasure.
Kvass, kvass, ice-cold kvass
When you drink it, you'll feel sound.
And if you don't,
Then die like a hound.
The old peasants would cross themselves, go right ahead and buy a glass of kvass, and sometimes ask for more, to boot. But in passing, they would also remark that it wasn't necessary to cuss to make the sale. They're right, I thought, but if I didn't cuss, maybe they wouldn't buy any kvass, and they wouldn't get a bit extra either. The cussing seemed to attract business, so I would call out my product, shouting and cussing. Each Tuesday, I earned thirty to forty cents. I gave the money to my dad. He would praise me for doing well, and this made me feel lucky and proud. My older brother, Shabtai, who earned barely a third of what I earned, became more and more jealous, which made me only happier and more confident in my own ability. The town gave birth to the spirit of competition.
One Tuesday my oldest brother, Schechne, arrived home from the village. Toward dusk, he and my dad went to the flour dealer, Sholem Luft, and gave him a total of twenty-five guilders. He decided to open up a bakery. Mr. Luft then extended twenty-five guilders in credit and flour that would be guaranteed by my brother.
The day came when we moved up from the side street and took over the location of Efraim Gloger's bakery, in partnership with Mr. Tzuloif, not far from the Baron Hirsh School. And so, we finally became bourgeoisie. We used to bake bread and challah, rugulach and kaiser rolls. And even though we all helped out in the bakery, there were not a lot of customers in the beginning, and we weren't able to sell more cheaply than the other bakeries. But we were our own best customers. Although my father explicitly forbade us to touch the baked goods, we couldn't resist and each of us removed fourteen or fifteen fresh rolls, rugulach, and bagels. Each one of us was convinced that he alone was the sneaky one, but we were all guilty! It was no wonder that business in the bakery began to go bad.
My siblings and I went to the Baron Hirsh School by day, but at night we would wake one another up to turn the pastries and braid the loaves. Something once happened at work that made a great change for my brother and me. He was seven; I was six. He was tall and thin; I was stocky and short. I always had to look up to him and this bothered me. When we both were awakened for work, he took his time getting up and I would spring up like a buffalo. He would moan or cry, and noticing this, I became even more alert. This was when I first exhibited my unique ability: Here I learned to construct my stance as an actor; I could act as if I was ready to go to work, even if I wasn't. As he failed, I was being praised. He began to detest me, and I took advantage of his helplessness. As he became less and less certain of himself, I became more and more self confident. That's how it was in school, on the street, at play, and even selling kvass. May God forgive me, but some of it was my own fault. I had the feeling that I was committing a secret crime, that I was taking away his self-confidence while increasing mine in the process. This was our rivalry. We were no longer living in the village, but within the city limits of Horodenka. With the street smarts I gained from competing with other boys, I learned a lesson: the distance from the village to Horodenka is a longer road to travel than the distance between Horodenka and any European capital you could name.
Once, we tied his kopete (robe) to the chair as he sat down. A second time we tied his shoe to a table leg. He would always good-naturedly shake his head and smile. When he was weary of study, he would nap with his head on the table. Once, we fixed his beard to the table with wax. When he stood up, he said nothing. All he did was make a sweeping motion with his hand on the tabletop. Then he brushed the wax from his whiskers. He never brought up that incident again, until a few days later when he said:
Children, the other day you played a joke with my beard. I didn't say anything, at the time but not because I didn't resent it. But now that it's over, I fear that I have been afflicted with terrible thoughts that I was unable to voice at that time. I know that I am nothing more than a poor Jew, and aside from this, I have more than my share of troubles. But the Lord of the world graced me with a beard, as He did for every Jew, as if I was indeed a man of means. So, the beard is my consolation. And then you come around and you want to take that pleasure away from me. By turning the beard into an object of ridicule, you would have made me poorer. But would you have made yourself any richer by taking my beard away from me?
This incident occurred on a Thursday. Each Monday and Thursday he would fast. And because he was weakened, he would speak very softly. We lowered our heads in shame, and he sent us home from cheder an hour earlier. But from that day on, he became holy in our eyes, as revered as a Torah scroll, and we no longer picked on him or played practical jokes.
He was the first to teach us the alef-bais. The letters looked like little boxes or parts of some tool or like small huts with miniature doors and windows. The letters danced before my eyes and I was unable to see any difference between an alef and a tof. But the patient reb taught me how to recognize the distinctions, and it became something I could literally taste. It wasn't long before I could put the letters together, like putting little boxes next to one another, forming the letters and placing the vowel sounds beneath them. I began to learn trope. We couldn't understand a single word, but that's how we learned how to daaven, repeat the prayers, and make a blessing.
I was fortunate to be allowed to begin Chumash (Bible). The reb began to translate from Hebrew into Yiddish and to then interpret. He would tell us about a world of long ago, far away, when the heavens and the Lord of the Earth were so much closer that Moses the Lawgiver, and the Patriarchs Abraham and Jacob, and the Matriarch, Rachel, would talk to one-on-one with God, just as our big time merchants in Horodenka would visit with Baron Romashkan or the banker Yungerman.
