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by Avraham Levite
Market day, the weekly fair, was always on Monday. Just as the rink (the village square) was the heart of the shtetl and its geographical center, so was the village economy centered on market day, providing, as it did, the whole village with 'parnusseh (a living) for the whole week. All the other working days were spent in preparation for it.
On the day itself the shtetl hummed like a beehive. Unlike the rest of the week people suddenly had no time for loitering; everything had to be done quickly, everyone was in a hurry. People got up very early, the children from the youngest to the eldest were awakened for there was much to be done before leaving for the market!
In the synagogue, prayers were begun before dawn and finished early, and that in spite of the fact that there was a Torah reading and a recital of a full Tachanun.
The major victim of this rush in the synagogue was, as usual, Rabbenu Tam, whose laying on of phylacteries was more optional than prescribed. His of the hand and of the head was placed in the right position for a short instant, as if measurements were to be taken, a few sentences hastily mumbled, and they were folded away. Down would come the shirt-sleeve, with the cuff left unbuttoned, the tefillin and tallis bag was thrust under the arm, the girdle folded in place all in mid-walk; a quick kiss of the mezuzah and away home.
At home, too, everything was done at such a speed that things were always falling out of one's hands. The preparations were similar to those made before a long journey. The noise of the market-place called to the people at home, encouraging them to go out, like the whip's whistle made by an impatient balaguleh, sitting on his harnessed cart, all ready to go and urging his tardy passengers to come out.
Young couples, having no one to babysit for them, would fill a rag with some sugar, knot it with a thread into a kind of pacifier and put it in the baby's mouth. The child would then be left along in the house on the unlikely assumption that it would prefer sucking the sugar to bawling. Whenever the mother had a quiet moment in the store she would run home to see how the baby was doing, change its diapers, cover it with kisses to make up for abandoning it and rush back to the store.
Many balabatish (established) families with a number of children of different ages had a fixed, well defined division of labor, usually based on the system of the worlds. The wife, not obliged to fulfill the mitzvot (religious duties), was responsible for the real world, which first and foremost meant seeing to the store. She also managed the house, raised the children, cooked, baked, cleaned and washed, besides numerous other duties, too paltry to mention. The husband, on the other hand, was preoccupied with the affairs of the coming world, such as praying and studying the Torah. Indirectly this was of some advantage to the wife, for her husband studied mishnayot, went up to the podium to read the Torah and passed before the Ark of the Law in the synagogue on her parents Yorzeit (anniversary of their death). All this was much to her pride and added to her prestige. Be it as it may, these activities released him from worrying too much about the store throughout the week, for is it not written that: He who takes upon himself the burden of the Torah is absolved from the worries of daily life?
The husband's role in the store was largely symbolic: the shop and its painted sign were in his name and it was he who signed the promissory notes given to the suppliers, as it was also he who was obliged to go out and seek charitable loans when their payment became due.
On market day the head of the family was fully enlisted. Back from prayers, his elder daughter, in the manner of a sergeant-major reporting to his officer, would give him the situation on the home front,
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briefing him on each member of the family, where he was at the moment and what he was doing. Finally the food on the table! This was somewhat disappointing. Instead of a well set table half covered by a folded cloth on which was placed a knife, some salt, bread and butter, he would now find just tow eier kichlach (egg scones) and a covered cup of chicory coffee. This being market day there was no time for a proper washing of hands and a blessing of the food A quick boreh minei mezonot (The blessing: creator of food of all kinds), a few sips of the lukewarm coffee and a quick walk to the store but remembering, nevertheless, to avoid seeming to be in a vulgar hurry.
The whole household is well-organized, from the youngest to the oldest, the wife having delegated to each his duty before leaving for the store. Every child knew where he was supposed to be and did what he was supposed to do. The small fry were sent to the Heder early on, carrying a larger lunch than usual to compensate for the hurried, insufficient snack at home. All this was the province of the elder daughter, the last to leave the house. Having made sure that all was in order and everyone had gone, she would lock up and go to the store.
At the store the woman has already completed all her preparations. Cartons have been taken down from the shelves, the goods in them taken out and spread on enlarged tables and cases, thus enhancing their appearance and making their sale more efficient. All this work had to be done in the early morning hours, while the potential customers were still getting organized. The husband, back from the synagogue, takes his place as cashier near the money drawer, ready to count the income and check the accounts.
In the meantime the rink (square) is filling up. There are counters and carts on every side and a great din fills the air. Human voices combine with the neighing of horses, the mooing of cows and the clucking of hens. Part of the square is filled with tripods covered with boards that are joined and tied together and hung with laborers' boots made of coarse, rough leather with iron cast heels. These are sold by the gentile shoemakers of the poverty-stricken farms in the Borkowka and the Yakliss, the outskirts of the shtetl.
Improvised peddler's booths surround the regular stores, selling haberdashery, toys and cheap fabrics. During the winter, the peddler-women sit outside in the snow and the biting frost, huddled up in all the old family clothes. This plenitude of clothing would be covered by a dark, fringed plaid blanket thrown over the shoulders like a prayer shawl, while the thick scarf covering the sheitel (wig), the ears and a good part of the face would be tied under the chin. Their shoes were several sizes too large to accommodate the many pairs of woolen stockings and were covered by great baskets of yellow straw, so big and clumsy as to make walking almost impossible. On the snow these baskets looked like boats caught on the shoals, unable to float back into the water. The women's hands were covered with old woolen gloves cut off at the finger tips so that they would not interfere with their commercial activities. When no customer was in sight they would warm their frozen fingers over the glowing feyer-tep (pots of charcoal) that stood beside them.
And now the first customers begin to appear in the stores.
The fact that the goods are spread all over the store means that suitable guards should be judiciously positioned to keep an eye on the goyim. There were always those who would miss no opportunity at lifting anything they could lay their hands on. Every child in the family is recruited: the older children as salesmen, the younger as helpers and watchers. School has to give way to these duties. Necessity is a hard driver!
There are two kinds of shoplifters who have to be watched: those who come in just to steal and those who, seeing the opportunity to do so, pick up what comes to hand. The first kind consists of derelicts or poor women armed with straw baskets filled with rags into which they can push anything they manage to pick up. The customer enters the store when it is full of people, joins the throng, asks the price of some article, goes to look at another, but is always on the lookout for a weak point.
Such a client is made short work of by the shopkeeper. She relieves him of the goods, speaks to him shortly but firmly and tries to get him out of the store as quickly as possible. Should the customer miss the hint and not draw the right conclusion, particularly if the case happened to be a woman and therefore nothing to be afraid of she is unhesitatingly sent to perdition, a finger pointing in the right direction, accompanied by a judicious piece of advice: a customer like herself had better go and buy some grey ointment, i.e., an ointment against fleas!
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In the case of a respectable farmer, things are more complicated. He enters with his whip under his arm, as befits a man of property. His intention is to buy, but seeing so many useful things around him, he cannot withstand the temptation! The experienced salesman discerns him at once and the alarm is given: Nu! Look! The arel with the eyes (uncircumcised one) is a 'lackucher' (taker)! A total alert is declared immediately, with everybody on guard. All eyes are on his hands and this careful surveillance prevents him from carrying out his plot.
If in spite of all precautions it happens that in the great hustle he is forgotten for a moment and the Lakucher with the eyes succeeds in pocketing something and that with his hands! He gives himself away in time mostly by cutting all contact and preparing himself for an ordered gateway that will raise no suspicion. He promises to come in later on with his wife etc. Attention is thus called to the fact that his coat is unusually inflated or there is a strange protuberance in his sleeve. All hope is not lost, however. There are various ways of saving the goods, not necessarily by force. An innocent question is asked: And what about that piece of clothing?...The goy realizes that all has been discovered, to his shame. Oh, yes, he tried to save what is left of his self-respect, pays and leaves in embarrassment.
Sometimes it is possible, at the last moment, to bring the lakucher back from the door with the offer: Just a minute, Sir, let us wrap the goods up for you nicely! Without waiting for the confused goy's answer, a hand is pushed into his clothing and pulls out the hidden article. One member of the family packs it up properly while another hands him the bill.
But, once the customer has left the store area it's a lost case. He may be chased in the forlorn hope of recovering the goods, but this can be very dangerous. The situation is now out in the open; the merchant demands the return of his stolen property and the goy pretends to be the injured party a Jew is bothering him when he has done nothing wrong! He is aided and abetted by other goyim in the vicinity and only a few courageous Jews would dare stick up for their rights in such cases
At about eight o'clock the market goes into high gear.
Anyone who doesn't own a store or a permanent booth hurries there to purchase whatever he needs or to sell something and make a few pennies.
Layabouts or just poor people with no constant source of income, wives of artisans, religious ministrants w ho do not deal in commerce, and anyone with spare time on his hands all came to the market! The possibility of earning something, for most a mere illusion pursued throughout the week with little success, seemed to become an attainable reality on market day. All were excited and walked along purposefully as if, for them, this was a fateful day Efsher vet Got besheren a koshere mezieh (Perhaps God would give a piece of good fortune). And even if that good fortune, if it comes, is only worth a few pennies, hopes are high, as though a big prize were in store for them.
