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An excerpt from
Kitaigorod: A Profile of a Jewish Shtetl in the Ukraine
by Steven Lapidus, © 2000
A Thesis in The Department of Religion Presented in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements
For the Degree of Master of Arts at Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada; April 2000
Part 1 | Part2
Now I will describe how people conducted weddings in the small shtetlach of the Ukraine; how, forty to fifty years ago, we held a wedding in my shtetl, Kitaigorod, Podolia gubernia. And I will mention here that the bride and groom were both from Kitaigorod. First of all, there was a match set up by a matchmaker, and with luck, the match worked. The shadchan haggled with the in-laws (the parents of the bride) about the matchmaking fees. In the old country, people used to give dowries, that is when the bride’s father pledged to pay 500 or 400 or 300 rubles to the groom. Another thing – I am not describing a rich or a poor wedding, but an average wedding. Once the matchmaker was satisfied with the fees, the engagement contract was signed at a festive meal. Besides inviting family from both sides, they called the rabbi and the cantor and the people from the kloiz the father-in-law worshipped in. As well, the shammes spoke at the meal since he acted as an agent. The engagement contract was written entirely according to law. The rabbi wrote it out and the cantor read it aloud. All was written in it, for example how much the dowry will be, the date of the wedding, the clothes to be bought, who the rabbi, cantor, and shammes will be. And then they broke a plate. The groom’s mother and the bride’s mother grabbed hold of a plate and threw it to the floor and it broke and everyone cried mazel tov. And afterwards, they ate a meal of good tidings and the cantor Yitzchak Leib or Aaron Meir made mi-sheberachs (prayers for well-being) and earned a few rubles for each prayer.
Then the wedding preparations began. The bride’s mother prepared bedding, towels, sheets and various linens which a good housewife would need. They would bring a band from Dinovitz called Leibka to perform at the wedding. They bargained them down to ten rubles per musician, and then discussed with the musicians the details of the date of the wedding, and the number of musicians the family desired. They left a security deposit – a silver spoon or a silver goblet. And thus the contract was closed. Most weddings were held in one of Tzeitlin’s two halls, usually the larger one, or at Eta, the kettle-maker’s, large house.
The clothes for the wedding had been bought six weeks in advance. Both sides travelled to Kamenets and had the bride’s clothes and wedding clothes made and the garland and all the necessary items for the wedding. A wedding lasted from one shabbes until after the next shabbes and the entire week was referred to as the wedding week. The groom sent invitations to all of the young men and women to come on the first shabbes during the day to the bride’s home for a forshpiel (small reception). This was a way to honour the bride and groom. There was food – strudel, crackers, knishes, sugar-frosted loaves of bread and other provisions. Musicians were brought in for the tantzevelnia vertsher (“dancing” supper) and we danced half the night.
Shabbes morning, a large crowd led the groom into the synagogue. As well, they led the groom’s mother, and mother-in-law, to the large town shul with a large number of women. The groom was called to the Torah, and after the reading of the parsha (weekly Torah portion), all of the women threw gingerbread, nuts and candies. After services, the two fathers invited all the family home for kiddush with cake, brandy, tzimmes and lots to eat. During the day on shabbes, all of the young people gathered at the bride’s home, whether they were from the groom’s side or the bride’s side, for another forshpiel. Weddings could take place anytime on Tuesday or Wednesday. Most weddings in Kitarod were held on Wednesday since Tuesday was fair day in the shtetl. As of Sunday, the bride’s family began to prepare the wedding feast. The servants began to prepare various baked goods: strudel, cakes, flat cakes, and challos. They acquired the services of the best butcher, who in our town, was the butcher Moishe Hilk’s, o”h. He would slaughter the best animals for us. They would take the meat by the aka, 50 aka, of meat, as well as chickens. Then the day of the wedding arrived and thus the real work. The shammashim, Shloime Krist and Ya’acov Leib would bring the long tables, benches and big flood lamps from the town shul. On one occasion, they brought out a wide tarp to cover some of the tables life a roof. This would sometimes be used at other weddings. During the day the shammes would bring out the extra table flaps that were needed for the supper.