When you started studying Chumash, you marked the occasion with a celebration. On Shabbos, they prepared an anzugel (a question-and-answer fest). Then the neighbors and relatives would pile up about twenty pocket watches ands chains that they would then fasten to me and the other boy undergoing the same test. They then had us stand on the table and the rabbi, along with my mother, father, relatives, and friends sat around in that narrow room in anticipation and good cheer, awaiting the delivery of my droshe (Torah commentary).
Thus began the test. The rabbi stretched out his arms as if he were about to deliver a blessing and said to me Bow your head and I will bless you.
Beautiful Joseph. Charming Joseph. Just as Joseph, the Blessed, was favored by God and man, so shall you, my young lad, find favor and grace with God and with all people.
Amen, Amen, Amen, they all resounded.
Then he began to ask his questions, and I answered him:
Enquirer (E): Which tome are you studying, young man?Then he winked to the crowd and they all smiled.
Me ( M): The Chumash, gratefully.
E: What does Chumash mean?
E: Five what? Five bagels for a nickel?
M. No. Five Holy Tomes are contained in the Chumash.
E. Which tome are you studying, young man?
M: Leviticus (Viekra)
E: Can you translate Viekra?
M: And He Called.
E: Who called? The shamus called everybody into the shul?
M: No God called to Moses to proclaim the laws of the animal sacrifice. A sacrifice is holy, and I am also holy even though I'm only a small child. That is why the rabbi began to study Viekra with me.
E: Study lad, and show us what you know.
So I said out loud, Viekra and He called Lord God, Moses. One of them was called Moses.
Then I heard from all sides: Mazel Tov, Mazel Tov. They had cut me off in the middle of my explication.
My mother cried out her fortune and joy (glick un naches) and all the neighbors cried along with her. They grabbed and kissed me against my will!
I was the center of attention. Everyone was looking at me, and I looked away from them. Never had so many people looked at me so approvingly. I knew they all came on my account; it was such a warm, comforting feeling, sweeter than the honey cakes that they gave me to eat.
Even with the episode of beard waxing, we all felt great love for our rabbi, R'Shimshele. We went to cheder willingly, even in winter. We studied into the night and returned home with hand-held lanterns. We eagerly listened to the rabbi talk, as almost each syllable and word had its own interpretation, an entire story contained within. He spoke of the true holiness of the Torah, on the meaning of each word, and the underlying purpose for including it. This is how he would begin:
Schmuen and Levi were brothers. Then suddenly he would say, What kind of brothers they were! How strong and how big they were, and how powerful! And he was called Levi because once the Philistines were chasing him and he was dying of thirst in the middle of the desert. Then lions attacked him and he grabbed one lioness and swung her and then hit another one in the snout, lifting her high in the air, so that he was able to drink the milk from her teats; then he just pushed her aside. Schmuen could lift up entire mountains on his shoulders and toss them at his enemies. And they had a sister, a beautiful woman. The Philistines attacked her when her brothers were away from home and they defiled and shamed her. So the brothers went off to the Philistine town and used their weapons to kill all the men and they destroyed the city in order to avenge her.
Another time we learned about Yoni and Jacob. And the rabbi began to tell us:
Yoni and Jacob were starving in Egypt. And so they told Joseph that after Jacob died he should disinter his bones from Canaan and bury them with his father's. 'I (Jacob) failed to perform this worthy task for your mother, Rachel. I buried her on the road to Bethlehem, and I didn't even take her into the town. And you should know that if it rains, or if the road becomes too steep, it will mean no! The earth was dry and soft.'
'I served my tenure with Laban; first seven years for Leah and afterwards, seven years for your mother Rachel. We fled from Laban and he chased and overtook us, and he said that we had taken away his wealth. I became furious when I heard this and said, Whomever stole your wealth shall starve. And indeed, your mother Rachel had taken his riches with her, and she perished.
'I had buried her in the middle of a field on the way to Bethlehem. Why, you may ask again? I'll tell you. I had a vision and I saw that my people would be in exile, abandoned, and defeated. When they would pass the tomb of Rachel, they would pray and cry and wail, Mother Rachel, see what has happened to your children? And Mother Rachel would rise up from her tomb, saying: Father in Heaven, see what you have done to my children. And God will answer her, I punish them in this way. And Rachel will then ask, Why are you punishing them? And then God will answer her, I punish them for their sin of dancing before the golden calf. And Rachel will then say, Father in Heaven hear my words which I will tell you: When Jacob came to take me for his bride, he was big and strong and pleasing to look at. From the first time, we found pleasure in each other's eyes. But my father Laban was cunning and wanted to get rid of Leah, because she was small and ugly, with pimples on her face, and not at all clever. And so when nightfall came, he called Jacob into the dark room and he told him to lie under the bed and call to Rachel, so that Jacob would be fooled into thinking that Leah is Rachel. And so Jacob ended up marrying Leah. And I, Rachel, loved Jacob with all my body and soul and every cell in my being. I didn't wish any catastrophe on my sister Leah. I wasn't seeking vengeance. And You, Great God, Creator of all worlds, are still wreaking vengeance over the golden calf? I would tell Rachel: Go my daughter, bring consolation to your children and tell them: I will never forsake you.'
