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Notes to Reader:

  1. This translation was commissioned by the children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and great, great grandchildren of Philip Rubinstein and Naomi Gurian Rubinstein, residents of Ivenets until 1903 and 1911, respectively.
  2. The translation was completed in December 1993 by Mordeccai Schreiber, a rabbi and professional author and translator. Mr. Schreiber considers the Ivenets memorial book to be unusual in terms of its length (for the small town it describes) as well as its cultural and literary richness: “The early pages of this book are an excellent description of the town, its people and institutions, livelihoods, leading personalities, and the rich religious life of Ivenets. It's interesting that so much has been preserved; the letters and records are very impressive; this town was a very active place. It's unusual to see a book like this with so much authentic detail about daily life.”
  3. The translation is followed by a glossary explaining terms in the text that are marked by an asterisk (*). This glossary was prepared by Joseph Rubinstein.


[Page 17]

History of Ivenets (Iwieniec)

By Shimon Oshrowitz/Ramat Gan

Translated by Mordeccai Schreiber

Iwieniec, in the region of Minsk, and the estate next to it belonged to the Solohov family. In 1810 both became the property of the Flevka family (according to Slownik Geograficzny, Warsaw, 1882).

At the end of the 19th century there were 288 homes in the town, mostly Jewish, who earned their living as small merchants and craftsmen. The Christian population was occupied mainly in manufacturing clay vessels such as jars, bowls and pots, and making clay tiles covered with a glossy colorful finish, used to decorate the heaters in the homes.

The town was run by a local government (Gemeine), which also encompassed 3329 villagers who lived in some 132 small villages in the area. This population was represented by 14 village heads.

Until 1868 there was a Catholic church in the town, which was founded in 1606, but after the Russian rule was established in the area, it began to restrict the Catholics and forbade them to maintain their church. A local Catholic who wanted to go to church had to walk 6 kilometers to the next town, Kamin.

The nobleman Dragonchev bought the land of the town and the “estate” at the end of the 19th century. He treated the Jews favorably. At the market square he built several stores and rented them out to shopkeepers, all Jews. The local Jews paid him also for leasing the land on which they built their homes. In the beginning of the 20th century they bought that land from him.

Until the beginning of the 20th century Ivenets was under the jurisdiction of the police in Rakov.

Through the town flows the Velma River.

According to the census of 1811, there were 169 Jewish men in the town.

In 1816-1819 there were already 825 Jews in the town, 463 men and 362 women (according to Veisrusishe Visenshafleche Academy, Minsk, 1930).

In 1847 there were 2342 Jews in the town. Fifty years later, in 1897, there were 1343 Jews, 50.3 percent of the total population of 2670 souls (Yevreiska Encyclopedia).

According to the census of 1921 conducted by the Polish government, there were 2226 residents in the town at that time, including 945 Jews, or 42.4 percent.

Anti-semitism piled economic and social difficulties on the life of Polish Jews, and caused the youth to leave the country. The main goal for this youth was the Land of Israel, but the restrictions on immigration caused young people to go wherever they could, so as to escape from Eastern Europe, where the hatred towards Jews grew day by day.

At the outbreak of the Russo-German war, on June 21, 1941, there were 330 Jewish households in Ivenets, totalling some 1200 persons.

The waves of hatred and the rivers of blood that flooded the world swallowed up this quiet town and wiped it off the face of the earth.

Only memories remain, and... a deep large common grave.

Of the 1200 Jews of the town, only 70 survived!


[Page 18]

Ivenets, My Hometown,
at the End of the 19th Century

by Shlomo Bar Tzvi Milikovsky (1880-1955)

Translated by Mordeccai Schreiber

 

About the Author

Shlomo, the son of Reb Hirshel Malkes, the well known religious teacher of the town, was born in Ivenets.

He studied at the yeshivot and became a rabbi.

When he returned home, he devoted himself to education and became the first Hebrew teacher in the town and the entire vicinity. Shortly thereafter he moved to Minsk and continued to teach Hebrew to Jewish Maskilim [modern Jews].

In 1922 he emigrated from Russia to Poland with his wife, Shoshana, and from there he immigrated in 1925 to the Land of Israel. They settled in Tel Aviv, where Shlomo taught Hebrew and trained scores of Jewish Agency emissaries.

Reb Shlomo was an idealist all his life. He believed in people, and was gentle and good hearted.

At age 75 he was overrun by a motorcycle in the streets of Tel Aviv and was killed. He left two granddaughters (one, a Hebrew teacher, and the other a social worker), and two grandsons, who are officers in the Israel Defense Forces.

The late Dr. Aryeh Abramowitz, who was the director of the Hadassah Hospital in Tel Aviv, wrote in his memoirs: “I must mention those who spread the Hebrew culture and languages in the neighboring communities. Reb Shlomo Milikovsky of Ivenets taught me in his “reformed school” several sessions, and I owe the knowledge of the Hebrew language to him. He immigrated to the Land of Israel in 1925, and much to my regret he was hit by a motorcycle and died within a few hours.

“At our hospital, at Tel Aviv University, we have established a grant in his memory, which is given every year to a student who excels in Hebrew.”

May his memory be a blessing.


Chapter One

The Town and its Occupations

The town was small and distant, far from the railroad and from the main roads of the region of Minsk, and located some 50 km from the city of Minsk.

It was surrounded by woods of pine, spruce and birch and fields where wheat turned green and yellow in the spring and summer, and in the wintertime were covered with white snow.

Northwest of the town ran a small river which turned the wheels of two flour mills, one north of town and one in the south end. The length of the town from northwest to southeast was about 1.5 km, but its width was only a fifth of its length.

In the center of the town was a square which served as the marketplace. It was surrounded with houses, and in the middle there was a long row of shops built of brick, which ran the length of the square on both sides. They were tiny shops, built by the owner of the land, and rented out.

All the shopkeepers were Jews, despite the fact that the local Catholic population was much larger than the Jewish. The Christians at that time did not engage in retail or trade. There were shops in the houses in addition to those that stood in the middle of the square, as there were in other towns in the area.

The shopkeepers, who rented those stores, had a tenure over the store. A Jew was not allowed to raise the rent paid to the owner so as to take over an occupied store. If anyone attempted such a thing, he would be ostracized and banished from the community, and no one would trade with him, which was worse than death. Therefore, stores were passed on from father to son and only rarely, when a shopkeeper left town or changed his occupation, would a store change hands.

Most of the stores were some kind of a general store. They would offer a great variety of items -- a barrel full of herring, a barrel of kerosene, oil jars, flax, smoking tobacco, mainly a cheap kind called mahurka, snuff, wooden pipes, bags with matches which were lit by rubbing against the package, or the wall of the oven, or the table, and which let off a bad smell of burning sulphur. There was also wax for softening stiff boots, and such items as needles and thread for sewing, various kinds of buttons, small kerosene lamps, small pocket knives in red sheaths, and much more. Most of this merchandise was intended for the farmers in the area, but Jews would buy it too. There were a few stores that specialized in textiles.

The market square was a starting point for the streets on all four sides. On some streets lived Jews, on some Christians, and on the main and longest street, Koidnovi, there were both Jewish and Christian homes, and it was easy to tell them apart, since the Christian homes had front yards with fences and gates, boasting cultivated gardens with lawns and flowers, while the Jewish yards were open and barren, and the pigs, roosters and hens of the neighbors made free use of them, and when they were chased away they would return after a few minutes.

All the houses were made of wood, since the surrounding forests provided plenty of cheap lumber. The Jewish homes were mostly of standard uniform style, of the same size and construction. Each house had a corridor without windows or a floor, through which was the entrance to the large living room. Next to it was a bedroom. In the kitchen, at the entrance to the living room, stood a large oven for cooking and baking, made of whitewashed bricks, and next to it a small oven which reached to the ceiling, covered with painted tiles of local production, which was used during the rainy season and in winter to heat the house. In the kitchen stood two tables which held cookware for milk and meat products respectively. On the wall there were shelves on which stood the glasses, bowls, plates, and cups, and in the grooves were the spoons and forks. The furniture in the main room, which was used as a dining room and the center of the house, was simple and made of wood -- a large square table, mostly painted red, with a checker board drawn in the middle for playing on Hanukkah. It stood next to the wall facing the entrance, and alongside it, attached to the walls, were long benches with back rests to protect the whitewashed walls from being soiled. A third bench stood along the table facing the entrance. In the next room, the bedroom, were wooden beds piled high with quilts and pillows which were handed down from generation to generation, and kept piling up. There were no amenities in the houses. One had to go to the well, usually located at a Christian's yard, to draw water, using a pail. Such were the houses of those who were well off. The houses of the poor were smaller and less comfortable. Most of the houses were new, and few were truly old, for we were often visited by the angel of fire, Sarfiel, causing several houses to quickly burn down, and then be replaced by new ones. When it came to fires, Ivenets was luckier than most of the other neighboring towns. In nearby Volozhin, when a fire started, the entire town along with its synagogue and yeshiva would burn. Several volunteers in our town would go from house to house and collect loaves of bread, load them on a wagon and take them to those who lost their homes, to tide them over until they could recover from the disaster. In Ivenets fires were better controlled because the Christian residents participated vigorously in putting them out. Nearly all the Jewish families had their own homes. There were very few who lived at someone else's home, even though new Jewish homes were not added to the town. This was not due to the young not fulfilling the commandment of “procreate and multiply.” This commandment was fulfilled all the time, and there was much natural increase. Each family had four or five offspring. The reason was emigration, which started in my childhood and kept growing all the time.

I recall the Sabbath when emigration was the order of the day. It was the middle of winter, during the '80s of the last century. All the worshipers gathered early in the morning in the synagogue, including the ten heads of families who would leave in the evening after Havdalah* on their way to America. All the worshipers watched them with great pity and compassion. Everyone tried to imagine what he would feel like if he were in their shoes, having to leave his beloved wife and children, and go on such a long journey, across countries and across the great sea, arriving at a strange land without any relative or support, no friend or acquaintance, and look for a way to live. On this Shabbath the aliyot* to the Torah were not sold, but were given to those about to depart. One by one they were called to the Torah, and each received the Mi Sheberach blessing from the cantor, who concluded, “The Holy One Blessed Be He will save him from all trouble and hardship, and let us say, amen.” The entire congregation responded to that amen. In the homes people spoke about it the entire day. The women commiserated with the wives of the immigrants, and some broke into tears. Most of those who left were tailors, who could not find work in the town, and had to travel to the neighboring villages. On Sundays they would get up early, and after prayers and a meager breakfast, they would take their tefilin* bag and put it in their satchel, along with a loaf of dark bread, a heavy iron and large scissors, and would go on foot to the villages, to their familiar farmers, for whom they would make garments for all the members of their families. During the week they never ate a hot meal or cooked vegetables. They would never touch non-kosher food. All they ate were potatoes they roasted themselves on the fire, at times a boiled egg, and the like. They would stay at the farmer's house all day and night, breathing the foul air and the smell of pigs. They did not always find work, and when they did, the pay was scant. Making a living was as hard as crossing the Red Sea. So when they heard the rumors that in America tailors were much in demand, they borrowed money for the trip by mortgaging their homes, and they left. After some three months the first letter arrived from a husband in America to his wife, in which he lets her know that he arrived unharmed in the “Golden Land,” and became a presser, for which he earns 8-10 dollars a week, and he hopes to make more.

The family rejoiced with the letter, and particularly with the 25 dollars which they found inside the envelope. A few weeks later a second letter arrived, this time with 40 dollars, with a picture of the tailor dressed in a new suit and wearing an elegant hat, his beard trimmed, and his posture upright. As a result, his wife's status in the town grew higher, and the butcher became more attentive to her, whereas before he used to scold her when she asked for a bone, to give the soup some flavor, since the lungs she bought from him had no flavor. Now he gives her a choice cut, and says a pleasant goodbye when she leaves.

Two years go by and finally she receives another letter, in which he tells her he is coming home from America. He is tired of wandering in America. The wife and the children are very happy, and wait impatiently for the head of the family to return. Finally he arrives, lugging a large suitcase with his clothes and with gifts for the wife and the children. “I will try my luck at home, perhaps I could use the few hundred dollars I brought with me to start some kind of a business. I am tired of the ungodly America where the presser must desecrate the Sabbath and work seven days a week.” Six months later, having failed in several undertakings, his money is running out. He returns to America, and later his wife receives tickets for the entire family to join him. The house is sold, the family goes to America, and another Jew moves into the house.