Afterwards, at around 2 o’clock, there was a reception for the bride’s side, her younger family, parents, sisters, brothers, uncles and aunts. They ate and drank. Musicians came and sang to each of the parents separately and they danced freilichs (lively dances). Then the guests began to arrive and they guided the bride from the town square to the hall where the wedding would take place. The musicians played and the town children ran into the hall. We had begun to dance quadrilles, the scissors dance, waltzes and Bulgar dances. The musicians were paid for each dance. The musicians left the wedding-place and went to the groom’s house to play for the family and then they returned to play at the groom’s table. Afterwards, the kabbolos-ponim (reception) began and the groom was brought to the bride by the rabbi and cantor and all the men. People were honoured with a piece of cake and a toast. The rabbi and cantor wrote out the kesuva (wedding contract). They sat at the head table near the groom. Then the witnesses signed their names to the kesuva. Soon after the bride’s mother, groom’s mother and all the women from the kabbolos ponim came in. The men got up from the tables and went into another room. The groom remained at his place while the women stood around the tables and were given cake and whiskey. Then the women went back to the other hall while the men, along with the two fathers brought the groom into the hall to veil the bride. Meanwhile, the bride had been seated on a stool in the hall while the Dinovitzer badchan, Yisroel-kel, sang to the bride and it was heart-rending. He said mussar (ethical exhortations) in rhyme. Soon after, the shammes yelled, “Make way, the groom is coming.” They handed the groom the veil and he covered the bride’s face. Then they guided the groom into another room and the fiddler and the badchan serenaded him. Afterwards, the groom’s father took away the watch, the ring and whatever jewellery he was wearing. They put a kittel (white robe signifying purity) on him to go to the canopy, under which the ceremony took place. The musicians would begin to play a beautiful march and the two fathers conducted the groom to the canopy while all the men followed holding lighted candles aloft. The mothers brought the bride, covered up by the veil, and led her to the canopy with candles in their hands. And all the womenfolk followed. They, their younger children and older ones also followed the procession in the street to reach the canopy outside of the town shul. The housewives also came out of their houses with large candles to see the bride and groom proceed to the canopy. The canopy, set up outdoors, where the ceremony would take place, was all ready outside. The rabbi, cantor and shammes were in place, along with the men holding up the poles for the canopy. The groom was led under the canopy and the cantor sang “Boruch Haba” and “Mi Adir al hakol.” The bride was waiting near Yitzchok Leib’s bes medresh and waited for the male ushers to come fetch her and her bridal party. The musicians played while the ushers led the bride around the groom. The shammes filled a cup with wine and handed it to the rabbi. The rabbi performed the marriage ceremony according to the laws of Moses and Israel. Afterwards, the groom placed the ring onto the bride’s finger and the cantor read the marriage contract aloud, and recited the sheva brachos. Then the groom broke the glass and from all sides people began to shout mazel tov while the musicians began to play. The heavens themselves split while the Dinovitzer musician, Yechiel-kel, played.
Both mothers, of the bride and of the groom, were joyful, dancing ladies. They both took each other by the hand, the other hand on each other’s dress and they danced. The bride and groom entered the hall with both fathers and were greeted with a big dance, a big sugar-frosted challah, and two large silver candelabra held aloft. People threw confetti, stood up and yelled mazel tov. The musicians played and the mothers danced until the bride and groom and the fathers came into the hall.
Every male had to wash. The shammashim stood with large containers near a big tub of water with handles along its length. Men and women sat separately; only the bride and groom sat together at the men’s tables, on the condition that she be a kosher bride. If not, then the bride and groom sat apart; the groom with the men and the bride with the women. The rabbi sat at the head, near the groom, the groom’s father near the bride. The shammashim served fish, soup, meat and tzimmes. Two people ate off of one plate or bowl. The shammes would shout, “Two of you to a plate,” and sometimes make a mistake and yell in jest, “Two plates per person.” We drank spirits, not soda, before or after the fish from a glass or a bottle. Everyone took their own because there were no bartenders. We served ourselves as much wine as beer as we wanted. We took beer straight from the keg, and we indeed became very happy! We had to drink because we had to dance all night. Afterwards, the cantor had to recite the mi-sheberachs and was paid for each one.