The-gayess a general name for the goyim in the vicinity, flowed with their families into the shtetl from both sides of the road. Upon arriving, the goy would help his wife and boy or girl, all agog with the thought of a new suit or a pair of shoes, off the cart. As for himself, he would turn to the Targoviza, the cattle market. The woman would take up a stand in the platz close to Gedalia Filler's house beside the steps going down to lavkes, where she tries to sell her light farm produce which belongs to her exclusively half a liter of butter in a small enamel container covered by a white cloth with a character stamped in it in relief, full of grooves and made by a wooden spoon. It is the height of the butter protruding from the enamel container that determines it price. This butter was called Marx pitter, not in honor of Karl Marx, who no one in the platz had ever heard of, but to denote market butter bought only by those who treated the mitzvot lightly (as opposed to the strictly orthodox), or for little children. Those who were strict about matters of kashrut would never eat it, fearing it was treif.
Under her arm the farmer's wife would hold a hen or a duck; in her other hand a wicker basket holding a mart of eggs (a mart = 60). These goods would be bought mainly by oifkoyferkes, women who made their living by reselling them to the balabustes, the housekeepers who were too busy in their stores to go out looking for bargains in the market. A lively bargaining goes on between the Jewish women and the villagers. Each hen and duck is felt all over; their behinds are breathed onto reveal the skin under the feathers and its level of fat. As the buyers look for all the malformations known to man in the proffered goods, they offer a price far below that which has been asked: the butter is as pale as lime; the
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eggs no larger than pigeon's eggs; the hen is tubercular and its days are numbered it has never seen a grain of corn When the owner remains adamant they turn to leave with a show of exaggerated indifference: who could even be interested in purchasing such miserable goods? At the same time another prospective buyer is given a wink of warning not top dare trespass on her transaction!
The farmer's wife, who has, in the meantime, lost contact with her husband, is beginning to lose her patience. He has gone ahead of her in the cart loaded with heavy produce and she has no idea whether he has sold it or not. Nor does she trust him with the money in his possession. She therefore gives in and quickly gets rid of the goods. In the afternoon, after the fair, we see a different picture. The very same woman who that morning, while buying the hen, complained of its skinniness, and is now become its seller, points out its advantages one by one to her prospective customer as she indicates the meatiness of this beauty, so full of fat, touch wood! But the customer rejects all the praises, regaling the seller with all the linguistic pearls she herself had mouthed to the farmer's wife that morning, but much improved by the balabusteh.
Another kind of product sold in the platz was rabbit skin. These rabbits were kept by the farmers in the barns, where they fed on the remnants of food falling from the cows' mouths. As the Jews do not eat their meat they serve as food for the farmers who, after drying the skins, bring them to market, where they are collected by young men who have no other occupation and try to make some money this way. In Yiddish these skins are called kiniglach, from the word king, and in Polish krolicki. When the fair is over these young men bring the skins to some merchants who collect them in quantity then export them. Anything sent outside the shtetl's borders is called export.
One of the dealers in these royal kiniglach is Leibush Horovitz, a young Yeshiva student, blonde and short-bearded and active in the Mizrachi. Mendel Birnbaum, his friend in the party, jokingly called him, Melech Malchei Hamlachim der kinig iber alle kiniglach (the King of Kings).
One of the shtetl's fools hanging around the market was one day attracted by the noise and bustle of buying and selling and, like everybody else, bought himself a kinigel fur which he paid for with the coins begged from the kind-hearted village women.
Next day in the Clois he described the results of this successful commercial transaction, referring to problems of the economy from his own point of view: If I had enough money he was referring to operating capital I could have made a respectable living for myself. Why, only yesterday he went on to justify his calculation I bought a kinigel' for eighty groshen and sold it for sixty. All I lost for twenty groshen, no more! Have you any idea what is going on in the financial world today? People are losing thousands and tens of thousands!...
Talking of operating capital, Hay'im Leizer Schertz, maintained a private charity fund. On Sunday nights, before market day, he would pick up his list and visit some twenty such families who eked out their living from purchases in the market and lend each of them a sum of money to be repaid on the following Wednesday. If the money was returned on time, Hay'im Leizer renewed the loan on Sunday, before market day. Should the borrower be under pressure and fail to get the money together within the week, Ha'im Leizer would turn the loan into a standing loan a koshere halvueh (a kosher loan is one on which no interest is charged) and wait till things got better. He would never go asking for the return of his money, trusting the people on his list to do their utmost to discharge the debt.
And now, back to the market.
While the farmer's wife was busy selling her produce, the farmer takes his cart, whips his horses into a trot and goes on to the Targovitza. His cart is an open one, with two ladders placed at its sides to hold the fodder and the vegetables brought in from the fields, as well as firewood and construction beams brought to the village. On market day the side-ladders are reinforced by polkoshiks' (halves of woven reed baskets, to prevent the goods from falling out). One goes to the Targopvitza with the heavy produce, such as piglets tied in a sack, squirming like fish in the net, the sound of their screams lost in the general noise of the market. There may also be a fattened pig or a calf, eagerly awaited by the butchers.
An old cow whose time has come for slaughter or a young pony these are tied to the back of the cart. The innocent horse is probably glad that they are not part of his burden but he will very quickly be proved wrong in his calculation, for the passengers at the back of the cart are not at all eager to go in the direction chosen by their master. They
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express their opposition actively by pulling the cart backwards. The farmer, from his high seat, tries to help his horse by whipping the rebels who, instead of calming down and behaving in a respectable manner, become even wilder. If this goes on there is a danger that they will tear the rope with which they are tethered, or even break the cart. The chief loser in this affair is the horse. He is whipped by the driver to the cries of Dio! Dio! till, with the last of his strength, he overcomes the obdurate refusal of the animals to comply, and the cart finally moves on.
The Targovitza, an empty plot used for the sale of cattle, pigs and horses, is high above the Sokol, near the new park on the way to the forest.
Business here is done between men. The pigs are bought by the gentile butchers, of course, and, lacking Jewish competitors the deals are closed quickly. These butchers, the hazerniks, always get the best of the farmer, practically stealing his product at half price because of his fear of bargaining with them too much.
The main business is conducted between the goyim, the horse merchants and the Jewish butchers. T he haggling here is not in groshen but in gorden zlotis, with each party refusing to yield. The seller begins high, quoting an intentionally steep price that will allow him to give a reduction. The buyer rebuts by offering a ridiculously low price. At this stage things are not yet serious. When both sides realize that nothing can come of this they get down to earth and there are indications of a compromise. The reductions and the increase get smaller and smaller a practical stage has been reached in the negotiations the handshake. The buyer's left hand clasps the seller's right and with hi8s own right he strikes it: two hundred and fifty! The reply is made by a change of positions. The seller's left grasps the buyer's right and with a terrific blow he declares: three hundred! The blows become stronger and more painful, the palms redden and the act of final agreement is on its way. The weaker party, t hat which cannot hold out any longer, gives in and relinquishes the middle tenner between 250 and 300, the price of releasing his battered hand from its suffering.
The farmer's wife who has, in the meantime, finished her business, has already joined her husband in time to witness the termination of the great transaction. She does not dare interfere with his work but is content to be seen by him, well knowing how dangerous it is to leave him alone with the money, with the pubic house so near
They return to the village to do their shopping. It is almost midday and the burden of activity now passes to the stores as the Targovitza and the platz are slowly emptied. The husband participates only in the more serious purchases a suit, boots, sewing materials and the like. All this is bought with his money as the supporter of the family. The woman, for her part, keeps her earnings in hiding, tied in a piece of cloth, to be used only for emergencies. The woman is eager to buy, knowing that whatever she manages to get from her husband now is pure profit. She is fully aware that whatever is left will be delivered to the public house where it is doubtful whether anything will be left. Her husband, for his part, is stingy it is good to enter the pub with a handful of rustling notes not like a beggar unable to pay and treat the whole company.
After shopping a hasty lunch. The woman brings out her basket from the polkoshik in the cart, containing a huge loaf of bread, large as a cartwheel and wrapped in a sheet. The bread is sliced into respectable portions; someone goes to the butchers' for kilbassa, a cheap imitation of salami made of derma filled with spiced, roasted kasha and leftovers of meat and pork tripe.
The farmers push this salami into the right side of their mouth, and their lower jaw, possibly eager to taste this delicacy, competes with the upper in its contortions to get first to the prize!
The kilbassa is thrust in to the mouth as into a grinder to be sucked eagerly down by the healthy appetite. The delicacy is quickly eaten and disappears.
It is done not for nothing are they the sons of Esau and thus exempt from grace. The woman now prepares to return home to tend to the farm, milk the cows, and bring in the pigs. With the help of all kinds of excuses she tries to persuade her husband to return with her. She reminds him of the work awaiting him at home and promises him a veritable feast, especially prepared for him, but deep in her heart she knows her words are wasted and, defeated, holds her peace.
Finally some neighbouring families get together; the women and children are placed in one cart whose reins are placed in the hands of a youth, and it is he who brings them back home. The men are left alone, finally unencumbered by the troublesome wo-
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men who are always spying on them. The carts are put in the Rink's parking lot, the horses freed of their harness and tied to the carts by the neck. Some hay is put before their noses and they are left to wait for their masters who now hasten to the pub to moisten their throats a little.
The pub is full to overflowing. The tables and chairs are all taken. The air is thick and foggy with cigarette smoke. This is the meeting place of workers in the field and neighbours. A bottle of vodka is opened; glasses are lightly knocked against each other and drunk to be followed by herring and rolls. Then a black or a white Okuchimske beer is ordered and talk begins about the business of the day, what was sold for how much. With each glass spirits improve and the funny sides of deals begin to emerge. One blabbermouth boasts, to the admiring laughter of his companions, how he got one better of a Jew, selling him shoddy goods at a fantastic price.
