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[Page 331]

A Gallery of Personalities

by Meir Tzoref (Goldshmid), Tel Aviv

Translated by Jerrold Landau

{Photo page 331: Uncaptioned. Apparently Meir Tzoref.}

Yankel Shimshon Glass the Hassid, Mosheke Odoskes, Lentshinke, Hirshe A Shnaps, Der Shul Rufer (the synagogue summoner), Sachke, Alter and Libe-Chana Reines, Shleimtze the Ox, and Serl Ruk Zich.

Yankel-Shimshon Glass – He was tall with a handsome black beard and black eyes. He spoke with his proper Jonaver accent, sharply pronouncing “shin” like “samech”, which people from Jonava, as from other towns in Lithuania, were not able to pronounce. He was the chairman of Bikur Cholim (the Society for the Visiting of the Sick), and also a veteran officer of the Yavneh School, even though he had no children. It is no wonder that his wife, a “Kvake”[1], used to always go around with her head bound in a cloth as she groaned…

There were even rumors that he carried on a secret love with the “Figurner” nurse. His “Kvake” indeed used to often throw him out, and according to her, he was “on duty” every night in the hospital; however no open disgrace ever took place.

He worshipped in the Hassidic shtibel, which, unlike other kloizes, had no almemar (bima) and no second story for women, but rather a small room with a few windows for the women. Their mode of prayer included “Veyatzmach Purkanei Vekarev Meshichei” in the Kaddish[2]. In general, they worshipped like all the Jews in the kloizes and Beis Midrashes of that time. On Simchat Torah, they would go out with the Torah scrolls to the courtyards, and crawl upon the tables to dance, and we children would enjoy

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and truly rejoice in celebrating a Simchat Torah with such joyous Jews, in contrast to the High Holy Days with their Al Chets …[3]

In that same Bikur Cholim, Moshe Odoskes worked as a male nurse. He was involved with and was in love with the daughter of Alter the wagon driver, or better stated – with one of his daughters. Alter the wagon driver had daughters almost like Tevye the milkman[4], but in Jonava, this was scarcely current merchandise, so they sat and waited for their saviors…

Alter himself was an observant Jew. On his wagon the children were not beaten with whips if they came to get a ride. On the contrary, when he had a “good day” – that is he had livelihood for himself and the horse, he would take a full wagon of children and, with a cantorial melody, bring them to his home opposite the synagogue courtyard, and sometimes they would turn onto another street. Indeed, children would wait for him to finish his hard workday: They would notice a smile under his dark gray beard and a cantorial hum under his moustache, without even asking – we're off – a jump onto the long wagon, crowding in, taking up as small a place as possible so that there would remain room for other children. Alter did not like those “well placed” children who had no concern for others once they were aboard. They all bounced down on a stone sidewalk, and when someone was ready to jump, they would make room for him.

Mosheke Odoskes indeed got married to one of Alter's daughters. There were even rumors that he carried on a love affair with Gitke the crazy woman before she went crazy. Others wanted to say that it was indeed because he had led her on, promised to marry her and broke his promise, that she lost her mind… On the other hand, others claimed that he threw her out already after she had gone crazy, for what would he do with a crazy wife? She was not even all that crazy. All she would do would be to talk to herself while she moved her hands to see her watch for she was afraid of missing an important date.

As it were, Mosheke Odoskes was the chief of the voluntary fire brigade, and an honorable citizen of Jonava. During wartime, he was in the Lithuanian division of the Red Army. He stumbled during a conversation with a comrade of the camp. He said: “Were we to have required the 'large' and 'small' moustaches while we were resting in our mother's wombs, we would today be sitting in our homes…”

Shortly thereafter, he was arrested and sent to a camp in Siberia. He was liberated and rehabilitated after Stalin's death. He died of a heart attack in Vilna shortly after he was freed.