Afterwards, they bentsched and they recited the sheva brachos. I once heard Yosseleh the chazan recite sheva brachos, not with the usual tune but with a cheerful melody and I will never forget this. Meanwhile, the entire crowd – men and women – danced. Since he was an excellent and loud singer, while he sang a merry tune, we were able to dance faster than to the musicians’ song, although when dancing we could not hear the sheva brachos. Since he wasn’t employed as a cantor by any kloiz, he wasn’t hired for weddings. Only Aaron Meir and Yitzchok Leib used to be regular cantors.
Afterwards they began to call out the wedding gifts. Both fathers and mothers, the bride and groom sat at the head table. Yisroelnik the badchan stood on a bench and began to shout, “Groom’s family, bride’s family, come in to see the wedding gifts.” He would announce that the groom’s father and mother have given a golden cup and the bride’s mother and father gave two silver candlesticks and a tallis as gifts. The father-in-law usually gave a lot of cash as a gift. “And this one gave a smaller amount of cash,” and so on until they were done with all the gifts. Afterwards, out of the gifts, they put money aside, according to the percentage of the cash collected with which to pay the rabbi, cantor and shammes. Then, they removed the tables, and the benches and the badchan invited people to dance with the bride. He would call out to each father and each one would take a piece of cloth and the bride would take the other end while the musicians played lively dances. This was how they danced with the bride. The fathers paid the musicians and the badchan and everyone would dance all night. And as day began to dawn, the people accompanied both sets of parents to their homes with the musicians and continued dancing and woke the whole shtetl from their sleep. Afterwards, they ate a small meal which was the first get-together for both sides of the family.
I will now write about a particular type of woman in my shtetl, Kitarod, Podolia gubernia. This woman was called Rivka Bella’s, o”h. Her husband was called Benyumin Aaron. She was a daughter of chasidic Jews and the family’s piety was beyond question. They called him, in the shtetl, by various names: Uncle Aaron, the Old Aaron and he was also called Aaron the Shmulicher. The Old Aaron had only daughters: a daughter Feiga, who was Mordechai Eliezer’s wife, and a daughter Surel who used to sell various dishes and her husband whose name I do not remember, and a daughter Rivka, about whom I will write, and a daughter Miriam, in Bessarabia. Uncle Aaron was a very religious man, knew a bit of learning, and was a chasid of Rebbe Yechiel-ne, z”l, of the town of Krilovitz. He would go, every year, on the High Holydays, to Krilovitz by foot, there and back. They used to say that he counted each step. It was quite far from our shtetl to Krilovitz, about 35 to 40 verst. It was a great mitzva for him to make a pilgrimage to the rebbe for the holidays. Also, he was ba’al koreh (the Torah reader) all year in Benyumin’s kloiz and one of the best Torah-readers. He could also calculate time to the minute by the sun, and in the shtetl, we would set our watches according to his calculations. He lived the life of a typical old man. The daughter Rivka inherited a lot of good qualities from her father. She was like those women whom one would call tzadekes, a trustworthy woman with good sense. She took care of bedridden women, the poor and orphaned. Almost every week, one would see Rivka and another woman going around for contributions for various causes. She herself was very poor.