The publican at the counter fills up the halbos (beer mugs) from shining nickel taps fixed in the wall in a kind of buffet. The beer comes straight from a large barrel in the cellar where it is kept cool.
The waiters, carrying trays loaded with foamy halbos, make their way with difficulty through the customers standing around, waiting for a table to be vacated after those drinking beside it roll down underneath, and can be thrown out of the pub.
Two neighbouring farmers who had had many a quarrel and were now in a state of uneasy cease-fire, call to each other na litgup (in distorted German), drinking to reconciliation, to a deepening and strengthening of peace. Right from the outset the whole affair looks fishy, bringing to mind a duel rather than an attempt to stop fighting. Both sides are highly scrupulous of each other's honor while at the same time they watch each other carefully. Their mutual suspicion is no less than their respect. They have entered the pub and secured themselves seats at a table. Then comes the gentlemanly argument as to the privilege of ordering first. A compromise is reached and two bottles are ordered, glasses touched, good wishes exchanged. As the alcohol does its work, moods lighten and the ancient enmity becomes blurred, insignificant. After all, what was that argument between us all about? Confirmed enemies of the past have turned into friends. They are about to exchange hugs and kisses. Who would have dreamt of such an idyll?... More vodka is ordered, the drinking continues, the atmosphere becomes almost intimate, some words are exchanged in quiet. But the experienced publican has already noticed signs of coming storm. He discerns the lightning on the horizon and hears the echoes of the approaching thunder. Although his hands are busy pouring, serving and collecting money, his eyes are turned to that quiet corner which, in a moment, may turn into a battlefield. He begins with preventative measures. First he puts an embargo on further alcohol which, in that strained atmosphere, may become highly combustible. He pretends to be busy and therefore unable to serve what has been ordered. Anxiously he follows developments and makes preparations.
This drinking at first stimulates friendly feelings but as it goes on it washes away the thin layer of friendship, filtering down into the depths, unto the very wildest levels. Ancient instincts of suppressed enmity are awakened a beast is let loose! Suddenly a roar is heard: Why did you say that ? The reply, too, is loud and rude. All signs of friendship disappear as if they had never been. One hits the table with the halba, the other begins moving the chairs, clearing the area. Clenched fists are raised while everybody present turns around to see what comes next. (Oh! It was surely from such cases that the Rabbi in the Heder explained the meaning of the dots on the word vayishakeihu in the Torah, showing the value of Esau's kiss )
Instantly the publican leaves his counter, stands between the antagonists and separates them. He releases the lapel of one from the hand of the other and exerts all his experience, diplomatic ability and the moral authority derived from the fact that he was the source of the vodka. He calms them down, smoothes the ruffled feathers and tries to restore them to a state of sanity. He praises them both to the skies, upbraids them, reminds them of their respectable status and their responsibilities to their families. In fact, he does everything possible to quench the fire before it breaks out in a mighty flame.
Choosing the one who still evinces some signs of reason, he tries a number of tricks to get him outside, but does so in such a manner as will not impugn his honor or make him appear the loser trying to get away from the fight. Once they have been separated and one of them has been led respectfully, like a bridegroom to the altar, to the door, the other, considering himself the winner, mouths a few more epithets at him, the coward, running like a mouse, lacking the courage to fight like a man!
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The insulted party tries to turn around for a rebuttal but the publican, who has him in a stranglehold, whispers in his ear that it doesn't befit a wise man and a respectable house owner like himself to pay attention to the babblings of a drunken sot! In the meantime he thrusts him outside and shuts the door behind him with a sigh of relief.
Sometimes Scene 1 of the above Act takes place in a far corner, unnoticed by the busy publican. By the time he realizes what is going on it is too late! The fight is at its highest and not only can he not separate the protagonists but he must take care not to be caught between then, when he would be in real trouble. The fire breaks out quickly, each side finds reinforcement among relatives and friends, and in a trice the pub turns into Sodom and Gommorah. By the time the police arrive there are cracked skulls, broken faces, and everything in sight is destroyed, broken and trampled out of recognition.
Outside the bored horses are beginning to lose their patience. One of them, bothered by a troublesome fly, goes berserk. The others, still quietly chewing their straw, are soon influenced by him. One of them pulls at the chain on his neck by which he is tied to the cart, and crashes into the adjacent one. The carts pile up against each other, there is the sound of a broken shaft and a wheel pushed off its pivot. Luckily there is always some drunk to be found among the carts, hiding there to relieve himself in order to make place for more drink. Without bothering to button up his pants he enters the melee and puts the horses in order.
As if in another world, the kloises and the batei-medrash are lit up by candles in their hanging brass lighters. The hengleichter and the blitz-lempen, large oil lamps, are burning, two candles beside the praying podium, opposite the shivitti, are in place, and all is ready for the minha and ma'ariv prayers.
In summer the market is like the sunset, dying away very slowly. The dust disperses, the air is cleared. The peddlers dismantle their stands and everybody goes his way. The carts that leave the village one after the other carry away the noise and the bustle of the day. Only the creaking of the wheels is heard, blending in a kind of harmony. Only on the downward slope from the Beis Medresh Barg does the noises separate: On the one hand is heard the creaking of three wheels together, to be echoed by the unpleasant groan of the back wheel which cannot turn having been chained to the cart as a kind of brake on the slope. It is dragged along on the solid road like some artificial leg, making a long drawn, squeaking sound.
Finally even these noises fade out, swallowed up by the rendjines fields. The emptied rink is silent.
In the stores the women busy themselves with arranging the scatted goods while the men put on their overcoats, the ibertziers, and go to the synagogue.
Outside, near the entrance, they gather in groups, finding a moment for some pedestrian conversation before the gabbai's three knocks on the calling table tell them that the hazan has started prayers.
In the short winter days, when evening comes without warning, covering the village as if with a blanket, the market ends early. The little houses covered with snow that had been abandoned during the day come to life. Smoke rises out of the white chimneys. In the double windows decorated with frost-flowers the lights of the oil lamps shimmer like the cigarettes burning in the mouths of the farmers with their snow-covered moustaches.
The growing cold becomes painful and pinches the ears. The farmers prepare the carts, now empty of produce, to leave the village. In their iron-heeled boots, clumsy overcoats and fur hats covered with snow they look as if they have been stuffed and move heavily. The carts, too, move slowly and the horses' hooves founder in the deep snow made whiter and shinier by the ice.
It is only the few sleds that can move quietly and easily over the soft snow. The horses, happy to be on the move, trot along happily no need for the whip. Steam rises from their trembling mouths and they quickly leave the frozen village behind them, the sound of the bells on their necks long echoing behind them in the empty lanes.
The merchants have no time to change their clothing. They rush to the synagogue straight from the store so as not to miss kdusha and barchu. They are dressed in a short fur jacket, a kortkeh, stained with flour and grease over which they tie the black silk girdle the gartl.
The synagogue is redolent with the smells of the market and the goods sold there during the day: skins, paints and unguents, the odor of sharp spices.
The hawkers who, just a few minutes ago, wee wholly preoccupied with buying and selling, now stand
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up for shmoneh-esreh. Sunk in prayer, shaking devoutly and praying with a deep intent, they try to clear their closed eyes of their experiences in the market, to break their thoughts away from it.
It is difficult for the frozen fingers to turn the siddur's pages but the glowing oven and the warmth of the prayers thaw them slowly, so that the blood flow is felt by a light pricking. Fists thump on the chest Slach lanu, avinu, ki chatanu (Forgive us, father, for we have sinned) the thumps are forceful; they have to penetrate the thick fur and reach the heart
The Days of Awe
The month of Elul herald the coming of t he Yammim Noar'im (Days of Awe) which follow it. It is a well known fact that even the fish in the water quake with fear of the Day of Judgment about to come; how much more so, then, the shtetl Jews who realize more than the fish do that they are facing a trial which will determine their fate. For all their preoccupation with mundane matters they are constantly aware of the approaching verdict and much time is spent on praying and psalm singing to lighten the sentence.
With the climatic changes of the last few years there is far less fear and trembling, yet how easily one remembers the atmosphere of those times, a sense of gravity and oppression unlike anything felt throughout the year, when life was certainly not one endless carnival, God forbid!
It is in Elul that people go to the Heiliken Ort (the cemetery) to visit the graves of the fathers. At the graveside some chapters of the Psalms are read by the men as well as prayers from the book Ma'avar Yabok while the women prostrate themselves on the tombstones and hold intimate converse with their mothers, sharing their pressing problems with them and bringing them up-to-date. They beg them to intercede for them and exert themselves to help their daughters. As they pour out their hearts and troubles they burst into tears and weep long and hard before they calm down. At the end of this family visit some of the women who are neighbours, get together for the return home. On leaving the cemetery they are confronted by some synagogue beadles and youths from the Clois, charity boxes in hand, and demanding a contribution. The men, who are calm and collected, give them a few coins here and there to get rid of them. Not so the women, still excited by the unforgettable experience of meeting their mother or father. Everything still seems unreal to them and they consider their money as such things are considered in a cemetery, giving generously to anyone who tugs at their clothing.
The children, having completed a term at the Heder, are hoping for some freedom to enjoy the beauties of the season, the beginning of autumn when the trees are heavy with fruit, but, as if to frustrate them, they are subjected to increased supervision, compelled to go to every prayer service and made to observe the slightest details in everything that pertains to the mitzvot for the days, after all, are the middle of Elul, days of repentance and mercy.