'The following morning as the sun came out, two thirds of those in the earth remained in their tombs and only the remaining one third rose up. And Moses went up to the people and said: 'Hear the voice of God. Those who are weak-willed, the frightened and weak-hearted in belief, they shall lie in their tombs, and only the strong and those of strong spirit, the ones who have no anxiety or fear and who are strengthened by their faith and belief, only they will be empowered and rejuvenated. They will be energized with new vigor to continue to wander and be able to enter the Promised Land of Canaan.'
Our melamed, Reb Shimshele Milnitzer, was incomparable. Only the children of poor folk studied with him, though he had a houseful of his own children. He would have to run around all day, seeking loans, getting what he could for free. He bought bread from the profits of his teaching as much as was needed. We never calculated to see if it came out even. There is nothing as hypocritical as exchanging goods for Torah study, my father used to say. And according to the loaves of bread that the Rabbi takes from us, our knowledge of the holy texts would grow to where we ourselves would become Rabbis.
Sometimes we would make a festive celebration in the cheder. We were anywhere between sixteen and twenty children. Each one, according to what he could afford, kicked in a nickel or two and bought rolls, herring, prune jam, some honey, and a bit of whiskey for the rabbi. Then we would sit with him around the table, literally like grown-ups.
Once we bought him a bit more whiskey than usual for our celebration, and the reb became very talkative. So we asked him why he never hit a student, as other melameds loved to do. Perhaps, he said, it had to do with Joshua ben Nun and Moses, the greatest scholar and the greatest rabbi since Creation. By his third glass, his face became flush and he said, Maybe it's best to leave it to the Creator to settle, if it's Joshua or Moses. He continued: God called to Moses and said, 'Listen, my loyal servant Moses, you have endured so much with my people Israel, and I think it's now time for you to take a break and join in eternal rest with your fathers. Don't you think so, my son?' Moses considered it and replied, 'No, my Lord, no. I need to first lead your people to the Blessed Land. Afterwards you do with me as you wish. But as for now, Greatest Lord, I don't really have much time.' And he left.
A bit later God calls out to Moses again and tells him. 'Do you know, Moses my servant, the angels in heaven are preparing shofar-sounders and lyrists. They keep asking when they will finally be able to commend Moshe Rebenu to Him. You know, Moses my son. How much we love you.'
So Moses again answered, 'Yes, I know that Father in Heaven. But what would you say, Creator of the World, if in the middle of the world's creation someone had taken you away and destroyed your plans of creation? And who, but you, could ever know that once work is started it needs to be completed. So please excuse me, Majestic Lord, because I know that your heavens with its angels will never be shuttered to me. So I'll just hurry along, so that with your help and grace you will show me your plans for coming to know what the future will bring.'
And he left again.
A bit later God called again to Moses. This time only Moses alone understood God, and he said, 'I know, My Lord, that the angels in Heaven are impatient and that they are waiting and waiting for a great celebration. And for me a golden chair awaits. But I am serious about doing my service; I'm close to the Land Canaan, and I'm in something of a hurry.'
And so the Lord of the World in his goodness and grace smiled and said, Moses, Moses, I will not conceal anything because you have not concealed anything from me. You will be grateful to know that I have always been, and will always stand alongside you, but I must also obey certain laws and judgments of the world. So listen carefully. You have a student Joshua, who has studied with you for forty years. He obeys your commands and does whatever you wish him to do. He is now old and his beard shows gray streaks. He sits and waits, and waits. The time has now come when your student Joshua should become the teacher and leader of the Israelites. Now you know this, my son.'
And Moses raised up his eyes and said, 'Now I know your solution, You, Lord of the world. What is there to consider? Make him the teacher and leader of the people. Let me go over as his student to witness, to witness from afar, to witness what has become of my work, my mission.'
And Lord God said, 'Moses, my loyal servant, you have found mercy and grace in my eyes. And I will do as you have pleaded. Go, and I will protect and preserve you.'
And so Moses departed. And the Lord God adorned him with grace and touched him with his beams of light. And when Moses descended to the congregation, there was thunder and lightning. His heir, Joshua, stood up and realized that this was God's calling. And he went to Mount Nabo. And God the Creator spoke to him amidst the waiting throng.
And when Joshua returned he went directly to the holy place and all saw the Presence of God (shehinah) in rays above his head and everyone then knew that God had kissed Joshua on that day. And Moses took him by the hand and asked, Tell me, Joshua, what did God tell you. And Joshua took his hand from Moses' clasp, turned to depart, and answered, 'Did you, did you, Moses, ever tell me what God had revealed to you?' And so he went into the holy place and the people followed.
And no one noticed how shamed and crestfallen Moses was as he hurriedly ascended Mount Nabo on a wide trail. Lord God was already awaiting him. And Moses raised his eyes to God and said, 'Here I am My Father and Lord. I have arrived.'
Now you understand, our Reb went on to say, why I don't regard you as simply students and small children. You can never fully know who is the student and who is the rabbi. There can come a day when one of you will become the important rabbi and I will remain a mere student. I sit here and you look me in the face as if you were just beginning to go to cheder. At first, you'll see I lay myself down to sleep as a child. Then I arise fully grown with a beard; and now I have a house full of children.