In our shtetl, Kitaigorod, Podolia gubernia, there was a cantor who was known as Yosele the chazan. He was indeed one of the best and finest prayer-leaders, as well as being a good singer. As it is now the time of the High Holidays of the year 5720 (1961 CE), I will write about him, how fine a person he was, and what kind of cantor Yosele was. He was a native of Galicia which at that time belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His shtetl was not far from the Russian border, near the towns of Husyatin and Chemerovitch and he married a Chemerovitcher woman. That is how he came to our shtetl, Kitarod, as a cantor in the large Sadigerer kloiz which was called Benyumintze’s kloiz. When he came to Kitarod, he was already a family man with three children; two sons named Yitzchok and Zalman, and a daughter Sarah. In the Sadigerer kloiz, Yitzchok Leib was the regular cantor and he left and became the cantor in the large Husiatiner kloiz which they called the bes medresh where learned Jews sat and studied, day and night. People studied by themselves and there was also public teaching of chumash with Rashi’s commentaries, as well as the rest of the Bible. As well, in our town, there was a Jew named Moishele Dudis who used to teach publicly in the bes medresh and the whole shtetl would go listen to his lectures.
The onetime congregants, Benyumin Mailmann, Fishel Tzalts, Itzi Kop, Yeshiah Mintzer, Leibush Marianifker, and others, travelled to the Sadigerer rebbe to speak with him about a cantor. The rebbe told them that Yosele the chazan was in Chemerovitch and was looking for a position. He was willing to go to the town of Kitarod as a regular cantor, but only in the big kloiz, and not as town cantor, because the town cantor was Yankel the chazan. Every year, Yosele used to lead the prayers on the High Holidays with several choir-singers. He always had the best singers from amongst us in the shtetl. He used to have, singing with him, Yankel Goldes who went off to be a cantor in a synagogue in New York City for many years, and the Bubbe Chava’s son, Avraham who then went to Kharkov and got married. He also had Wolf, who was a brother-in-law of Fishel Hilks who became a cantor in Kamenets at the new place, Hocksman’s kloiz. As well, he had Yitzikel Chaim Yosilt, the doctor’s son; we called him Yitzikel the hunchback; Moishe Shimon Avigdor’s, and also his own two sons, Yitzikel and Zalmaneh. All of these, whom I remember, used to sing for many years. He also had a chorist, Meshulem Feritzes. These were among the best singers. When he, Yosele, would sing a prayer or a march, or sing out his prayers on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, with them, it was a pleasure. During his rendition of malchios, zichronos, and shofros, one could sit into the night, listening without squirming. The same was true of his singing, with the choir, of hayom haras olam and unisaneh tokef. Their singing of hayom tiamtzenu with an upbeat leitmotif and other melodies were indeed something to hear. And on this note, I should say that we would sit patiently for a good chazan, since he was really loved by the whole town.
We used to call out to him, “Yosele the meshuganer,” since he had many odd behaviours. Just as he was a great chazan, so too was he a very pious Jew. He wore a large, beautiful beard and long, curled peyos. They looked like stiff, little bottles. He would usually walk around, wearing a dirty scarf, summer and winter. He would pray daily in the bes medresh, until three o’clock in the afternoon. He would constantly wear his tallis and tefilin. He would go to the baker’s, Miriam Tuviah’s, which wasn’t far to go for a glass of liquor and to eat a buckwheat pancake. Once satisfied, he would return to the bes medresh and put his tallis and tefilin back on and continue studying and praying. At that time, I studied with Itzek Leben in cheder, and when the teacher had to leave for a bris or something like that, I, and several students would go into the bes medresh and heard Yosele the chazan’s prayers. He sat on a stool and swayed and sang – it was truly a pleasure to hear.
He lived in the same house as Hersh Berel Leib’s, who traded in fish. On the other side lived Berel’s grandfather. He was from the Einbinder family, and a neighbour of Yosele the chazan.
Quickly following Tisha b’av, he would gather his choir together and begin to practice all the prayers for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. The neighbours could not continue with their outside work, and used to sit near the outhouse and listen to the wonderful melodies that came out of his mouth. I remember the commotion in town on the shabbes (Saturday) night, the first night of selichos. The worshipers from the main synagogue, and from the bes medresh, and also the Zinkover kloiz, and everybody from the shtetl would go into the big kloiz (the Sadigerer kloiz) to recite selichos with Yosele the chazan and to hear his melodies for the first (night of) selichos.
