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[Pages 27-44]

I Dreamt of Being a Farmer in Eretz Yisrael

By Yosef Yavnai (Slep)

Donated by Lea and Yair Yavnai

Family Slep

The parents
(seated in the middle) and their children: Kehat-Olke (top), Yehuda-Yudel (right), Miryam-Mirka (middle), Ella-Elka and Avraham (left)
In front: Pictures of Micha (right) and Henia-Henka (left)
Top: Their guest from Dvinsk, Geula, daughter of uncle Shmuel-Itzik Slep

 

“As a memento to you [Yosef] from your parents,
brothers and sisters. Slep, September 19, 1925, Dusiat”

Yair Yavnai: This is the story that I heard from my father Yosef Yavnai, when the question of who was the first forefather of our family arose:

The story goes that in the period when the Emperor Napoleon was retreating from Russia (Winter 1812), one of his battalions reached the shtetl of Dusiat in the country of Lithuania. The battalion commander was a Jew. He promised the leaders of the community that he would protect the Jews from the Gentile gangs which were rioting in the area, and indeed, during the entire period that his battalion remained there, not a single ruffian dared harmed a Jew.

One Sabbath eve, as he came out of the synagogue after the prayer service, the battalion commander was surprised to learn that the Russian army had broken into the town, and the French had retreated to save their lives; only he remained. The Jews of the town repaid him for his help, hid him until the Russian army evacuated the area and invited him to join their community. Over time he became integrated into the place, married a pretty girl and founded a family.

A somewhat different version says that one Sabbath eve one of the soldiers from that same retreating army entered the synagogue and asked to take part in the prayers. After the service, the people invited him to remain there; he accepted their invitation (as opposed to the alternative – continuing to retreat in the Russian winter…) and joined the community.

Either way, that same “French soldier” is the first founding father of our family that we know about.

 

My Childhood

We had a store selling leather products. I didn't like it much. We, the children, would have much preferred it if we had had a grocery store. My only wish in life was to be surrounded by candy. Instead, I was surrounded by leather. You can't eat leather soles…! My aunt Freidl owned a grocery store. To this day I remember where she used to keep the candy: in a small, locked box, on the top shelf. And when I would try to climb on the shelves, she'd know exactly why, and would say “er kricht shoyn!” (He learned how to crawl!)… But she would give me a piece of candy anyway. We used to call her “Mume Freidke”, but than she married Yosef Levitt, and we had to start calling her “Mume Freidl”. It was more dignified…

We used to have a housemaid, since Mama had to help around the store. Mother spoke fluent Lithuanian, better than Father, and a little Polish, too. On Sundays, the goyim (gentiles) would go to Church, and we'd have to be extra careful and watch out for thieves. A goy might walk into the store and slip a shoe-sole into his pocket. I remember how Dad would hug all the goyim before they left the store, to make sure they didn't steal anything, and Mama would scold him for that. Father was so suspicious of the goyim, that once, when the store was on fire and Mother asked a young goy to help salvage the merchandize, Father stopped him from walking in, worrying he might steal something. Meanwhile everything was going up in flames!

This story makes me think of Grandfather Hanoch Chatzkel. During the great fire, our house burned down, and we had to move in with him. We put out a table with merchandize on it, trying to sell to passers by. My brother Avraham and I were supposed to be keeping an eye on things, but Grandpa managed to outsmart us. He snatched a shoe-sole and “stole” away, without us noticing, only to come back a minute later, waving the sole, scolding: “This is how you keep an eye out?” “We saw it was you, and we know you aren't a thief” - I tried to defend our wounded honor…

Who wore the pants in the family? I guess it was Mother. Father was less involved. He much preferred reading, and always made time for it. The post would arrive, and with it the Yiddish newspaper, and there were many books at home.

Mother really wanted me to go to yeshiva, but Father strongly opposed it, wanting me to acquire a “real profession”. And Father had the last word.

Our shtetl was willingly religious and traditional. Most were Mitnaggedim (Opponents), and few – Hassidic. But everyone was moderate. Father wore a cap rather than a yarmulke (skull cap), much like most of the men and boys in shtetl. No one would sit at the dinner table bareheaded. Everyone accepted this without being forced to do so.

Father was wise, but criticized everything. He opposed the religious institution, but followed the mainstream. He would lay tefillin every morning, as did my brothers and I. That was the thing to do. Father never asked me if I had said my prayers. He wouldn't snoop…

Every Friday and Saturday, we would go willingly to synagogue where I would meet all my friends. When it was time to go to synagogue, Father would procrastinate, which would drive Mother mad.

Father had a prominent seat in our synagogue, passed down him by his father. Micha Baron remembers that on the eve of Yom Kippur, before saying “Al Da'at Hamakom[1], my father and Yosel Shifra's[2] had the distinguished honor of opening the Holy Ark, and no one would dare challenge this privilege.

