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Bar-Kochba” on the Dusiat Stage … (cont.)

The Drama Studio

Money for increasing the collection of books in the library was raised from the readers' dues, but mainly from the income of tickets to concerts and plays performed by the circle that was headed by Meir Levitt and Malka Levitt, who were both actors and directors. Dovid-Leib Aires, who lives in Israel, can testify to this, as he was one of the active actors.

Although Meir Levitt was not very tall, he could change his voice amazingly, so that it was unrecognizable, and the audience, which did not see many dramatic performances, received him with such applause and enthusiasm, it could have made Chaplin burn with envy... Malka was the prima donna of the Dusiat stage, and more than once wrung tears from the eyes of the audience.

I have already mentioned the actor Dovid-Leib, and there was also Efroike Zeligson. Efroike was the first victim of the Lithuanian Nazis. After him they killed Avraham Melamed and Yoske Slovo, and thus prepared the soil for the annihilation of the shtetl. They were smart enough to kill the active youth first so as to prevent resistance, and afterwards they killed the elderly and the children.

Glivitzki and his wife were professional actors from the Jewish theater in Kovno. During the summer vacation they used to wander from shtetl to shtetl and perform, and their coming was a holiday in the life of the shtetlech. From all around people used to come to see the play, and for the young people this also served as a means of getting together, and these meetings left pleasant memories.

The couple of professional actors created a kind of dramatic studio, in which you could improve the dramatic art of the local circle, and who discovered the talents that indubitably existed in the shtetl. From all this you can understand the meaning of the joy and exaltation felt by the residents of the shtetl at the professional actor's coming to the shtetl.

We, the “rapscallions”, worried about how to attend and first of all see the rehearsals. Because if the Lord willed it, and the adults allowed us to be witnesses and present at “the act of creation”, that is at the birth pains of the play, which was full of art and grace, then who would be comparable to us?

So we, the four friends, got together and came up with an idea of what to do to get the actors on our side, as well as the critics, who were present at the rehearsals, and through their advice and comments wanted to improve the actors' artistry. It was not an easy matter. We knew what the adults thought of us, the “rapscallions”. We constantly heard the term “skorospalki” [quick ripening potatoes] from them, a nickname we received through the generosity of Avraham [Slep], the son of my uncle Emanuel. Obviously this name did not add to our credit, and we were very afraid of my cousin's sharp tongue, as he was an expert at deriding and mocking those of our age, not, heaven forbid, from meanness, but from love, that is to say, “Do not withhold discipline from a child”…

And so, we decided that we should approach Meir Levitt, the principal director of the drama circle of the shtetl of Dusiat in the absence of Glivitzki, and who was now the principal figure among the amateur actors. Since everyone in the shtetl knew that Meir was madly in love with Sheinele, the daughter of my uncle Elyahu [Orlin], whom I loved like a sister and who loved me like a brother, we unanimously decided to try her out and plead with her to convince Meir to convince Glivitzki to permit us to be present during the rehearsals for the play, and we, on our part, undertook to be at their service, to help them with all kinds of hard work, namely, with everything the actors wanted done during the play.

The next day we received a negative reply. Later on we learned that Sheinele and Meir decided unanimously with the actors that there was no need for the “sneaky spies” to watch and oversee their actions during the rehearsals, and especially their actions after the rehearsals. This news gave us no peace. Like wraiths we wandered around “fat” Batya's storage shed, where the last rehearsals took place, and where, in the near future, the play would be performed for the general public. We were also joined by my cousin Micha [Slep], Noah Poritz and another entire gang of “art lovers” with empty pockets… Everyone was dying to see what was going on inside, but in vain, because a loyal guard stood at the entrance: Reuven the preacher's son. I will come back to telling about him later.

Batya “the Fat's” Hostel

The home of Batya “the fat” also served as a hostel for guests who came to Dusiat in order to earn their living, such as preachers, cantors and other religious practitioners with empty pockets, who hoped to make up the lack in the shtetl. Other types of guests, such as scalpers, merchants and traveling salesmen, who did have money, lodged in a fancier lodging, that of the sisters Batya and Mina Ziv, which also served as the “cultural” youth club. There you could hear all the news about the lives of the shtetl's inhabitants, and news from the other shtetlech of Lithuania, spiced with gossip and slander to entertain the listeners, and the guests used to embellish the conversations with jokes from the capital.

