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[Page 122]

Chapter 6

New Times – New Tunes

Translated by Judy Grossman

Before WWI there was a Russian elementary school in Dusiat (Narodnoya Utchilishtsa), attended by only a small minority of the Jewish children. After the war there were immeasurable cultural changes in the shtetl. The Balfour Declaration filled our hearts with new national hope.

Yosef Yavnai: The young people organized a party to celebrate the Balfour Declaration. I remember suggesting to my friends that we change the words in the Jewish national anthem Hatikva, which state “Our hope is not lost” to “Our hope has been realized,” but my friend Yona Berman calmed me down and said to me in Yiddish: “It's still too soon…”

Daniel Ben-Nahum: The Jews were given autonomy in independent Lithuania, and at the beginning it also had a Ministry for Jewish Affairs. The policy of independent Lithuania was to encourage anything that would help eradicate Russian influence, and so it encouraged the opening of Hebrew schools in place of the Russian and German ones. Three different educational streams were established in Lithuania: Tarbut (secular education with Hebrew as the language of instruction), Kultur-Lige (secular education with Yiddish as the language of instruction), and Yavne (religious education with Hebrew as the language of instruction).

School Letterheads


[Page 122]

Melamdim

Translated by Judy Grossman

The old cheders[1] went out of fashion. A Hebrew school for beginners – Tarbut – was opened in Dusiat. A library was opened, and there was also a drama group; the Maccabi movement came into being, and an active pioneering group was established, in the wake of the first group who made aliya to Eretz Yisrael. A cell of Hashomer Hatzair and a branch of Hechalutz were also set up in the shtetl.

There were 5-6 cheders in Dusiat, as well as a cheder metukan[2]. Among the melamdim (teachers) were Alter Shein, who was a diligent scholar, Moshe Posler, a sofer stam[3] and scholar, Moshe Karpels, Moshe-Elya, Leib-Itze, Avraham-Moshe and Shaul who taught Gemara, and Chaim-Leib. The melamed of the cheder metukan, Yehiel Garber, was known as an outstanding Hebrew teacher.

The Song Aleph-Beth in Hebrew [4]

A flame burns in the fireplace
The room warms up
As the Rabbi drills the children
In the Aleph-Bet;

Remember dear children
What you are learning here
Repeat it again and again;
Komets-Aleph is O

When you grow older
You will understand
That this Alphabet
Contains the tears and weeping
Of our people.

When you grow weary
And burdened with exile,
You will find comfort and strength
Within this Jewish Alphabet

 

Shayke Glick: During the summer vacation (knikel – “bein ha-zemanim”), melamdim used to come to the shtetl and teach in the cheder

Yosef Yavnai: That's how it was in my time. I recall a young melamed who came to the shtetl to teach a beginner's class in the evenings. I studied with Avraham-Hirshke Orlin, who was happy to get away from his strict rabbi, and there was another talented boy with us, Dovidke di katz [the cat]. It turned out that this melamed was also strict, and anyone who did not know the chapter thoroughly was punished, and had to remain at the cheder until he knew it. It wasn't pleasant to return home in the dark, and we would plot ruses. We decided that if one of us failed, we would all pretend to be “corpses”, and that is what we did. However, I remember that Dovidke “betrayed” us. When the melamed discovered two “corpses” lying in front of him, he took fright, and released us all to go home…

Yitzchak Toker: Once, when the rabbi dozed off, we wanted to play a trick on him. We planned to put a sleep-inducing drug under his nose so that he would continue sleeping, but we did something wrong and he woke up…

Shmuel Levitt: My melamed would hit us with a ruler, pull our ears, and stand us in the corner. He would say in Ashkenazi pronunciation “Tamdi bapina,” (“Stand in the corner”) and he would send us home with a kick in the pants. Our parents kept silent and did not complain. They knew that we probably deserved it. And what were our sins? For example: the melamed was always tired; he would actually fall asleep in the middle of the lesson, especially in the summer. Once we heated up some wax, and when he fell asleep with his head resting on the desk, we poured the wax onto his beard. The melamed stood up – taking the table with him… He had to have his beard trimmed… We, of course, were expelled from that cheder, and another melamed was brought from Antaliept.

