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[Pages 79-82]

Under the Beams of the House

Translated by Judy Grossman

 
Taking leave of Rasya Kagan beside her parent's home, before her immigration to Eretz Yisrael

On the sign: A. KAGAN -“smulkiu prekiu“ (notion, in Lithuanian)

From right to left: Yehuda (Yudel) Slep, Malka Levitt, Hillel Schwartz, Chaya-Tzipe Slep and her grandaughter and daughter Rivkale and Ella Schwartz, Rasya Kagan and her parents Asher and Chava (nee Chatzkel), (-),(-),(-),(-), Elka Charit, Rivka Shub, (-), Chava Shub, Sarka Melamed, (-), and the child Chanoch Schwartz

 

Rasya Tal (Kagan): Our house was a kind of two-storey one, with the top floor being an attic (”salke“) that was used as a room. The roof was tiled and the floors were made of wooden boards. For Shabbath we used to scrub the floor with a brush (”bezem“), and then replace the long simple rugs.

Shayke Glick: The walls of the house were made from logs. I assisted Getzel Binder[1] the builder and I remember that they used to split each log in half lengthwise and place straw or dried moss between the two halves as insulation. The inner wall had a “net” of skinners attached to it, and they plastered it with wet clay. The windows were double. We used to place rolls of colored paper filled with wool or cotton wool in the sill between the windowpanes, and on them decorations or even apples. This served as protection from the cold and for decoration.

Batya Aviel (Levitt): Our house had four bedrooms, and we always slept two to a bed, and the shouts “You're grabbing the blanket!” could frequently be heard. The mattresses were filled with straw and some perhaps with seaweed.

Rasya Tal (Kagan): At the entrance was the dining room, which was very meagerly furnished: a table and chairs. During the week the table was covered with a waxed tablecloth, and on Friday evenings with a white one. There was one window, and another door that was half glass. On the left was the kitchen, which was very dark. There stood a wood-burning stove. In the winter our mother would push us to bring more and more logs from the pile in the yard, lest there be a sudden downpour and they get wet, heaven forbid! The stove heated the house, and if we wanted to bake, we would remove the logs and embers from it and put in the items to bake, and I can still remember the taste of the bread.

There were all kinds of bread in Wolfe's (Feldman) bakery: “sitnice“, a mixed wheat and rye bread – not white not black; ”corn broyt“ and ”razeve broyt“, black bread with a special flavor, which improved over time. ”Solene broyt“ – a sort of white bread was baked at home. They baked for a whole week.

On the eve of the Shabbath they used to put the pot with the cholent in the baker's oven, and thanks to the ”Eruv[2] “ (a Shabbath boundary) it was permissible to carry the pots home.

Malka Gilinsky (Feldman): In my grandmother's bakery they also baked halles to sell for Shabbath and holidays, but I remember a poor family who used to receive them for free.

Batya Aviel (Levitt): I remember Wolfe's bakery, Malka's grandfather. I was a little girl and my mother sent me to Reb Wolfe to buy a loaf of bread (“a funt sitnice broyt”). My mother taught me to address him politely: “Good morning Reb Wolfe, may I please have a pound of sitnice bread.” She told me so many words, how to address him and what to ask for, that I became confused. I turned things around and said: “Good morning sitnice, may I please have a pound of Wolfe.” This angered Reb Wolfe and he chased me out. I returned home crying and embarrassed.

Tzila Gudelsky (Shub): A similar thing happened to me too. I became confused and said: “Good morning sitnice, please give me half a pound of Wolfe” and the townspeople had another funny story to add to the folklore.

Batya Aviel (Levitt): There was a cow in almost every yard. The Gentile woman used to milk it two or three times a day, and we drank fresh milk, not, heaven forbid, the ”treif“ [non-kosher] milk of the Gentiles. My mother used to let milk sour, make cheese, add eggs to it and dry it in the oven. This was a healthy and nourishing dish!

Fish were brought home straight from the river, while they were still “twitching”. A popular dish was fish, cooked in milk and butter, and another dish was meat and borscht with lots of potatoes. And there was also ”bruknesok“, made from ”bruknes“ with pears and apples, as a side dish with the meat.

The mothers used to take pains in cooking, and so did Teibl, the mother of Hillel (the school principal). But she would also complain and say, as though insulted, “When Hillel sits down to eat he is lost in reading. I try so hard, and he doesn't even remember what he ate!”

On the Sabbath Eve my mother would give me the dish with the compote to take down to the ”ludovne”- ice cellar. I remember the ice cellar in the yard of Leib Gordon's grandfather. They also used to store meat there, and even an entire calf! On the Sabbath, when we came to take the dishes, the owner of the cellar would point at the large number of dishes and ask: “Can you recognize your pot?” I was always amazed that he knew which pot belonged to whom.

