Memories from Over Fifty Years Ago
Translated by Rachel Weitz & Marsha Kayser These pages will start with unrelated memories from my life as best as I can remember them. Much of what happened in those days has been forgotten. I can no longer recall all of it, but parts come, not in one stream of thought, and for this reason it will skip around.
As I present parts of my life's story, I do not mean to emphasize in any way major events in the lives of my family and expose them in any way. I know that my life is not that different than the lives of others of my own age, with whom I shared so many experiences about fifty years ago. Especially because of that, I say to myself, I like to write down chapters from my life, and these chapters should reflect somewhat the lives that my peers and I shared in different stages in our lives. While we were young and innocent and still together, we spoke one language and said the same things. The way our kind was raised and developed, our kind of people is similar, and you can learn about one from the other. There is of course something unique about each person - I am not going to talk about the uniqueness but about the things that they shared - we were all poor, we all received traditional education: kheder, yeshiva and continuation in a kloyz (ed. note: study house). Everyone was independent with no special supervision, care, or guidance from parents. Even if it was a fateful time, usually blind coincidence was the determining factor, and with no help or advice, each one paved his way in life.
And in some lines when I described memories from the life of my mother Shprintza, may she rest in heaven, the only intention was to draw an image of the typical Jewish mother in those days. Their most earnest desire was to see their son engaged in Torah and the Commandments, and their strongest wishes, even when the parents were facing the end, were that their precious son would study a chapter in Mishna to honor his parents' memory.
I was a child alone - those poetic words reflect what happened to me - being alone and abandoned. I did not know the feeling of a warm touch or affection, and I don't remember even one day of my childhood that was joyous. I do not remember any playful and exciting days in those my childhood days
Occasionally, to help myself, I would try a new way in life to satisfy my soulful longing and to lift my spirits. My development was not guided and was already predetermined. There was no consistency, I zigzagged back and forth, and sometimes I turned sharply. And through pain and struggle I moved from one stage to another and there were many stages: from the yeshiva to the study house, from there to the bookstore, from the bookstore to the book bindery, from there to teaching in the moshevah (ed. note: town). Later on in Kalarash and from there to Kishinev, from Kishinev to pedagogic courses that were in Grodno, and from Grodno to Odessa, from Odessa to Israel on the ship Ruslan (1920).
As a child of 7 or 8, we lived on Lithuanian Street. I don't know why the street was called this. Guesses about the name made no sense. Our flat was six steps down from the street level (a boshkeh). The floor was made of clay. Every Friday night we would mix new clay and horse manure on the floor and spread it out in honor of the Sabbath.
Once my mother took me, handed me a bucket, and started to gather manure which she put in the bucket. On the way, I also bent to collect some manure - but she did not let me do it. It's enough that you are carrying the bucket, it's not fit that a child who studies the Gemara should get his hands dirty.
We moved to Isser Litvak's house, which was on the same street. One day a fire started, I don't remember how, but I remember the sound of the alarm that my mother and the neighbors heard. The neighbors rushed in when they heard the screams and started to put out the fire that erupted from different corners. One came with a pail of water, another removed our belongings, all the kids were taken to nearby neighbors' houses, and when the fire was completely out, my mother started to collect her children (two sons and three girls). Hearing her call, we gathered around her.
My older sister Leia, may she rest in peace, burst out crying when she saw the messy pile next to the house. My mother asked her not to cry, silly girl, be thankful that we are all alive and healthy, and as she said that, she lifted her hands and whispered: Thank you oh God, merciful God, for the grace that you bestowed upon me, all my infants are around me, and her face shone with joy (from God's grace.)
I remember the Shabbos before Passover (Shabbot Hagadol) my mother lay sick, her strength had left her, and she lost consciousness and fainted. Grandma Rivka and the rest of the household cried bitterly, and the neighbors gathered. Grandma (hovering over the children): A terrible disaster has come upon us, children, come quickly to the synagogue, only merciful God can help us. When we came to the synagogue, the prayers stopped, the ark was opened before us, Grandma started to pray to God, crying and asking him to have mercy on the young 'chicks' and that for them, please send a cure to her only daughter, the sole survivor after ten sons. When we returned home, we found the neighbors caring for my mother. Misting her face with water, they gave her drops for weakness (ammonia drops). She came to, opened her eyes, turned her head from one side to the other, and asked where is Itzikl. Immediately they took me to her bed. She extended her arm and took my hand and pressed it to her heart and whispered, My dear Itzikl, promise that you will study a chapter of Mishnah for the elevation of my soul, and then immediately closed her eyes.