He reflected on his own words and then made off in another direction: At this time in my life, it's too late to acquire a new trade. Sometimes I'm jealous of the carpenters, the shoemakers, the tailors, and bakers. They have no need to stretch their palms out, asking for benevolence. (Our rabbi had to go out each Thursday to procure enough to live one, which burdened him with great heartache.)
Learn yourself a trade, he suddenly said, because there will come a time when you will have a beard, you'll find yourself with a house full of children, and then troubles and worries will come as they did to me as they do to many of your fathers.
Then he began to sing a little folk tune and began to tell us stories about spirits, devils and lost souls that go bump in the night along the shadowy paths, who wallow about between Heaven and the depths of Hell and are then transformed into mistreated dogs, or into a pig or maybe a chicken, and who can never rest until they are revealed by a holy man and regain their salvation through holy chants. He spoke of horrible demons and nincompoops, especially the scary little ones, who play jokes on one another, especially when they come into the house late at night and turn everything over or put snuff into your nose, bolt down the doors with nails, or put pricks into the handles of hammers so that they cannot be picked up. Such scary and rousing stories our rabbi used to tell!
And at night when we returned home from cheder with tiny lanterns I would pause in the shadows and cry out, Mischief makers, haunted spirits, demons, show yourself. Come here! Come here! Come here! Come Here! Disappear! Disappear! Disappear! Disappear! The other children would run away in fright. I would shiver in exaggerated fright, not only for the presence of haunted spirits, but from the power I had to make them appear and the pleasure I felt in fooling them. To think that that I alone was not afraid! This feeling would stay with me, and I would do the same thing the following night so that children would throw gifts at me to make me stop old bones, pieces of iron, buttons which they took from their clothing or from their father's and brothers' suits, so that I would no longer call up the ghosts and demons. But the longer we came to these shadowy places, the more I couldn't contain myself!
How they enjoyed summoning those ghosts! I myself took such great pleasure from scaring myself as well. What a frivolous, innocent brat I was! Once, when we were alone, the rabbi said to me, I know that you are a lot bolder than the older children. You are also a lot smarter. You should see to it that you protect them, and not make them truly afraid. I would never get involved in your 'little business.' I'll leave that to your common sense. I understood it and didn't do it any more. I still craved do all of those things, but I didn't, out of reverence for Reb Shimshele Milnitzer.
And so Herr Hirsch soon returned home as Baron Hirsch and started Baron Hirsch Schools all over Galicia, including a school in Horodenka.
There was a world of difference between the Baron Hirsch School and the cheder. In the cheder it was dark and dirty; but Shimshele Milnitzer loved us and spoke to us as if we were his own. In the Baron Hirsch School it was light and very clean; the teachers treated us like little animals and they beat us. But if we studied, they gave us a cap with a shiny brim. For really studying, we received a new pair of pants. And for studying an extraordinary amount, they gave us a suit of clothes. And for being geniuses in the classroom, they dressed us from head to foot, complete with collared shirts and handkerchiefs. We all were serious about attending school washed and clean, even with good-looking shoes. If a child weren't properly dressed, he would be embarrassed because the others would shame him, and then he was sent back home.
The teachers were dressed in the German style and they spoke Polish. If the lessons we had to prepare were poorly executed, or if a question was not correctly answered, the teacher would hit us on the palm of the hand with a ruler. Some did it only for appearances sake, and that hardly hurt. But the Yiddish teacher, Herr Weiselberg, used to smack your hand with the edge of the ruler. This was the first truly bad person I had met in my life. He had a reddish-yellow goatee like Kaiser Franz Josef and loved to look at himself in the mirror and comb his hair immediately after he had beaten us. His face would become as red as a beet. On the table lay the ruler, which was a bamboo stick, and a comb and mirror to groom his beard. More than once he would lay us over the chair and whack us with his sharpened bamboo stick. Children would plead to the walls with forlorn cries and murmurs. But pity the child when Herr Weiselberg noticed him! He ordered him to lower his pants and he delivered with the stick on his naked behind. It not only hurt very much, it was embarrassing, as well. Herr Weiselberg was a master at giving beatings. We detested him, and even his children, who attended school with us. All of the teachers hit us, even the female teachers, but Herr Weiselberg hit more than he taught, and this is why we resented him.
But, little by little, we took our revenge on them. In winter we would bring icicles and frozen snowballs and wage war with them. In the spring, millions of beetles swarmed about. We would catch them and at an agreed upon signal, release them at once in class. The teacher, Frau Chamades, would become hysterical and scream. We put on our most sorrowful faces; as if we knew nothing about what we had done and laughed to ourselves. During a change in classes, we filled up her gloves with these bugs. When it came time to go home, she put on her gloves, but as she did so, she screamed from fright, and we giggled with joy. She summoned the principal, Berless, a tall, gaunt man with lead-colored face and turned-up mustache. As punishment, he made us stay after class, but she had to stay along with us!