The Christian and the Jewish residents of Koidnovi Street had large backyards. Jews would also use those yards as one of the sources of livelihood for their families. The children would collect horse manure and cow dung in the street near their home, and deposit it next to the garbage in the back of the house. In early spring, one or two weeks after Passover, they would engage a local farmer, who would come with his horse and wagon, take out the manure and spread it over the yard. Two days later he would return, mend the fence and plow the yard. Two weeks later he would plow it again. The members of the family would begin to sow. In a small section near the house they would sow cucumbers, onions, peas, beets, carrots, and other vegetables. On a larger portion of the yard they would sow potatoes. After the sowing the farmer would harrow the field, and this would be the end of his work. Weeding was done by the girls of the family. If it was a good year with rain falling in due season, one could start eating the new crop by Tisha B'Av.* Every day they would go out to the garden, pluck some fresh cucumbers and dig up some potatoes, which were eaten by the family. This continued until Slichot.* The rest of the cucumbers were pickled in a large wooden barrel down in the cellar. Potatoes, radishes, beets, and carrots were also taken down to the cellar, where they were kept in special bins, and were used all winter long, until Passover.

There was a cellar in every house at the end of the corridor which was used as a pantry for all sorts of food that could spoil, in the summer because of heat, and in the winter because of the cold. No one knew in those days about iceboxes or refrigerators, but ice was available even in the summer. Some people prepared in the summer all sorts of cold drinks, such as soda water, lemonade, and kvass.* They had deep pits in their yards covered with heavy tops, and they would cut blocks of ice in the winter from the ice cover over the river, and bring it in their wagons, put it in the pits, and it would last until the next winter. As a mitzvah,* they would give free ice to sick people.

The main source of income for the people of the town was market day, which was always on Sunday. Farmers from the neighboring villages and their wives would gather in the market square, arriving in their horse-drawn wagons or on foot, and would bring their produce to sell, while buying whatever they needed at the market. In the summer they would bring mainly eggs and poultry and produce. In the fall and winter they would bring rye, wheat, barley, flax, and seeds. The Jewish merchants would buy their grain which was ground in the local mills, and was consumed by the town. The flax and other seeds were sent to certain towns where they were sold as raw material for oil and fabric.

It was not easy for the Jewish merchant to buy produce from the farmer. The farmer always asked for a high price, which did not leave any profit for the merchant. Afraid that the farmer would go to his competitor, the merchant would bargain with him for a long time. Generally, the merchants treated the farmers fairly. These merchants had steady ties with well-to-do farmers. They would lend them money in the spring, and in the fall the farmers would pay their debt with their crops. These farmers did not inflate the price, and the Jewish buyers would take a decent profit without cheating the farmers.

Things were harder for the shopkeepers than it was for the merchants. If a farmer passed by a store, two shopkeepers would rush out and begin to pull his sleeve, each in the direction of his or her store. They would urge him, “Please, sir, come to my store, everything is cheap.” The farmer would stop, puzzled, scratching his head, and would spit on the ground and shout, “What do these Jews want from me?” He would finally recover, go into the first store, and ask, “How much is the salt? And what about the tobacco?” Whatever the shopkeeper's answer was, he would reply, “It is too expensive, please make it cheaper and I will buy. “I can't,” was the answer, “I swear to you I can't, I swear on my husband and children.” The farmer would leave the store and go into the next one, where the same scene was repeated. He would go into several stores, and finally buy what he needed. Sometimes he would take something without paying, namely, steal, which meant a loss for the shopkeeper. But as hard as it was to sell, it was even harder to buy stock and get it to the store. The wholesalers were in Minsk, which was 50 kilometers away from Ivenets, and one had to find a wagon driver to go there.

There were three or four wagon drivers in the town who went regularly to Minsk. Each owned two wagons and three or four horses, and would travel to Minsk twice a week. The wagoner would tie baskets of eggs and poultry to the back of the wagon, which he took at his own expense to the city to earn some money. On the wagon were some empty barrels which were sent by the innkeepers to Minsk to be filled with beer. There were also packages belonging to the passengers who travelled to Minsk. They would crowd into the wagon like sardines, practically sitting on top of one another. They would go out in the evening. The horses would move slowly, and their owner did not make them go any faster. Late at night they would arrive at some inn, where they would stop. The wagoner would give his horses some hay, and would drink some vodka and munch on something. The passengers would go into the inn where they would drink tea and eat some of the food they had brought along on the trip. After about two hours, they would climb up on the wagon again, and continue to travel until they reached Minsk the next day at noon.

In the spring and summer the trip was not too difficult, since the ground was dry and the horses managed to somehow pull the wagon. But during the rainy season, when cold rain entered one's clothes and the road was muddy, the horses refused to move despite all the yelling and cursing and whipping they received from their master. When the road became steep, they stopped altogether. The passengers had to get off, and the men were asked to help push the wagon uphill. This occurred on the way to Minsk. But on the way back to Ivenets, it was twice as hard. Now the wagon was loaded down, and the passengers became assistants to the horses, as they spent most of the trip walking in the mud alongside the wagon and helping push it. The second trip, which took place in the middle of week, meant that one returned on Friday during the rains, and reached Ivenets at dark, as they used to say, just in time for “Lecha dodi,”* and sometimes even after the Sabbath eve meal.

On days when the merchants did not have to travel to Minsk or hold a market day, when they looked for some peace and quiet, they would suddenly be assailed by the tax inspector. Each merchant had to pay a tax in Minsk and get a receipt stating that he had permission to deal in the items he had purchased for his store. But some items paid very high taxes, and the merchants avoided paying the tax for them. Therefore, when suddenly the merchants heard the bells of a carriage drawn by a pair clinging through the streets, they knew that the tax inspector, accompanied by the local policeman, had arrived, and a great panic broke out. The merchants and their families would rush into the store and begin to remove all forbidden merchandise and hide it in their homes, going back and forth several times, until finally all the “chometz”* was put away. Even then each merchant's heart raced as he was worried lest something would be found and he would have to pay a fine or spend some time in jail.

Not only the shopkeepers profited from market day. There were other Jews in the town who made their living on that day. Those were mainly the owners of the taverns. A farmer would not go back home from the market without first downing a few drinks of vodka and beer. Whether or not he had brought with him from home a loaf of bread and some pork, he would go into the tavern and besides beer and vodka would also buy a slice of white bread and a herring. He would sit there and drink in the company of his fellow villagers, or people from a neighboring village, and would talk shop, how much he sold or bought for, and as the conversation heated up he would keep ordering more drink, and by nighttime he would walk out drunk as a skunk, wading along, hardly able to find his wagon and climb into it, and kept whipping his horses, as the wagon crossed the town clanging and banging on its way back to the village.

At twilight, after the farmers were gone, the tavern owner would open the windows to air the place from the tobacco smoke and the bad odor left by the drunk farmers, count the money he had taken in that day, and his face brightened with satisfaction. He would pray enthusiastically and thank his Maker, who created farmers, and gave them a powerful desire to drink vodka so that the seed of Jacob the righteous could make a living.

Craftsmen also found a source of livelihood in the town. There were shoemakers who would make some pairs of boots from coarse leather for market day, to be sold to the farmers, and some kind of high shoes from the same leather for the farmers' wives. They would hang the footwear on both their shoulders and would circulate in the marketplace, looking for customers. There were also tailors who would make clothes from simple fabric, hang them on nails on one of the walls in the market, and would stand there, waiting to sell them to the farmers. There were also carpenters who built large wooden cabinets, with tin strips for support, fitted with lock and key, to be sold to the farmers who used them to keep their household items and their clothes. These coarse cabinets were placed in the middle of the marketplace on an empty lot, where the carpenters waited for their customers.

Besides the craftsmen there were also horse traders, who made their living on market day. The horse trader would appear at the market with his assistant, driving his wagon, to the sides of which were tied several horses. The horses were groomed, and their tails were tied in a wave, to make them appear younger and more alert. When a potential customer showed up, the horse had to be tried out. The assistant would mount the horse, take it to one of the side streets, and kick it slightly to make it gallop. The horse had been trained before, suffering many blows, to respond to this signal and break into the fastest gallop possible, using secret tricks taught to the horse traders by gypsies. The horse would run for its life, crossing the town in no time at all, and the farmer was ready to negotiate. The trader offered a price, and the customer countered. The two parties would look into each other's eyes and would start making new offers and counter offers. Finally the trader would grasp the farmer's hand and shout, this is the last price, take it or leave it. The farmer would agree, and the two would go into the tavern where the farmer treated the trader to a drink to seal the deal. In the course of the day the trader would make a few deals, each time doing the required drinking, and would return home at night properly drunk.

In addition to the income from market day, which might be termed internal income, since it was derived from the neighboring villages which formed one economic unit with the town, the town also had external sources of income, which came from the outside. These sources can be termed export income, which came under several categories. How can one speak of export from Ivenets? Near the town there was some kind of clay soil that could be used for making various kinds of pottery. The farmers would dig up this soil and bring it to sell to the potters, who would use their equipment to make such ware as cooking pots, jars, bowls, plates, cups, and toys for children. They would let these items harden in the kiln and pour over them a molten mixture of lead and other elements, and when these vessels were ready they were hard and had a shiny orange color. These pottery shops also produced tiles for building stoves for heating the homes in the wintertime. This craftsmanship employed both Jews and Christians. The pottery became well known in other towns and villages, and Jews would come with large wagons from far away and buy it, taking it back to their towns. The town had another export, more important than the pottery, namely, export of people. Nearly all the Christian residents of the town were expert masons, who could build stone and brick houses. In the spring they would scatter over the large cities of Russia and work in construction. Some of them were building contractors. Those were away all spring and summer, and came home in the fall. They would bring back the money they earned from their work, most of which found its way to the pockets of the Jewish shopkeepers, from whom the masons bought all they needed for their homes. During my childhood there were no Christian stores in the town.

In those days Jews and Christians generally lived in peace, or even in friendship, and there was no hatred and competition between them. Many Christians learned how to speak Yiddish, and when they dealt with Jews they preferred to speak in this tongue, to show how well they had mastered it. One could easily detect their non-Jewish pronunciation.

One time in one of the towns of the region of Vilna, called Dolhinov, a pogrom broke out during a market day. Several Jews were killed and some stores were pillaged. The news spread in the neighboring towns, and some farmers agitated and sought to do the same in Ivenets. The Jews of the town were scared. Subsequently, some leaders of the Christian community spoke out and said in public, do not touch our Jews! Anyone who touches them may pay with his life! People dropped the subject, and our Jews rested easy.

The reason for the peace between the two communities in those days was the following. Both had a common enemy -- the Russian government and people. The Russian government did not persecute the Catholics nearly as badly as it did the Jews. The Catholics could live anywhere they wanted and engage in any occupation, but they could not forget the fact that the Czarist regime occupied a large portion of Poland and subjugated its inhabitants, even taking away their houses of worship and turning them into Greek Orthodox churches.

There was another human export, strictly Jewish. Those were Jewish teachers who became accomplished and sophisticated, and could open their own little private schools [or cheder] in Minsk. They may not have been more knowledgeable than the poor teachers of Ivenets, but they earned more than the latter. There were also some store clerks from Ivenets who worked in the commercial establishments in Minsk, and sent money to their families back home. There were also Jews who worked in the lumber business, and were well paid. They lived in the woods and sent their wages to their families in the town. All this income was added to the financial balance of the Jewish community in our town.