Before sunrise the whole body shudders, whether because of the fear of Judgment Day or the autumnal cold, when the thin blanket no longer warms sufficiently. One therefore gets up earlier, drinks something hot and goes to the synagogue. The quota of Psalms is increased and Ma'amadot (daily selections) and introductory prayers are said before the cantor begins the dawn blessings.
Those who edited the prayer books were aware of the needs of these Days of Repentance and inserted many sayings, each more evocative than the other, and all expressing the innermost wishes and the pressing needs of the readers, so that it is difficult to skip even one of them. Everyone tries to join a minyans (a group of ten) so as to appear before their Maker in a well-ordered manner. The prayers are longer than usual, intoned with deep feeling and interspersed with never-ending sighs whose
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Source is infinite. Every day after the Dawn Prayer the Shofar (horn) is blown, reminiscent of the main Shofar blowing of Rosh Hashana which is fast approaching.
The Shofar, an indispensable appurtenance of Rosh Hashana, is kept locked in a cupboard beneath the Torah Scrolls, anxiously protected from cracks which would make it unfit for blowing. After Shahrit, when the synagogue is emptied, the Clois youths open the cupboard with the help of a burglars' key, take out the Shofar, the height of their ambition, and practice blowing it. Some of them blow with true virtuosity, putting the specialist ba'alei tki'ah, whose prerogative this is, to shame. On Rosh Hashana these youths stand tensely by, hoping for the ba'al toke'a to fail, so that the embarrassed Gabbai would be forced to give the Shofar to one of them. The moment the lucky one is handed the Shofar, his friends let their extended hands fall in despair, knowing that they have lost any chance they might have had of getting the instrument.
Sometimes, while they are practicing, a passing Gabbai, hearing the sounds, comes in hurriedly to confiscate the shofar which they had no business taking out of the cupboard in the first place, and bawls the rascals out for the prank which might very well leave the congregation without a shofar on Rosh Hashana, God forbid!
But the beagle is not really angry, for he well remembers himself while still just such a rascal, and knows well enough that these tricks are the training ground for a generation of potential ba'alei tki'ah (ritual shofar blowers). In this context a certain event of grave seriousness connected with the shofar comes to mind, one that caused great excitement in the shtetl:
A Yiddish theatre group was invited to the shtetl to give the Haddibuk play. Their appearance was a great sensation and greatly excited all kinds of people. For the progressive groups, all of whom were Zionists, this was a highly festive affair and a source of pride. For the Hassidim, who regarded the theatre as a forbidden frivolity and a manifestation of disbelief on the part of those who would shame the Torah and ridicule tradition, the bringing of the theatre to the shtetl was considered a provocation.
The organizers rented the Remizeh a shed belonging to the fire brigade, emptied it of the fire-fighting equipment and built a stage. They also collected chairs, improvised benches of boards, etc. When the actors arrived it was discovered that the shofar they needed for the production had been lost. The producer was in despair, for one couldn't just go into a shop in the shtetl and buy a shofar. A young man called Yo'el Teich volunteered to get one. Although a member of the Zionist youth movement, he was still one of the Byianer Clois' youths, went there to pray, and knew all the ins and outs of the place. He opened the cupboard with a master key and took the shofar for the coming performance. The ensuing scandal, when it was discovered what he had done on the morrow, was traffic, and the lad stopped going to the Clois for fear of being lynched. The storm did not abate for many weeks and the disgraceful affair would not be forgotten. The shofar was declared unclean and the rabbi consulted on what was to be done with it. His verdict escapes me now but it is probable that the perplexed Rabbi himself failed to find a precedent for the deed in the Shulhan Arukh. The case presumably aroused the interest of Rabbinical circles outside the shtetl and who knows if it did not leave its mark on Shailes Tshives (Questions and Answer) books published by the Rabbis at the time.
A week before Rosh Hashana, praying goes into high gear and the usual time allotted to it mornings and evenings no longer suffices so that on Saturday night, a week before the Holyday, Slihot are inaugurated in the synagogues. At the Beit Hamidrash and the Havreh-Lina-Clois affiliated to it, people rise at 4 a.m. for Slihot and at the Cloises they are said exactly at midnight. Blitzlompen and Hengeichters are lit for the occasion in all the Synagogues and the congregation, shivering at having to leave their beds at such an hour, are awed by the gravity of the occasion which justified their being deprived of their sleep.
Women also attend Slihot. The Clois-bahurim block the entrance to the Women's gallery by means of a table, and only after a small donation is given is the table moved and the women permitted to enter. This money is collected mainly for book repairs. The books used for study at the Clois, for all that they are bound in coarse, hard-wearing linen, are quickly worn out with their frequent use and often have to be rebound. The book-mending Gabbai (treasurer) is a youth chosen by democratic procedure along with other gabbai's at the yearly elections held during the Hol Hamo'ed of Succot. It is he who en-
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lists the youths these books and organizes them for the collection of donations.
There are these among the women, shivering with the cold and the excitement, whose mood is not of the best, either because they resent being awakened from the best hours of their sleep or because of their daily troubles. Incensed by the impudence of these pests who dare block their way in, they push away the table and with it the astounded youths, pull their neighbours in with them and face the boys with expressions of victorious contempt. The latter very quickly retreat in their embarrassment.
At the Slihot service a special cantor for the Days of Awe goes before the Ark, or it may be some other important reader; the atmosphere is already that of judgment day. After the service most of the people return home for a short sleep and only the oldsters who have nothing to do during the day but chant the Psalms and the Ma'amadot interspersed with a light snooze remain at the synagogue, continuing the God-worship till it's time for Shahrit.
On Rosh Hashana itself the whole congregations presents itself before the Judge of the Universe. It is clear to all that at this trial there is no room for finagling or subterfuges the cards are open. Everything is written down in the accused's own handwriting, for at night, as they sleep, the soul rises up to heaven, there to report its deeds of the day, write down all its misdeeds in the Book of Records and affix its signature. Clearly souls not like the bodies, can all write. It is no use denying anything and the only chance lies in admitting one's guilt and begging for mercy. The verdict itself will be given on the Day of Judgment itself Yom Kippur. The task of Attorney for the Defense is assigned to the Cantor, representative of the congregation. He begins the prayer and the congregation repeats it after him. Beside some of the basic qualities, which are defined in the Hinneni Ani mima'as prayer, among which are to be found clear reading, a pleasant voice and identification with his audience, it is important for the public that the Cantor also have the ability to weep, for when he cries, so does the whole, highly susceptible congregation. Such a man it was not too hard to find all the Cantor had to do was think of his own troubles in making a living to become immediately as effective as possible. There was one case, an exception to this rule, worth mentioning as something of a curiosity. There was a Ba'al Musaf (reader of supplementary prayers) at one of the synagogues who had established his right over this prayer for many years. Having read all the liturgy according to accepted tradition and reaching the Aleinu leshabeah when he prostrated himself on the rug for Kor'im umishtahavim (one kneels and bows down), he would suddenly burst out laughing, to the consternation of the whole congregation. Who can say what it was that made the Ba'al tephilla laugh? Was it the act of falling down on his knees or, as some wags had it, that whenever he knelt he would be reminded of an old gentile crone who had slipped before his windows with a basketful of eggs on market day? Whatever the reason, for all that he realized what the consequences of such behavior might be, he was helpless to fight it and keep back his laughter. Every year the congregation hoped it would never happen again, but the shameful outburst repeated itself again and again. People reacted to it in different ways. The more pious would jump up angrily, beating their prayer books and shouting Nu! Ah! Ah!, for be it known that, as speech is forbidden while prayers, Nu! and Ah! were an expression of protest, the intensity of which was determined by the angry tone used.
Frivolous youngsters were entertained by the sound of laughter coming from this severe looking, self-contained person who was not known to smile the whole year round but made a fool of himself in the middle of the Musaf of the Yamim Hanora'im. Whatever the reason, it gave the congregation something to talk about throughout the Holyday. The Gabba'im were unanimous in deciding that he was to be deprived of his duty as representative of the congregation, but by Yom Kippur the whole thing would be forgotten.
The Laughing Cantor was, of course, an exception among the Ba'alei tephilla most of whom were God-fearing Jews who regarded their task as a sacred mission. They spared o effort to make their prayer pure, charged with feeling and concentration, and their audience was always moved by it. Even those who had difficulty in understanding the words, not to speak of the poetry, sensed the meaning from the cadences and the atmosphere of the synagogue.
The Ba'al Toke'a came second in importance to the Ba'al Tephilla and, like the Cantor, wore a white kittel beneath his prayer-shawl and went to the public bath to purify himself before the shofar blowing.
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It often happened that after the to hear the sound of the shofar blessing, when the synagogue was filled with an expectant silence and the Ba'al Kriah began sounding the notes: Teki'ah, inserting the horn between his lips and trying to produce the right sound that the shofar would produce nothing but sighs, groans, scraping sounds and noises anything but the required blasts. The poor man was probably still under the influence of his reading in the Zohar which he had studied religiously before the teki'ot, and the tales of the angels which would be produced by his blasts, coupled with all obstacles that Satan might put in his way, had made him so excited that he was unable to produce a single sound. He became red with effort, the veins of his neck standing out and the sweat covering his face dripped down his beard. Trying to overcome the calamity he increased his efforts, but this made things even worse the shofar became blocked and was finally silences.