I will now relate a few stories about Yosele the chazan. Der Yosele was an avid chasid of the Chortkover rebbe, o”h, z”l. He once travelled to the Chortkover rebbe for a shabbes and led the prayers. Everyone in Chortkov was pleased with his performance. Once, unfortunately, when the rebbe was struck with a serious illness, a letter was sent from Chortkov to us in the shtetl since there were several chasidim of the rebbe in our shtetl, asking that Yosele the chazan should recite Psalms and pray to the Master of the Universe for the rebbe’s complete recovery back to good health. He gathered together all the chasidim in the shtetl, Husiatiner, Sadigerer, Chortkover, Zinkover and also Medzibodzher, along with old Jews who had free time on an ordinary Wednesday to join with him to recite Psalms. Even store owners could go in to recite Psalms with the whole crowd since on an ordinary Wednesday, there might be buyers or not. The storeowners didn’t even lock up their shops, but left a sign saying that the store was closed for business. When the chazan saw so many people in the kloiz, he stood up by the lectern and recited one verse at a time, followed by the congregation. And he put all of his cantorial skills into the Psalm singing and to maintaining the melody. For several years, the attendees would remember Yosele’s saying of Psalms in order to plead for a complete recovery for the rebbe.
Yosele the chazan, along with the sexton and congregants, would gather just before the High Holidays to choose a good ba’al shacharis (prayer-leader for the morning service). He used to say that a good prayer-leader for the morning service would allow him to lead musaf (the additional service) with the best cantorial flair. For shacharis (morning service), he suggested Aaron Meir Melamed, Velvel Frimes, Yeshaya Mintzer, or Ozer Shtecher.
Once, on Yom Kippur, when he was leading the prayers, there was an incident. We had finished praying mincha (afternoon service) on Yom Kippur, and Yosele put on his coat and scarf, went outside and walked off. The people waited while he was gone, and it became late and it was time to say Ne’ila (the special Yom Kippur additional service) and Yosele was still not back. The people were prepared to wait a bit, since he had probably gone to give water to his cow from which the chazante (his wife) used to produce dairy products to sell to the people in the shtetl. He was away for some time and when he came back into the kloiz, the whole crowd was very upset with him, since it was already late. Several congregants approached him – Moishe Hilks, Yisroel Laines, Avraham Mintzer, Chaim Letzes, Berel Matziles, Yankel Rosner, Fishel Hilks, Chaim Yosel the barber, and the doctor – and told him what they thought about his going off for a long time, while people were fasting and waiting to pray Ne’ila. He quickly put on his kittel and tallis and began to pray with a quick melody and the people began to bang on their stands to indicate that he should speed up even more. He heard nothing, until he got to selichos and the shalosh esrei midos (thirteen attributes). At that point, he looked around and saw how the people were relaxing somewhat and began the shmoneh esrei (silent devotion), ata nosein yad laposhi’im and ata hivdalta with cantorial feeling and no one budged from their seats. We arrived home a half hour later than all the other shuls but we were pleased with his rendition of Ne’ila.
He would regularly keep the people, whether Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur, until half past three in the afternoon. He liked that people came to hear his praying so he would look to the door and see that Mashke Melamed, Peschya Schneider, Feivush Schnitzer, Chaim Shuster, Yaakov Aaron Leib Sirkes, Yisroel Starusta, Ben Tzion Rodman, and Yechezkiel Blecher would come from the big shul. When he prayed, it was something to hear. My Uncle Mordechai Andeles, who did not like his odd behaviours, once told Yosele that he would go to the big shul where other Jews went. Yosele answered, “How could you abandon such a chazan who is an exquisite ray of sunshine to listen to?”
As well, he had a good trait, in that during the day after Yom Kippur, called Name of God Day, he would share liquor and cake with the people who prayed with him and even Jews from other shuls. And they wished for him that he pray for a good year for the entirety of the people of Israel.