Jonava was patient with its crazies. One of them, Lentshinke, used to awaken the residents in the middle of the night with terrible cries of “fire, it's burning!” We heard a mysterious sound come from him to warn the Jews that they should not rest or sleep with folded arms in the face of the terrible fire that was awaiting the Jews of Jonava and the entire Jewish people. However, nobody paid any attention to his shouting. When the Christian residents complained about him, they bound him up and sent him to Kalvarija. Jewish householders offered guarantees about him that it would be peaceful. They redeemed him from the insane asylum, and once again he started

[Page 333]

continuing with his cries of “fire”. They did not give him over even when he beat the teacher Optekina with his cane during a hysterical attack. The writer of these lines as well, as a youth, got a hole in the head from his “crazy man's” cane. The lovely nurse joked that this would go away by the time of my wedding, and now with an open head the Torah could penetrate quicker…

Jonaver Jews were known as lovers of good food, as well as people who would not refuse a drink. At every opportunity they would indeed have a snack of the wrappers of the lungs at Perski's, a roasted duck at Shule's, and fresh gefilte fish, well peppered with the taste of the Garden of Eden. Authentically, this was given the name of a “drola” in official language. The Lithuanians even used to say: “Eisme Fas Perski Padarisme Drola”.

Jews were not professional drunks, except for one, about whom nobody knew from where he had come, or anything about him. He stood by himself, alone. He would come to services, but he would not receive any aliyas.

He was called Hirshe A “Shnaps” and later Hirshe “Chandzhe”… At first, he was ashamed of his drunkenness. People would get angry with him and throw stones at him. Children or ordinary scoffers, who loved to joke with one another, would shout after him: Hirshe, ahem”, implying a cough after a quick swig of whiskey. Later he switched to denatured alcohol, or as we used to call it “chandzhe”, for economic reasons or for its strength. Then he no longer cared if we shouted after him Hirshe Chandzhe. The children left him alone when they saw that he did not react. When the priest would preach to the believers during the Sunday mass about their drinking, he would give an example about how the Jews conduct themselves: “They do not drink and they do not slaughter themselves with knives,” a din from the audience could be heard: “One indeed drinks!,” referring to Hirshe A Schnaps.

There was also a strange Jew in Jonava known as “The Shul Caller”. He was tall and slender with a long, wild, pointy beard. He wore a tall hat. He looked like a Cossack. Children would indeed be afraid of falling into his hands when they would crawl into the attic of the synagogue to catch pigeons. He was a former cantonist[5] and remained without a family. As children, we would indeed hear his slightly hoarse voice: “Get into the bath!” On Friday at the time of candle lighting, we would hear the same melody: “Go to the synagogue!” He would go as far as Segalovski's mill and announce the beginning of the Holy Sabbath with a long whistle.

{Photo page 333: Mende “Di Kop Her” (The Head of Hair)}

[Page 334]

Since we are already talking about Jonaver crazies, we must mention one more. The popular proverb states: “No crazy person beats his own head”. Jonava was an exception.

Sachke the crazy (this was a short form of Yissachar), or “Sachke Dalai” used to slap himself on the cheeks and shout: “Dalai, Smetana!”[6] The aforementioned was a smart youth. With understanding, the Smetana situation could be attributed to his illness, and nobody caused him any trouble when he shouted out “Smetana Dalai”. People only begged of him that he should not shout out in the streets during a national holiday when guests come. He once shouted out “Soviet Dalai” before the Soviets. They beat him and scared him to the extent that he stopped shouting “Dalai”, and other such bad curse words.

That tailors are pranksters is known, but Naftali the tailor stood out over all of them. Bursting into the “Popular Shearing and Iron Workshop” was dangerous for an ordinary human. They immediately grabbed his by his weak point and lay him on the plates…

Thus was Naftali the tailor described by a regular customer, a fine Jew, Alter, husband of Liba-Chana Reines, coming home with a new suit. His wife Liba used to bake onion pastries. Connoisseurs used to come from all corners of the city to purchase the fresh, tasty onion pastries. She would not pry them loose from the oven. She would stick the spade into the hot oven as if it was the eve of a festival… He, Alter, would come to her with a clean, new suit. He would cautiously and politely ask: “Nu, Liba, take a look, how does the new suit fit?” And she looked in the oven and answered: “I see already that it is undone”…

In Jonava there was a furrier and hat maker who was called Shlomo Itza, or with the nickname “Shleimetze the Ox”. He was tall and looked comical as he sold a hat that looked like toy in his large hands. It was said that his own wife gave him the nickname “ox”. When he traveled to a fair in the city with a hand wagon, he lay down on the way to rest. He took off his large shoes, put them down with the toes facing the direction of Shat (Seta) and fell asleep. Someone who was passing by, as a joke, turned the shoes, pointing the toes toward Jonava. Our Shleimtze, instead of going to fair in Shat, returned to Jonava, and said, “See, all cities look the same!”… until his wife finally informed him, and gave him the nickname “ox”.