The audience stood at attention, all ears. The shofar which was supposed to pierce an opening into the skies to admit their prayers, was stuck a bad omen. This was surely the work of Satan, inciting against them and preventing their prayers from being accepted. Signs of nervousness and disquiet increase. The Ba'al Toke'ah is in a panic. He sees himself alone in the arena. It is not the shofar he is fighting but Satan himself and all eyes are upon him, fearfully watching for the outcome of this fateful confrontation. Overcome by fear he can do nothing. He completely loses his self-control, knocking the shofar on the table to clear the blockage, but it is useless. Satan, once he had gotten inside, refuses t budge. The congregation trembles, giving way to fear. The Gabbai feels it is time to interfere and signals; Nu! Ah! to one of the youths who had long been waiting to be called to help. Quick as lightning he is there, before the Ba'al toke'ah should recover and regain control over the instrument. Confidently the youth takes the shofar in his hand, and Satan, who had been stuck inside it, been liberally spat on, squeezed and exhausted, giving in quickly and gets out. The shofar blasts like a war-trumpet and the congregation is so relieved that it forgets that the young blower had not gone to the ritual bath before the blasting, nor had he repeated chapters of the Zohar. The main thing was that the battle for the prayers' breaking through had ended in victory. The happy youth becomes the hero of the day.
Unlike the Sabbath or other Holydays, it is not customary to sleep on Rosh Hashana, so as not to lose one's luck while sleeping. Immediately after the festive meal, eaten late because of the many prayers, the men return to the synagogue to chant the Psalms or to peruse a book.
There was a Jew in one of the neighbouring villages who would get drunk on Rosh Hashana in order to evade the terror of the verdict. This excuse was as follows: There is a well-known court law a drunkard may not be put on trial for he is not responsible for his actions
Unlike the Sabbath, the women do not read their Tzena U'reina but study their special prayer-books, printed with Ivri-teich beside the text, published by Simha Freund, Przemysl or Mahzor Redelheim and others. The opening page specifies the advantages of their particular Mahzor, sometimes numbering hundreds. Among them may be found Wonderful Stories in Yiddish: A meise norah voss hot war passirt (a terrible tale that actually happened), containing the moral that one must believe in God, etc.
Filled with pity for the God-fearing wretch, the feminine readers, always prone to tears and especially so during the Days of Awe, are so overcome by the bitter fate of the just man and his suffering that their tears overflow. Though it is a fact that the Meise norah has a way of ending happily, the women, slow readers with little time for this occupation, usually find themselves stuck in the middle of Gott's farchtigen man's troubles, and do not manage to get to the happy end describing how, finally, the protagonists' troubles are resolved with the help of God.
Luckily for the commiserating women, they are forced to go and prepare the festive Holiday meal before their spouses return from the synagogue. They are fast caught up in the machinery of housekeeping and taking care of husband and children, so that the dramatic story is soon forgotten. There is no room for literature in the harsh reality of their mundane world.
During the Ten Days of Repentance separating Rosh Hashana from Yom Kippur, a last chance is given all the accused to mend their ways. This is an opportunity not to be missed, and, if the children disregard it you may depend on their devoted parents not to permit them to lose this irretrievable chance.
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By the eve of Yom Kippur the tension is at its height. The Kapparot (expiatory sacrifice, usually fowls) ritual begins the day before. Each member of the family gets a white Kappara: for the women hens; for the men cockerals; for the children, whose sins are few, young male or female chicks are prepared. Such sins and wickedness are piled upon the head of these fowls as they cannot even grasp. The chapter B'nei Adam having been said and the fowl swung around the head to the words: This fowl will go to his death and I will go to the good life, the condemned, paying for the sins of others, are ready for the slaughter.
As the number of kapparot is equal to the number of inhabitants in the shtetl, including the embryos in their mothers' womb (pregnant women took two kapparot), the slaughterers are forced to work overtime. On the eve of Yom Kippur they come to the homes of the richer house owners and are duly remunerated for their trouble and the honor they have given their hosts. With the house-owners agreement, the neighbours bring their own kapparot for slaughter to his year.
There was something about the shochet in his black garments, lantern in hand, surrounded by a host of lowly, foot-bound fowls, which brought to mind another picture frequently encountered in village life, though in a completely different context: the Priest, lantern in hand, going to visit the dying, with his beadle preceding him and ringing a bell. All the gentiles who are in the street at the time fall on their knees piously, as in kor'im, save the mark! Just like the Jews they are reminded for a short moment of the fact of death and the next world. The only ones in the street who ignored the strange couple and remained upright were the Jews, whom the whole show concerned not at all. They had no need to be reminded of death and the Christian Heaven held no interest for them, if only because the food served there would certainly not be kosher
The kapparot which had, at first, been piled up in one mass, now dispersed all over the yard, skipping on their bound feet, each to its own corner, there to await the shochet in resignation.
The meat of the kapparot is served for dinner on the day before Yom Kippur the last meal before the fast. It is also served to the small children who are not yet old enough to fast. On the day itself the houses are locked up. Everybody, including the children, goes to the synagogue. The parents carry kappara parcels, packed with Challa, so that they will not have to go home in the middle of the service to feed the little ones. Though the children are released from the burden of fasting it is considered necessary to accustom them to it gradually, and the length of the fast is determined by the child's age.
At Shahrit before Yom Kippur, quartets are organized, with three members acting as a court-of-law and the fourth as the appellant: Hear me. Masters, judges, experts! he turns to them, begging to be released from his vows and promises of the past year. It is a kind of personal mini Kol Nidrei, made in accordance with legal procedure.
After the service the congregation of the Cloises partakes of brandy and cake, with everybody wishing his neighbour Hatima Tova (a Favorable Signature) Minha, said before the final meal, is gone to on foot, earlier than usual, and the festive clothes are worn in its honor. Though it is still quite early, the Yom Kippur atmosphere is palpable. When Shmoneh-esreh is said, though it is still just an ordinary week day, the people confess and say Al Het, just in case they might get drunk or, God forbid, choke on their food during the last meal, and have no chance to confess in full. The tables in the synagogue are loaded with bowls for collections, with a note in each bowl explaining the purpose of the contribution. The central bowl bears the inscription, written in large letters: GREAT CHARITY. Nobody knows who has promoted this bowl to its task and who it is that determines that the charity it represents is GREAT. Asking no questions the contributors put in a large coin, to be followed by smaller ones to the ordinary charities
At some distance from the Table a sack is spread on the floor and the members of the congregation, all God-fearing men, stand in line to lie down on it. One of the Gabbais, whip in hand, gives each one his allotted numbers of lashes, forty less one all are lashed equally. The count is made by repeating the Vehu rahum prayer, comprising 13 words, three times running. If any groans are heard they are made by the lasher rather than by his victim. He is the more pitiable of the two, and both are close to tears. Should anyone of those present start crying, the synagogue would be the scene of a gigantic howling
After the service there is a rush home for the final pre-fast meal. It contains great quantities of kapparot meat, white beer to allay the thirst and a
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finale of three sips of water, a charm that makes fasting easy. Mother, all in white with a white kerchief on her head, lights the candles, tears flowing from her eyes. Double-sized soul candles (in memory of the dead) are lighted for all the deceased in the family, a candle at home and one at the synagogue. Father, placing his hands on the children's heads which are bowed in submission and fear, blesses them one by one, also weeping. Then hand-shakes are exchanged Beit dir ois gut yor (Wishing a good year) With this blessing the family separates before going to the synagogue, as if about to leave on a dangerous journey from which it is doubtful if they will ever return. Till then they were all together, a united family, mutually dependant. But now the unity is disrupted, each is on his own to go his lonely way and fight for his soul alone in his crucial struggle for his life. Only his own strength can sustain him now no other person can help him.
By the end of the month of Adar (March according to the Gregorian calendar) and in Yiddish Meshuggener Mertz, so called because of its unpredictable weather, the winter, which has become unbearable to all, approaches its end.
Every day a mixture of rain and snow comes down and the earth turns into a grayish, half-frozen mass covered with tiny crystals of ice reminiscent of cooking salt. To keep out the moisture and the cold, rubbers are worn over the heavy boots. Then the snow melts, the sun and the fierce winds dry the mud, and the water puddles begin to disappear. Spring is near. The Double windows are taken down, the ice which had frozen the outer windows tight melts away and they can be opened to let in fresh air into the houses.
On the Sabbath before the 1st of Nissan the harbingers of spring are heard in the synagogues in the monthly portion which is read before that date, together with its verses which speak of salvation and the renewal of nature. The Jewish streets are already redolent with the smell of freshly-baked matzes, whose baking begins at the end of Adar and continues till a week before the Passover.
Preparations for Passover are especially expensive and represent a heavy burden to the families of the shtetl. The Passover is the only Holyday in which the Shulhan Arukh comprises the menu of the festival down to the last detail, and the commodities needed for the two Seders, without which the table cannot be said to be set, are meticulously prescribed.
The next step, after knowing just what is needed to arrange the Seder, is obtaining the wherewithal for buying all the expensive commodities.
A special fund Ma'ot Hittim or Kim'ha depas'ha is set up for the needy families on welfare. Families of limited means, of whom there are many, who can get by without charity, increase their efforts to find ways and means of enlarging their income.
One source of income before the Holyday was the baking of matzes.
The Jewish bakeries in the town don't stop baking bread until the very eve of the Passover, making them totally unfit for the baking of matzes. But there are always a few families which, in spite of their miserable and crowded dwellings, are ready for the task.