 

Chapter Two

Customs and Societies In Our Town

The social and spiritual life of the town centered for the most part around the small synagogues [bes midrash]. There were two such synagogues in the town, an old and a new, but unlike in other towns, they were not next to each other, but at some distance. The old one was properly named the “old bes midrash,” but the other, the new one, was not properly named, since even the old folks of the town hadn't been born yet when it was built. The new one was larger and better furnished than the old one, which stood at some distance from the Jewish homes and was surrounded by an empty field covered with weeds during the summer, where, in addition to goats and calves, the horse belonging to a book peddler, a friend of Mendele Mocher Sforim [famous Hebrew writer in Russia at the time], also grazed. This book peddler would visit the towns and sell Yiddish novels and story books at the synagogues. The new synagogue was closer to the homes, and even had an attached toilet. Most of the poor folks prayed in the old one, while the “balabatim” [better situated Jews] prayed in the new one, where they went every day to pray shachris,* mincha* and maariv.* There were two minyanim* for the morning prayer. The first consisted of workers on their way to work, who were in a rush to drive their wagons to the villages. Those rose early and finished praying before sunrise. The second minyan consisted of balabatim, shopkeepers and teachers, who were in no great rush. After the second minyan, most worshipers remained to study a page of Talmud,* or Mishna,* or a chapter of Psalms. People studied individually. In the new synagogue Talmud was studied in a group, along with the commentaries, lead by the town's rabbi, who would explain every difficult question. These students were members of the Hevreh Shas [Talmud society], and the ones who studied Talmud alone were also members of this group. They studied the same page of Gemorah,* but since they did not have a seat in the new synagogue, they studied alone in the old one. The seats in both synagogues were permanent, and were considered the property of the people who occupied them, which was passed down from father to son. When an owner of a seat had financial problems, he would either sell the seat or mortgage it until he was able to pay back.

But not all the seats cost the same. The seats at the eastern wall were the expensive ones, while the ones in the north and south cost according to their proximity to the east. When the morning prayer ended, the synagogue did not remain empty. Now the yeshiva boys, who each day ate at someone else's home, began to arrive. These boys enjoyed a special status in the town, not unlike university students today. Their mental energy invested in their studies was much esteemed, and both their general and religious studies were cultivated. They came mostly from neighboring towns, or were the dropouts from the nearby illustrious Volozhin Yeshiva, where the studies were too hard for them. At that famous yeshiva students did not eat “days,” but had to be self-supporting, using money sent to them from home, in addition to a meager stipend given to them from the coffers of the yeshiva. If for some reason the money from home stopped coming, the student had to leave the Volozhin Yeshiva and go to a nearby town to “eat days.” The boys were mostly between the ages of 18 and 20, and were able to navigate through the sea of the Talmud. They would study the Talmud wrinkling their foreheads, swaying back and forth, and chanting at their own pace and in their own individual style.

Besides the Hevreh Shas which studied Talmud, there were also Hevreh Mishnayos, which studied a chapter of Mishna between the afternoon and the evening prayers, sitting around the long table lit with a kerosene lamp. One of the artisans was an expert in Mishna, and he would explain the text to his friends. They would all listen in great attention. From time to time they would ask a question, and the speaker was never hesitant, but rather would also come up with some sort of an answer. On the Sabbath the lesson would take place in the afternoon before mincha. There was also a Hevreh Tehilim [Psalms study group]. Most of its members were common folks, who rose early to go to the synagogue, where a Jewish blacksmith with a large belly, who had committed the Book of Psalms to memory, would chant the verses, and the group would repeat after him with the same chant. They would keep chanting until they reached the verse “Happy are those who walk the right path,” at which point they would all stop and go home to drink a home brew tea [tzikoria] which was kept in a large clay bottle in the stove, along with the cholent* stew for the Sabbath lunch. They would return to the synagogue for the prayer of shachris and musaf,* and would leave the short part from “Happy are those” to the end until after mincha, after which they prayed maariv.

In addition to these religious societies there were also social aid societies. The first and most important one was the Hevreh Kadisha [burial society]. Man, after all, must die, and cannot take care of himself. Who would help him make the transition from this false world to the true world? Well, the Hevreh Kadisha. How did this society obtain the name Kadisha, which means holy? Who is to say! Perhaps because of the elaborate kiddush* it would offer at its annual party, during which much vodka was consumed. Or the great annual feast, similar to King Solomon's feast, as described by the poet Shneur? But the annual feast happened to take place during the week, in the middle of winter, without a kiddush. Incidentally, as a child I used to enjoy that meal, although neither I nor my late father were members of this society. This is how it happened: my grandmother was a gabbai (she died at 85), known today as a lay leader. In our town, which had different sources of livelihood, there were also some truly poor people. How could one let such people not have anything to celebrate the Sabbath, no candles, no challah, albeit a small one, not a morsel of meat, not even lungs or kishkes*? So grandmother would get up early on Friday, tie the bonnet on her head, and during the rainy season, when the streets turned into mud and slush, she would put on a man's boots, and would go from door to door to collect some coins and distribute them to the poor, so that they too may celebrate the Sabbath. She also belonged to the Hevreh Kadisha, and her job was to sew shrouds for the dead. She always had her own personal shrouds, which she kept in a large wooden crate in the attic, where the matzot for Passover were kept. When someone died on the first or second day of a holiday, the funeral would take place on the second day, and grandma would give her own shrouds for the departed. After the holiday she would go to the store and buy new fabric with the money she had received for the shrouds, and would summon her coworker, an old woman who used to consume snuff like a man. The two of them would sit down and cut the fabric according to size, sew it and drink some vodka, chewing on a piece of cake, and wishing each other a long life until the coming of the messiah. They would send those delicacies to grandma's house from the burial society, and of course her favorite grandson -- me -- would get his share.

The living spirit in this society was Big Yankl, who was tall, and Yankl the Shoemaker, who was a fast moving Jew who knew many stories and knew how to use them for any topic that came up, and knew how to switch from one story to another, combine them, get confused, and lose his train of thought.

Yankl was always willing to give a helping hand, console, encourage, and help people through time of trouble. Whenever a mishap befell the town, when a Jew became mortally ill, and his family tired of taking care of him, having lost sleep for several nights, Yankl would come and say, go to sleep, I will sit with him, I will take care of him and will give him his medicine, perhaps the Lord will have mercy and by morning he will recover. When the patient grew worse and the doctor and his family members began to give up hope, Yankl would come back, send the people away from the room, and would sit next to him and keep guard until he died. At that moment he would take a feather, put it to the person's nostrils, and when it failed to budge , he would go out and tell the family, give thanks to the Lord for he is rid of his suffering, and has reached his eternal rest. Do not cry or mourn, let us all go back to our duties, and we will soon return. He would come back with one or two of his colleagues, take the dead person out of bed and lay him on the ground and cover him with a black cloth, light candles for his soul and leave, while others came to do the other preparations. During burial, when the dead was brought to the cemetery and the grave was ready, Yankl would show up again, take care of last minute details, help his colleague lower the body into the grave, and make sure he lay properly in his grave. Thus, Yankl was all over the place, and never asked for recompense.

Next to Hevreh Kadisha came the Gmilat Hesed society [charitable society]. This group did not make much of an impact on our town. It would only lend tiny sums to the poor, two or three rubles, and would make them pay back 25 or 30 kopeks per week. Only the poorest of the poor were entitled to receive those loans. A shopkeeper who had to travel to Minsk to buy some stock and had cash flow problems, had to turn to Shemaya the moneylender (known as “Protzentnik”), and pay him high interest. Shemaya was an old miser, who lived in a nearby village where he leased cows from the lord of the manor, and sold the milk in the town. He had managed to save a few hundred rubles, and in his old age he became a moneylender. He would only give short-term loans, no longer than ten weeks, and he used the following method: If someone borrowed from him 10 rubles, he had to pay him every Sunday after the market hours one ruble and 5 kopeks, until he finished paying his debt, which made it half a ruble interest in the tenth week. If he loaned 20 rubles, one had to pay every week 2 rubles and 10 kopeks, and so on. If we figure it all out, we discover that he totalled 45 percent interest, and was making a very good living from lending money. He would spend all day in the synagogue, sitting in front of an open volume of the Talmud, smoking his pipe and snorting. All the Jews in town hated him for his usury and miserliness. He never gave a kopek for charity, and even we, the children, hated him. During school vacation when the yeshiva boys went home, he would sit alone in the synagogue and smoke his pipe, and we children would come and torment him. We did not do anything to him physically, but we would stand there and call out, Shemaya! and we would imitate his snorting. He would snort and fume and grasp his cane to hit us with. We would run around the bimah* several times as he chased us, until he grew too tired, and would go back to his seat and start cursing us, and so we would start again, imitating his snorting, until he stopped reacting. We too grew tired of this game and we turned to something else.

Each one of these societies had its own Sabbath. On that Sabbath they would divide the Torah portion of the week into small parts and call each one of the society's members to come up to the Torah. After the service all the members would gather at the society's chairman's house, where they would say kiddush and eat a meal which included eggs, herring, or calf jelly [psha].

The Talmud and Mishna societies should have set their annual celebration to Simchat Torah,* but since one is not supposed to mix one happy occasion with another, the celebration was postponed to Shabbat Bereshit, the day on which one starts reading the Torah again. The Psalms Society had its celebration on the first day of Shavuot,* on which King David [the author of the Psalms] died. These celebrations helped keep those societies together, and the meal of the Psalms society was the most lavish of all, not counting, of course, the meal of the burial society. The latter had cheese blintzes cooked in butter,and a kugel* floating in butter, and after everyone filled his belly there was no need to eat again that day.

We also had in our town a Bikur Holim society [visiting the sick], which had its annual party on Shabbat Beshalach, in the middle of winter. It was done in honor of the biblical verse, “Any illness -- for I the Lord am your healer.” The title Bikur Holim did not describe its work too well. Its members did not visit the sick, but rather helped poor people who got sick. If a poor person got sick and his family turned to the treasurer [gabbai] of the society, he would give them a note to take to the “trustee,” or the bookkeeper, who would lend money for the sick person's medication and special food. The source of income of this society was not the contributions of the balabatim of the town, since they would hardly suffice, considering the number of poor people who got sick, but rather a fund that earned money from stores in another town, which some rich man had bequeathed to the society. There were two Jewish doctors in the town: One was young and newly-wed, known as “Baal Beit'l,” and the other was called Yudeh. A Baal Beit'l was different from a baal beit [plural -- balabatim], in that the latter had an established family and a status in the community. But one should not deduce that the two were doctors with diplomas from some university. The word “university” was not known in the town, and no one knew what it meant. They became doctors because they had worked for other doctors who practiced before them, and so on all the way back to antiquity.

If someone took ill, the first to be summoned was Baal Beit'l. He was always quick to show up. He would check the patient's heart by touching it and would say, nu, let someone come to my house to get the medication which I'll prepare. He would not look at the coin that would be placed in his palm, and take it casually, like a donation rather than a fee. One did not take this doctor's expertise too seriously, and if the illness was serious they would invite Yudeh. The town considered Yudeh an accomplished doctor, and he himself acted as though he was trained in a great metropolis, such as Berlin. He did not tuck his pants into his boots, as did the town's folk, but let them come down over his boots, which were made of soft leather, always polished and shiny. He wore a short coat, and his overcoat had three overlapping layers in the back, similar to the coat worn by old Italian scholars. There were more rooms in his house than in the other Jewish homes. He was an aging gentleman, tall and dignified. His seat in the synagogue was near the ark, at the northeastern corner, while the rabbi's seat was opposite his on the southeastern side. That meant that his status was about equal to the rabbi's. His income did not come mainly from the Jews of the town, but from the lords of the manors in the area.

They used to tell in the town: When an Ivenetsian patient went to see a famous doctor in Minsk, the latter would say to him, why did you bother to come to me? You have an expert physician in your town, named Yudeh. Dr. Yudeh did not prepare the medication himself. He would ask for paper and pen, which was not always available, and had to be borrowed from a neighbor's house, and would sit down and write a note for Shmuel Moshe the Pharmacist. Yudeh did not look at the coin placed in his palm either. He did not take any money from a poor patient, and would even leave a coin at such patient's house. Shmuel Moshe also did not learn his trade at an official pharmacy, but rather taught himself by reading books. On the Sabbath, when Yudeh was not allowed to write notes, he would stop at Shmuel Moshe's house, and tell him what medication was needed and how much. Shmuel Moshe was a learned Jew, who always had the Mishna with Tiferet Israel in front of him, and even studied Medieval literature. If the patient needed external medicine, such as leeches or an enema, he would delegate the job to Shaul, Baal Beit'l's brother-in-law in the case of a male patient. To a female patient he would assign Hasya, Shaul's mother. Hasya would also attend to us, the children. She would come to us with her tools, and I remember how much I objected to having an enema given to me by Hasya. I knew that my friends would mock me afterwards and would call me “Kaneh Dudka.*”

If the illness got more serious and there were signs of danger, and in answer to the question -- how is the patient, Yudeh would say, all is in the hands of heaven, the family members would resort to their own radical measures. First they would go to the synagogue to recite Psalms. There they would pay some idle persons who knew the right Psalms for a sick person a fee to recite them, and would repeat them with great sincerity, and finally they would say the special prayer for the sick printed at the end of the book of Psalms. The women made their own contribution by entering the synagogue wailing and weeping, and would go up on the bimah and open the ark, where they would cry and plead in front of the Torah scrolls, asking them to intercede with heaven, and ask for a cure for the patient. After they finished their pleading before the scrolls, they would go the cemetery where they prostrated themselves on their relatives' graves and begged them to intercede on behalf of the patient with the heavenly court, and not rest until a favorable sentence was issued.

