A postscript to my cousin,
David Fox's reports on his trip to Belarus.
by Mort Reichek
The story below was first posted as a message in the Belarus
SIG Dicsussion Group. It is re-printed here with the
permission of Mort Reichek.
Moshe Aharon Tsivin
Bashe Gurevich Tsivin
The flour mill that David Fox located was operated by my
great-grandfather (David's great-great-grandfather), Moshe Aharon Tsivin.
I am his namesake. My maternal grandmother, with whom I lived as a boy, was
one of Moshe Aharon's three daughters. She enjoyed telling me tales about
the mill, revealing a Jewish lifestyle in 19th century Czarist Russia that
differed markedly from the shtetl life that most Jews experienced.
Since Jews were barred from owning land, Moshe Aharon could only lease
the land on which he operated his mill. My grandmother always spoke
respectfully of the "graf" [~ the title: count] who owned the
land. The family lived a very isolated existence, shut off from most fellow
Jews and surrounded by the peasants who worked the neighboring land.
My great-grandfather had five sons in addition to his three daughters.
Tutors were hired to live with the family to educate the children at home.
The education extended to the daughters, for my grandmother was an
extremely literate woman, fluent in Hebrew and Russian, as well as Yiddish.
(When I studied Hebrew as a modern language in a New York City public high
school, I can now confess, she was thrilled to do much of my homework.)
When my grandmother married, her husband joined the family at the mill.
But there apparently was a quota on the number of Jews who could live in
the area. A Jewish informer eventually notified the authorities of my
grandfather's presence. He was imprisoned, but was released after his
father-in-law bribed the police. Bankrolled by his father-in-law, he and
his wife and children made their way to Rotterdam, Holland, and from there
to the U.S.
Moshe Aharon's sons had already left the mill. Three had preceded my
grandparents to the U.S., where they dropped the "tsah-dee" from
the family name and called themselves Sivin. Another son had become a
dentist in Gomel and the eldest was serving in the Czarist army for some 20
years. The latter two also came to America eventually. I can recall, as a
child, sitting on the old soldier's lap as he told me stories in Yiddish
about fighting "the Turks" in the "Kafcaz." He had
participated in the Russian wars against the Muslims in the Caucasus -- a
region that is very much in the news today.
Shortly before World War I began, Moshe Aharon's wife died, leaving him
alone at the mill. He then belatedly followed his children to the U.S.,
where he lived with my grandmother until his own death. Sadly, he has no
male descendants bearing the Tsivin (or Sivin) name.
The background of the paternal side of my family differed markedly from
my mother's. My maternal grandmother, even though she was highly literate,
was also very much a woman with rural tastes and values. She was the
quintessential "housefrau" with few if any contacts outside her
family and the lady members of her shul. She was exceedingly religious. But
the males in her family apparently lacked her intense piety. Pictures of
her father and husband, for example, show them with their heads uncovered.
In the only photo I have of my maternal grandfather, he even appears
without a beard. On his arrival in America, he went to work as a
sewing-machine operator in a men's clothing shop owned by his
brothers-in-law. Like most Belarussian or Litvak Jews, the family members
were "mitnagdim" -- Orthodox Jews opposed to the Hasidim with a
more rational, less emotional approach to their religion.
In contrast, my father's family was Hasidic. I have no photographs of
them in Europe. The earliest picture I have of my father was taken when he
was well into his twenties and was taken after he had left his parents'
household in the U.S. The only photo I have of my paternal grandfather was
taken surreptitiously by his sons when he needed a passport to move to
Palestine some 30 years after his arrival here. In my paternal
grandfather's strict view, picture-taking violated the Commandments.
My paternal grandmother was born in Grodno, which is also in Belarus.
However, her parents, unlike most other Litvaks, were Hasidim, affiliated
with the Alexander Hasidic sect. She never met her husband until the day of
their wedding. My paternal grandfather was a highly regarded Talmudic
scholar and a Gerer Hasid. Arranging a marriage for their daughter to a man
with my paternal grandfather's religious credentials was regarded as a
social coup. The newlyweds settled in the groom's home town, Ostrava, a
shtetl in Lomza gubernya in what is now northeastern Poland, beyond
traditional Litvak territory.
Fortunately, my grandfather had a pragmatic, older brother who
recognized that Talmudic scholarship was insufficient for the support of a
family. He was a wealthy businessman who staked my grandfather and his
bride to a venture producing vegetable oil. - (When asked what my family
did in Europe, I've jokingly boasted about their being in the "oil
business," without mentioning the vegetables.)
My paternal grandmother was a talented businesswoman. Virtually alone,
she successfully ran the vegetable-oil business. Meanwhile, my grandfather
spent his days in the local Hasidic "shtibl," which was a
combination synagogue and study-house. When my paternal grandparents
migrated to the U.S. at the turn of the century, this occupational pattern
was repeated. My grandmother was the breadwinner -- this time operating a
dairy store on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
My grandfather had little to do with the business. His primary endeavor
was to organize and lead what I've always figured was probably one of the
earliest Hasidic shtiblach in America, "Beth Hasidim de Poland",
at 16 Montgomery Street.
My father attended a yeshiva rather than public school. His father would
not tolerate his sons attending school with female students and teachers.
In his free hours, my father helped his mother in the dairy store. Frequently,
when she was short of milk, eggs, or other dairy products, she would send
my father to obtain them from a rival dairy store several blocks away from
her own store.
Over the years, the rival diary-store proprietor became fond of my
father. When my father was about 16 or 17, the rival storekeeper tried to
match my father with his own daughter. My grandfather strongly objected to
such an arrangement. The reason: The other storekeeper did not observe the
Sabbath. Moreover, he even smoked cigars in public on the Sabbath. The
rival storekeeper's name, incidentally, was Breakstone.
This was still another demonstration of my grandfather's lack of