Only one teacher never hit us. His name was Dreyfuss. When he himself was a youngster, he would bring home his schoolbooks and he would be rewarded with sweets. But Dreyfuss unexpectedly died.
The benevolence of Baron Hirsch made it easier for us to bear the burdens that were inflicted upon us by the other teachers. The wonderful arrangements they made for us to enjoy Yom Tov, the delicious bean soup they prepared for us in winter, and the playground in the schoolyard made up for everything else.
Life at home followed a routine because each of us worked; each had something to do. We arose at four in the morning to shape bagels and knead dough. At six, we brought it to the buyers in the market in flat-bottom baskets. At eight, we went to school. I always had tiny bits of dough stuck in my fingernails. I showed this off proudly to the kids at school to let them know that I worked at night, just like the big shots!
My older brother, Shabtai, was always a gloomy guy, tired and needy of sleep, with blood-shot eyes. He played with no one else, just studied in school. And when the teacher would call on him, quietly and uncertain of himself, he would stammer indecipherable words. I was the only one who understood what he was saying. The teachers inevitably embarrassed him, telling him to sit down, and then they would call on me. All I needed to do was repeat what he had said, but I did it in a loud and sure voice. So the teachers respected me on my brother's account my poor brother Shabtai.
We sat in the third row of benches. Next to me sat two light-haired, simple children. They had long blond hair and red cheeks and they were dressed in blue (school-issued) suits and sailor caps. These were the children of the banker Yungerman. Every day they brought different treats to school. Once they brought challah with bits of chicken; another time bread and butter, honey and jelly. And they also brought raisin cookies with butter topped with cherries, grapes, apples, sour cherries, pears, or even strawberries.
Once, during a semester break, I was hungry as always and I looked upon the Yungermans' treats and my mouth began to water. I stepped up to the younger one and asked her for a bite.
No, she honked like a goose and went on eating. I could feel that my face was reddening with shame. From that time on, I began to loathe them both and every other day I dreamed up different catastrophes for them. I brought soot and spread it on their chair seat so they blackened their suits and their notebooks. I put tiny pebbles on their seats and once even a nail, pointed upwards. As soon as one of them sat down he began to screech and everyone burst out laughing; I alone played the innocent one and kept quiet. Another time I even filled my inkwell with ink and placed it on the edge of the bench so that when the teacher called on me I stood up, motioned with my hand, and the ink spilled all over my neighbors' white face, blond hair and sailors' caps. At first, the entire class burst into laughter. Then the smaller Yungerman began to cry. The teacher tried to calm him down, and I made another blameless, but compassionate, face. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it, more than I would have enjoyed the sweet raisin cookie with butter. My life consisted of dreaming up practical jokes.
Once I leapt onto the bench with my elbows and delivered such a massive blow to the poor little banker's ribs that I almost knocked down the other kids on the other end of the bench. Another time I stood up with difficulty and accidentally stepped on his foot so hard that tears came to his eyes. He started to hide from me, fearing my practical jokes.
Then once, during recess, he came up to me. He said, Why don't you ask me for something? I said, If I say yes, will you give it to me? Then the other brother chimed in, Just go ahead and ask. And I said, Yeah, and you had better give it up!
And I could not believe my eyes. They had prepared a box of treats for me. They even threw in a pen. From then on they would bring me something new to eat every day. It became a joy to go to school. And so the inkwell never again overflowed. There were no more pebbles and nails underfoot, and I no longer picked on them. We became friends and went together to the market in order to steal fruit. We had long sticks with a nail on the tip. When a juicy one turned up, we would use the tipped stick to pick an apple or a pear and then we'd dash away. We were a small pack of bandits who attacked the branches of apple trees. Or during the apple-picking harvest, we would rescue the fallen ones preying like a flock of crows on what was left behind. Near the armory we found that is, when no one was looking pieces of iron and horseshoe nails and we would sell it to that hypocrite Mordechai who traded in scrap iron. We could tell that he knew where it was coming from, but we had no problem cheating him. We always had five or six thieves in our brotherhood. While a few of us were selling to him, the others stole pieces of iron from his own storehouses so we could sell them back to him once again! So it came to pass that two or three times he bought the very same horseshoe, and the same nails; we always doubled up in laughter when this happened. Seeing how it went, we once stole an old samovar and immediately demanded he buy it. He became suspicious, then looked us over from on top of his pile of junk, and started to take the belt from his pants. So we threw the samovar in his face, kicked up our heels, and quit doing business with him.
Once the Yungerman children's private tutor came to our home and scolded me in front of my father saying that not only was I a thief, but that I was turning the Yungerman children into thieves as well. So my mother threw him out of the house and shouted at him that if he dared come around again, the children would have a curse on them. But when the tutor left, my dad sent everyone out of the house and he had a talk with me. He said, I believe every word. But I want to hear it from your lips. Say yes, or say no. An honest man, Shimshele Milnitzer, teaches you. And the Torah holds, 'Thou shalt not steal.' As long as you're still not a Bar Mitzvah, the rebbe and I are responsible for your transgressions. Admit it. Is it so or not? Now go and decide your punishment. How many whacks should I give you?
Yes, I blurted out, ashamed of myself. And I requested twenty-five whacks on the behind.