But let's return to Batya “the fat”, the owner of the firefighters' storage shed, which was also the “college” of the town of Dusiat. Batya was “a woman of valor”, and her husband was not “and he shall rule over you”, but rather “a Canaanite slave” who carried out the wishes of the mistress. In the Ziv sisters' “club” they said that he had no beard or mustache, just like a Chinese man. Batya always had a non-Jewish maid, who turned out the lights on the Sabbath eve, and in general on the Sabbath did all the work that Jews are forbidden to do that day. She also did favors for the rest of the Jews in the shtetl. Batya's maids were always a stumbling block for the young men of Dusiat, like “Lilith” [queen of the wraiths” in the Talmudic legend] whose beauty the stronger sex could not withstand…

One day, a preacher stayed at Batya's hostel, a man with a beard as black as a raven's wing and eyes as deep as the night. After shaharit [the morning prayers], when the Jews removed their prayer shawl and rushed to put their phylacteries back into their bag, the shamash [beadle] of the synagogue banged twice on the table and announced that the following day the famous preacher would preach “Torah and Mussar” [moral] between minha and maariv. The public was requested to come, and the plate for alms would be placed in the hall, at the entrance to the synagogue. But who can guess the power of the Evil One?

And so at midnight, the act of Boaz and Ruth [from the “scroll of Ruth”] was repeated in Batya “the Fat's” hostel. The non-Jewish maid returned from her journey and made a serious error and lay down in the preacher's bed. And the preacher woke from his sleep in shock…

I am quoting all this from Batya's husband, who told this the next morning to the people, including me, who stood around him after the morning prayers. I don't know what happened after that, because the men suddenly became aware of my presence and evicted me from there with the reprimand: “Youngster, get out off here!” I know one thing; the preacher did not preach “Torah and Mussar” and they did not put out a plate on his behalf, and he disappeared like a dream, with no one seeing him leave.

… even in scholarly Lite (Lithuanian) the Jews did not confine their interests to the “four cubits” of the “Halacha” [Jewish religious law] proper. The chambers of their hearts may not have been receptive either to medieval Jewish philosophy or to the mysticism of Kabala and Hasidism; but they did open wide to Mussar - the moral movement which grew and flourished in Lithuania. The father of the Mussar Movement was Rabbi Israel Salanter (1810-1883)[2].

Batya “the Fat's” storehouse served mainly as the storehouse for the shtetl's firefighters' equipment, because you should know that Batya had a contract with the mayor that the fire truck and the rest of the equipment required to extinguish fires would be housed in her storehouse for a payment of 10 Lit a month, and she received permission to hold cultural projects there. For the plays they used to put up benches, that is, planks on logs, and in an instant the storehouse became a “theater”. There was a permanent stage there, on which the fire truck stood with its four creaking wheels, and on the walls hung a dozen pails and axes and crowbars. After this equipment had been removed and the curtain had been hung and a “backstage” had been set up for the actors, where they could put on their makeup, everything was ready for the start of the play.

A Curtain and Ropes for the Play

Let's get back to the main part of our story. The time of the play had arrived, and we four were still worried about how we would see the play “Bar-Kochba”, our beloved hero who fell in battle for the sake of his nation and his country.

Yoelke [Zeif], who helped his father at his work as a zagatovtchik [leather cutter and stitcher of the upper part of the shoe] had already bought a ticket, but he promised us that he would try to obtain a control ticket for us. However, that did not give us peace, and buying a ticket for fifty cents was beyond our means. My older sisters Elka and Zeldka had already bought tickets, and an additional expenditure of 1 Lit and 50 Cent was a heavy burden for our family's finances.

Yitzchak Steinman also did not stand out for his wealth. His widow mother [Sara-Leah] earned a living at selling yeast, which was the rabbi's wife's monopoly, but the rabbi's wife did Yitzchak's mother a favor and let her trade in yeast among only a few of the Dusiaters. Honke [Glick] was also “within the straits”. And when we had reached the end of our tether, aid came to us from elsewhere.