In those days one did not consider the dead removed from the affairs of the living. There was much evidence in those days that the opposite was true. The dead would visit the living, and their relatives' affairs were close to their hearts. They were willing to give them a helping hand in time of need. Everyone knew the story about that mortally ill person for whom there was no more hope, and as he was prepared to leave this world he fell asleep and in his dream he saw his father or grandfather who had died, and the latter said to him, I have brought you a herb from the other world, and I am putting it near your head under the pillow, and tomorrow they will put it in boiling water and you will drink it like tea, and you will recover. And so it was. The next day the patient looked better. They found the herb under the pillow and boiled it in water. The patient drank the brew, got up on his feet, and recovered. And of course everyone knew that the dead come to the synagogue after midnight to pray and to read the Torah. And once a person who prayed maariv in a synagogue fell asleep. The sexton did not notice him. He went out and locked the door. After midnight the dead gathered in the synagogue to pray. The man woke up and saw the place full of dead people, praying. He was frightened, and tried to run away. But when he reached the door he realized it was locked. So he had to remain in the synagogue and watch the dead praying. He soon realized they paid no attention to him, and so his fear subsided. After the prayer they took out the Torah scroll and started to read just like living people. Their gabbai noticed him, a living man from the false world, and called him to the Torah. He said the proper blessing before and after reading the Torah. The next day he told his story to the congregation at the synagogue. A day later he died in the afternoon. And then there was the story about Yushinka who hanged himself in the entrance to the old synagogue, and was properly buried outside the fence of the cemetery. Who does not know that the earth refused to accept him, and he can be seen wandering at the crossroads, and will not find rest until some zaddik* will take pity on him and pray for his soul, and only then the earth will accept him and let him find rest in it. As a child of ten I spent an entire winter having nightmares. What happened was this. Every evening that winter from 7 to 8 we could hear a voice coming out of the new cemetery outside the town, a voice of crying and wailing like a person pleading for his life: Oy, oy! It was an irritating voice, and it scared many of the adults who refused to leave their home in the evening. As a child, I was even more scared than they. When I came home in the evening from school at nine o'clock, I would take shortcuts and run through the yards, and burst into my house with my heart pounding.

People discussed this matter at the synagogue and came up with several interpretations. One said it was a gilgul [a soul that came back in another body]. Another countered that a gilgul mixes among people rather than mess around at a cemetery, and this was the wailing of a dead person which the earth rejected. After many theories were advanced and none accepted, the Hevreh Kadisha decided the riddle had to be solved. They resolved to send a delegation to the cemetery to investigate the matter. A group of brave souls was selected, men who came in contact with dead bodies and were not easily scared by them. They gathered at the end of the Sabbath, ten in all, at the old synagogue, all dressed in short sheepskin coats and leather caps with ear covers and leather gloves, armed with thick clubs and with a large glass lantern in a wooden frame, with a lit candle. They started out for the cemetery, and could hear the wailing all the way there. But lo and behold, as soon as they arrived at the cemetery the voice stopped. Well, they decided, the dead saw the delegation coming up, was scared, and stopped wailing. They went back without solving the mystery, and only at the end of winter it was discovered that the sound was made by some bird. A farmer who lived near the cemetery, named Shmultzenovitch, shot that bird with his hunting rifle and killed it.

The dead were not the only mystery that stirred up the public and gave it a topic for interesting discussions, which made people's hearts tremble. The other exciting topic of conversation was demons. While it is true that the great Maimonides had ruled that there are no demons, and while all the students of Torah admired this great genius and philosopher and agreed with the dictum that “From Moses to Moses there has been none like Moses” [from Moses in the Torah to Moses Maimonides], the ruling regarding demons was not accepted by all. First, there are many stories in the Talmud about demons and the tricks they play on mortals, and even advice on how to deal with them. And second, there were too many stories that confirmed their existence, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that they existed. One such story had to do with a certain butcher who returned to his home on Friday night after midnight in his winter wagon. The butcher was very disappointed, because he had spent all day Thursday in the neighboring villages looking to buy a bull and was not able to. The farmers had gone mad -- they asked prices which were out of the question. The ride on the hard winter ground was easy. The moon and the stars glittered in the dark sky. The butcher leaned on the side of the wagon, wrapped in his coat. The horse trotted along. Suddenly the horse stopped and refused to go on. Nu! Nu! the butcher called out angry and bitter. May all my nightmares happen to you! You too are against me! He whipped the horse once and twice, but to no avail. He then realized something was wrong, and got off the wagon to take a look. He saw a big bound calf lying on the road. What is this? he wondered. How did the calf get here? Did it fall off some farmer's wagon? It would have made a noise and the farmer would have noticed it. No, it had to be Elijah the Prophet. He saw my misery, and gave me this present. He tried to lift the calf and put it on his wagon, but couldn't. He tried a few times, and finally he spit into his hands and, making a supreme effort, he lifted the calf and hoisted it onto the wagon. He climbed into his wagon with a song in his heart, and started to speculate about the weight of the calf, and the amount of kosher meat he would be able to get out of it, and how much he stood to make. He whipped his horse and rushed back home. He knocked on the window and called out to his wife. Wake up, Devorah, come and help me bring in the calf I have brought. But, ho! As soon as they turned to the calf it stood up, clapped its two front legs, and flew up to the sky. Well, was this a demon or what? The other proof was the story about a child, about five years old, who left his parents' home and got lost in the streets until he reached the bath house at the bottom of a hill. The door to the bath house was open, and so he went inside to check out the place. Yankl was in the bath house, and did not see the boy walk in. When Yankl finished his work, he went outside and locked the door. The child remained inside the bath house, which did not have a mezuzah.* They looked for the child all that day and night, and could not find him. They thought he had drowned in the river, and gave him up as the yearly victim claimed by the river. The next day they found him in the bath house, dead. The demons had tortured him all night until he died, and Yankl the Bath house keeper would never again go inside without first knocking on the wall with his cane and shouting, get out of here, rascals, or I will do you in by pronouncing the Ineffable Name, and only then would he go inside, certain that the demons would not harm him. Yankl threatened the demons with the Ineffable Name, but he had as much idea of what that name was as a rooster could recite the Shema.* Yankl was a very old man who wore his sheepskin winter and summer. He had bushy eyebrows over angry eyes, and despite his advanced age his hair and beard were dark. He sat in the far corner of the synagogue near the furnace, next to Raphael Heltz, who was known as Raphael the Deaf.

Raphael Heltz was a potter all his life. He had his own kiln, and in his old age he stopped working and lived with his son, and would spend morning and evening in the synagogue, sitting next to the furnace with an open Chumash* with Rashi* commentary. He only studied Rashi, and he considered himself a great scholar. His right hand had two fingers missing, which he must have chopped off to escape serving in Czar Nicholas's army. He would brag about the fact that his knowledge was greater than Yankl's, and would mock the latter by saying, Come here, Yankl, see what Rashi is saying. Yankl would look at him with his angry eyes and retort, Here you go again with your damned jokes, a plague on you! And a plague on your father's father! Don't be angry, Yankl, he would reply calmly, if you are not interested in Rashi, please tell me when this year will BHB VYKNHZ occur? I am not sure, Yankl would say, somewhat mollified, I didn't study in my youth. But my Pinyeh (his grandson) is now studying from a Talmud volume that is much bigger than your Chumash.

 

Chapter Three

Education In Our Town

As I pointed out before, all the men in our town could read. Some could study Mishna and Gemara, and some were familiar with the Bible, and there were those who could only read the prayerbook and the Psalms mechanically, not understanding the words. But many could not write, not even Yiddish. They did not learn how to write in their childhood, and among those who could not write were even very learned men. More than 90 percent of the women could not read or write. The women did go to the synagogue on the Sabbath and holidays, and on the High Holy Days the women's section was packed, and their cries rended the heavens. But they could not read. There were some so-called learned women, who could read the prayerbook or the Yiddish translation known as Tzenah Verenah, and a crowd of women would gather around them and repeat every word they said. One such “learned” woman told her friend in Yiddish in a chant: My Haim did not have branches to cover the sukkah,* so he used straw. And so all the women repeated those words after her as if they were a prayer. They said that in past generations one of the sextons would go up during the High Holy Days to the women's section, go into a large barrel as Diogenes in ancient Greece, read from the machzor* while all the women repeated the words after him. In my day some progress in education had been made, and the following procedure was in effect: When a boy or a girl became two years old, and could speak, the parents would start teaching them the mitzvot,* and slowly teach them how to say hamotzi* over bread, and then all the other blessings for food and drink, and then the prayer over washing the hands in the morning.

When a child turned four and had to start Hebrew school (cheder), Idel the Teacher would come over and take out of his briefcase a chart with the Hebrew alphabet, and a pointer which he fashioned from a reed, spread the chart on the table, and tell the child in a soft voice: Come, my son, and I will teach you how to read our holy Torah. The angel will throw you money from heaven and you will be able to buy whatever you like. The child would sit there hesitant and insecure, and Idel would use the pointer to point at the Aleph and say to the child, You see, this is an Aleph. Say, Aleph! Again, Aleph! he would yell. Again, Aleph! he would yell even louder, and keep pointing at all the Alephs in the upper row on the chart. With this, the child's mother, who was hiding at the top of the steps, would throw down a coin on the chart, as the child smiled with great joy. Idel would pinch the child's cheek and say to him, You see, I told you the angel would throw you money! We are done for today. Tomorrow we will resume our lesson. The angel will again throw you money.

What had prompted Idel, a hunchback with a thin billygoat beard, who always sucked air through his teeth and made noises as though he was gulping cold noodles, to become a Hebrew teacher? Unlike the other Hebrew teachers in our town, who were yeshiva boys who studied Talmud in their youth and young manhood, and ate “days,” he never studied in a yeshiva, and all he could do at the synagogue was recite Psalms. Why did the town's folk crown him a Hebrew teacher? The only answer that comes to mind is that in his youth he was an assistant to a Hebrew teacher, and used to carry the little ones on his shoulders every morning from their parents' homes to the school. In the afternoon he would return them to their homes, and when the teacher passed away, he took his place.

Idel taught the beginners until they could “whisper”, at which time they were sent to school. What is the meaning of this whispering? At first the child was taught that the vowel ah and the letter Aleph sounded ah, and the vowel bah and the letter Bet sounded bah. Once he got the hang of it, he was told not to mention the letters and the vowels, but to whisper the sound to himself and then say ah or bah out loud. The transition from that first stage to the second was very difficult for the child.

But after the child weathered this crisis and could read more or less fluently, he would read in a large print prayerbook, and would start studying Chumash,* and again he found himself on a rocky road.

The teachers would translate the Torah to the children in some kind of a strange Yiddish which they had learned from their teachers, going all the way back to the German exile, when our forefathers lived in that land, and spoke in the strange German jargon of that time.

I recall, for example, when I read the first chapters of the book of Genesis, the rabbi translated for me, “And he said, hot gezugt, Elohim, Got, let the ground grow herbs, an kleiden, the earth, der erd, herbs, akleid, grass, gruz.” I was astounded, because “kleid” means dress, and I knew that my mother wore a dress, and my sister too, all women wear dresses, but how can the earth wear a dress, and one made of grass yet?

In the next portion: And she gave birth, hat gevinen, Eve gave birth to Cain, Kinen, and Abel, Hevln. What does it mean, hat gevinen? I knew that when you play with nuts on Passover, one “gevins,” meaning, wins, and the other one loses. I also knew that the adults played cards on Hanukkah, and some won while others lost. I also heard that a book seller had a raffle for a set of Chumash, and someone won. My friend also bought a raffle ticket for three kopeks and won a nice small prayerbook with a red cover and gilded edges. A real beauty! But how did Eve “win” Cain and Abel, how is this possible? At which raffle did she win them and from whom did she get the winning ticket, when there were no other people in the world except for her and Adam? And so it went on and on as I was learning the Torah. The smart children started to put two and two together and figured it all out for themselves. But the simple-minded ones did not understand a thing, because of this strange translation, and did not retain anything from this strange chaos. They continued to study until they were eight or nine, and when they reached this age the selection began. The smart children were graduated from the elementary teacher to the Talmud teacher, whether they were well off or poor and had to work for their meal. Even the poorest Jews would put their children in a Talmud class and pay 12-13 rubles for a “time,” which meant 30 to 40 percent of their income, when money was valuable and food was cheap.