Batya Aviel: My brother Dov didn't want to study at the cheder and he would say: “What, will they force me to sway?”

Footnotes

  1. A one-room school in which Jewish boys studied Chumash. Return
  2. A more up-to-date cheder in which the boys learned subjects other than religion. Return
  3. A person trained to write the actual Torah on parchment, as well as other religious writings, such as the mezuzah. Return
  4. This song is most frequently called “Oyfn Pripetschik” [At the Fireplace] in Yiddish. Words and music by Mark M. Warshawsky, Hebrew translation: Sh. Ben-Zion. Return


[Pages 123-124]

Tarbut - Elementary School

Translated by Judy Grossman

“The Jewish education network in independent Lithuania grew up and branched out, through the initiative of the parents and activists in every town and shtetl. The foreign languages, Russian and German, were replaced by Hebrew, under pressure from the public struggle, in which 'both sides of the fence', teachers, parents and children, took part, as there were opponents to the 'Hebrew revolution' in education.” [1]

Batya Aviel: Even before the Tarbut School was opened in the shtetl we organized a study group for Hebrew, evening classes for adolescents. My first teacher was Yosef Slep (now Yavnai), who is still dear to me, and whose letters I have kept. In Dusiat, like everywhere in Lithuania, almost all the teenagers knew Hebrew, and also many adults. In my time, the shop signs were written in Hebrew (and Lithuanian). I remember that in 1928 the poet Shaul Tchernichovsky came to Kovno (Kaunas). All the members of the youth movement went to meet him at the train station. We stood in a row, he walked passed us and said: “I feel as though I am in the second Eretz Yisrael. What fine Hebrew you speak!”…

Rivka Levitt: Two teachers in the shtetl who taught Hebrew before the opening of the Tarbut School were my relative Yosef Levitt and his nephew Zvi Levitt. Yosef was a realist and a great pedagogue. And Zvi, I can't forget how he read the poem “El Hatzippor” [“To the Bird” by Haim Nachman Bialik]. He lived the poem, and would actually weep tears. He was full of emotion and of Torah, and was in love with the Hebrew language, and via it he passed on to us his love for Eretz Yisrael. Most of the people in the shtetl were Zionists. The first books my father gave me as a present were “Ahavat Zion” and “Ashmat Shomron” [“The Love of Zion” and “The Guilt of Shomron”, both by Avraham Mapu], and I remember that this amazed me.

Batya Aviel: Uncle Yosef insisted that his students differentiate between the two Hebrew letters shin and sin. When I came to Palestine I was tested: “How do you say meat in Hebrew?” I answered “basar”, pronouncing this correctly with a sin. “And you're from Lithuania?” they asked in wonder. The “Litvak oddity” was to confuse the two letters, and the cause for laughter. Mimitzke, like myself, was a member of Kibbutz Givat Brenner and worked at Kibbutz Gesher, which had a member called Schechter. One Saturday many visitors came to the dining room at Givat Brenner, Schechter among them. Suddenly we heard Mimitzke's loud voice saying: Sechter, sabbat salom… ma nisma B'Geser? [Instead of the correct Hebrew Schechter, shabbat shalom... ma nishma B'Gesher – Hello Schechter… what's new in Gesher?] All the members rolled on the floor with laughter...

The Hebrew letters:
shin
sin

What is a L i t v a k?
- Litvak's are considered stubborn and meticulous, and prefer the dry law to the moisture of the soul and the devotion (or stickiness) of Hassidism…
- It is said: Season the peasant with sugar or with vinegar – he remains a peasant. So the Litvak: turn him to the left or the right, he will remain a Litvak…
- And why is it said of the Litvak that he is a tzelem kop (cross head)? Because the Litvak adheres to his opinion and says to his opponents: “You can stretch lengthwise or sidewise,” while drawing a cross in the air, “but I am right.”

