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[Pages 174-189]

Personalities in the Old Home

(“Warm Images”)

by Ahron-Noakh Nochumowitz

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Various strongly characteristic and unique shtetl [town] types run through my memory. I will sketch several of them with my modest pen, indicating their main traits.

 

Reb Bertsik Zalkind

Reb Bertsik Zalkind was a clever man, a Hasid and a scholar; he knew the Torah well and was a preacher. He received ordination as a rabbi in his early youth, was a substantial merchant and a philanthropist, a sympathetic and a modern Jew. He would be neatly and cleanly dressed. He was a short and very mobile person. There was a dynamic communal strength in him that stimulated him to do all communal work with love and passion.

After the First World War he took on the mission of building a Talmud Torah [school for poor boys]. Knowing that Rakishok was not financially able to build a large building, he traveled around all of the surrounding shtetlekh selling kletser [wooden blocks] – asking every Jew to buy a block and his name would be written on the block in the Talmud Torah building. If someone was not able to buy a block, he could purchase a table, a bench, prayer tables and so on. A plan to guarantee the budgets of the Talmud Torah also occurred to him. He went to the leather manufacturers – the Nurok brothers in Shavl, to Kovno and Ponevesz and persuaded them to provide monthly support for the T.T. [Talmud Torah].

He then opened a yeshiva. Both institutions exist thanks to his energy. He gave up all of his private commercial activity because of his communal work.

Reb Bertsik Zalkind was a jewel in Rakishok.

 

Reb Moshe-Yankl

The fathers in the shtetl did not remember when Reb Moshe-Yankl became the shamas [rabbi's assistant] of the beis-medrash [house of study or synagogue] and the grandfathers believed that because the years are a gift from God, a man's age may not be counted. Therefore, the city did not know how old the shamas was or how old his wife was.

Reb Moshe-Yankl and his wife lived in a small room that was built onto the large beis-medrash. There were a couple of beds, a small closet, a table spread with a tablecloth, a couple of seats. There was also a reading stand, because a minyon [ten men required for prayer] prayed there, if there were many yahrzeitn [plural of yahrzeit – anniversary of a death]. That the wife of the shamas sewed, cooked and was busy with her household did not disturb the worshippers. She, the wife of the shamas, did not fail to answer “amen” and would stand with all of the worshippers during the kdushe [prayer of sanctification].

She knew what prayers must be said. Many times she would help the person reciting the prayers. She also helped her husband in his duties as a shamas: lit the yahrzeit candle, cleaned the beis-medrash and sold hesheynus [five willow branches beaten on the floor on Hoshanna Rabba at the conclusion of the Feast of Tabernacles or Sukkos to symbolize the elimination of sin and as a prayer for rain.], etc.

Reb Moshe-Yankl also was a bel-koyre [Torah reader], blew the shofar [ram's horn], read the megilah [the Book of Esther read on Purim] and also led the morning service on the Days of Awe [Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur].

He would not have enough income from this work. God blessed him that he was born to a father who was a kohan [descendent of the high priests]. He had income because he had the right to redeem* all first born sons in the shtetl.

*[Translator's note: The kohan performs the ritual of pidyon haben – redemption of the son – which releases the first born son of his obligation to serve in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The commandment to do so is found in Exodus 13:13 – “And you shall redeem every human firstborn among your sons.” The ritual is still observed although the Temple no longer exists.]

By nature Reb Moshe-Yankl was a modest Jew, a calm person, who did not drive away the children when they would play and run around the lectern and bimah [pulpit] – on the contrary, he said let the children play – yet, when he would need to go to a pidyon haben, he became another person. He dressed up as for a holiday – put on the new gabardine, a new hat – and acted respectful, as he would say: I, Moshe-Yankl, am a kohan [priestly class] and being a kohan is a noble inheritance to me.

He looked majestic on arriving at a pidyon haben and he immediately went over to the first-born son – to the child – taking him in his arms. He went straight to the door with the child, saying: “Thank God, I will have an assistant in my work as a shamas in my old age.”