“Who knows,” the poor father would think, “perhaps the Almighty will have mercy and make my son diligent, and he may become a scholar and a rabbi.” To have one's son become a rabbi was the highest wish among Jews at that time. Is it any small thing to be a rabbi? A rabbi's fate is good both in this world and in the world to come. In this world he lives comfortably, like one of the rich, and has job security for the rest of his life. He passes it on to his son, if he has a son worthy of taking his place. And the honor he is accorded! In the synagogue he sits at the east wall next to the holy ark, and he always has the third aliyah. No matter of the community, large or small, is decided without him. And in the next world he is assured a place in the first row with all the righteous of the world.

The slow children who came from poor homes would study until the age of 12 or 13. They would keep going over the portion of the week and the books of the early prophets, and when they left school they became apprentices to craftsmen. But if they came from affluent homes, they continued to study even if they didn't understand a thing. Their fate in the Talmud classes was quite bitter. They had no idea what was going on, even after the teacher did all he could trying to explain it to them. Afraid that the child's father would test his son and find out he had not learned anything, and they will not have students next year, the teacher would pour all his bitterness at these students. He would curse them all, call them all sorts of names, just as “a total got,” and at times even slap them across the face. This is how they learned. As for the girls, those did not start their studies at the age of 4 of 5. They did not miss anything if they started learning at 9 or 10. Even so they could become rebbitzins.* There were no special schools for girls. They would study at home, taught by our friend, Idel, or Shmuel-Aron. The latter was not a hunchback like his competitor, Idel, but he walked with a limp, wearing a large shoe on his bad leg and walking on it sideways rather than forward. In addition he was a stutterer. He never got married, and while Idel asked for 20 kopeks per week, he only asked for 10. They used the above-mentioned methods in teaching the girls, but did not stop after the girl started “whispering.” They taught them till they read well, and would buy them books from that book seller, books like Caesar in the Forest or the Story of the 40 Thieves, and other such books which they read and enjoyed. Those two teachers only knew how to teach reading, since writing was something they themselves did not know.

The children started learning how to write at age 9. They would buy lined paper and a goose feather for the child, and he would bring it to school. The rabbi would sharpen the feathers with a penknife, make a small slit at the tip, and teach the child how to hold the feather. He would fold the paper into four equal parts and draw the letters on it in a pencil. He would then let the child go over with the feather's tip, dipped in ink. He would do it many times until the child learned how to draw the letters. He would then write the alphabet backwards -- c, b, a -- and the child learned how to write the letter backwards. He would then compose a letter from the child to his parents, thanking them for all they had done for their son, and would give it to the students to learn how to write a similar letter.

A specialist in teaching girls how to write was Leibe Friedman. He was a well-to-do Jew, who owned a house in the middle of the marketplace. But he did not want to turn his house into a tavern and deal with drunken farmers, and chose to turn it into a school, teaching the daughters of Israel how to write. Some 20 girls gathered in his house, of different ages, from 10 to 16, and he would teach all of them at the same time, according to the aforementioned method. They would spend about two hours in study, and then others came. He would teach three classes a day, and charge each student 20 kopeks a week. For a while I was one of his students. My rabbi was a Talmud expert, and did not do well teaching writing. So I was sent after school to study how to write at Friedman's house. I was the only boy who sat among his girl students, including girls who were ready to get married. Leibe Friedman was a great expert on writing, and his letter were well rounded. He knew how to write flowery letters, and was always dressed in a new and clean suit. His beard which began to turn gray was well groomed, and he wore a clean square cap on his head. He spoke to the girls softly and kindly, and never yelled at them. He would instead encourage them and lift their spirits. When the girls showed him their handwriting he would always say, “interesting,” and to me he said I was to be a great writer in Israel.

The children studied with the Talmud teacher until they reached their Bar Mitzvah age. At that time they reached a crossroads. The poor talented ones would leave their parents' home and go and study at some small yeshiva, to become proficient in Talmud, until they became independent students. The parents were very happy to get rid of the heavy load of paying for their studies, which was a major burden, and from now on they would depend on the rest of the Jews. The balabatim's sons who did not excel in their studies were happy to be rid of their teachers, who abused them, and started to help their fathers in their business. But it was the talented sons of the balabatim who were not sure what to do. Leave their parents' home and go to study at a small yeshiva and eat “days,” was not to their liking. Nor did their parents wish to see them go away. But it was hard both for the sons and for their fathers to give up the study of the Talmud, which was considered a blessing, and so they reached a compromise. The boys remained at home and the parents hired a gifted yeshiva boy who taught them Talmud at the synagogue, and so they studied half a day and helped their parents at work the other half. But there were those whose fathers did not have a business in the town, but rather worked as an employee of a company in the big city, or managed woods, or taught school in Minsk. They would study two or three hours at the synagogue, and would waste many hours in idle talk with the yeshiva boys. They saw no point in this kind of a life, and would start reading non-religious books by Jewish maskilim [secular writers], who advocated learning the vernacular and general studies which every modern person needs. They would move to the city, rent a room and start studying on their own. They did not aim too high, seeking to enroll in the university, since they felt it was beyond their reach, given their station in life and their economic condition. But they studied in order to become educated, know life and the world, and use their education to make a living. They studied mainly languages, mathematics and bookkeeping, since at the time there was a great demand for bookkeepers who spoke several languages. They would subscribe to papers such as Hamelitz, Hamagid, and Hatzfira [Hebrew periodicals]. When they learned that groups of Hoveve Zion [Zionists] were formed in the large cities of Russia, after the pogroms of the turn of the century, they organized a similar group in our town. Besides the newly cultured, the group was joined by the sons of the balabatim, and the big surprise was that the rabbi's daughters also joined. In those day there was complete separation between men and women, who were kept apart from early childhood, and could not talk to each other until after they got married. When a young man and a young woman took a walk together, it was considered an immoral act, a sin which caused babies to die. I recall in my childhood when a five or six year old boy and girl forgot their gender and sat down on the ground to play marbles, a boy their age wearing tzitzes* would come over, put a finger in his mouth and say: Beh, beh! [shame on you], batel b'shisl [no good], chazershe fissel [pig's leg]. The reprimanded children would get up and run away as far as they could. The rabbi's daughters must have been influenced by their brother who had gone to study at the Volozhin yeshiva, and like the great poet Bialik who attended the same school, became a Zionist.

The treasurer of the Hoveve Zion group who would collect the dues from the members every month, was the living spirit of the organization. He was a school teacher named Naftali Kaddish. His last name was an unusual name in those days, and so was the person who bore that name. He was short and had a high and pale forehead. His face was narrow and his chin sharp, with a dark goatee covering it. His eyes were small but lively and humble. His long gown was made of simple fabric, and was always clean. His boots, into which he tucked his trousers, were always polished, notwithstanding the fact that the streets in our town were often covered with mud. His color was always white and clean. He lived in a tiny house near the old synagogue. The house was divided in half by a small corridor, half for living quarters and half for teaching purposes. The house had a fence on the street side and a small gate. Like all the Jews in the town, he would get up early and go to the synagogue, and before and after the prayer he did not study Talmud but rather Mishna and Maimonides's Yad Hazaka, which no one else in the town ever opened. He did not sit anywhere near the east wall, but rather at a table at the end of the room, where the common folk sat. Besides studying Mishna and Maimonides, he would spend much time calculating how much it would cost for a Jew to settle in the Land of Israel, how much one would have to save each month to pay the treasury of Hoveve Zion to be able eventually to settle in the Land of Israel and become a “colonist,” which was his fondest goal, and whenever he spoke about it his eyes would shine, like a young man talking about his sweetheart. This fervent Zionist lived across the street from Modl, or Mordecai, who was the town's butcher, a financially aggressive person, who besides his income from slaughter, also traded in hides, and his wife also earned a living. He considered himself superior to everyone. He was an elderly Jew with red face and a white beard and burning eyes radiating self confidence, and he was Naftali Kaddish's personal rival.

I recall on winter nights when I went home after school, I would stop at the synagogue. It was bitter cold outside, and the synagogue was well heated by a large furnace. Yeshiva boys would sit there poring over the Talmud to the light of large kerosene lamps which lit the tables. Naftali Kaddish would sit there and study the large tome of the Yad Hazaka. Suddenly Modl entered, washed his hands and wiped them with the large towel near the basin, and sat down next to the hot furnace. He took out a small pad of cigarette paper, filled it with tobacco, rolled it and licked the edge of the paper and sealed it, and then lit the cigarette with a match, blowing smoke, and then turned to Naftali. Naftali Kaddish! When will you bring the messiah? All you no good Hoveve Zion! Heretics! May the earth swallow you as it swallowed Korach*! Lawless Jews! Men and virgins! He would go on to insult and abuse, and kept laughing at all the Hoveve Zion members. Naftali Kaddish was insulted, but did not respond. He listened but did not say a word. When he did speak, he would also speak softly. Modl would finally calm down because of Naftali's mild manner, and would conclude his tirade with the verse: “If the Lord does not build the house, its builders toil in vain.” And he would add: The Holy One made Israel swear not to force the end.”

Naftali Kaddish did fulfill his dream and finally immigrated with his family to the Land of Israel. But what happened to them there no one knows.

 

Chapter Four

The Sabbath in Our Town

The Jewish women of those days were smart and diligent, and did not leave thing to the last minute. They would start preparing on Thursday for the Sabbath. They would go to the slaughterhouse to buy meat for the Sabbath. The slaughterhouse was outside town, on the bank of the river some fifty yards from the houses of the mill street. In the wide open slaughterhouse were butcher shops, each butcher and his own shop. The head of the butchers was Hana, about fifty years old, a husky man, very stubborn and impervious to other people's ideas. If anyone said or did anything he did not like, his anger would be kindled, his face turn red, and he would assail his opponent with curses. But as fast as he got angry, he would also get emotional and shed copious tears. During the dirges of Tisha B'Av at the old synagogue, or on Yom Kippur, especially during Netaneh Tokef,* when he reached the words “who shall live and who shall die,” he would wail like a bull and shed streams of tears. He was one of the main criers in the synagogue.

His clients were mostly the affluent women, whom he treated well, and would even offer an occasional flattery or compliment. He had the best meat in the slaughterhouse. He would always buy a healthy fat bull for slaughter, unlike the other butchers, who bought whatever they could find, and would not even pass over a lean old cow.

The poor women could not afford to pay the high price Hana demanded for his meat, and would turn to other butchers. They could buy his leftovers cheap, such parts as lungs, liver, stomach, intestines and chin, but they were afraid of his sharp tongue. They would stay away from his shop. Once the meat was bought, it was brought home, washed properly and salted, and was put on the salting board as ordered by the religious law. Now it was time to buy flour for baking hallah. The housewife would buy the flour from the same baker from whom she bought bread every day. In my early childhood the quality of the flour was poor. It was derived from the wheat that grew in our vicinity, which was inferior, and the flour mills were primitive, therefore the flour was coarse and dark. The hallah baked from that flour was not much to look at, nor did it taste too good, although it tasted better than our daily bread which was coarse rye bread. This bread was hard to eat and even harder to digest, and its only virtue was that it was cheap. When I grew up and started studying Talmud, the bread improved, since they made it of a mixture of fine ground rye and coarser rye ground without the chaff, and they called it “plovinik,” or “half bread,” which is more like the bread we eat today. They also baked a bread from fine flour only, called “sitnitza,” which was fed to the sick. The healthy could not indulge in such luxuries, and if anyone came to buy such bread the first question was, who is sick? The hallah was eventually made of fine flour brought from Minsk, and ground in better equipped mills. It was more tasty than the hallah we eat now, since the women added eggs, oil and sugar, and the hallah then became pretty and tasty.

To bake hallah one needs yeast, but where do you find yeast? The only one who sold yeast was Reuven-Moshe Nahes. The reader may ask, how is this possible? Jews need yeast every day, or at least once a week. How is it possible that only one Jew sells it, and has no competitors? Are there no more Jews in the town who need to make a living? But it was a fact.