Sanitary conditions were problematic, especially in the winter. There was no bathtub, and they would make do with a proper wash once a week in the public bathhouse.

In our house we did have a bathtub (without enamel) that was meant for my father, who was sickly. They installed a heater for heating the water in the tub. I remember that I liked taking a bath, and my mother called me ”katchke“ (duck).

Rivka Levitt: There was no electricity. They heated with wood and lit the house with a carbide lamp, which occasionally needed to have air blown into it.

In our house there was a small stove for heating in the winter, and we also used it for cooking. In the winter they used to block up the chimney, and the heat spread through the house. The embers didn't produce smoke, and the heat was pleasant.

Shayke Glick: How did they boil water for tea? In the samovar there was a special space for coal and pieces of wood, and when the steam poured out of the hole, they knew that the water was boiling.

Rasya Tal (Kagan): How did they wash dishes, since there were no faucets? They would put the dishes in a basin, pour boiling water over them and scrub them with straw. The pots they used to scrub with sand. I don't think that they used soap, perhaps because they feared it might be non-kosher, or perhaps because it was expensive. I used to go to the lakeshore to wash the pots, and there I used to encounter other children, especially Chaya-Tzipe's children who lived at the lakeshore. I very much liked to clean the ”mednitze“, a special copper dish for making up “varenye“, potions, which was always so shiny!

Shayke Glick: Was there a toilet? Yes! It was an outhouse in the yard, a high wooden box with a door that stood over a deep hole. In the winter when it snowed, and especially at night, who dared to go all the way there? And people didn't go all the way. In the spring, when the snow melted, “treasures” would be found near all the houses, and we would burst out laughing at the sight of the discoveries… We had to quickly clean up the dirt, because the town inspector would come by and inspect, and fine people. This wasn't because the government loved cleanliness, but because they were afraid of epidemics.

Rivka Shteinman (Shub): I recall that a lame Gentile with a wagon used to come to the shtetl and it was said that he had been wounded in the war. He used to go from yard to yard, and using a stick would collect the dirt from the outhouse, load it onto the wagon and bury it in a pit outside the shtetl. They would pour lime into the outhouse to prevent infection.

Rachel Vitkin (Shub): They used to hang up bags of naphthalene to ward off epidemics.

Batya Aviel (Levitt): Every house had a cellar in which they stored all kinds of good items. With the help of our Gentile maid my mother used to fill barrels with sauerkraut, and they also made noodles in large quantities. They used to cook pears in sugar and freeze them, and afterwards they had to cut them up with an axe. We used to go down to the cellar and eat our fill, and we especially loved to take the pears and apples from the sacks.

Shayke Glick: They used to drag sacks filled with fruit and vegetables from the fields to store in the cellars and in pits. I can't forget how my sister Adina used to carry things home from the field, carrying sacks of apples and potatoes to the cellar on her back. How hard it was for her! My mother, Rochel-Leah, was an expert at preparing delicacies for weddings and other special occasions. She was always busy, and we helped her.

Yaacov Charit: To this day I can remember the taste of the teiglach and eingemachtes that Rochel-Leah used to make for weddings. Sometimes, when I eat a teigel at a wedding here, in the Diaspora, I also say that it is far from tasting like Rochel-Leah Glick's teighlach.

Beile Klem (Simanowitz): Rochel-Leah, ”di kecherin“ (the cook), was very much in demand, and I remember that at one of the affairs in our family we specifically wanted her services, and we were very disappointed when we learned that Rochel-Leah was busy preparing for another affair outside the shtetl.

Shayke Glick: When my mother was invited to prepare food for an affair outside the shtetl, she was often away from home, sometimes even for two weeks. Then we, the children, prepared food for ourselves. I remember the “bombes”, de kneidlach (dumplings) made from flour and grated potatoes. We would put twenty-four such dumplings in a pot, they would rise and rise, and frequently ran over the pot. Every child would get two boiling hot dumplings, and after such a meal we would get up from the table tired and perspiring…

There were ”kneidlach mit neshomes“ (dumplings with “souls”) and ”kneidlach on neshomes“ (dumplings without “souls”). The “souls” were the grivenes, rendered goose fat fried with onions. Just before Hanukah they used to slaughter geese, and the fat would be preserved in a clay dish for Pesach kneidlach [matzo balls]. All kinds of dishes were served as side dishes with the meat: antanavkes [a special kind of apple], with spalgine. From the spalgine they made gelerete, preserves. Eingemachtes are preserves from radishes, and ingberlach are a candy made from carrots.