Those in attendance turned to Reb Moshe-Yankl: “Why are you in a hurry; let us make a blessing in honor of the first born and eat some cake with whiskey, cookies with herring.” After a little haggling, Reb Moshe-Yankl permitted himself to be persuaded; he had a drink and made a blessing, one cup after the other. Meanwhile, one of the guests joined in: “Reb Moshe-Yankl, what can you do with the first born? Who will give him a bath, watch him, you are so busy with your work as a shamas?”

– “No, Jews” – answered Reb Moshe-Yankl – “an honor belongs to the kohan. The child is mine.”

Meanwhile, the child cried.

“So, how much will you give me for the child? – I want 10,000 rubles ransom money.”

Meanwhile, the child was given to his mother so that she could nurse him while they came to terms with the kohan.

They gave Moshe-Yankl a packet for his wife: cookies, herring, cake – and several pennies for him

With this, the spectacle of the pidyon haben ended.

 

Kopl the Shoemaker

Kopl the shoemaker was a toiler. He made a living from shoemaking. However, he was a respectable artisan. He would enter all of the respectable houses and knew about everything that happened in the shtetl. At work he would sit in a yarmulke [skullcap] and draw the shoemaker's thread accompanied by a melody from the Days of Awe.

On Shabbas night, he would recite Psalms in the Beis-Medrash aloud, with ecstasy.

He would always find time to mix in all of the kehile [religious community] matters of the shtetl. Nothing started and ended without Kopl, who thought of himself as a representative of the working masses.

He had great interest in kehile matters. If they wanted to raise the community tax on candles and yeast, he went onto the bimah [elevated platform in a synagogue from which the Torah is read] and banged the table, crying out: “I am stopping the reading of the Torah because it is a great sin to raise the community tax from which the poor people will suffer the most. Let the rich men pay more; then it will not be necessary to raise the community tax.”

The rich proprietors as well as the gentle young people were not happy with Kopl's dictating. But Kopl did not give any consideration to this at all. He would react immediately when someone opposed what he said: “I am a toiler!” This was his slogan. Everyone knew that Kopl was correct because he sincerely and with great stubbornness defended the interests of the poor segment in the shtetl.

 

Leibl's Son, Bertzik

Leibl's son, Bertzik, was one of the oldest and finest Jews in Rakishok. He also belonged to the class of Jews who lived the years given by God. It was evident that [God] had generously given him years [of life].

Leibl's son, Bertzik was an independent person into deep old age and earned his own livelihood. He was a peddler and would drag himself through the villages with a basket of goods on his back or a sack on his shoulders. He no longer went to the distant villages because, first, his feet no longer served him, and secondly, he wanted to daven Maariv [pray at the daily evening service] with a minyon [10 men needed to be present for prayer].

His children wanted to provide his means of support so he could sit in his home. Yet he refused to accept the offer from his children because he said as follows: “As long as I can still earn for myself, I will not depend on anyone, not even my children.”

He became accustomed to the way of life of a peddler. On the road, he would sit down and study a chapter of Mishnius [Mishnah – compilation of the oral laws of the Torah]. The Jews of Rakishok, traveling to the market, knew well that somewhere at the edge of the road, Reb Bertzik, Leibl's son, had to be sitting and studying. They would specially stop and look for him in order to bring him home.

Leibl's son, Bertzik, was mainly known as an “exorcizer” or “charmer.” He exorcized “skin fungi,” a “fear,” a “woman in childbirth” who was having difficulty with the birth, a “rose” [red areas of pigment on the body, often on the face] and an “evil eye” and also “toothaches.” For a “skin fungus” and a “rose”, he would take a blue paper and pour “potato starch” on it and bind it around, saying a prayer of incantation at the same time. For toothaches, he would stick his finger in the mouth on the sick tooth and also say his “incantation.” For other illnesses he would take a kerchief from the patient, “exorcize” it and then ask that [the patient] be bound with the kerchief on the condition that one could not speak at the same time.