In my opinion, my father was out of place in our shtetl. He didn't belong there. Being a storeowner wasn't for him. He was a great scholar, and people in the shtetl would say that under Reb Emanuel's stand [in the synagogue] you could find the author Shalom Ash…

Father was very meticulous about choosing our tutors, which made other parents choose the same tutors: “If Reb Emanuel Slep's children study with this tutor, so will ours…”

In the Cheder

Initially, I went to the cheder of Rabbi Yehiel Garber, the limping melamed.

I vividly remember my first day there. As soon as the melamed turned to take some books out of the cupboard, I sneaked out and went home. I wanted to do the same the next day, but the melamed learned his lesson, and locked the door. I burst into tears, and was sent home.

I stayed at home for an entire week, and then Grandpa Hanoch decided that if he took me to cheder himself, I'd be bound to stay. He took me in his arms, and as we neared the cheder, I threw away the inkbottle, hoping he would bend down to pick it up, at which point I would run away. But no! A boy just passed us by, and Grandpa asked him to pick it up. I remember threatening him in Yiddish, saying, “You had better not, or I will behead you!”…

Rabbi Yehiel used a modern tutoring method, not the traditional method “Kometz Aleph A”, and the older generation was very suspicious of him. His books were funny, with a drawing next to each letter. I remember next to the word “ish” there was an image of a man, with a big aleph next to it (the first letter of the Hebrew word for “man”).

The melamed was very strict. He would call any flunking pupil “trante” (rag), and I stubbornly refused to stay in his cheder, and went to study with another melamed, Rabbi Moshe Karpels. He used to teach in the traditional method, which I rather enjoyed. I very willingly spent two separate “zmanim” (semesters) there, summer and winter.

And yet, I did go back to Rabbi Yehiel's cheder, at which point he asked me: “Well, how did you do with Moshe's hoyzen (pants)?” And why did I come back? Unbelievable. All because of the Hebrew letter “resh”. I was jealous of my brother Avraham who could pronounce this rolling “resh” between tongue and palate, picking that from Rabbi Yehiel. Owing to this “resh”, I went back to my first cheder…

And Rabbi Yehiel was surely strict and meticulous! He was a Cohen, and Cohanim are known for being quick-tempered. And he would beat us, too! Even my brother Yehuda was scared of him, and once he escaped from cheder, climbed up on the roof, and threatened to jump down…

I should mention, though, that this melamed was an excellent educator, with beautiful penmanship. He even made the simple- looking letter “nun” seem like a masterpiece, which we could never replicate. We had lessons dedicated to penmanship, and he would keep coaching us, always emphasizing that we need not try to imitate him. Rabbi Yehiel would also press upon us the differentiation between the letters “sh” (“shin” – dot on the right) and “s” (“sin” – dot on the left)[3].

Rabbi Yechiel gradually taught us Hebrew and grammar, and to this day, I remember those classes, dealing with the verb groups. We also had Bible studies, and I remember the pages of the Chumash[4] were divided into two sections – one in Hebrew and one in Yiddish. I studied Rashi[5] later on. And then there were the Hebrew books – “Beit Mikra”,Beit Sefer”, and “Leket” – Gemara[6] for beginners.

As we got older, we were taught how to write letters, and every Friday we would have to translate them from Yiddish to Hebrew. One time, the melamed asked me to translate a sentence. During the break, I snooped through his books, and found the Hebrew translation to the sentence. It was better than the one I came up with. It said: “All those reclining at the table burst out laughing.” I liked that sentence so much; it brought tears to my eyes. It still does…

Two Hebrew Songs from Cheder

1.

Our home is small,
My room is very narrow,
But in it I have a treasure
The best of all. It is my good mother,
More dear than gold,
And when I sit by her,
I am full of joy.
Anything can be exchanged
For silver or gold.
But a beloved mother,
Cannot be found
At any price.
2.

Let us go out, to the fields,
Where flower buds
Blossom and bloom.
Feast our eyes
On their brilliant colors,
Confuse our noses
With their scents.

(Press “Next Page” for continuation)

 

Footnotes

  1. With the approval of the omnipresent. Return
  2. Yosel Zeligson was referred to as Yosel Shifra's (Yosel, son of Shifra) while his brother Itzik was known as Itzik Moshe's (Itzik, son of Moshe). Return
  3. The “Litvak” oddity was to confuse the pronunciation of these two letters. Return
  4. The Pentateuch - first five Books of the Bible. Return
  5. Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki – paramount Bible and Talmud commentator, 11th century. Return
  6. Second and supplementary part of the Talmud, providing a commentary on the first part, the Mishnah. Return

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