So let me do it, my son, my father said. You are truly not a thief. Thieves are also liars. Say that you will never do it again and I will withhold the punishment. I promised him. Then my father called in the others and said to them, Herr Yungerman is a thief himself. He steals from God and from ordinary people and even the entire world. That is why he is afraid that his children will also turn into thieves. We are, thanks to God, honest people and we have nothing to fear.
At the time I didn't quite understand my good, honest, father. But if there exists a Garden of Eden, he is sitting there and is smiling to himself and thinking about how long it takes for children to understand the basic rules of life.
One Tuesday, before the market opened, a wonderful thing happened. They strung a long wire stretching from Herr Noyman's high-storied store, all the way to the post office. A man, a woman, and a youngster slightly older than me appeared, dressed in colorful tights with spangles. The mother wore green tights. The father was in red. The kid was in light blue. They all ascended a ladder. The mother began to drum and the kid blew three loud blasts on his trumpet. Then the father gave a speech. He said that he spoke all the world's languages, but here he would speak Polish, because the mayor of the town spoke Polish. He went on to say that even though they had received commendations and medals from all the kaisers and monarchs of the world, they themselves had come to Horodenka to perform their acts because of the truly fine mayor. Now, he says in a high-pitched voice, I will risk the life of my only child, all for the sake of his artistry. His eight-year-old child was barely older than me, and was to suspend himself on a tightrope stretching across two houses. He demanded no payment beforehand, saying, with tears in his eyes, that if God forbid something should happen to his child, what good would the money do him anyway? But if the Lord God would safely deliver the child through the air on the tightrope connecting one house to the other, he, his wife, and child would allow themselves to walk around with an upturned hat for donations. He was convinced that such heartless people who would leave the site after witnessing such a feat would not reside in a proud place such as Horodenka. He was sure that everyone would reward the great artists who risk their lives willingly, who had received commendations from all over the world, and medals, too, from Kaisers and monarchs.
It seemed that thousands of people crowded the market with anticipation. The parents tied two strings to the kid's belt, put a long pole into his hands, to balance himself, and bounced him up to the rope. It became deathly quiet among the spectators; they began staring at the rope. The father was shouting something to his child. The mother wiped away a tear and the kid crossed himself once more.
Attention, attention: Look, honorable visitors, the father called out in perhaps twenty different languages. The performance begins.
Above thousands of people, the kid took one step, then another, as if he could intimately feel the tightrope, balancing himself with the pole. He went slowly, shuffling his feet on the rope, step after step, a bit farther, a bit farther on. The crowd watched, muted. He was soon midway along the rope, but then he tilted the pole up and out, and called out in a heart-rending voice, Father, the wind!
The onlookers begin to squirm. Gentiles crossed themselves. But thanks to God, the child went further along. He was even quicker than he was before. He balanced himself with the pole and moved even more quickly. After five more steps he had reached the roof of the post office building. The entire market erupted in shouts and shrieks, and danced about in wondrous joy. The father and the mother collected money, and none of the spectators left. Each one dug a little deeper to give up their groschen to them.
I was not standing far away from the kid; I literally absorbed him with my eyes: a person, a child just like me, had put his life on the line. I looked at him in wonder and jealousy.
On Shabbos after our meal I called my brothers and several buddies from the neighbor's house. The long rope remained suspended above the ground. I took my bread-paddle in hand, closed my eyes, gathered my strength and began to put one foot in front of the other on the tightrope. I made my way exactly as he did, step after step, and in the middle I pretended that I was about to fall and I began to scream, Father, the wind. Father, the wind. Father, the wind.
Neighbors began to congregate. Our bakery filled up. A deaf neighbor asked, What's going on? Another one answered, Don't you see? And the bakery became so hot you could choke! And we went about and shouted, Father, the wind. The poor kid probably went crazy!
A ladder appeared and reached toward the heavens. And lightning struck everyone's scabby skull. And is that the reason that they break the glass?
It was like his entire face was roaring.
And trees skated in the abyss. And is that the reason that they break the glass? They play the holy texts with their fingers, and etch the blue from the sky And is that the reason they break the glass? Break the glass?
He expunged it all in one breath. We watched it all, scared out of our wits. We gaped at him. And then we started to mimic him:
On the ladders' scabby head, in heaven grew why do they break the glass, Moishe? Why do they break the glass? They etch the blue from the holy texts. They break the glass, Moishe. 'Do they break glass?' I said, 'do they break glass?'
As soon as he saw us, he immediately became silent, stretched himself on the ground, as if nothing had happened. We left him and went back to our games.
But from that day on, the whole town called him, Moishe, They-Break-Glass.
Moishe, They-Break-Glass wore rags, but he looked different than the other nut cases. The rags on his back were clean. In summer and winter he went barefoot; he had fine looking feet. When he became hungry, he took two basins from the bath and earned some money by carrying water that he exchanged for food. He usually brought the water directly to the bakery and got an old loaf of bread in return. But you could never depend upon him, because he brought water only if he was hungry. When his thirst was quenched, he would quit carrying water and go back to poking around the bathhouse, or in some hayloft where he would loll about murmuring to himself.