It was said that his “exorcisms” helped more than those of other “charmers” and his name was known even among non-Jews. Peasants from the villages would even come to the shtetl to ask where is the Jewish “[quack] doctor” who exorcises.

He was esteemed and respected by Jews and non-Jews.

* * *

It should be understood that the best day in the life of Reb Bertzik, son of Leibl, was Shabbos. He would love Shabbos – from Minkhah to Maariv [the afternoon and evening prayers] – he would sit in a corner of the synagogue and from his lips would flow a chapter of Psalms or a chapter of Mishnius.

It was said in Rakishok that he could recite the entire Mishnius with Rashi commentaries.

 

Aba-Bertzik Kruk

Aba-Bertzik Kruk of Varescine, a village that is 6 k.m. from Rakishok and is on the way to Abel, was known in Lithuania and even in the cities and shtetlekh of Russia. It was said of him that he took as his goal to compete with Petersburg.

A few minyonim [10 men required for prayer] lived in Varescine, and were all agricultural workers. It was actually a Jewish village and their way of life was also pastoral. The Jews would plow there and cut wheat, and they would pray to God for rain, that He water their fields.

The Varesciner Jews would not entrust a strange bel-tefilah [the cantor or man who prays for the congregation at the lectern] to recite the Geshem-tal prayer [prayer for rain]. Only one of their own representatives of the kehile poured out his prayer to God that He should send rain in time.

As well as working as agricultural workers, they also traded with neighboring peasants. They were influential people. Their economic influence was expressed mainly in that they would buy articles from the peasants, not in taking the goods to the market. They sold directly to wholesale dealers who would come directly to them in the village.

Although the Jewish community in the village was so small, they were divided among Hasidim and misnagdim [opponents of Hasidism]. There was also a kheder [religious elementary school for young boys]. Parents sent their older children to study in Rakishok.

There were esteemed men of means in Varescine such as Lipe the Varesciner, the Seitvitch family, Shimshon Shvartsberg and the Kruk family.

Aba-Bertsik Kruk of Varescine was particularly popular.

* * *

Aba-Bertsik Kruk was a follower of the Enlightenment, who knew the Russian, Polish, German languages. Thanks to his acquaintance with languages, he was appointed by the Czarist regime as the staroste [village chief] of the village and was entrusted with having the state stamp of the House of Romanov.

In addition to being the village staroste, he was occupied with the legal profession. He wrote petitions for the peasants and he was permitted in court to defend his clients. All of his court appearances were successful.

Because of this he was esteemed and well known in the area, but he became well liked chiefly because of owning the stamp. This was his importance. With the stamp, he could make Jewish young men older and younger in order to avoid going to serve “Fonya [Russia].”

Rakoshiker and Jews from the neighboring shtetlekh would often go to Varescine to seek help from Bertsik Kruk.

As a result, although only a few dozen Jewish families lived there, “those registered as citizens” of Varescine numbered in the hundreds. Even Jews in Russia were included in the metricals [birth, marriage and death records] of Varescine. The Varescine stamp encompassed Jews from near and far.

In the course of time the governor in Kovno learned of the various machinations with the stamp and sought all means with which to discredit Aba-Bertsik Kruk and searched for an opportunity to invalidate him as the staroste and he entrusted this mission to the baliff.

One day, Aba-Bertsik Kruk received an ukase [proclamation of the Czarist government] from the baliff; he should appear at this office and bring the stamp of the village chief.

Learning of this, Aba-Bertsik Kruk immediately went to consult his rabbi. Then a miracle from God occurred and, on the same day, the baliff died, when he, Aba-Bertsik Kruk, was with the rabbi.

Several days later, Aba-Bertsik Kruk was arrested with the severe accusation that he was responsible for the death of the baliff. He was taken away in a procession of convicts, put in chains in the Kovno jail.