This is how it happened: The community had given the rabbi the exclusive right to sell yeast, as a source of livelihood. Since the rabbi's wife was a refined woman who did not want to be involved in selling yeast, and the rabbi certainly could not be bothered with such things, the rebbitzin transferred the privilege to Nahes, who was also a baker and a flour merchant. He sold the yeast and gave the rebbitzin a commission.

The rabbi's name was Elazar Shtarshon, of the renowned Shtarshon family of Vilno. I said it was beneath the rabbi's dignity to sell yeast, but the truth is, he was not capable of selling anything. He was a man of the spirit, not of action. He had absolutely no interest in worldly things. He was one of those rabbis of old who hardly ever touched money. One could tell by looking at him he was not an ordinary human being. His face was white as snow. He had a high forehead, a long dark beard, sad eyes which were always deep in thought, and he never held an idle conversation with anyone. When he was asked anything about public affairs, he would answer with a quick “yes” or “no.” The Jews of the town did not like him because of his aloofness, but in their hearts they respected him, since they considered him a godly man. His wife, on the other hand, was friendly, if that is the right word, and liked to be involved with people. She was a worldly woman who knew her etiquette. She was in effect the leader of the community in her husband's stead. The lay leaders would come to her for consultation on financial matters, and her word was the law. I knew this rabbi in my childhood when I started going to the synagogue in Ivenets, and he was still there when I grew up. Everyone thought he would stay there till his dying day, but much to everyone's surprise a large delegation came and took him to their town, Baltrimantz, and the rabbi's post in Ivenets remained vacant for a long time. It was not because there were no candidates. There were more than enough candidates. A week did not go by without some young or old rabbi showing up from a near or far town, seeking the rabbinical throne of our town. The candidate would remain for a few days, stay at a hotel, and give a few sermons at the synagogue, not for pay but only to show how good he was. He would leave without an offer from us, but he was told that he would be considered, so as not to disappoint him too much. We even had some famous rabbis come and try to secure the position for their sons or sons-in-law, but Ivenets was very choosy when it came to selecting a rabbi. It boasted that its rabbis would became well known throughout the land. Among the well known rabbis who came to us to try to secure the post for others was Rabbi Meir-Noah, who in his youth served in Ivenets, and has changed many pulpits, until he finally became a rabbi in Moscow. He was a scion of the family of the head of the Volozhin Yeshiva, one of the best known in the Jewish world and in Jewish history. The founder of the yeshiva was Rabbi Haim of Volozhin, one of the main students of the Gaon of Vilno.

Rabbi Meri-Noah was the opposite of Rabbi Eliezer Shtrashon who left Ivenets (of the famous Shtrashon family of Vilno). While Rabbi Eliezer was all soul, Rabbi Meir-Noah was all body. While the former lived in the lost world of Babylonia, the latter lived in Czarist Russia, acted according to the Zeitgeist, and knew how to get along with both Jews and Russians. Despite his age he was still strong and sturdy, tall, wide shouldered, thick-necked, with a red face surrounded by a long white beard, and his eyes were lively and clever. He wore an expensive fur, and instead of the rabbinical hat he wore a Persian-lamb hat. His Yiddish contained more Russian expressions than Yiddish, and was spoken with genuine Russian pronunciation, singing the “r” the Russian way. He used this cocktail Yiddish in his sermons as well, and many did not understand what he said, but they considered him exceedingly wise.

It appears that he had gotten used to preaching before Jews who had mainly served in Czar Nicholas's army, Jews who served for 25 years. Those men had been taken from their parents when they were 7 or 8, and spent so much time away from the Jewish community that they had forgotten their mother's tongue, substituting it with Russian. Rabbi Meir-Noah was a progressive rabbi, who had known Russian before, learning it in Moscow, and spoke like an educated Muscovite.

But with all the respect that our town accorded him, he was not able to persuade us to take him back as our rabbi, since even back then the community was divided into many different groups, each propagandizing for its own candidate. Nearly all the candidates did not come alone. They had an advocate who came before them or with them to hold talks with the lay leaders. The advocate was a cunning fellow, who sniffed out the dominant leaders who had influence in the town. He would talk to one of them, promise a certain sum of money, if things went his way, and his man became the rabbi, in which case the money, Heaven forbid, would not be paid as a bribe, but as a gift and as recognition for the trouble incurred. Each of the advocates did the same thing, and as a result stormy arguments broke out in the town, with some praising one rabbi and decrying another, and vice versa. Some of the debates got so heated that people were ready to pull one another's beards and earlocks, while the neutral ones had to separate them and did not let them approach each other.

On Sabbaths, when the women came to services, one could even hear the arguing and fighting in the women's section. This chaos continued for many months, while Ivenets remained without a spiritual leader, with no one to lead the daily Talmud lesson, and no one to decide matters of religious law.

Sometimes the butchers would slaughter a bull on Thursday, and would find a blemish, but would not dare to decide on their own whether it was kosher, and so the butcher in question would lose a great deal of money. The Jews of town would remain without meat for the Sabbath, and would have to make do with a dairy meal. This prompted the warring factions to come to a decision not to accept any of the candidates that had come before them, but rather pick a rabbi from one of the surrounding towns, who did not bother to interview. Since they heard that the rabbi of Tinkwitz was wise, worldly, and friendly, they decided to compose a petition signed by all the Jews of the town and have a delegation take it to Tinkwitz, and offer the position to the rabbi of Tinkwitz. And so it was. The delegation set out on its way in a carriage and a pair, and arrived safely in Tinkwitz. The local rabbi did not even pretend to refuse and did not make any counter-offer, even though his congregation wanted to retain him and even offered him more money. The rabbi willingly accepted the offer and promised to come to Ivenets as soon as he settled matters in his own town. One fine morning one of the members of the delegation received a telegram -- I am coming. The town's folk went out in wagons to Kordony* -- and I among them -- to welcome the rabbi. I was already a yeshiva boy, and I tutored boys who started studying Talmud. Those who came to greet the rabbi stayed at Motke Kordnoier's hotel, and their spirits were high. Jokes and anecdotes were exchanged by all as the rabbi appeared, riding Moishe-Tevye's wagon. He was greeted with an applause and the shofar* was blown. The rabbi gave a sermon to the assemblage, and then everyone mounted the wagons and a long caravan made its way with great commotion to the town. The windows of the town's houses were lit with burning candles in honor of the occasion. The rabbi was brought home, to the house built especially as a home for the rabbi, and the crowd dispersed. This is how Rabbi Aryeh Dvoretzky was welcomed to Ivenets.

In digressing from the topic I had chosen, namely, to write about Ivenets “as I saw it and knew it in my childhood,” I have turned to another time, namely, “Ivenets of my early manhood.” But this is the way of man in this world. Man is constantly transformed from one station of life to another. From infancy to childhood, from childhood to adolescence, from adolescence to young manhood, from young manhood to middle age, from middle age to old age. But I will not renege on my subject. I will continue to write about Ivenets “as I knew it in my childhood,” and will return to the topic I have digressed from, which is the Sabbath in the town. One can write much more about our town, and if it does not have historical value, it is of interest to the descendants of our town, wherever they are, to see how life in our town evolved from generation to generation, and were it not for the fact that the Archevil One put an end to that life, who knows where this life would have reached. In any event, many of the sons of Ivenets in that generation would listen to the aspersion which Rabbi Aryeh would cast against Zionism and its leaders, many of whom were among us and helped with their own hands rebuild the Land of Israel, and the others were helping from afar. And it is possible that if Rabbi Aryeh and his descendants, if they were still alive today, would have come to live today in the State of Israel, as did many members of the Agudah who used to damn Zionism, and are now walking in droves in the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, wearing their fur hats. Better yet, they would like to take control of the state and its inhabitants, and dictate to them how to live and how to behave.

And so, after the balabusteh [housewife, woman of the house, or home-maker] brought the yeast home, she was done with her running errands for the Sabbath. She still needed candles for a blessing, and also fish, which is a must for the Sabbath, no less important than meat. But to buy candles she did not have to go herself. She could send her son or daughter to Rashi-Hinde, wife of Meir Novik, the carriage-driver, who hand-made thin candles for the Sabbath. Only Rashi-Hinde knew how to make candles, and she had no competition. As for fish, this was the specialty of Leibe-Mashkes. Not because this man was a fisherman, Heaven forbid! There were no Jewish fishermen in those days, since it was the work of Gentiles. Rather he would go to Starinik or to Klitzistch to buy fish, and would bring his basket to the housewives' doorsteps, weigh a fish, get pay and move on. If he should have come back from the village without fish, then going to him was no use.

In the middle of winter, in January, when the cold was extreme and frost would freeze people's ears and noses, a Jew from a faraway town might show up in his large winter carriage which was full of fish and sell them in the marketplace. The large fish were consumed by the affluent and the small ones by the poor, for the small ones were sold very cheap, at the price of bread. But if there were no fish for the Sabbath, the housewife would have had to find a fish substitute, using her ingenuity.

On Friday she would get up earlier than the rest of the week. Was it any wonder? She had to do more chores than any other day. In spring and summer it was not too hard, since the days were long. She knew she would get to finish everything, and so she worked slowly and quietly. But in fall and winter, when Fridays were short, she would not only rise early but would also work frantically, fuming and boiling, chiding her husband and children, and complaining about being disturbed trying to do her work, causing her Heaven forbid to desecrate the Sabbath. It became impossible to stay near her. This was her schedule: She would get up, get dressed, and wash her hands, then light the large stove, using firewood prepared the day before, and start baking the hallahs for the Sabbath, the rolls for breakfast, and the lentils. She made sure the fire blazed, lowered the noodle board from the wall, placed it on the large table, spread some flour on it, and made the hallahs and the rolls. In winter when it was too cold in the house and the wood did not burn properly or the chimney was clogged, she would cover her baked goods with a large pillow, to let them rise. After the wood was burned and the stove was properly hot, she would push the coals aside to the edge of the stove and put the hallah and the rolls as well as the lentils deep inside the stove, using a long wooden tool, close the stove with the wooden door to keep the heat inside, and thus her first round of work was completed.

But the regular daily chores did not take care of themselves either. One had to sweep the rooms and make the beds, and if one had a cow or a goat one had to feed it. Still, you do not notice how the time flies, and soon your husband comes back from the morning prayers, and the children have to go to school. She checks the lentils and the rolls, and if they are ready she pulls them out of the stove and slices them, to let them cool off and be ready for breakfast.

When the husband returns, they sit down to eat a breakfast consisting of rolls and lentils. If it is winter, there is also a piece of calf meat, which is rather cheap. The first solicitors begin to show up, those who go from door to door on the eve of the Sabbath. The sextons of the synagogues, each with a tin can for charity, and a wooden one for candles. The charity they take for themselves, as compensation for their work at the synagogue, and the candles they use to light the synagogue during Sabbath services. The charity does not quite support them, but the sexton has other occupations, such as teaching little children, or binding books. They are followed by the gabbais of the various, above-described societies. I am not referring to the official gabbais, who were respectable citizens who would not go begging. I mean gabbais' emissaries, poor folk who received a small pay for collecting money. They would come each with his tools -- paper and pencil. On the right side of the page they would write the members' names and then put a zero next to each name which made the weekly payment. At the end of the year the official gabbai would check the list, counting the circles. If they were less than 52, the delinquent person had to pay the debt.

But time, as we know, does not stand still. Rather time flies. The old grandfather clock hanging on the wall, with the copper chains holding heavy weights, keeps moving, and its hands now mark twelve. It is time to go to the ritual bath. The husband takes the white linens which his wife had prepared for him to wear after the bath in honor of the Sabbath. I am not referring to linens of today, which were hard to find in those days anywhere in Russia. I am talking about the coarse gray cloth which the farmers' wives wove from flax in their primitive gins.

So the man of the house took his white linens and soap, and if it was summer he also took twigs with green leaves still on them, which he bought from a farmer in the market and would go to the bath house.