The curtain, which was made up of sheets and sacks sewn together, was raised by ropes requiring the efforts of three young men. Each rope had rings connected to the curtain, just like the curtain of the “Mishkan” [Temple]. When a man pulled one rope, the edge of the curtain would go up, and when the second man pulled on the rope, the curtain would rise to the middle, and when all three pulled their ropes together – the curtain would rise to the top. The curtain rose according to the will of those who raised it. If they wanted – it was raised quickly, or slowly, all as required, according to what was happening on the stage.

We three decided to work without “scalpers” this time, and went directly to Glivitzki and offered our services: “We are ready to do this job. We want to help the actors and benefit the library.” Glivitzki measured us with his penetrating glance and asked: “Do you have ropes? If you find them and arrange the curtain, we will take you on for this job.” With great excitement and haste we promised him that everything would be all right, and we were made responsible for the working of the curtain.

Each one of the “trio” took the ropes on which the laundry was hung to dry in the attic from his house (without the parents' permission) and we came to the firefighters' storehouse. We drew the ropes through the curtain rings above the rafters on which the storehouse's roof was supported, and the work was completed. Glivitzki came, we demonstrated the workings for him a couple of times, according to the signal he gave us, and the curtain obeyed us. Wonderful! He was satisfied and promised us that if he became the director of the Jewish Theater, he would invite us to attend the plays, and we were overjoyed.

The evening passed and a new day came: the day of the play arrived! On Saturday night after maariv [the evening prayer] and a quick meal, all the young people, dressed in their best clothes, thronged to the firefighters' storehouse. The tickets had already been bought on Friday, and those that hadn't bought any purchased them from Glivitzki's wife, who stood at the entrance and sold them, for 1 Lit or 50 cents or 30 cents, depending on how close the seat was to the stage.

About the Preacher and his Son Reuven …

The three of us marched erectly and with a firm step to the entrance of the storage shed, which was only partially open, and only one skinny person could pass through it. Reuven the preacher's son stood guard at the entrance. He deserves my devoting a few lines to him.

I can't remember the preacher's name, and never knew it. That's what we called him: “the preacher”, and his daughters and only son were called “the preacher's daughter” and “the preacher's son”.

The preacher himself was scrawny and his eyes were cast down to the ground, for it is written in the “Shulhan Arukh” [3] that a Jew should not walk proudly, but with humility. His seat in the synagogue was beside the stove, which was covered with blazing hot tin, like the seven sections of hell. He was always surrounded by a flock of children and plain loiterers, and he was always full of stories that frightened the children: stories about demons and ghosts, and about Lilith and Asmedai and their deceitful tricks, who lie in wait for the poor Jew. He used to end his stories thus: “If you want to prove the existence of demons, then before you go to bed, spread some ashes from the stove around your bed, and in the morning, when dawn breaks, open your eyes and you will see a rooster's or a Billy goat's footsteps in the ashes, because there are demons with legs like roosters, and demons with split hooves like a Billy goat.”

The preacher also had a donkey, the only donkey not just in our shtetl but the only one in the entire area. The donkey used to bray not only in the morning, but almost all day long, bray and demand food so that it could continue its life, a donkey's life, and thus it used to wake all the residents of the shtetl with its odd voice. And every morning at dawn, the preacher used to get on his donkey's back and ride outside the shtetl to welcome the sun and carry out the passage “and even though he tarry, I will await his coming” [the reference is to the Messiah]…

Finally the community convinced the preacher, and to the delight of his family he sold his donkey to a traveling circus, and the shtetl could continue sleeping peacefully in the morning. From then on the preacher used to go out on foot to welcome the sun in its beauty.