Right after the arrest, Sheina-Ete, his wife, who was a great woman of valor, left for the train and left for Petersburg in order to present herself to high society and attain an audience with the Czar in person.

In Petersburg, she rushed around the street that led to the Czarskoie Selo Palace for several days; finally she waited for the moment when the Czar and his retinue passed by. She then fell near the Czar's carriage. The Czar stopped the carriage and she delivered a “petition” to him.

Several days later, Aba-Bertzik Kruk was freed and was again the staroste in Varescine into his deep old age.

* * *

The day arrived when Aba-Bertzik did not feel well and declared that his days were numbered. He called his wife and all of his children to his bed, saying to them that death was not difficult for him, because a person is only dust at the end.

But it was difficult for him to part with the stamp, which had done so many favors for our brethren the House of Israel. He gave this stamp to his son and told him that he should endeavor to have the regime choose him as the staroste.

It happened after Aba-Bertzik's death that Mendl, Aba-Bertzik's son, was chosen as the staroste of the village of Varescine. However, his mother, Sheina-Ete, who had experience with this work, supervised the stamp and books.

After the First World War, the refugees returned from the evacuation, and since the papers and the metrical books had mostly been destroyed during the war, they needed birth certificates. Then the Varescine stamp was put to much use. Previously, it had competed with Petersburg and in the time of the Lithuanian Republic, it competed with Kovno.

This Varescine stamp was then a renowned object in all of Lithuania and the connection to the name Aba-Bertzik Kruk was not forgotten.

 

Eliakim Meir (Ikum Meir) – the Lamed-Vovnik*

* [Translator's note: a lamed-vovnik is one of the 36 righteous men said to hold up the world.]


Reb Eliakim Meir, or as he was called, “Ikum Meir,” was crowned with the nickname, the lamed-vovnik. He was a quiet one, spoke very rarely even to his own family. He would speak few words to his own wife, not looking at her face. He said speaking brought idle words.

Summer and winter he would wear a winter coat bound with a gartl* on his hips. He was seen running to the mikhvah [ritual bath] very early and then to the synagogue. He said that to serve the Lord one must be swift as a deer. He moved into a corner in the synagogue, close to the door and prayed under his breath. He never prayed in a group. From the synagogue he went with leisurely steps, because “one cannot run from a synagogue.”

*[Translator's note: a gartl is a cloth belt worn by pious men. It symbolically separates the sacred from the profane.]

He spent the entire day occupied with study and prayer, mainly reading the musar-seforim [books of moral instruction]. His wife and children took care of earning a living and he took care of the world to come.

His wife, Lifshe, had a small shop with rolls, cookies and candies. Most of her clients were kheder-yinglekh [young boys attending religious elementary schools]. Every morning he would tell his wife: “remember, do not fool the children” [i.e. do not overcharge them].

Erev Yom-Kippur [on the eve of Yom Kippur], he was the first to go to the shamas [synagogue official who assists the rabbi] to be given a symbolic whipping in atonement of his sins [shlogn malkes] and at the same time to ask that he be whipped more strongly.

Monday and Thursday were fast days for him. On Tisha b'Av he would stick himself with conifer cones in order to bring himself humility so that he could live in the Shekhinah in exile.*

*[Translator's note: the 9th of the month of Av – July or August – a fast day commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem; the Shekhinah is the manifestation of God which has descended to dwell among men.]

 

Zalman Pesakh – the Moshiakh [the Redeemer]

Zalman Pesakh left his children only one inheritance – the nickname MOSHIAKH. How does a mortal man come to such a nickname?

From his earliest youth, Zalman Pesakh knew that his fate was to be a nawenadnik, that is, a peddler: going through the villages with a pack of goods and selling them among the peasants. While still young and, later a young man, Zalman Pesakh would drag himself from village to village on foot, bringing home a measure of rice, a sheep skin, etc. from what he earned as his poor livelihood and looked at saving a little money for buying a horse and wagon as a challenge. He first bought a wagon without wheels.