In almost every home there was a large baking oven built over an iron stove in which bread and challes are baked all the year round, as well as the Sabbath cholent. The average home of a poor family usually comprised one large room the kitchen with the oven and the stove, which also served as dining room, guest room and parents' bedroom. It often had a small adjoining room called the alker the alcove. An apartment consisting of a kitchen and two rooms was considered spacious.
In preparing for the baking of matzes the large room is emptied of its furnishings so as to make room for the kneading table two thick boards placed
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Upon tripods, the boards being borrowed from a carpenter. Then some rolling pins are needed, a round baker's shovel to place the matzes in the oven and another, longer one, to take them out when they are done. The baked matzes are taken out three or four at a time. The utensils are made by neighbouring farmers in their free time. The owners of these improvised bakeries are contractors who hire the workers they need for this enterprise and do their best to fill jobs available with members of their own family. The jobs are as follows: the schieber the baker at the oven, the kneader preparing the dough, the meyreh (from the Polish Miara meaning amount or portion), the reddler who criss-crosses the finished matzes with a spiked wheel, puncturing them with tiny holes to prevent them from rising in the oven. This reddler has the additional duty of passing the matzes to the oven. About a dozen women are busy rolling the matzes, assisted by two children standing on each side of the kneading bowl: the einshitter pouring in the flour and the eingisser adding the water.
All the matzes used during the Holyday are handmade. Sometimes a package is received from America containing a machine-made package of matzes, product of the Manishewitz firm, and everybody admires the pristine whiteness of the perfect squares, the uniform baking, the symmetrical perforations. Then, after due admiration and examination of the Kosher Lepesach stamp printed on the wrapping and signed by the renowned Rabbi, head of the congregation and the one responsible for the purity of the product, they are place among the Hametz dishes, to be eaten after the Passover.
Two kinds of matzes are baked: Shmireh matzes (guarded matzes) and common ones. The wheat for the guarded kind was bought from Jewish farmers, known for their piety and learning, who could be trusted and depended on in matters of kashrut. The wheat is guarded from the beginning of the harvest and the threshing,. After having been dried in a clean space, it is ground by hand and any contact with anything sour is carefully avoided. The coarse grey flour is packed in white cotton bags and sold to those who are more pedantic in their ritual. At the main element in calculating the price of the product is the trustworthiness of the producer, it is determined, as in any exclusive shop, by the seller's reputation.
The shmireh matzes are intended for the father of the family and his older sons who are students of the Torah. The women and children eat common matzes, but there are feminists who are not content with leaving all the religious duties to the men and struggle for equality in matters of the next world. These women read Tzenna u'r'enna and know a smattering of the law so that, on winning the fight they, too, join the eaters of guarded matzes.
Not only is the raw material, the guarded wheat, costly, but the baking of these matzes comes much higher than that of the common product.
The baking procedure is as follows: every evening before sunset the gentile drawer of water brings water from the well, accompanied by a child who sees to it that no sour element enters the water, God forbid. The water is then sieved through a white cloth spread over a wooden barrel, and the barrel is then covered by another white cloth and a lid. This water is called Water that has slept, for it is left overnight. The flour to be baked is brought by each customer individually. The oven is made kosher every day anew so that any shred of sourness that might have penetrated is completely burnt out. Every morning, before work begins, the carpenter comes with his plane to smooth down the boards on which the matzes are rolled out. The workers are assembled, the whole ensemble waiting for the customer who had bought the option for the ershten oyven the first oven of the day signifying the most prestigious baking of all. The privilege of the ershen oyven is the prerogative of the rabbi, the ritual slaughterer or other notables, and these gentry usually end their prayers at a late hour. They pray in two pairs of tefillin, their prayer books abound with introductory prayers and many additions after the regular prayer. For all that, though they do their best to try and be early, speeding up the religious rites, they are always late, letting the whole team stand and wait for them impatiently.
A few days before the actual baking, the learned scholar once more goes over the laws of the Passover dealing with matzes baking, refreshing his memory about the prohibitions lest it may have become somewhat rusty during the twelve months when he had neglected them. Fully alerted to all the suspect points he enters the bakery, dressed in his best and wearing a serious expression. He is surrounded by his family and all eyes are upon him. He kisses the mezuzah and blesses those present. The precious bag of flour
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is carried in his hand like an uninsured treasure and he looks around for some safe place to lay it down.
His retinue disperses over the area, taking the strategic vantage points which will enable them to view the action. They are wide awake and alert to any possible infringement or the danger of sour element which threaten every corner. The sign is given and the production is set in motion. The first meyreh is on its way. The portion of dough is so calculated as to ensure that the number of matzes produced will conform to the number of workers and the oven's capacity, so that there will be no teyglah, or leftovers of dough on the table.
Each of the two children on either side of the kneader pours on the material in his charge. These youngsters who, from the moment the kneading is over until the dough is taken to the work-table are actually unoccupied, would give anything to exchange a few words together, but the kneading woman will have none of this and keeps them well apart, for the children represent elements which must not come in contact with each other. Any talk between the flour covered urchin on the right of the kneading bowl and his water bespattered colleague on the left of it might let lose a certain amount of the materials in their hands and the resulting contact might immediately engender the most dangerous reaction Hametz! (fermentation).
Like a baby from its tub the dough is taken out of the bowl and divided into teyglach among the working women who begin forming them into matzes. The Ester Oyven wanders around among them, hurrying them on by stressing the need for speed for reasons of kashrut alone, not, God forbid, because he might be thought to be interested in increasing their production. For the sake of the ritual matzes! For the sake of ritual matzes! The girls stop their giggling out of respect for the pious atmosphere and go on gossiping in whispers which, too, is stopped by the chorus: For the sake of ritual matzes! The girls roll out the matzes with celerity, raising them up against the light to see if they are thin enough. Then the reddler, after having perforated them, runs with each matza spread out on his hand crying A matze in oyven arrein! (a matze for the oven). Before the oven sits the schieber, the flames reflected in his shiny face and rivers of sweat flowing down his bead and side-locks. He turns the half-finished matzes, takes out the finished ones with the shovel and places them in a woven reed basket lined with a white cloth.
At the table work goes on at full speed. The dough is not left still for one single moment and any teigel left on the table is immediately taken care of by the supervisor. As if he were patting a baby's behind he beats it lightly with a rolling pin to prevent its falling asleep and so much as dreaming of being fermented. This goes on until one of the girls has finished her matza and is ready to receive another teigel. At the end of every round the rolling pin is scraped with a broken piece of glass to clean it of any dough sticking to it and the same is done to that part of the table on which the dough is laced for kneading. It is now the turn of the next meyreh for the sake of ritual matzes! For the sake of ritual matzes!
The finished product is brought to the customer's home by messenger, accompanied and personally guarded by a member of the family who sees to it that nothing untoward happens on the way. It is now the turn of the next customer at the production belt. The oven's degree of kashrut for the mehadrin (meticulous in ritual) is determined by their closeness to the first oven, the first and best, with their importance descending so that by midday all guarded matzes baking is stopped, and only the common kind is made. The same rules and customs are still observed but not so meticulously.
In this work there is not midday break for, as in metal casting, the oven must not be put out. From time to time two or three workers go out for a bite and when they return another group leaves. The baking goes on till the minha and ma'ariv prayer.
The more observant do not bake at night for fear that a grain of hametz might make its way in and remain undiscovered in the dark.
With the commercial baking over comes the turn of the families with many children, those who cannot afford the full price of the baking. Organizing themselves in bahelfen (mutual aid) groups, on the principle of help me and I'll help you, they hire the house, the oven and the production facilities, themselves acting as the labor force. Young people of the Zionist organizations to which one of their children belongs come en bloc to volunteer their help. The whole company sings and jokes and an atmosphere of merrymaking is created. The work is conducted speedily and efficiently, with no need for a supervisor to hurry them along. The matzes thus
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produced are, without doubt, the most kosher ones of them all.
There is another kind of guarded matza, a super guarded kind baked on the very eve of the Holyday, called No sleep matzes, baked especially for the use of the Rabbi's house and for the well-to-do Hassidim who are in the position of paying for them cash down. When an ordinary Hassid manages to get such a matza from the Rabbi's house he keeps it for the first seder night to be used as an Afikoman, ultimately to be enjoyed by the whole family.
These matzes are dubbed No sleep matzes for, being baked on the very same day, they are not kept overnight. Another reason is that while baking them the Hassidim sing a verse from the Psalms and Hallel, including the verse Lo llanu ki leshimha ten kavod, etc.
These matzes are baked by men only Hassidim permanently housed in the Rabbi's courtyard, called Yoshvim (dwelling), and the Rabbi himself participates actively in the process, investing it with his special spirit.
There is a further, sarcastic ambiguity inherent to lo lanu, denoting a worthless good-for-nothing, on the line of lo aleinu (may we be spared such). The exaggerated boasting indulged in by the possessors of the matzes, and the inordinate importance attributed to them is too much, even for those who are very careful as to the obligatory laws, and this is their way of making fun of the matzes pedigree and the hangers-on who handle them.
As early as the beginning of Adar the children are warned not to eat in bed, not to wander around with a slice of bread in hand, thus spreading bread-crumbs around the house Pesach is fast approaching! But the main cleaning operation begins just one week before the Holyday, intensifying daily as the great day approaches. Every piece of furniture is moved around and its surrounding area, above and below, thoroughly cleaned, after which it may be declared Peisahdick and may be walked in, but only for special duties and with Mother's sanction. Hour by hour the Pesach comes nearer in the footsteps of the broom, the duster and the fleddervish (goose feather) which clears out the hametz in its honor until, by the eve of Passover, it is totally vanquished.