The bath house in Ivenets at that time was newly built. What ever happened to the old one? Could it be that there was no old one? Could a Jewish community exist without a bath house? You may argue that there was an old one that began to deteriorate and was about to collapse, and so they tore it down and built a new one. But that was not possible, since they used to fix the old one every once in awhile and keep it going. Was Ivenets so rich that it could afford to give up on the old one and build a new one? I remember it like in a dream. It was the night of Yom Kippur after midnight. The Jews of Ivenets were in deep sleep after they had filled their bellies with two unusual meals, a meal of roosters and a meal of hens, from the kapparot* they had swung over their heads in the morning, and also kreplach* and tzimes,* and other Yom Kippur eve delicacies one is commanded to eat. They were suddenly awakened by the bells of the Russian Orthodox church. A deathly fear fell upon them, for they knew that there was a fire in one of the houses. A moment later a shout was heard outside, fire, fire! To us fire and the angel of death were synonymous, since every Jew was afraid his own little home was going to burn down, his most important possession, and he would be left homeless. There were no insurance companies in those days, and the houses were only insured by the county to the tune of 30 rubles, which is 1/30 of what it would cost to build a new house. And to make it worse, it was Yom Kippur, the beginning of fall, and how is one to support one's wife and children without a roof over their heads? But soon it was discovered that the fire occurred in the bath house, which alone was burning. Everyone heaved a sigh of relief, and fear was dispelled, since the bath house stood in a deep valley, near the river, far from the Jewish homes, and the Christians who lived near it were sure to put it out. And so they returned to their homes and resumed their sleep, to be able to get up early and face the day of judgment with a clear mind and a quiet heart, to be able to ask the Creator for the right things for the new year.

But after Yom Kippur a serious question arose, what to do in order to build a new bath house. A bath house is one of the most essential public needs, without which no Jewish community can exist. Where is one to find the financial means to build such a house? So they met and discussed the matter for a long time but found no solution. They could not find such large sums of money which were needed to build a bath house. But after a while the Holy One saw their affliction, how they cried and moaned for they did not have a bath house to bathe their flesh on the eve of the Sabbath, and without a bath the Sabbath loses its magic, and sent them a redeemer, a farm-dwelling [yishuvnik] Jew named Ora Brikovshtziner, or Aaron of the village of Brikovshtzina. He was not an ordinary yishuvnik. Most of them are ignorant boors, and the town's folks looked down on them.

Ora was no boor, but neither was he a great scholar. He could read a chapter of Mishna and understand it superficially, but he was a good businessman. He leased a flour mill and some land from one of the landowners, and built a brewery in the village, which made him rich. Since he was a yishuvnik who belonged to Ivenets (he owned the house where the town's rabbi lived), he donated lumber from his woods to build the bath house, gave some cash, and paid the builders. How did this Ora, who was a stutterer among other things, and somewhat resembled Sholem Aleichem's comic character Tupele Tuturitu, get rich? He couldn't even pronounce his own name properly, and instead of Ora would say Oda. This is a whole story by itself. He got rich by cheating Czar Alexander the Third, and his government, which imposed a tax on liquor, and made a deal with the Russian tax collector, altering the accounting of the volume of liquor he distilled, and bribing the official handsomely. He fixed his device measuring the liquor so it only showed half of the volume, and the other half he sold without paying tax. He did this day after day for several years, until he became quite wealthy and bought two estates.

Ora had one ambition -- to buy pedigree for his money. He married his son off to a daughter of one of the most illustrious families of that time -- the daughter of the great Rabbi Israel Salanter. After Ora became related to one of the greatest rabbinic families, and they found out how he made his money, they warned him to stop his practice, since he could get into great trouble. One day he was caught. He was brought in chains to prison. His distilleries were closed down, and his two estates were confiscated by the state treasury. But it appears that members of his family had some cash. They used this cash to hire the greatest lawyer in Russia, Kopernikov the Jew, and he defended him in court and was able to obtain a “light” sentence. Ora was sent to Siberia for a few years. His family went along with him. Even in remote Siberia he made money, and when he came back he did not return to the village but settled in Ivenets in his own private home, and even enjoyed the bath house he had built for the town. It was a spacious bath house, unlike anything in the neighboring towns. It was no smaller than the bath houses in Minsk. One first entered a large windowless foyer, where the door was always open and the light came in from the outside. In the foyer there was a well, and a pump was used to bring up water, operated by the bath house keeper's assistant. In the foyer the assistant would sell twigs. From the foyer one entered the dressing room, where one would undress, and place his clothes in a bundle on one of the shelves. One would then take along the twigs and go into the steam room, which was the main room. The furnace was on all the time, from midnight on Friday. The stones were blazing, and when one poured water on them they let off a great deal of steam, which spread throughout the room and filled it with heat. Next to the furnace, some three yards up, there were beams with iron hooks, on which one could hang one's linens, to kill any lice that might have clung to them in the extreme heat, since lice were quite common in the town, and many of the residents suffered from them. Some of the homes were small and blessed with many children, and the dirt was a constant source for lice. Along the wall there were long wooden benches for sitting down. In the middle there was a wide long bench where two rows of people could sit with their backs to one another. On the left side of the entrance to the steam room were three wooden steps one could sit on, with the highest being the hottest. There were also two large tubs with water in the room, one hot and one cold. There were several wooden cups, each holding about half a gallon, which were used for ladling water from the tubs. One mixed the hot and the cold water, and used it to bathe. After a casual ablution, one would go up with a bunch of twigs to the level one could tolerate, and whip oneself with the twigs from top to bottom. One would then go to the next room to take a rest from all this hard labor. There were some who did not even approve of the hottest level, and kept crying out, more steam, more steam! After the rest they would go back to the steam room, to continue their ablutions.

In the corner of the room next to the furnace sits Shaul with a lit candle. He takes his wind glasses out of his bag, one by one, heats them a bit with the candle, and attaches them to the back of a bare-backed client. Moments later he begins to remove them one by one, and in the place of the red mark he makes a slight incision with a sharp razor, and a thin stream of blood bursts forth. Once he is finished, he turns to the next client and does the same. And so Shaul is quite busy, and once he and the rest are done, they all go home cleansed and happy.

But the bathing experience was not always a happy one. Sometimes bathers got sick because the healthy and the sick used the same benches without any disinfection, and some got sick in the winter from abruptly changing from very hot to very cold air.

Once the husband came back from the bath house his wife would greet him. She is now calm and satisfied, for while he was at the bath she had a chance to finish her chores, change her dress for the Sabbath, and offer him a light meal, a bit of tzimes, enough to tide him over until dinner. After he and the children return from the house of prayer, the main meal takes place. This meal must be eaten with gusto, since it is a religious commandment.

After cutting the nails with a special small knife, wrapping the cuttings in a piece of paper and squeezing them into a crack in the wall, and after a cursory look at the laws of the Sabbath, Reuven-Shimon appears in the street. Reuven-Shimon is not the sexton of either the old or the new synagogue, but rather the general sexton of the town. He has many and sundry chores. When a wedding takes place, he limps around the houses with a list in his hand and invites the relatives and friends of the bride's and groom's families to the wedding. When he comes into the house he stands on his right foot, while the left one is somewhat raised, and after a greeting he says in a ceremonious voice and a serious expression, Haim son of Rabbi Yankl wishes to invite you to his son's wedding which will take place God willing tomorrow. He plays a similar role when someone's wife gives birth to a male child. He goes and invites the relatives of the couple to take part in the circumcision of the newly-born. If a dispute breaks out between two Jews on some monetary issue, and one goes to the rabbi and complains about the other, the rabbi sends Reuven-Shimon to summon the other party to a Din Torah [rabbinical arbitration]. But these are only occasional and temporary chores, which today are taken care of by the post office or the newspaper. (We did not have a post office in our town at that time, and the papers came to the local government house where a Jewish boy who could read Russian took them and distributed them to people's homes). Reuven-Shimon's main occupation was to summon the Jews to the prayers on Sabbath eve and the eve of holidays, right before sunset, and also let them know the time of candle lighting for Sabbath and holidays. During the days of Slichot* before Rosh Hashana he would get up a few hours before dawn and walk the streets of the town in the dark, and use a large wooden gavel to bang on the shutters and wake up the Jews to get up for Slichot prayers. He fulfilled his task faithfully and with devotion, regardless of the weather, rain or shine, snow storm or bitter cold. He would stand in the middle of the street on his right foot, while the left, the crippled one, was raised, lift up his head and pull forward his belly, and would call out loud, “Jews, to the synagogue,” as he drew out every syllable.He did not only call once, although his voice was strong and could be heard at a distance. Every four or five houses he would stop and repeat his call, like a rooster calling intermittently before dawn.

When Reuven-Shimon calls, the Sabbath is about to begin and one has to hurry up. Immediately the father and the children would rush to the synagogue, and the mother would go to the table where the candles were set, say a blessing over the candles in Hebrew, and switch to Yiddish to say a prayer she knew by heart from the book of Sarah Bat Tovim, beginning with “dear God.” Briefly, it stated, Dear God be merciful, and as these candles light this room, let my children's eyes be lit in Your holy Torah.

In the synagogue the holiness of the Sabbath would permeate everything. The wooden floor was swept and cleaned from the food remains and cigarette butts that were dropped during the week. A new long towel hangs near the basin. The stands are in place in a row near the walls, each next to its owner. Candles are lit in the round copper lamps hanging from iron chains from the ceiling. A box full of snuff hangs near the ark, and anyone can take some snuff and fill his nostrils. Novices begin to sneeze loudly. After the mincha prayer, a Baal Tefilah* goes up, wraps himself in a talit,* and starts with Lechu Neranena,* and the congregation joins him in chanting.

Between the end of Kabalat Shabbat* and the beginning of the maariv prayers there is a short pause. Reuven-Shimon may show up at the old synagogue, although he prays at the new one, and the public looks at him questioningly. He approaches one of the men at the north wall and announces in his special voice, “Shmerl son of Isaac has the honor of inviting you to Shalom Ben Zachar [male child].”

The Shalom Ben Zachar is one of the ceremonies for greeting the newly-born. First one goes to Klein Michal (an old Jew, very short, hence the name Klein), the local book dealer, and buys some copies of Shirey Hamaalot,* which, besides the usual text, also contain strange names of the devil, such as Sinai and Sansini and Smogalof, Lillith and Samael. These are hung on the walls of the woman who gave birth, to protect the child from evil spirits, Heaven forbid. Each evening until the eighth day of his birth, the day of the bris,* the little children of the neighborhood who have learned how to say the Shema come and recite it in the room, and receive a piece of wrapped candy in return, and sometimes a honey cookie.

The adults who come to the ceremony have to be better fed than the children. After the Sabbath meal they begin to arrive in the house of the newly-born, and they bless the family with mazel tov and go to see the mother, and give her a blessing from the distance. They make some small talk with the father, and sit at the table. The child's grandmother or a neighbor comes in and gives them some chickpeas and dried peas, which all the Jews in our town, rich and poor alike, could afford.

The second course is a pudding of dried berries, cooked with raisins. During this light meal the guests talk about preachers and cantors, and finally say the Shema, again bless the parents that they may have naches* from the child, and live to see him attain Torah, and marriage, and good deeds, and they go back to their homes.

All of these measures are taken only for the birth of a boy, not a girl. The reason is that a boy brings joy and happiness to his parents, for the hope that in their old age they can rely on him, and he will take care of them as much as he can, and when they die he will say Kaddish* for them, and will save them from Gehenom.* They are concerned that Samael and Lillith and all their stooges may envy the newly-born, which has not yet been circumcised and therefore is not protected, and may wish to harm him. This is not the case with the birth of a daughter. They know that a daughter is only a burden for her parents. While it is true that when she grows up and becomes thirteen or fourteen years old she helps her mother with the household chores, cleans and improves the house and everything looks better than before, what is one to do when a girl grows up and reaches a marriageable age? Then she becomes a real burden for her parents. If the groom is a craftsman, he requires at least 150 rubles dowry, and if he is middle class, he demands 300 rubles and a meal at the table of the in-law for a year or two, until he can start making a living. And this is not counting clothes for the bride, wedding expenses, and incidentals. Where does one find such astronomical sums of money? It is true that in the end one finds a way, one borrows money, and the girl with God's help goes to the Huppah* according to the law of Moses and Israel. It hardly ever happens among Jews that a woman sits in her parents' house until her head turns gray without being married. For it is told that an angel announces forty days before a child is born that this child is destined to marry so and so. Can one mock the words of an angel? But how much work, worries and trouble does it take for the parents to be able to fulfill this announcement? Furthermore, a daughter's help to her parents in their old age is not certain, for she depends on her husband. Kaddish she will not say for them, for women do not say Kaddish. So why would the Evil Ones wish to harm her?