Meanwhile, it happened that a Jew died and left a daughter and a white horse. The shtetl interpreted this as God given because the horse was just right for Zalman Pesakh's wagon and the daughter was a match for Zalman Pesakh. That which lacked wheels – the shtetl would provide.

And so it was. Zalman Pesakh no longer went through the villages on foot. He was married and had reins in his hands. Although the wheels that the kehile gave him at his wedding did not fit. Still when a wheel is round, by chance, it must turn.

Zalman Pesakh was poor before the wedding and after the wedding he remained a pauper. But he had a great deal of faith; the Reboynu Shel Oylam [God] would not forsake him, particularly now that he was married.

After an entire week wandering through the villages, he would return home before the lighting of the Shabbos candles, bringing a few chickens, potatoes, a fur pelt and a little grain. The white horse barely moved from exertion and the wheels squeaked so that the women hearing the squeaking knew that it was late and they soon would have to bless the candles.

The legends tell that Moshiakh will come on a white horse before the blessing of the candles. When the women heard the squeaking of Zalman Pesakh's small wagon and saw his white horse, the idea snuck into their minds that perhaps he was the Moshiakh and this was the proof: he always came on Friday right before the blessing of the candles.

In such a manner, he was given the nickname: MOSHIAKH.

 

Feytl's son, Itse Avrahamchik – the Lekhu Neraneno*

*[Translator's note: O come let us rejoice… First words of a chapter of Psalms sung on the eve of Shabbos.]

Feytl's son, Itse Avrahamchik, inherited the name from his father and grandfather. This was his only inheritance. In addition to his own name, he had three names and, therefore, he was given another nickname by the shtetl: the Lekhu Neraneno.

This is a nickname that he legitimately and honestly earned.

He loved to pray at the cantor's reading stand and particularly for the welcoming of Shabbos. He had great joy when he said, “Come let us rejoice.” He would for the sake of their blessed memory think of a yarhrzeit [anniversary of a death] of one of his relatives which fell on Friday evening, so that he could pray in front of the cantor's reader's stand.

Feytl's son, Itse Avrahamchik, dealt with orchards, that is, he bought the fruit from the trees when they were not yet ripe. He and his entire family would live in a cabin in the orchard during the summer. During the winter they lived in the shtetl and sold the fruit.

One year he succeeded in leasing the “priest's orchard,” which was well known for having the the best apples and pears. Because he guarded the orchard from thieves, he also welcomed the Shabbos there and sang Lekhu Neraneno with ecstasy and with a sweet melody.

The priest passed by one night and heard his melody. The priest called to him and asked – what kind of prayer is it? Itse Avrahamchik said that this is a special prayer to meet the Shabbos queen.

On that night he received the right to the priest's orchard. Because of Lekhu Neraneno the priest would not rent his orchard to anyone else; Feytl's son, Itse Avrahamchik, then received the nickname – the Lekhu Neraneno.

 

Shmuel-Itse the Tailor

When Shmuel-Itse the tailor reached the age of 90, he prepared to go on his way, because how long can a man receive the gift of years? Each day he anticipated going to the world to come.

In the synagogue he once heard from his rabbi the story of King David and how in his deep old age he constantly sat in his study in order that the Angel of Death would have no power over him. Therefore, Shmuel-Itse wanted to do the same thing and, as he could not study, he would recite Psalms. But his problem was that his eyes were dim and he could not recite Psalms and he did not remember them by heart.

An idea flew through his head of how to drive away the Angel of Death. As he had an arbe confes [undergarment worn by pious Jews with tsitses – fringes – on four corners] knitted of thin wool, the tsitses would drive him away.

Therefore, he was often seen actually holding the tsitses stiff in his hand in order to drive away the Angel of Death.

* * *

It happened that on the eve of Passover, he felt very ill. The Khevre Kadishe [burial society] sat near his bed, watching for Shmuel-Itse's last breath.