… Jewish Lithuania did have great affection for the maggid, the popular preacher and heir to the sages of the Agada, from whose lips verses of the Bible and sayings of the Sagas would fly like flocks of doves, while the sweetness of his words would settle “in every limb and bone” like the manna which our forefathers ate in the wilderness…

The preacher in Lithuania, no matter how famous or learned, had to present his listeners with sound, solid homily to win their hearts anew with each sermon. For what impressed his audience was not so much the person who spoke – no matter how great – but what he said …[4]

Reuven the preacher's son, who was a simple and honest man, a stay-at-home, with hands as strong as iron bars, earned his living guarding the fruit trees. Jews used to buy their garden produce from the villagers or the fruit from the trees before it was picked, and Reuven used to guard the fruit to protect it from damage or thieves, and also from the actual owners of the garden, who had sold their harvest… Reuven was a trustworthy guard, and didn't pick even a juicy apple off a tree or bite into a green cucumber, in obedience to the commandment “thou shalt not steal”.

They took this Reuven to collect the tickets at the entrance to the “theater”, and obviously, with Reuven on guard not even a tiny starling could get into the storage shed without a ticket. And we four pals approached the storage shed door: Yitzchak Steinman, Honke Glick, your humble servant and my cousin Micha Slep, who was carrying an oil lamp for which he had to beg and plead from aunt Chaya-Tzipe, who despaired of ever seeing the expensive item again.

I have already mentioned that the people who provided the props for the play could enter without paying, but without the right to sit if all the seats were taken.

And so, with an upright posture and firm steps, followed by many envious pairs of eyes, we made our way to the door, and at the entrance stood Reuven, the trusty guard, and asked for tickets. Glivitzki's wife, who was standing nearby, interrupted the argument between Reuven and us, and ruled that Micha, the owner of the oil lamp, could go in, whereas the three of us had to buy at least one ticket. Micha slipped though immediately, giving us a scornful look, as if to say “schlimazels” [extremely unlucky or inept persons], and we were left with our mouths agape. “If that is the case,” we said to the woman, “give us the ropes and we'll see how the play goes on without us.” To our joy Glivitzki became aware of the noise and came out to see what is about. He hinted to Reuven and whispered in his ear, and Reuven stepped aside in embarrassment, and we, with our heads high, marched into the storage shed, and immediately stood ready to carry out our jobs: each of us with the end of the rope wound around his hand.

Behind the Scenes

It's hard to describe what we felt. Only a stage person, standing in front of hundreds of pairs of eyes, can understand it. We were excited, and we pictured each movement we would make after receiving the sign to raise the curtain in our minds hundreds of times. Between acts we also peeked behind the scenes and saw how the actors' faces changed: here Malka put eye-shadow on her eyes and a shawl over her head, and on the spot turned into the beautiful Shulamit, as though she had come down to us from the “Song of Songs” and the towers of Jerusalem… And here Glivitzki put layers of clothes on top of each other and in an instant, as though touched by a magic wand, turned into the broad-shouldered hero, truly Bar-Kochba, with his sword at his hip. Our hearts filled with glory and joy. Here was a hero of Israel, who would shortly reveal his courage on the field of battle, and thousands of Romans, the enemies of Israel, would fall at his feet!

Suddenly we heard the voice of Arye (Dovid-Leib) Aires, who played Nathan HaCohen (the priest) in the play. He had tied a goose feather pillow around his lean middle, so that he would look fleshier and fatter. For the priests of Israel were corpulent men from the sacrifices and contributions that they ate to their fill… Arye raised his voice to us: “Will you stop getting under foot. I have enough problems without you!” And he continued” “Meir, after what words am I supposed to appear on stage?” We immediately disappeared and went to the curtain.

The Curtain is Raised

We finally got the signal and raised the curtain, slowly, without hurrying. The light in the theatre went off, and the stage was lit by the light of my cousin Micha's oil lamp, which served faithfully, despite my aunt Chaya-Tzipe misgivings. I won't tell you about the first act and will also skip the second one, both of which ended with applause and hurrahs, and will go on to the third and last act: in this part the Judean Army is defeated, and wounded Bar-Kochba is the only one left on stage.

Obviously, while the play was going on we saw only a little of what was happening on stage; we only heard the actors' voices, and mainly that of the prompter, whose loud voice obscured the actors' voices. Him we could hear clearly. And so we stood disappointed, with our heads down. We had imagined things differently. In the meantime, our hands grew tired and weaker from the strain of holding the ropes. And then, we all came up with the same brilliant idea at the same time: why should we keep the ropes taut throughout the entire play, and wait for a long time for the sign to lower the curtain? It would be better if we tied the ropes to the nails that were there for that purpose, and while the plot developed on the stage we could sit on the floor and rest. We would also make a small hole in the paper divider between the stage and us, and we would be able to see what was happening on stage from close up. That is exactly what we did.