Be it as it may, while the newly-born is being attended to, the men in the synagogue have reached the end of the Amidah,* and the sexton gives the leader of the prayers a glass of wine to do the Kiddush. Five and six year olds surround the singer like bees. He finishes the Kiddush and gives each one of them a drop until the cup is drained. The little ones return to their fathers with glowing faces. After Alenu* and Adon Olam* the congregation starts filing out, as each person touches the mezuzah* with his fingertips and kisses it. Only the sexton remains in the synagogue to keep an eye on the Gentile woman who comes in to snuff out the candles and the lamps.

The spiritual entertainment of the Jews in the town were the cantor and the preacher, but they did not always enjoy them.

When I was a small child Reb Itzi the Cantor was already a very old man. His beard and sidelocks were white as snow. His head was bald and his face looked like parchment. He had given up his butcher trade a long time before, because his hands had started to tremble. But he would still serve as a cantor, although his voice was weak, like the voice of a chick. He had two singers, both of them old, about 70 each, but they had low bass voices. When Itzi called out Hineni Haani memaas [I the man of little merit], they would counter with their deep voices, boom boom boom.

Itzi the Cantor would go early to the synagogue and was the first to arrive there. He would take out the Tractate Hulin* and read. It was proof that he used to be a butcher, since butchers must know this tractate, otherwise they would not be ordained butchers.

The youth also liked cantillation, and when the Cantor of Koidanov* visited Ivenets, it was a major event in the town, and the balabatim would fight for the honor to invite this young singer to the Sabbath meal and hear him sing.

The chant of the visiting cantor was sung for a long time by the yeshiva boys while they studied Talmud, and by the craftsmen's apprentices. Even the girls knew how to sing these melodies. Once two yeshiva boys, sons-in-law of two rich men in the town, joined some other young men and put on a play in the winter of the Selling of Joseph. The youth were enthralled to see this first play they ever saw in their lives, and in every home in the town people sang songs from this play, which remained engraved in the memory of the Jews of Ivenets.

The preacher would also entertain the public. A good preacher would make people forget the present and transport them to a better world. But some preachers were boring, inarticulate, and spoke about heaven and hell. The public voted with its donations. After a good sermon the collection box was full. After a bad one it was empty.

I have written all these recollections with deep nostalgia.

Those were days that will never come back...


Glossary of Selected Terms

Adon Olam Hebrew. “Lord of the World.” A rhymed liturgical hymn - part of the liturgy since the 14th century.

Alenu Hebrew. “Upon us.” Shortened form of Alenu Le-Shabbe'ah, a prayer recited at the conclusion of most synagogue services.

Aliyot Hebrew. “Ascents.” Plural of Aliyah. Name given to the act of being called to read a portion of the Torah in the Synagogue. It is considered an honor to receive an Aliyah.

Amidah Hebrew. “Standing.” A prayer popularly known as Shemonah-Esreh (eighteen) because it contains 18 benedictions. The prayer, which is said standing, is considered the core of each of the prescribed daily services.

Baal Tefilah Hebrew. Literally, “Master of prayer.” Term used to denote a person who leads the prayer service on a special occasion.

Bimah Hebrew. “Elevated Place.” A raised platform in the synagogue from which the Torah is read and other parts of the services are led.

Bris Hebrew. “Circumcision.” Ritual circumcision - celebrated on the eighth day following the birth of a male child.

Cholent Yiddish. Name of a stew which is traditionally prepared before the Sabbath and allowed to cook overnight, thus avoiding the ban on cooking on the Sabbath.

Chometz Hebrew. “Fermented dough.” Chometz is ritually unfit for passover consumption and is forbidden in the house of a Jew during the eight days of Passover. In popular use, the term can designate any contraband.

Chumash Hebrew. “Five.” The five books of the Torah. The Pentateuch.

Gehenom Hebrew. Literally, the name of a valley south of Jerusalem. In biblical times it was the site of a cult which burned children. Today the name is used metaphorically as the name of the place where the wicked go after death.

Gemorah Aramaic. “Completion.” Name given to the discussions and elaborations about the Mishna by early scholars. The Mishna and the Gemorah together constitute the Talmud.

Hamotzi Hebrew. “Who brings forth.” Popular name for the blessing over bread and before meals. (Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.)

Havdalah Hebrew. “Distinction.” Name given to the blessing recited at the conclusion of the Sabbath and festivals to emphasize the distinction between the sacred and the ordinary.

Hulin Hebrew. “Profane.” Name of one of 63 major tractates of the Babylonian Talmud (see Talmud). It is concerned largely with the slaughter of animals and the preparation of meat.

Huppah Hebrew. “Wedding canopy.” The canopy which the bride and groom stand under during the wedding ceremony.

Kabalat Shabbat Hebrew. “Reception of the Sabbath.” A term which describes the inauguration of the Sabbath.

Kaddish Aramaic. “Holy.” A prayer which praises God. It is written in Aramaic, and is found in various forms in different parts of the liturgy. Although the prayer does not mention the dead, it is also commonly used as a prayer for the dead. Thus, children will say Kaddish for their departed parents, husbands wives, etc.

Kaneh Dudke Yiddish. “Kaneh = enema, Dudke = fife” Derisive idiomatic expression. Precise meaning not clear.

Kapparot Hebrew. “Expiations.” A custom in which the sins of a person are transferred to a fowl. The custom is practiced by the orthodox on the day before the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). A chicken or other fowl is swung around the head while a special prayer is said. The fowl is then donated to the poor. The custom appears to have originated in the 9th century. Among modern orthodox, money is substituted for the chicken. Thus, in common use the word Kapparot can refer to a material loss or waste.

Kiddish Hebrew. “Sanctification.” Prayer said over wine to consecrate the Sabbath or other festival.

Kishkes Yiddish. “Intestine.” Usually used to denote a delicacy, the stuffed intestine of a kosher animal.

Koidanov Name of a town located 38 km southwest of Minsk. Alternative spellings include Kaidonovo, Kaydanovo, Keidanov, Koidanovo. In 1935, the Soviets renamed the town Dzerzhinsk. The town was the home of a famous Hasidic dynasty. The Jewish population was 1788 in 1926. According to Harry Rubinstein (1897 - 1974) and Morris Rubinstein (1896 - 1968), Naomi Gurian Rubinstein [Nehama bas Moshe (1876 - 1951)] was born in Koidanov.

Korduny Name of a townlet located about 7 km northeast of Ivenets. The townlet can be found on map NN 35-8, AMS series N501, available at nominal charge from the National Archives.

Korach Hebrew. Name of the central figure in the revolt against Moses during the wanderings following the exodus from Egypt. The name is spelled Korah in most English texts.

Kreplach Yiddish. Plural of Krepl. “Boiled dumplings.” Kreplach are usually stuffed with meat and eaten on Purim, Sukkot and other festivals.

Kugel Yiddish. “Pudding.” The term usually refers to “Lukshen Kugel” or noodle pudding.

Kvass Yiddish. “Kvass.” A thin, sour beer.

Lecha Dodi Hebrew. “Come my friend.” The beginning words of a hymn which welcomes the Sabbath. It is part of the Friday night liturgy.

Lechu Neranena Hebrew. “Come let us exalt.” First two words of psalm 95, recited on the eve of the Sabbath.

Maariv Hebrew. “Evening prayer service.” One of 3 obligatory daily services. (see also mincha and shachris)

Machzor Hebrew. “Cycle.” Term used to designate the prayer book for festivals. The daily prayer book is called a siddur.

Matzoh Hebrew. “Unleavened bread.” Specially prepared unleavened bread eaten and used for ritualistic purposes on Passover. The antithesis of chometz (see above).

Mezuzah Hebrew. Originally “Doorpost.” Now refers to a case containing parchment which is affixed to all doorposts in Jewish homes. The parchment contains quotations from Deuteronomy. The cases are often ornamental.

Mincha Hebrew. “Afternoon prayer service.” One of 3 obligatory daily services. (see also Maariv and shachris)

Minyanim Hebrew. Plural of Minyan “Number.” The term designates the quorum of ten males, ages 13 and over, which is necessary for conducting synagogue services. That is, certain services cannot be conducted without a Minyan.

Mishna Hebrew. “Oral law.” According to Jewish tradition, when Moses received the Torah (or Written Law) on Mount Sinai, he also received the Oral Law. The Oral Law, which interprets and expands on the Written Law, was passed down through the generations until in the year 200 C.E., Judah ha-Nasi redacted and edited the Oral Law as the Mishna. The Mishna and Gemorah (see earlier) constitute the Talmud (see later).

Mitzvah Hebrew. “Commandment.” A religious duty. In common usage, the term also refers to a good deed or meritorious act.

Mitzvot Hebrew. “Commandments.” Plural of mitzvah (see above). Orthodox Jews follow 613 biblical commandments or Mitzvot, of which 248 are positive commandments and 365 are prohibitions.

Musaf Hebrew. “Additional service.” Part of the liturgy for the Sabbath and festivals. It is usually conducted following the reading of the Torah.

Naches Yiddish. “Pleasure, Satisfaction.” A parent has Naches from a successful child.

Netanah Tokof Hebrew. “Let us tell.” First two words of a prayer recited in the Musaf service (see above) on the New Year. The prayer, which dates to the eleventh century, describes the heavenly procedure on the day of judgement. Rabbi Amnon of Mayence is said to have composed and recited the poem as he was being martyred.

Rashi Acronym for Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac (Rabbi Shlomo Ben Isaac), (1040-1105), leading commentator on the Torah and Talmud. In modern times virtually all students and scholars study Torah and Talmud together with Rashi's commentaries.

Rebbitzin Yiddish. “Rabbi's wife.”

Shachris Hebrew. “Morning prayer service.” One of 3 obligatory daily services. (see also Maariv and mincha)

Shavuot Hebrew. “Weeks.” The festival of Pentecost, celebrated on the 6th and 7th days of Sivan.

Shire Hamaalot Hebrew. “Song of ascent.” Name given to Psalms 120-134.

Shema Hebrew. “Hear.” First word of the prayer declaring God's unity. (Hear, O Israel, the lord is our God, the lord is one.”  It is said at least twice daily, in the morning and in the evening.

Shofar Hebrew. “An animals horn prepared for use as a musical instrument.” The Shofar is blown in the synagogue as part of various rituals.

Simchat Torah Hebrew. “Rejoicing with the Torah.” Festival on the day following Sukkot honoring the reading of the final chapter of Deuteronomy and the conclusion of the year-long reading of the Pentateuch. The festival traditionally involves much singing and dancing.

Slichot Hebrew. “Penitential prayers.” Special prayers recited in the period immediately before the new year. The prayers are often recited at midnight.

Sukkah Hebrew. “Booths.” A temporary dwelling with a thatched roof built to commemorate the wanderings of the Jews following their exodus from Egypt. Jews eat and sometimes sleep in these huts during the festival of Sukkot.

Talit Hebrew. “Prayer shawl.” Generally, the talit is worn by males during the morning services, but customs for wearing the talit vary from community to community.

Talmud The Mishna and Gemorah (see above). There are two talmuds. Both contain similar but not identical Mishnas. The Gemorahs were written separately in Babylonia and in Jerusalem. They are referred to respectively as the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud. The Babylonian Talmud was completed in about 500 C.E. Work stopped on the Jerusalem Talmud about 100 years earlier.

Tefilin Hebrew. “Phylacteries.” Two black leather boxes and associated leather straps which are bound to the left hand and head during weekday morning services. The boxes contain scriptural passages from Exodus and Deuteronomy, “...for a sign upon thy hand and a frontlet between thine eyes.” Tefillin are often kept in an embroidered, tefillin bag.

Tisha B'Av Hebrew. “9th day of the month of Av.” A fast day and day of mourning in remembrance of the destruction of both temples in Jerusalem. Estimates of the true dates of destruction vary, but are all during the month of Av. The Talmud sets the date of mourning as the ninth day.

Tsimis Yiddish. “Vegetable or fruit stew.” In common use a tsimis (also spelled tzimmes) is a mishmash of different foods. A “Gantze Tsimis” contains everything, including meat. The word is also used colloquially to indicate making a fuss. (Don't make a tsimis.)

Tzitses Yiddish. “Fringes.” Name of the tassels attached to the four corners of a special garment worn by men and boys in fulfillment of a biblical commandment (Numbers 15: 37-41). In modern usage, the name tzitses often refers to the entire garment.

Zaddik Yiddish. “Pious, saintly man.”

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