Here he asked that his wife, Malka, be called to him. He asked her to bring a half bottle of nayntsiker [90 proof whiskey]. Shmuel-Itse braced himself and had a drink with the members of the Khevre Kadishe. At the same time, he said to Malka that she should change her jacket in order not to reysn krie* on her new jacket. He turned to the Khevre Kadishe with a request that his cane by placed on his grave as a headstone because it not only served as something to lean on, but also for taking measurements when sewing garments for his customers. The cane was actually full of notches and signs; it would be a witness in the world to come that he, Shmuel-Itse, the tailor, never measured too much and did not profit from the remnants of his customer's cloth.

*[Translator's note: The act of tearing one's garment as a sign of mourning. This is done by the closest relatives of the deceased.]

Then he asked everyone to leave, except the shoykhet [ritual slaughterer] whom he asked to carry out the sofa in order that it would be used as his taare bret [board on which the dead are laid for ritual cleansing before burial].

Then he fainted. He began to die and closed his eyes forever.

 

Yoshe the Bricklayer

Yoshe the bricklayer was famous in Rakishok and in the neighboring area as a great expert in building ovens.* His ovens would not “smoke” and they joked that even wet wood would burn in his ovens.

*[Translator's note: Ovens were built for heating as well as baking.]

He would construct the ovens himself, without an assistant. It was said that he specifically did not hire any workers so that no one would learn the “secret” of how he built the ovens. Only his wife, Mere, would help him with his work. She would mix the lime, carry bricks and help him. It was said in the shtetl that Mere could make as good an oven as Yoshe.

They were both industrious people as well as thrifty, amassing one penny to the next. Everyone in Rakishok knew that Yoshe would convert the saved money for a sacred purpose, but it was not known for what dvar mitzvah [fulfillment of a religious obligation].

One day, large and small in the shtetl saw how Yoshe was in deep conversation with the scribe. Then it was assumed that he would give a Sefer Torah* to the synagogue.

*[Translator's note: A Sefer Torah is a parchment scroll on which the Torah is handwritten by a scribe. It is considered a great mitzvah – a good act – to donate a Sefer Torah or to participate in its creation.]

Yoshe invited the entire shtetl to the celebration, which took place in the synagogue, on the day on which the Sefer Torah was completed. When the crowd arrived, it was noticed that Yoshe was a little upset and that his wife, Mere, was not in the synagogue.

There was then a surprise for everyone. No one knew what had happened. Then it became clear that a dispute had arisen between Yoshe and his wife, Mere, who demanded half of the world to come for the mitzvah of donating a Sefer Torah. She did not want it anyway else but that he give her a tekies kaf [striking of hands as a pledge of an obligation], at the open Ark, with a minyon [10 men] as witnesses that she would have an equal portion of the mitzvah in the next world.

She asserted and stipulated that she had toiled as much for the Sefer Torah as had he, Yoshe, and she had mixed lime, carried bricks and done all kinds of heavy work and an equal portion of the world to come was surely also hers. However, Yoshe did not want to give in, saying, “A trifle, to give half of the world to come to a woman!”

The crowd intervened in this dispute between husband and wife. The rabbi and the property owners also sought a reconciliation between them.

In the end they reconciled in this way: Yoshe had to give his wife, Mere, half of the mitzvah of donating a Sefer Torah to the synagogue; in addition to this, Yoshe gave the synagogue a portion of the Aramaic Talmud and this mitzvah was exclusively on Yoshe's account.

Mere accepted this judgment and she also came to the synagogue.

A great, joyous celebration took place then and the entire shtetl celebrated with Yoshe and Mere.

 

Welwe the Tailor

Welwe the tailor was not satisfied with prayers for the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem and did not want to wait for the time of Moshiakh [the arrival of the redeemer].

On one beautiful morning, Welwe packed his scissors and needles, his Shabbos clothing and other trifles and decided to go to Eretz-Yisroel. The words of his son as well as the arguments of the rabbi that the redemption had not yet happened and it was not yet time to go to Eretz-Yisroel did not help. He was stubborn and no one could stop him.