When the sign was given, we quickly raised the heavy curtain, tied each rope tightly to the nail, sat on the floor with our legs crossed and peeked through the hole we had mercilessly ripped in the paper divider. Suddenly, not only the stage was in front of us but also the theater, just slightly lit by the stage light. The theater was packed. There was Yoelke sitting with his mouth agape and his eyes on the stage, and there was Micha blowing his nose with his finger from absorption (“just don't let it break”, I thought to myself), and there were the sisters Henka and Mirka (Slep), Bathka (Levitt), Tzirka (Kagan), and my sister Zeldka. Lord knows how they all got in. It was no less than that they had been allowed to enter for the last act, and even Reuven's heart of stone couldn't withstand seeing their sorrow.

The entire “ken” of the scouts stood and cried at the sight of Bar-Kochba's torture, who was kneeling on one knee with his sword in his hand, and suddenly fell onto his face because he was weak from his wounds, and fighting with the Angel of Death who wanted to remove his soul from his body, and he, the hero, writhed like a snake, groaned, opened his horror-filled eyes and said his last words, full of hatred for the enemy and love for his nation…

It is clear that our hearts, children's hearts, were bursting inside us, and tears flowed from our eyes. I also heard Itzke crying and Honke blowing his nose to stop his tears.

We forgot everything, and just gazed in wonder that the hero, who already lay lifeless, began writhing again, and crawled in the direction of the door, and suddenly, to our terror and that of the audience, the hero jumped at his full height in our direction!

EPILOG – The hero grabbed the nape of my neck, grabbed Honke and little Itzke, who was flapping his hands like a rooster, and in a thunderous voice said: “Go to hell, damn you! Because of you the drama turned into a comedy! The curtain, why didn't you lower the curtain?”

The audience watched this sight and crowed with laughter.

We were a joke for our friends and the entire shtetl for an entire week. Since then we no longer had work on the stage, and we were very worried about how we could see the play “Motke the Thief”, which would be playing two weeks from then? …

The Dusiater Yaacov Charit[5], a Jewish teacher and a promoter of the pioneering youth movement in Lithuania, was not lucky enough to immigrate to Israel, but he retained his affinity with the Hebrew language and education. His memories of his shtetl, which were included in this book, were sent to Israel in his frequent letters, in one of which he wrote the following (in Hebrew):

The Hebrew language, regretfully, is drying up in my mouth because I have no source to enrich my language, and I am like a blocked lake, with not enough springs providing it with cold, fresh water. And the lake becomes covered with reeds, turns into a marsh, and afterwards begins to dry up until it disappears from the world – heaven forefend.

And so your letters are like a living spring for me, which returns the spirit to the wanderer in the desert…

 

Yaacov-Yankale Charit as a young man
(above) with his sister Itale (right), his aunt [his mother's sister]
Chaya Tzipe Slep [Chatzkel] and her children Miryam and Yehuda.

Miryam Slep made aliya in 1934; Yankale survived the war. The rest perished in the Holocaust.

Gravestone of Yaacov Charit in the Jewish cemetery in Vilnius, 1992
In the middle Ela (Yaacov's daughter) with her husband Aharon Grobman
(extreme right), Miryam Slep (left)

 

Footnotes

  1. [50] Kariv, Avraham. Lithuania, Land of My Birth, p. 71, translated from the Hebrew by I.M. Lask and Gertrude Hirschler, New York, 1967. Return
  2. Authoritative code of Jewish laws, written by Joseph Caro, 1488-1575 Return
  3. [51] Kariv, Avraham. pp. 82, 83, 84. Return
  4. Yaacov Charit passed away on Sukkoth 1987, in Vilnius. His wife Liza and his two daughters - Riva Oyzerman and Ela Grobman - and their families made aliya in 1991 and 1993. Return

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