An unforgettable experience for the children is the airing of the books before Pesach a job they set to with a will. All the holy books such as the Gemarrah, Mishnayes, the Pentateuch, the Shulhan Arukh, morality and Hassidic books, prayer books of all kinds all are taken out into the yard to be spread out on benches, chairs, wooden cases and boards. Only the Pesach Haggoddes are handled by father who shakes them lightly to clear the dust, wipes them with a duster and lays them away in an area already made Peisahdick. The rest of the books remain outside till evening.
Somehow the books appear a little drunk with all the fresh air and the sunlight they have been exposed to. The children stare at them as if enchanted with the pages that turn and run forward yet are always in place. One moment the wind falls wildly upon the pages, trying to tear them out of place, only to calm down and begin turning them judiciously, enjoying what is written here, turning a few pages then going back again, as if comparing the different texts and delving into their depths, just like a scholar at the Beis Hamidrash.
And this is what the musing child sees before him: Yellowed, dog-eared pages, blackened and made ragged with endless fingering, spotted with the marks of tears and candle-wax droppings, faded pages of prayer books, siddurim and machzorim brimming with prayers and entreaties all are now released from their confining covers which are almost falling apart anyhow, merrily rising to the light spring breeze and enjoying their unexpected freedom. He sees them circling the yard and then, as they gather courage, rising and flying high, over the lowly roofs and then out they go, who know whither
Having wandered afar they wish to come back, but have lost their way meandering among the houses. Finally they land on the fences, get caught in the shrubs and the weeds, or fall into the puddles in the street. Some of them are gathered up by pious passers-by and, after being kissed are relegated to the attick in the synagogues. Others fall into hostile territory, get lost in the alien yards and gardens, only to be trapped. They don't last long. Cruelly shoveled with iron rakes they are viciously thrust away until they disappear entirely.
On the Saturday before the Passover the Great Sabbath, it is jokingly said that all the ringworm sufferers send their blisters (Parhes) off to Egypt. Ringworm, commonly called Pareh, was widespread in those days, before improved sanitation and hygienic awareness caused it to disappear. The disease left
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many white spots on numberless heads, leaving them looking like a field swept by fire and visible from afar. The victims, also called Parhes, were called up for some reason on the Great Sabbath (probably because there was some connection between the blight and the boils of Egypt) to present themselves and prepare to leave at dawn.
Though their alleged destination was ancient Egypt, the Parhes was given a special express train, put at their disposal by the shtetl wags. It transpired that this journey represented the savings of endangered lives, for it abrogated the Great Sabbath. Notices were put up on the synagogue boards giving the meeting place: Egyptian Scribes Square corner Potiphar St. On their arrival in Egypt they were to assemble at Pithom and Raamses, Darkness of Egypt St., Scratchers' Avenue etc.
Rhymes and ditties were written in honor of this journey; special material was printed in Yiddish and Polish including instructions, invitations, call up notices and tickets to Egypt, as well as prospectuses on the lines of the Tourism Department and the like.
As the number of clients in need of such tourism began to decline, this activity of the humorists lost its immediacy and they presumably found other fields to shine in, so that in later years it was no longer to be found, and was only mentioned as a curiosity or a stale joke that was no longer amusing to anyone.
Just before the Holyday, with the coming of spring weather, the children cast off their winter clothing, all bespattered with dried-up mud. Efforts are made to provide each child with something new to wear for Pesach. Clothes were not bought ready-made but were ordered from the tailor. When you were being measured for this there were always arguments with Mother about a back pocket for the pants and an inner one for the jacket.
What do you need so many pockets for? What will you put in them, pebbles, bits of glass, rusty nails?It is stipulated that the tailor will finish the garment before the Holyday and the latter, eager for his money with which he supplies his own Holyday needs, delivers it earlier, thus creating further problems for the mother how to prevent the excited child from putting it on straight away.
I need them for all kinds of things! cries the child on the defensive, trying to bolster up his shaky arguments with a little judicious begging. But they are all firmly put off till next year: By then, God willing, you will be older and stop stuffing your pockets with every bit of garbage you can find!
Just before the Holyday an effort is made to finish off the Hametz supplies in store, and the meals are mostly made of doughy foods. Actually everybody is eating at the expense of the Shabbes Goy who has already bought all the Hametz in the shtetl lawfully, through the agency of the Rabbi and according to a contract drawn up between the two.
The moving space in the house is constantly contracting, so that getting around in it is like walking through a minded field. Don't go there! You mustn't tread there! Be careful! The chairs have been polished and must not be sat in Hametz pants so, nolens volen, one sits on a crate, an overturned pail, or doesn't sit at all, eating while standing around the bowl and bending over it so that the crumbs don't fall all around. The street is lively with last-minute preparations for the Holyday. Jews from the adjacent villages all come to the shtetl for any business connected with the Passover the sale of Hametz, dipping new dishes, the slaughter house, a question to the Rabbi on the Laws of the Pesach etc. Here is one of them passing in his cart through the market, whip in hand and evidently in good spirits. He is bringing a young calf for the slaughter to celebrate the Holiday. Shalom Aleichem, Reb Hershl, some young men surround him, What's that in your polkoshik (a reed basket woven all round the cart)?
I'm bringing a Korben Pesach'l (a little Passover sacrifice, as in the days of the Temple) he answers humorously, pleased at his own wit.
At the words a Korben Pesach'l the company brings him without ado to the Rabbi who, after eliciting the evidence from those present, give the following sentence: the calf, being dedicated by Hershl as a sacrifice, must not be enjoyed till the rebuilding of the Temple. Till then, in the meantime, it must be buried in the ground (presumably it will rise in the resurrection!)
Who would not sympathize with the poor wretch, whose plans have gone all awry in a single moment, destroyed by his own words. A loan is arranged for him at the Rabbi's and he stumbles off to the nearest butcher's to buy some meat for the Holyday. On reaching home the man breaks down with grief. He leaves the cart in the farmyard, enters without kissing
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out in tears.
His wife joins him immediately, moaning loudly and tearing her hair: Woe is me! My Hershl has been robbed! Shma Israel! Only then does she begin to interrogate him: Where is the calf? What are these bones for dogs that you have brought? He is silent and his spouse goes on screeching: What is wrong, Hershl? Have you lost your tongue? Where is the calf? she goes on and on until Hershl turns towards her, clearly enunciating his every word with fury: Shut up at once or I'll say that you, too, are a 'Korban Pesach'l'!
Two days before the Holyday the Pesach dishes are brought down from the boydem. The children rummage among them, each one seeking his own wine cup which he remembers from last year and greets happily as if it were a friend.
The porcelain and glass plates of Pesach, used only during a few days in the year, are excellently preserved and inherited by each generation from its preceding one. Among the characteristic utensils of the Pesach is a special skillet with hollows, used for the making of chremzlach. Hard-boiled eggs are made in a special earthenware pot easily identified by a ribbon tied to its handle. Eggs are, without doubt, a kosher food for Pesach, but as for their peels, who can tell if, God forbid, they have not been contaminated by a touch of Hametz. They are therefore boiled in a kind of two-kind vessel, a creature on its own, neither hametzdik or Pesachdik, to be used on the Pesach for this one purpose only.
The iron grills of the stove are kashered by being thrust into flames until they become red hot. The stove's plastered edges are covered with a tin covering made especially for the purpose. The well-scrubbed tables are covered with pieces of plywood formerly used in the shops to roll material on, or with the boards of dismantled packing cases which have been proved to contain neutral materials with no suspicion of Hametz. These wooden boards, kept from year's end to year's end serve to isolate the Hametz table from the newly spread table cloth upon which the Pesach dishes and the matzes are placed.
On the eve of the Holyday a Hametz inspection is conducted by means of a fleddervisch, a goose feather. Ten squares of bred, scattered in advance, are gathered up in a wooden spoon. One of the children accompanies Father, candle in hand, and directs him to these squares which symbolize all the Hametz. They are then wrapped in a rag and placed upon the lamp hanging from the ceiling until the morrow, when the Hametz is ceremoniously burnt.
On the final morning before the Pesach the last Hametz meal is eaten, bread leftovers are added to the squares on the lamp and everything is burnt in a fire lit outside. Bread, a food staple all the year round, always treated as almost sacred so that it is forbidden to tread on a single bread crumb, has suddenly turned into an abomination to be shunned at all costs. Throughout the Holyday it must not even be mentioned, for it has become anathema. During the Pesach a loaf of bread is called Hametz'l.
Between the Hametz breakfast and the ceremonious evening meal the Seder, there is a kind of vacuum. Hametz is forbidden but matzes are not yet permitted, a situation reminiscent of the poor peasant whose granary is exhausted but whose harvest is yet to be gathered. Lunch is a hasty affairs of potatoes and griven (fritters), washed down by borscht.
It is the custom in the Diaspora to have two Seders held on the first two days of the Holyday, the second one being even more beautiful and festive than the first. It comes at the end of a day's holiday, a day's rest after the many exhausting preparations. There is a feeling of sublimation, of rising from sanctity to sanctity.
Unlike other Holydays in which the festivity is brought in from outside, from the synagogue, or as in the feast of Tabernacles, the celebration is in the Succah and is enjoyed by the men folk only during the Pesach the festivity is inside the home and the Seder ceremony, the focal point, is held around the family table, with all the members comfortably seated and participating fully. In those days it was not customary, as it is today, for several families to celebrate the Seder together. Each family conducted its own, and every head of a family was king in his own territory.