A long time passed and Rakishok and its environs had not heard from Welwe; Welwe was lost.

One morning Welwe appeared in the shtetl, arriving smeared and muddied and with a large sack on his pack. He had brought soil from Eretz-Yisroel.

 

Itse Yankl the Candlemaker

Rakishok had a small tallow candle factory. The “manufacturer” was named Yankl the candlemaker. His candles did not turn out even with one size and width.

He was also the town book seller. He only sold Khumishim [Five Books of the Torah] and Musar-Seforim [works on ethics], but not books of the Haskhalah [Enlightenment]. His wife made certain that in their small shop there would not be had, God forbid, any heretical books.

She was very pious and the firzogeryn [woman who reads the prayers to other women] in the woman's section of the synagogue and entering the house of prayer, she would first sing a prayer in an undertone with a great fear of God: “Riboynu Shel Oylem [Ruler of the world], I, Rywka, Your servant, am here and Your slave, Itse Yankl is finishing the cooking of candles and will come; Your third servant, our only son, Shmuelke, is still asleep and will also come soon.

 

Yoshe the Policeman

There were three cantonists [conscripts in the Russian army who were required to serve for 25 years] who were called Yoshe the soldier, Dovid the soldier, Moshe the soldier. They carried the nickname “soldier” until their deaths.

Yoshe the soldier received another nickname: “Yoshe the policeman.” He was a policeman in the Czarist police. He had a commanding figure, was wide shouldered with a jutting, healthy chest and with a wide combed beard. Compared to the remaining shtetl Jews with bent backs and sunken chests, his distinguished appearance was as if he had come from another part of the earth.

It happened that the governor, Vyravkyn, traveled through Rakishok and noticed the Jewish policeman, Yoshe; he dismissed him immediately. The words of the police commissioner that Yoshe had been a Nikolayevsky soldier* did not help.

*[Translator's note: A soldier who had served under Czar Nikolai I for 25 years.]

Yoshe the policeman had to take off his uniform. Although the shtetl gave him the position of lamplighter, the nickname “Yoshe the policeman” remained with him for his entire life.

 

My Mother

My mother was an economical woman, lived very frugally. First, because she simply did not have much. Secondly, my mother knew that a Jewish daughter lived a modest life and is not someone who squanders.

She would plant her own potatoes on a section of a field rented from a peasant; the potatoes had to last for the entire year.

The day when my mother went to the field to plant the potatoes was a holiday for us children. Then we did not go to kheder [religious school] and would go with our mother who would also ask her neighbors to help her. Picking the potatoes was also a holiday for us.

We would pour the potatoes picked from the field into a large pit, cover them well with straw and cover it again so that it would not freeze during the course of the winter.

My mother had her medicines and remedies for illnesses. She healed us children with the most primitive ways:

For whopping cough, our mother healed us by taking us to a stall and having us inhale the smell of the fresh manure or by passing near a river where braided trees grew, through which we had to pass. In addition to this, our mother believed drinking urine was a remedy or she would take us through a house where there were two doors. We needed to go in through the front door and go out through the back door.

For her part, our mother was not passive. She would fast on Mondays and Thursdays on behalf of our health.

She had great fear of an ayin hore [evil eye]. She would often carry out an exorcism of an ayin hore that for her was similar to a remedy for a toothache.

When she cleaned the house for the yom-tovim [holidays], my mother would not permit the spider webs to be taken down off the walls because she would use them to stop the blood when we children would cut our hands.

She was very pious. Every day she had a question to ask the rabbi, although yesterday's question was the same as today's.

Once the chief of police of the shtetl compiled a report about my grandmother about why she did not keep the farm yard clean. My grandmother had to pay a fine or sit in a dungeon. Then my mother took the “crime” on herself and went to jail for my grandmother.