Sara Weiss (Slep): I first tasted eingemachtes at Rachel Rabinowitz's (Slovo), and I couldn't imagine that this was preserves made from radishes! And I was amazed that the ingberlach which I tasted at the homes of Shulamit Shpak (Katz) and Batya Levitt were candies made from carrots. Esther Pomus's (Orlin) teiglach are like “a delicacy in honey”, but my attempts to cook like them were in vain. My guest, Batya Levitt, found it hard to believe that the pastries I served her were meant to be teiglach, and she told me that when cooking this concoction you mustn't lift the lid, it's forbidden to approach the pot, or even to breathe…

Recipe for Dry Teiglach - Chana Levin (Grun, from Antaliept)

Ingredients for the dough: 1 whole egg, 3 yolks, 2 tbsp. oil, 1 tsp. ginger (ingber), 2 tbsp. cognac, ½ tsp. baking powder, enough sifted flour so the dough is malleable but soft.

Ingredients for syrup: 2 cups water, 2 cups sugar, ½ cup honey.

Boil ingredients for syrup in a pot.

Roll out dough to the thickness of a finger and cut out 2½ cm. shapes. You can also roll out the dough to make a 2½ cm. rope and cut off slices. Place in the pot with the syrup. Cover the pot tightly and cook the teiglach on a medium heat for 15-20 minutes.

Remove from the pot and strain. Roll the teiglach in a mixture of the sugar and ginger and cool on a board.

Do not remover the lid during cooking! The remaining syrup can be diluted with water and used to cook cabbage rolls or tsimmes.

 

Recipe for Ingberlach (Shayke Glick)

Ingredients: 1 kg. grated carrots, 1 kg. sugar, a pinch of ground ginger (ingber).

Dissolve sugar and carrots on top of stove, stirring constantly until the mixture boils.

Add a pinch of ginger and continue stirring.

Test a small amount of the mixture on a plate to see if it has crystallized.

Wet a hard surface and ladle a layer of the mixture onto the board, the width of a finger. Cut the mixture into squares, rectangles or any other shape.

Bon appetite!

 

On the lakeshore

Slovka Segal washing clothes in a wooden tub - “multer”, with the wooden beater - “pralnik”- leaning against the stool

 

Shayke Glick: They would rake the coals and ashes out of the stove and pour water over the burning embers in order to preserve them for reuse. They would put the ashes into a cloth bag and place the bag into the water with the laundry. The water would sting your hands, and dissolve the dirt …

Yosef Yavnai (Slep): On laundry day the Gentile washerwomen used to come from seskamiestis, the labor neighborhood, and from other neighborhoods, and I remember that several of them knew every child by name and by nickname. In our house they used to count the items to be laundered; the Gentile woman would take them to the river or the lake, beat them and clean them thoroughly and return them to the house, where they were once again counted…

Malka Gilinsky (Feldman): They used to lay out the wet laundry on benches and beat it with a pralnik (a wooden beater), wet it and beat it over and over again until all the dirt was removed.

Rivka Shteinman (Shub): Something that happened at the lakeshore: I was then a little girl, perhaps four years old, and I followed the washerwomen who were carrying the “multer” and the “pralnik”, tubs and beaters down to the lake. I was standing and watching them when a Jew came up to me, lifted my dress and said: “See how clean the underpants are!” I remember that they were lace-trimmed underpants, a gift from America. I was astounded and even insulted, and when I returned home I asked my mother why the man had behaved in that way. “Why are you amazed?” she answered. “There are people whose homes are so dirty that they are surprised to see clean underpants.”

Shayke Glick: There wasn't just one laundry day, but at least two. After rinsing it in the lake, they would bring it home to boil, rinse it again, scrub it on the ”vash bretl“, washboard, rinse it and starch it, and when it was finally dry, they would iron it – with a coal heated iron, of course…

Batya Aviel (Levitt): When several weeks went by without the laundry drying, we received new pajamas that were sewn from the remnants of materials in our shop.

Rich Folk

Batia Aviel (Levitt): My mother's father, Shmuel, and my aunt and uncle, Rachel and Zalman Druck, lived in Kamai. My mother gave birth to more children after the fire, and she sent the older ones to my grandfather… That family was well off, intelligent people, who they sent their daughters to study in Smolensk, in Russia. My mother used to tell us that Uncle Zalman was so rich that he sent his laundry to Dvinsk (Daugavpils) twice a year. The girls wrote to me in Eretz-Yisrael, and they once asked if it was worth their while to make aliya. I answered them that making aliya to Eretz-Yisrael was a matter of desire, and not a question of whether it was worthwhile.

 

 
Uncle Zalmen Druck and Aunt Rachel (Meller),
and daughters, Chaya and Mina

 


Footnotes

  1. Aharon Migdal (“Yeshiva Bocher”, war refugee from Mezeritch, Poland) recalled that he assisted Getzel Binder, who was also a chimney sweep. Return

  2. Observant Jews are not allowed to carry things outside their home and yard on the Sabbath [as this is considered work], so they fence off a specific area (usually with a wire) and everything inside it is considered home territory. This is called an Eruv. Return

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