When children teased and annoyed him, he wouldn't pay heed. But when a grown-up did it, he became crazed, bared his white teeth and his big black eyes literally popped out of his red face. Wise-aleck kids then knew they were headed for a slap from the bony fingers of his arms, which sailed on both sides of his broad shoulders.
Moishe, They-Break-Glass was not from Horodenka. He hailed from other parts; no one knew where. This was never discussed. He led life his own way. He was, to put it in a nutshell, a true character like no one else. What could be worse than the town nut case? And so everyone knew that Moishe-They-Break- Glass stood out among all the other nut cases.
Once, around Passover, someone gave him a clean shirt and tie to wear. And so, all cleaned up, he went around the side streets, looking good. The townspeople looked at him up and down in the street, from the opened doorways, through the windows, as if looking at him for the very first time. Women blushed; men regarded him with jealousy; wagon-drivers were jealous of his broad shoulders; the teachers were admiring of his honest face. And no one cared to mock him. They began to whisper that Moishe, They Break-Glass may not be all there, but he is certainly not a nut case. The pious Chana Rochel, the fortune-teller swore that she had seen the visage of God (shechineh) shine on his face. Yashe the cripple, the tailor with the diseased lungs, swore on the lives of his seven children that Moishe, They Break-Glass can be nothing less than a lamed-vovnik. Chaim, the wagon driver, chirped in about his face: one for which the heavens open up! If Horodenka doesn't treat him with the respect he deserves, he will make so many cuts with his heavenly whip that Horodenka will be erased from the earth itself! Wow another chimed in, To think you are fooling with a lamed-vovnik!
Truth be told, Moishe, They-Break-Glass was a lad from Brody, the well-known city of Galicia near the Russian border. He was engaged to marry Chanah Shrifrin, the house servant of the rich merchant, Reb Horowitz. But the sickly Madame Horowitz soon died, and the overstuffed Horowitz began to desire the healthy and strong house servant as a bride and he claimed her as his own.
On what was supposed to be their wedding night, the unlucky Moishe spitefully broke all the merchant's glassware and then ran away to Horodenka where he started to become crazy. He carried water when he was hungry, and slept in the bathhouse or on straw in a stable. Then the children of Horodenka gave him the name, Moishe, They-Break-Glass. With time, some folks began to regard him as a lamed-vovnik.
On a certain day, our brother Yankel, the practical joker, packed up his trunk and carved a new walking stick from a grape vine. And when our father asked him what it meant, Yankel told him that in the Hungarian city of Mishkaltz a rich but childless man lay dying, and that he had sent for Yankel to be his heir.
Did he just send for you? our father asked with a smile. So Yankel answered that someone had told the rich man what a comedian Yankel was. The man sent for him, so that he could laugh one final time before he died. And to prove his point Yankel began speaking like a buffoon, splayed his legs to resemble a tire, rolled his eyes, howled like a dog and chased after us, mooed like a cow and crowed like a hen. Everyone laughed out loud. And when our father asked him when he planned on returning, Yankel took the walking stick in hand and with an unaccustomed wave, said earnestly: The rich man owns rooms filled with gold. As soon as he's dead and I finish counting his treasure, I'll come back with a pair of horses and carts filled with gifts of gold.
He then lifted up his trunk, said he would return for his farewells, and went off.
He never came back. We never heard from him or saw him again. And if anyone ever asked, we would answer, We wish him well. He's living off the wealth of a rich guy somewhere in Hungary. He walks around in velvet and silk and counts his gold. And as soon as he is done with this, he'll come home. Then he'll take us there and we'll also get lucky.
And so we waited our entire lives for him to return to us.
The second oldest brother, Avram, once went with the wagon drivers to Lemberg and simply remained there. After some time, he came back home, dressed like a city slicker, and with gifts for all. He smiled like he was the luckiest man on earth and he asked our father to return with him to Lemberg to see his new bride. He said that he wanted to show the people there that he had good breeding so her father would formally grant him her hand in marriage.
And so our father, feeling very fortunate, put on his Shabbos clothes and traveled to Lemberg for the wedding. When he came back he told wonderful stories about Abram's beautiful wife and the great city of Lemberg. Abram is a cooking-oil dealer and is well respected. He is considered a man of means and everyone listens to him when he speaks. All the people there are friendly and they live in harmony with one another. They all work and make money and have little leisure time, like we do in Horodenka, to gossip and to set one against the other. It's great! Lemberg!
The graphic descriptions of Lemberg made such a strong impression, that each of us had the secret desire to run off to the big city, where everyone had a job, was friendly to one another and had no time for gossip or one-upsmanship.
And so, thanks to God, four of my brothers escaped from their home.