It fell that she had to sit for three days: Friday, Shabbos and Sunday. On Friday, we children brought two pillows, a quilt, the Shabbos cholent [stew], two candlesticks for blessing the candles, her sheitl [wig worn by pious married women], her Shabbos dress and also her Tseno Ureno [woman's prayer book] to our mother in the dungeon. On Shabbos we stood on the other side of the fence and watched how our mother sat dressed in her sheitl, in her Shabbos dress and read the Tseno Ureno with much religious ecstasy and feeling.

* * *

The Shekhinah hovered in our house on Shabbos. It was entirely holy in our poor apartment.

Sadness fell on the third Shabbos meal; the beloved holy Shabbos was leaving. Our father was coming from the synagogue and we would finish the last challah [braided bread eaten on Shabbos] that our mother had left.

The sun went down gradually and was about to set. The weekdays were coming with their concerns about earning a living.

It was becoming dark in the room. Our mother stood near the window and directed her eyes to heaven, waiting for the first star. Her face ringed with creases and tormented by cares; she would soon have to knead bread so that it lasted for the entire week. The shoes of one child needed to be repaired and a second child had clothes that needed mending.

A star appeared in the sky, after it – a second, a third. My father recited havdalah [the prayer concluding Shabbos] with innumerable words, in order that the Shabbos would be drawn out longer and my mother's lips murmured: O, God of Avraham, of Yitzhak and Yakov…

We, children, counted the seconds, the minutes and waited with impatience for the fire and candles to be lit and it would become light!

 

Slova the Wife of the Tanner

The shtetl could not do without Slova, the wife of the tanner. She was a server at weddings and very efficient at baking and cooking; mainly, she had a reputation for her gefilte fish. On the eve of Shabbos she was very preoccupied, providing all of the poor in Rakishok with challah, fish and so on. She would collect donations for buying an outfit for a poor bride.

Slova was a tone-setter at celebrations. She would dance the entire day from the bride's house to the synagogue and also at the wedding in honor of the bride.

It was not a real celebration without Slova.

Slova was also the tone-setter at a funeral. She heartrendingly mourned the deceased and she was a great artist in this role.

She also could change her tone and role. Here she came from a funeral and she could immediately change into her Shabbos garment and go dancing at a wedding.

Slova, the wife of the tanner, was Sore bas Toyvim* in Rakishok in miniature.

*[Translator's note: Sore bas Toyvim is a legendary figure who assists women and children.]

 

Zelda-Mine

Who taught Zelda-Mine how to write? No one knows. She also did not tell anyone. This became of great use when she remained a widow.

She became the women's Malamed [teacher in a religious school] in Rakishok and even had her own kheder [religious school for young children] where girls and young wives would learn to write in Yiddish from her. In addition to this she wrote letters for all of the African wives, whose husbands were in Africa. Zelda-Mine did not need people to tell her what to write. She knew the husbands and wives when they were still children and knew well what women can write to men.

Her income from writing letters was not large. It was said about her that she was a lucky writer: money always resulted from her letters. When a check would arrive she would receive an extra fee.

 

Ruchl-Leah – the Bobe [grandmother]

All of the kheder boys called Ruchl-Leah, the Bobe. It could be that she got this name because she was already an old woman, perhaps the oldest in Rakishok or because she carried around beans [bob in Yiddish] to sell.

She had many competitors because other women would carry around beans to sell. But we, kheder boys would only buy from her for these reasons: First, her measure was larger than with other bean sellers and, secondly, she gave credit which she never jotted down because she was illiterate.

Yet we did not wrong her and always paid the debts--none of us wanted to be tempted by such a sin for fear of the burning gehenom [hell] with the iron horseman.

Many times when the Bobe would see her debtors passing by and not buying any beans, she would call them to her and ask why they were not buying any beans. When they told her that they do not want any new debts, she would ask them if they were going to kheder. If she received the answer: “Definitely we are going to kheder,” she would take a full pile of beans and give it to each debtor without cost.

The Bobe had many such cases. To this day this matter is puzzling to me and it is a great mystery: How did the Bobe get the money to carry on her “business?”

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