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{Pages 444-445}


(Timkovichi, Belarus)

5304' 2659'

by Mendele Moykher Sforim

Translated by Hershl Hartman

(A fragment of [Mendele's novel,] “Shloyme Reb Hayim's: A Picture of Jewish Life in Lithuania”)

On a flat, open field, only nine or ten verst from Kopyl [about 6 miles], your eyes suddenly become aware of some sort of hamlet off in the distance. As soon as you get there, you immediately recognize this to be a Jewish shtetl. The clear signs of this are the marketplace with its booths, the grounds of the shul with its little sanctuary and tiny house of study, and – not to be compared, of course – the bath-house with its ritual bath. The market, the shul, and the bath-house are three institutions that are set up as soon as a handful of Jews gather together, share life together. It is as impossible to live without them as it would be for fish to live without water.

The name of the shtetl is Timkovichi! There are several minyanim [prayer groups] there, and at the beginning of a particular summer one more soul joins them – a young boy, a stranger, who sits all day in the house of study, poring over the holy texts.

Is Timkovichi a center of Torah-learning, then? Is there a yeshiva there? No – by no means, no! The Jews who live there are struggling just to earn a living. The minute that prayers are finished, the house of study is suddenly empty. The grounds of the shul become totally bare, not a single foot treading there, not one person to be seen, as if all were dead. The crowd has scattered. This one – home. Another – to the marketplace. Everyone has his affairs to attend to.

And so it wasn't for love of Torah that the young boy came here from afar – he came, quite simply, for food. That is to say, to take meals on specified days of the week, on a rotation basis, at the homes of the shtetl's well-to-do. Neither did he come here of his own free will, but was driven here by need. His mother, Sarah, a widow with little children, lacked any means of support. She, alas, had to acquiesce and send her dearest child, the eldest of her youngsters, to the shtetl, and to count on the cordiality of acquaintances there.

Swaying over the gemore [part of the Talmud] with religious intensity, humming bits of a lonely melody, Shloymele spends his time in the deserted house of study alone. When he tires of swaying, he just sits there, frozen on a bench, staring blankly, not moving a hair. Or he wanders into the yard outside the shul where there is no one but himself, stands, yawns, gazes fixedly to one side, not knowing who or where he is.

Prayer – that was the one bright sunbeam that could tear through his clouds of melancholy, that shone into his darkened, orphaned soul. In Timkovichi he clearly could not advance his Torah learning, but somehow the sweet taste of prayer moved him. This was a hasidic form of prayer, a prayer with a burning fervor. It was here in Timkovichi that he first laid eyes on hasidim, on the hasidic world, of which there was not a trace in Kopyl. In Kopyl, hasidim were the occasion only for brusque epithets, nasty stories that were spread by vitriolic misnagdim [opponents of Hasidism], as if against enemies of the Jewish people – wild creatures, no better than cattle.

The householder with whom he would stay overnight and dine on shabbes [Sabbath], a good friend of his father's, may he rest in peace, was a hasid, but still a Jew. And, moreover, a passionate Jew, a fine person – a Jew in the best sense of the word! Shloymele prayed where his host did, in a hasidic shtibl [small gathering-place for prayer], and both the overall conduct there and the manner of their praying were to his liking. Shloymele was indebted to little Timkovichi, because it gave him his first push toward a deeper understanding in the whole matter of Jewishness, which in later years advanced further and further. For Shloymele Timkovichi was a new discovery – like, for example, a newly-discovered island in the world's vast oceans. Hasidim are really Jews, too! But still there is a difference between them and the misnagdim, among whom he had grown up in his shtetl up until this point. A misnagid has a frozen soul. All that matters to him is reason; his heart – ice-cold. His Torah learning and his prayer life are carried out only according to the letter of the law, they do not extend any further than what is written down in the texts. The misnagid is like an honest debtor who pays off what he owes exactly on time, because those are the rules. “Well,” he thinks, “I paid off my debt and I'm done.” His God is an angry one: as soon as something is askew, He feels insulted, He grows angry, He gets red-hot, and He inflicts punishment. The hasid, on the other hand, as Shloymele now could see, is passionate. The main thing for a hasid lies in service to the Creator – joyfulness: “Let Israel rejoice in its Maker” [as the Psalms urge us], in that kind of God – the good, merciful Father that He is.

“While praying you should have nothing weighing on your mind, not even concern for the sins that you have committed.” So said the holy Ar”i[1]. Here in the shtibl, the praying is enthusiastic.

However, the [luminosity of the] praying – that bright sunbeam – shone only temporarily in Shloymele's soul, which was so sad. The rest of the time Shloymele felt defeated, vacuous, less than conscious, almost like some sort of golem [creature of clay]. Soon he was in a reverie, imagining a fat red cheek under a closed, blind eye, floating in the air in front of him. [But the eye was real, and it] belonged to the daughter of the household where he was lodging – a strong, beefy, corpulent, and broad-boned young woman. Shloymele would normally not have been concerned at all with the young woman as such. Well, so she is blind in one eye, so what? The problem, though, was this: they wanted, so he learned, to make her his bride, and this concerned him greatly. He would picture her [in his mind's eye] and a great resentment would begin seething inside him: “As if all your troubles aren't enough, all you need now is to get married! And to whom? To a blind spinster!”

And, too, Shloyme would be gripped at times by a deep yearning for home, for his shtetl, for everything that existed there in the good years.

But once, during slikhes time[2], is yearning became overwhelming and fantasies haunted him. Fantasy overcame reality. She carried him on her eagle's wings and brought him to his home, to his mother, sweating, panting, and in a single breath. Mother and child looked at one another, and bathed in each other's tears.


  1. Acronym of Adoneinu [our Master] Rabbi Isaac – Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safad, leading Cabbalist (1534-1572). Return
  2. Slikhes, or slikhot, is a period of penitential prayers, said during the last days of the Jewish year, and through Yom Kippur. Return


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