She was tiny, thin, and an expert in selling. Without her – a handsome face would have had his large hands… She was known as “Serl Ruk Zich” (Serl the Pusher). She received the nickname from the honeymoon following the wedding, when they lived in a room constructed from boards, where any rustle could be heard from the neighboring rooms, and the intimate nighttime conversations would be discussed over the plates… Thus came the name, indeed without embarrassment… We knew all this from the frequent fights with their competitor, the furrier Pesach from Kovarsk and especially his wife Sara Lea the furrier over a peasant who was a customer in the market. The gentile enjoyed watching the two Jews fighting over him, and at home he sharpened the bloody ax for both of them together…


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Seemingly meaning a 'croaker' or a 'quacker'. Return
  2. These words in Kaddish are indicative of the Nusach Sephard or Hassidic mode of prayer, in opposition to the Ashkenazic mode of prayer that was more common in Lithuania. Return
  3. Al Chet is the term for the confessional litany of Yom Kippur. Return
  4. Tevye the milkman, of Fiddler on the Roof fame, had five daughters. Return
  5. A cantonist was a Jewish man who had served his 25 year stint in the Russian army, often starting as young as twelve. Return
  6. Bedrich Smetana (1824 - 1884), held an important place in the development of musical nationalism in his native Bohemia. http://www.naxos.com/composer/smetana.htm He played an active role in the reawakening of Czech culture that followed the Austrian defeat by Napoleon III. http://w3.rz-berlin.mpg.de/cmp/smetana.html. Perhaps the Lithuanians and/or Russians favored his music and its anti-Napoleonic nationalism, and Jews in Jonava were fearful that Sachke would bring the government's ire upon the entire Jewish community. Return


[Page 339]

Meita the Baker

by Frank Sirek

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Thursday evening in the small towns, as is known, was a dark and worrisome evening for women. A trifle, one prepared for the Sabbath. One had to make the challa. One had to prepare flour, yeast, eggs, and raisins, make the dough, and prepare the oven. One had to let it stand until dawn, then warm the dough, kneed it, roll it, braid it, light the oven, and place the challa in the oven. Now you can imagine what the evening must have been like for Meita the baker (Levin), who baked challa and bread not only for herself, but for a large part of the city.

One day, on a winter Friday, our Meita woke up before dawn, hastened out of bed, lit the kerosene lamp, and went quickly to the dough which was already beginning to hang over the edges of the wooden boards. In her great haste, she forgot to put on her dress. She was wearing her thick, cotton bloomers with a slit in the rear, in railroad fashion. The oven flickered with large flames of fire, as if holy spirits were blowing beneath it. One could hear Meita knocking and panting, as she conducted her holy work in honor of the Sabbath. Meita moved the hole-filled dough from the boards, cut it with a knife, tossed it onto round boards, sprinkled it with white flour, beat under the dough with her hands, kneaded and rolled it, twisted it, braided one side into the other, tossed the dough into forms, spread it on the bottom and on the top. The work was conducted with such ecstasy that she could have been, of course not literally, the High Priest engaged in the holy service in the tabernacle.

Early in the morning when the darkness had not yet abated, the table was already covered with boards laden with various baked goods in various shapes and flavors. The fire in the oven was already dying down, and the flames were calming down, and the top of the large Russian oven had already darkened. The only thing left to do was to clean out the ashes and place down the challas. Suddenly, she realized: “Oy vey. I don't have any pomele[1].” She did not think for long. She ran out the back door and off she went to the nearby market. Outside, it was the gray of early morning. The zealous woman was wearing her bloomers. She did not even notice that she was running

[Page 340]

with her cotton pants… She bought the pomele and ran home. Then she noticed that someone on his way to the first Minyan was looking at her and smiling. She then recalled that people were also laughing at the market. Then she realized what had happened: she had forgotten her dress, and she appeared in the street in pants. As she arrived at her home, young jokers laughed at her out loud and made merriment. She ran into the house with her head covered in shame.

Word of that episode spread throughout Jonava that Sabbath, and the jokers of Jonava nicknamed her from then on, “Meita the Baker with a Crack in her Underpants”, or for short “With a Crack”.