When we opened the bakery, our sister Rochel came back home. She said she had been in Vishnitz with our aunt Toibeh, our father's sister, and there learned how to make women's clothing. In truth, she had made from cloth, wire, and straw very beautiful caps. No one had asked her about her friend, Ivan. Everyone was happy that she was now back home and that she had had her fill of the latest fashions. She had filled out, and was now more beautiful than ever. When Shabbos came, the house was full of beaus, who had come ostensibly to hang around with my brothers, but in truth, came to be with Rochel. This made us mad, because we were reproached for going out with the wrong kind of girl. We wanted to uphold the honor of the family, as brothers and as almost-adult men. We also felt some jealousy for the attention she was getting. But she walked all over us. She kept on flirting with them, made come-ons with her fiery eyes of coal, smiled with her snow-white teeth, and the dimples in her rounded, plum-like cheeks. With every bit of foolishness that came from them she laughed coyly, carrying on like a colt. This carrying-on increasingly annoyed us and we could hardly stand her any longer. It got to the point where we could no longer put up with the salacious remarks that the guys made against other girls as well.
At least once a day we heard a boy make a remark about our sister. We felt like we wanted to split his head open! Finally, we headed back home and grabbed our beautiful sister by her braids. But our father got involved, and so we screamed and shouted that we would not put up with having a sister who is a prostitute. Rochel started to cry. Our father warned us that he wouldn't put up with this kind of talk in our home, that our home is clean when it comes to that sort of thing.
We didn't talk about it any more. From that time on, Rochel became a different person. She became more cautious and only went out visiting accompanied by our father. And she often sat in our market stall and sold baked goods. But later on we found among her handkerchiefs some hand-written love poems and a piece of cloth with her name and the name of a boy embroidered upon it. She and he had shared a deep love. And so the arguments started anew, but this time Rochel was sent away to live with our aunt in Vishnitz.
Two hired workers also stayed with us. One of them we called, The Barrel. He was stout and very robust and he earned a gulden and a half, with food and lodging. This meant that in the summertime he slept on the grain sacks and in winter on the hay stacks. That's how we all would sleep. I was very jealous of The Barrel for lots of reasons. After work he could go out for a good time. He had enough money to spend on anything he wished while we, the children of the home, would never be paid regardless of how hard we worked. He had hands of gold. I learned how to work quickly and skillfully from him; within time, I became the most skillful bagel-shaper and roll maker.
The oldest brother in the house was Laibze. He was sixteen years old with golden yellow hair, but he looked much older because he was tall, broad-shouldered, and very rugged-looking. He was the most capable of the children and could speak well when he was only five years old. Laibze didn't worry about how he looked, but he loved to eat well. And so at night, when the others slept, he would cook up the most delicious meals and would share them with me. He was the quiet type; he never quarreled, and would gladly give up his soul for the sake of another. He never carried a grudge. At the time we both lay sick with typhus, we became the closest of brothers. I admired the way he worked hard, and he admired my dexterity. I was the only one who ever knew that on Friday night after the meal was over he visited the bordello, bringing along a gift. Sometimes on weekdays he would send me there with a pair of silk stockings, a painted handkerchief, or chocolate for the little prostitute Salka with whom he was deeply in love. She would send back letters with me, which I would have to read to him because he could neither read nor write. I would also write out his replies, which I composed with the aid of a brivshteler (a book composed of canned love letters, poems, etc.). I memorized three entire volumes of brivshtelers. I would also steal money from our father and give it to Laibze. This is how we became very close friends.
When Salka got sick she had to be taken to the hospital, and then to another city. My brother grew silent and he began to look bad. Once at night, when everyone was in bed asleep, Laibze cooked up a piece of liver in a pan and then he said that he was going to tell me a secret. But first, I would have to steal at least two gulden for him. I did it. On Saturday night he informed me that I should meet him at the courthouse. This made me extremely curious. I came to the agreed upon place. From there we went into the city. We then sat down by the river, and he began to speak. He said he could no longer remain at home, that he too must leave. We both broke down and cried and he promised that he would always look out for me and said it was probably better that he, the older one, left home first.
We kissed one another and I was left, silent and alone, on that spot. He looked around several times, tipped his hat, and moved on so that he became smaller and smaller until he was nothing more than a tiny spot, and disappeared.
I came home, feeling that my world had ended. At night I went to the bakery and resumed Laibze's tasks: kneading the dough for bread and challah. When our father arrived and saw that Laibze was gone, he said only this:
My dear children are like the wild birds. They barely sprout wings when they take to the air with barely a word for their father, without a zeit gezunt. Well, maybe that's just the way it is
I felt ashamed that I couldn't reveal everything to my father, but I was able to do Laibze's work capably; I also thought about him all the time. Half a year later a post card arrived from him. My father put on his glasses and read it aloud: My Dear Father: I haven't written to you until now, because you never taught me how to read or write. But now I have met a very fine young woman who writes for me. I work in Stanislav for the baker Saibald and, thanks to God, am feeling well. I am hoping to hear from you. Your loyal son, Laibze.
My father removed his glasses, put them away in the case, and two enormous tears dribbled down his beard. It was the first time I had seen him cry. This is how our family became smaller and smaller, as our poverty became larger. We had already gone through my brother's entire dowry and so could no longer keep the bakery going. We became bankrupt.
Even though I was still a underage, I stopped attending school and put myself out as a laborer for another bakery, coincidentally for our bakery's former owner. We were better off that way: being all of ten years old I was an independent person and I felt I could even support a family. This feeling was very useful to me when I became an adult.
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