 

Elementary School, Dusiati, Class I-II (1921)

From right to left, top: Sheinke Yossman, (-), (-), Micha Baron, Reuven Milun, (-), Rivka Pores, Bailke Krut, Bracha Karanowitz, (-), Rachel Shub, (-)
Second row, right: (-), Sheinke Chaitowitz, (-), (-), (-)
Left: (-), (-), (-)
Third row: Honke Glick (son of Rochl-Leah), (-), Efraim-Froike Zeligson, (-), (-), Dobe-Fruma Glick (daughter of Avraham-Velvel), teachers: Yudel Slep, Hillel Schwartz (principal) and Zvi-Hirshl Hammer, (-), (-), Masha Slep (extreme left)
In front: (-), Nechama Yudelowitz, Bunka Chaitowitz, Mirka Karanowitz, Moshe-Ber Blacher, Moishele Zeif

All of the three teachers perished in the Holocaust.
Out of all the identified pupils, five of them perished in the Holocaust
.
Six immigrated to South Africa. Six made aliya.

 

Micha Barron: When Lithuania gained its independence, a Tarbut School was opened in our shtetl. The principal of the school was Hillel Schwartz, and the teachers were Yudel (Yehuda) Slep, Hirschel (Zvi) Hammer, and the melamed Avraham-Moshe Schmidt. We made up a humorous phrase from a combination of their names: der schwartze schmidt shlept dem hammer (the blacksmith drags the hammer). Yitzchak Poritz also taught there for a while, and Leib Gordon was also mentioned among the first teachers.

Rivka Shteinman: I can't forget my first day at school, when our homework was to fill a full page with the letter alef. We immediately learned to write script. I sat at home and wrote, and tried very hard to write nicely and correctly. When the page was full of the letter alef, I proudly showed my notebook to my sister Batya, and what did I hear? “You wrote it backwards!”... My world collapsed. What would I do now, since we were forbidden to rip pages out of our notebook? My father saw my distress and gave me ten cents; I bought a new notebook and sat down to fill another page with the letter alef again. Since then my handwriting is like calligraphy.

The Hebrew letter alef in script
Written backwards!

Rivka Levitt: Where did Hillel and Yehuda receive their education? Hillel studied at a Russian high school in Dvinsk (Daugavpils), and Yehuda received his education from his grandfather Hanoch and his father Emanuel, who were both walking encyclopedias. They learned the Hebrew language from the community leaders in the shtetl, all of whom were scholars well versed in the Torah.

Micha Barron: “Sir principal” is how we addressed Hillel, and “Sir teacher” is how we addressed the teachers. Hillel had a soft pointed stick, which he used not only on the map and the blackboard… He would sometimes lash out with it, and we suspected that he had been an officer in the Czar's army.

Rachel Vitkin: When Hillel saw a student trying to write with his/her left hand, he would immediately go up to him/her and smack his/her hand with a ruler.

Rivka Shteinman: In dictation lessons, we would sit in full concentration and tense. Suddenly on one occasion, Hillel the principal, passed by and inserted a piece of chocolate into my mouth… In those days, chocolate was inordinately expensive, but why did he have to give it to me just then and interfere with my concentration when I was so on edge?…

In the shtetl I was called Goldke or Goldale. “What kind of name is that, Goldale? Don't you have another name?” asked Hillel. And from then on he called me by my middle name, and he was the only one in the shtetl who called me Rivka.

Slovka Sarver: We used Ashkenazi pronunciation, but we didn't know that that was what it was called, and that a different pronunciation was in use in Eretz Yisrael. However, when people came and explained to us that in Eretz Yisrael they spoke differently, the explanation was convincing, and we adopted the new pronunciation. The vowels that we pronounced “o” became “a” and “oi” became “o”, and the letter “th”, that we pronounced “s”, was now pronounced “t”.

The youngsters quickly learned the new pronunciation, but the adults continued to confuse the sounds, … and that is also what happened to Hillel the principal…

Shayke Glick: There were Yiddish-Hebrew phrasebooks – guidebooks for writing letters, with formats for business letters, love letters, greetings for happy occasions, etc.

From the many formats, I remember this one, in Yiddish: “At the beginning of my letter I can inform you that we are in the best state of health…”

Footnotes

  1. [41] Me'reshit ad Acharit: Sefer Korot Hashomer Hatzair B'Lita, p. 17, Hakibbutz Ha'Artzi Hashomer Hatzair, 1986. [From Beginning to End: the History of the Hashomer Hatzair Movement in Lithuania.] Return

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