Members of the family who were away from home, even at a great distance, made every effort to arrive in time for the Seder nights. Only the places of those children who were abroad remained empty. The mother, seeing the empty seat, wipes away a tear surreptitiously, so as not to sin, God forbid, by marring the joy of the Holiday. When the door is opened to admit Elijah the Prophet, her heartbeats
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quickens perhaps the absent son or daughter might come in with him
The festive table is laid twice: once for the ceremony and all its appurtenances peculiar to the Pesach and, only when this is over and the main part of the Haggadah has been read, a second time for the meal itself.
The bowl with all its trimmings lies in the center of the table, like a display in a shop window. Each item it contains is a symbol of some facet of the story of the exodus and the freedom from slavery. The ancient story always retains its freshness, as in the case of old people whose memories of childhood events are every sharp and bright.
The two types of matzes, guarded for the adults and common for the children, lie close to the bowl, with two kinds of wine beside them. There is a wine made of raisins for the women and children, so they may drink the four goblets without getting drunk. The maror (bitter horseradish), not content with having scorched our eyes while it was being minced, was still bent on setting the palette, the tongue and the stomach on fire.
Father sits in his usual place of honor, but this time his chair is well-padded with pillows, as befits a king, and his whole entourage and the royal family sits around his table, eager for his every word.
The Seder proceeds according to the well-know code of Kadesh u'rehatz, which appears in the Haggadah in its shortened form as sign marks preventing mistakes. These signs were developed in the Heder and given a wider content. Kadesh Father returns home from synagogue on Pesach night, hurrying to make the Kiddush before the little ones fall asleep and so on, till nirtzeh one eats and drinks and has a lot of fun. The head of the Family leads his convoy courageously and with confidence. He is the uncontested ruler of the festive table, arranged to the last detail. It is he who puts every item in place, pours the four cups wine for the whole family, hands out the compulsory portions of maror, karpass, haroset and, after the meal, the afikoymen. The method of distribution is prescribed by law and no one would think of criticizing it. The only exception is when Mother feels discriminated against during the distribution of maror and insists that her portion be increased to ka'za'it (a pinch the size of an olive) as the law provided. Not that she knows how much is a ka'za'it. In her estimation it should be the size of a watermelon. Choking and coughing, swallowing her tears with difficulty, she obstinately insists on her right to get more so as to perform the mitzvah properly, at least from the quantitative point of view.
Father reads the Haggadah loudly and eloquently, stressing the words where necessary, the family repeating after him. The youngest child asks the four questions first in Hebrew then in the Yiddish translation. He begins thus: Father, I'll ask you four questions; the first question I'll ask you etc. He concludes thus: Now give me an excuse! Then, perhaps under the influence of the Haggadah's spirit of rebelliousness and independence on the one hand, and the wine imbibed on the other, he winds up strangely with the remark: and if you don't explain it to me I'll explain it to myself.
Those who have learned and mastered the Loshon Koydesh have no difficulty in chanting the Haggadah; not so those who have left the Heder without knowing Ivri, not to say have no comprehension of the textual meaning. Jewish folklore is rich with the mistakes and linguistic distortions of these amei-ha'artzim (ignoramuses). Humorists were always inventing expressions, sayings and exegeses and presenting them as direct quotes, though no one had actually said them. It did infuse the proceedings with some light-heartedness and even merriment.
During the hol-hamo'ed efforts are made to preserve a festive atmosphere a sort of semi-Holyday. Those forced to labor shorten their working hours and put on their festive clothes and streimlach in the afternoon. Housewives do only the most necessary chores such as cleaning, baking and cooking, but avoid any sewing, mending stockings etc. No letters are written at this time, just postcards, which are shorter, and written in slanted lines to distinguish them from common, everyday writing.
The days of hol-hamo'ed are particularly suited to introductory meetings between bachelors and spinsters and these are organized by the matchmakers who are quite active at this time.
Young men in their best, carrying small suitcases or bags, prepare to go on show (an observation meeting) or, as the jokesters call it the fair. They try to leave in secret, reaching the cart-driver who is waiting for them at a pre-determined spot by tortuous by-lanes. It happens that when the candidate has to pass through a lane where he is exposed to
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the eyes of the neighbours whose curiosity is aroused, that he goes out in his working clothes, carry his best in a suitcase, putting them on just before he enters the cart. Others camouflage the purpose of their journey by wearing some old garment over the new.
Most of the youths resorting to the matchmakers are from the Beis Medresh, carefully minding all the commandments and never shaving. They use technical and chemical means to get rid of their beards, something which is forbidden during the hol ha'mo'ed. The sprouting beard of a few days' duration, the ragged overcoat coupled with the well- shined shoes, the new tie and hat the whole Purimic ensemble looks ridiculously grotesque to the onlooker and only increases the embarrassment of the already confused bridegroom candidate.
All the candidates, young and old alike, share the problem of keeping the trip to the Beshau secret. The youths, new to the game, are shy, fearing their friends will catch them in their crime and later make fun of them. This is particularly so if the shiduh does not materialize and, having failed, they must return to their company. The older bachelors, those who have been going to the Beshau for years, wander from place to place as the matchmakers bid them, stealing out from the shtetl secretly so that, should they fail again, their shame would not be exposed to all. An accumulation of failures makes them lose points, thus lessening their chances every time. It is quipped that these last meggen sholn herren shpielen (are permitted to hear a melody) an ambiguity referring to those who have passed the age of thirty. An avel (person in mourning), God forbid, may hear a melody after Shloishim the thirty days prescribed for mourning have gone by. The bachelor, having passed thirty, may also hear the orchestra playing at his wedding. There are those rare cases of men approaching their forties who have given up hope and been crossed off the matchmakers' lists, of whom it is said that they vellen shoin shtarben in leil tzudeckel (they will die in their four-fringed shirts, without a tallis). The tallis symbolizes a pater familias and without it one cannot be a fully privileged member of society; it is a precondition for all kinds of functions and honors such as going before the Ark of the Law, being awarded an important reading of the Torah, sitting at the head of the table at festive or Hassidic celebrations, etc.
Unlike family men whose status grows in importance over the years and, as the white hairs in their beards increase so do they accumulate honors for the bachelors increasing age is considered a fault and with the passing of the years they are cut off from their peers, often finding themselves the companions of the offspring of their partners in study.
On only one occasion do the older bachelors find themselves in a position of respectable importance during the farschpiel on the Sabbath before a wedding. The celebrations begin on that Saturday with an oifruff, going up to the Torah. When the cantor cantillates: Ya'amod he'hattan! it is a sign to beverfen nuts and sweets are thrown at the reading table from the women's gallery, to the joy of the children who tumble about on the floor trampling the candy in the melee. In the afternoon a party is given at the bridegroom's home, called farschpiel (Introductory melody coming before the actual wedding music). At this party the bridegroom takes leave of his bachelor companions. It is worth noting that he usually leaves not only his friends but the shtetl itself, to make his home with the bride's family to which his own family will be attached.
It is at this farewell party that the older bachelors are compensated for the indignity of being always ignored at all other ceremonies here they are the guests of honor. Having participated innumerable times in such parties, accompanying many bridegrooms, they are familiar with the ritual and knew all the songs and melodies to be sung. Here they are the veterans and their tenure as bachelors stands them in good stead.
There is another kind of travelling bachelor during the hol hamo'ed. These are not prospective bridegrooms but real ones, those who have achieved their aspirations and are going to spend the tzweite teg (end of the Holyday) at their in-laws' while visiting their bride. They leave the shtetl with head high, proudly walking the pavement in their bridegroom's suit, their spirits fine. Taking a warm leave from passers-by they answer the usual question of Going to the bride, what? with a positive affirmative.
More than any other Holyday the passing generations have endowed the Pesach with prohibitions and restrictions. Besides those laid down by the Shulchan Arukh, whose purpose was to prevent any contact with Hametz, God forbid everybody exerted himself to add all kinds of interdicts
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and major and minor reservations as he saw fit, all in accordance with the Haggadah rule: the more the better.
As every individual had his own system of prohibitions no less jealously guarded than the laws which were generally binding, it became common practice that during the Pesach no one would go to eat at friends' houses, and dishes were not borrowed either from neighbours or relatives. This phenomenon was called in Yiddish: Pesachmischt men sich nicht! (You don't get involved with each other during the Pesach).
This segregation naturally contained elements of snobbery and a competitive desire to go one better with interdicts and precautions, but there was another principle involved, that of not discriminating between those who were punctilious about every restriction and others more liberal. The rule was applied to everyone in order not to shame the latter. A common prohibition was the use of matza which had been soaked in water, for fear that there might be a pinch of flour on it which would become dough in the process and turn into Hametz or the like. Soaked matza was called gibroktes and was only made for children and in special dishes at that. Oldsters, who had lost their teeth over the years eating matzes, struggled with the dry kind throughout the Holyday, refraining from soaking them. This was also the reason why no kneidlach were eaten all the seven days up till the last of Pesach, the eighth day which had been added in the Diaspora, when parts of the prohibitions were no longer in force. On that day all indulged in their love of the kneidlach, from which they had abstained all through the Holiday.
It must be noted that in spite of all the restrictions detailed above, perhaps because of them, the Pesach was the most beautiful and impressive of all the festivals, with every prohibition adding to its special charm and unique character.
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