Told over by Yitzchak Burstein


Translator's Footnotes

  1. A baker's mop for cleaning out an oven. Return


[Page 347]

My first year working at Filvinsky's

by Yisrael Yaakov Pogir

Translated by Jerrold Landau

For a thirteen year old boy, being an assistant[1] was an honorable profession – something of a trifle!

After Sukkot, when I went after services to Velvel Filvinsky, he treated me to a glass of tea. First he taught me how to make a glass of tea: one puts in a third of concentrated tea essense, a third milk and then fills it with hot water. The dwelling was on the second story. On the first day, I made eight glasses of tea! One went up and down on the steps.

Once I was silly and made it the opposite way – first the water, and the essence at the end. He noticed it and did not drink it, and I had to bring him another glass of tea.

Once I opened the door angrily with a glass of tea in my hand. He closed the door with great anger and gave me a smack on the hands. The saucer remained but the glass fell victim. I returned and brought another glass of tea; but he continued on with his anger and told me that today's glass of tea would cost me dearly. The wonder is that in carrying 8 glasses of tea for 300 days, I only broke one glass.

When did the day of a 13-year-old assistant end? In short, I did not study the Code of Jewish Law. I had to wait until Filvinsky closed the business. However, Filvinsky waited until Elazar Levi Itzik's (Yudelevich) closed his business. I would go to take a look every few minutes to see whether Eliezer Levi Itzik's[2] closed the lamps. Perhaps he was waiting for Filvinsky? In the meantime, I sat there until approximately 10:00 p.m. No customers came. Therefore, I was happy when Leib Gronevich, Alter the lawyer with his powerful voice, Moshe Itzik and other businessmen came to converse.

During the evenings, I waited. I used to sit in the corner on a sack of sugar and listen. They talked about the Governmental Duma, Hamelitz, and Jewish tribulations. Today I think about the stories that they used to tell! They laughed so much. Were I to have known this then, I would have collected the Jonaver humor, and I would have sweetened it today. Alter always had the last word. Since he talked loudly, he won all the debates. My boss had candies and nuts, but he never treated his guests who sustained him. He finally let out a smile…

A day came when an agent from “good things” for the Krasna market arrived. Before the Julians arrived, the Barishnies came to search for sons-in-law and vice versa. The events took place before the Polish church, right in the place where Filvinsky was sitting[3].

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The agent came in the evening and left his merchandise, various types of sweets. Immediately thereafter came the humorous customers who talked about G-d and his Messiah, about trees and stones. They were the experts about the candies. They continued sampling and ate up his entire stock. The agent shouted that they ate everything up. I quickly fled home, cursing all the businessmen. If G-d desires, I would not longer be an assistant[1]. Eating a Vilna Jew out of his livelihood? Such businessmen I could not tolerate.

Every Monday was market day. As Filvinsky waited to sell and not to purchase, his business began after midday. In the evening after the commotion, Filvinsky sat down to count the hard tens, the silver 20 kopecks, the guilders – and tie up the packages. He handed me a heavy load:

“Go off to Sarel Blume's (Pogirsky), give her the 85 rubles and small change, and ask her for a full hundred. She owes me 15 rubles to pay a promissory note.

For her I would never lend, even if I had to go hungry; and for him I had to shamefully borrow, all for a ruble a week!

Sarel Blume's gave me a hundred ruble bill and told me not to lose it. I brought him the money. First I had to go to Moshe Tzvia's (Lukman) in the hotel, find Yankel Asher's and ask whether he was travelling the next day to Kovno with the coach. Then I had to take the hundred ruble bill and trudge on to the businessman who was traveling to Kovno, telling him to take the money to koznochistova and pay the Filvinsky's debt.

On Monday evening, I did not have to wait for Elazar Levi Itzike's to close his business. When I returned home, Lozer's (Elazar's) business had already long been closed…


Translator's Footnotes

  1. The word here is “Prikozhik'. Return
  2. This style of name, appearing several times in this chapter, was common in those days. A person would be nicknamed for his mother or father, with the possessive form applying to the parent names. In this case, the father was Itzik, so the man was called Itzik's. Return
  3. 'Julians' would be Russian slang for 'boys', and 'Barishnies' for 'girls'. This cryptic paragraph is obviously describing some matchmaking that was going on in this store. Return

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