One of the pupils and psalm readers
Every day I beseech G-d for all those people
In the winter following the death of my mother, may she rest in peace, I would get up early on Shabbos, before dawn, and go to the synagogue (to the Tailors' Shul) which was close to our home, and together with the Tehilim (ed. note: Book of Psalms) readers, we would read chapters from Tehilim, and at the end of every day I said Kaddish and usually I would be one of the few to say it. I began sharing this mitzvah with my younger brother Yaakov who was two years younger than me. On one of the Shabbos nights, a very difficult winter night, very stormy and dark outside, the mud in the street deep and sticky, the narrow paths where people walked during the day disappeared completely. That night I awakened and did not know the time. No clock at home. It seemed that the time to go to synagogue had arrived. I awakened my brother. At first he refused, saying, I am very tired, it is very cold, I want to sleep some more. But when I started to appeal to him, We could say Kaddish five times and there will be no one else but us, he was tempted, we got dressed, and we left the house. Outside, it was very dark and gloomy and the silence - terrible and horrifying. I was afraid to go close to the houses because a dog might jump on us. We walked in the middle of the road, sinking in the mud, which was freezing. My brother clung to me, and his hand was in my pocket. Clenched and holding each other, we got to the synagogue, which was closed with no light from within. We walked all around, and there was no way to go in. I told my brother: Let's go to the study house - over there they are probably already open. We were stepping in the mud, so he clung to me again, and again in the middle of the street, we turned toward the study house. We arrived and the study house was also closed. We were standing by the door, and my brother cried, I am very cold. I appealed to him, Soon probably the shames (ed. note: the synagogue's caretaker or sexton) will come and open the door, the 'goy' will come and light the oven. We waited and waited and Lev the shames didn't show up, and the 'goy' didn't come. I said to my brother, Let's go to the 'Chabad' synagogue (the Chabadski shul). We arrived there, and the synagogue there was also closed. Not even I could go to another synagogue. My brother clasped me with both his hands, shaking I took him and brought him under the bench by the door and I sat next to him awaiting the sunrise. I don't know how much time passed, because I also fell asleep. All of a sudden, I felt a touch, I opened my eyes, and I saw the shames who was showering me with questions. I couldn't answer and I just said, I am Itzikl Yehudah Moyshe's (after my grandfather Moyshe).
I woke up my brother, and we both entered the synagogue; the shames started massaging my hands and face. I pointed to my brother, I also started to take care of him - - finally daytime came, and in the synagogue they finished saying Tehilim but I couldn't say Kaddish, not me or my brother. We returned home, we did not go to Shakharit prayer. Our sister Leia, may she rest in peace, when she saw us coming in, imagined what had happened. She took us and put us both in bed, she stood by us, she didn't raise her voice, she patted our heads, her eyes tearing on and on
Now, when I remember those days, my heart tells me that the merciful God probably carried enough tears in his pouch for her that day.
The next day I got up but my brother stayed in bed for over two weeks. A doctor was not called for him but my sister herself took care of him after she consulted with the neighboring women.
While I was at Grandpa's house, I started to learn at the yeshiva and in those days my grandfather was one of the gabbaim (ed. note: synagogue treasurer or trustee) from the yeshiva, and when it came time to hire one of the teachers, they would consult with him, too. Once two gabbaim came to him and asked him for his opinion regarding a certain tutor. Is he suitable to serve as a tutor in Gemara (ed. note: Talmud Commentary) in one of the classes? His answer was - out of the question: do not accept him and he shouldn't have any involvement in our yeshiva. On the question of what wrong he found in him, he told them that on the previous Saturday morning he saw him walking to the synagogue and he took out a white handkerchief from a pants pocket to wipe his nose.
And I'm asking you, couldn't he use the red handkerchief and put it in the back pocket of the kaputeh (ed. note: long coat worn by orthodox Jews), as every kosher Jew does, and not do like the Poritz (Polish squire)
My cousin Avraham ben Yoel Tzvi lived in the village Orgineshty and he's one of the few intellectuals of that generation. In his house there were Tenach books with interpretations of Malbeem (Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michal, a famous genius of his time). At his place you could also find the book Akhiasof or Tushia (ed. note: Resourcefulness). He also then received a Hebrew newspaper (I do not remember if it was Hamelitz or Hatzfirah) and once in awhile he would pass on some of the copies for me to read. I used to treat the copies like something holy; I would spread them on the table and read them like the traditional Gemara negun (ed. note: tune) with the same rocking movements. My grandfather wasn't happy with this style of reading but he did not resist listening to what was written in those newspapers and I would tell him what I was reading: a story about someone who had the permit to collect customs duty on meat in a certain town who fired the shoykhet from his position and he (the shoykhet), because he was so enraged, attacked the permit holder and injured him and this was in the midst of the reading of the Torah. Or the story about the gabe in a synagogue that behaved in a way that was very disrespectful and scornful to one of the worshippers, who became very angry and cursed him and this led to a long break in the middle of the prayer and so on and so on. My grandfather listened and listened and said: One of the two, if all of this is true, what your newspaper writes, it is an act of gossip, and about gossip the Gemara says, 'You shouldn't be like a peddler that is loading up on people's chatter about one another as if it were merchandise.' But in this case it is the things that this one and that one say to each other. 'And if it is a lie, we have therefore a matter of slander and this is worse than gossip. Anybody who talks slander is going against the core of it all (ed. note: Judaism) and he is multiplying his sins and he deserves to be stoned.' So why do you need all of this trouble Itzikl, you'd better take the book Reshit Hokhmah (The Genesis of Wisdom) or Khinat Olam (Analysis of the World) and study them and don't waste your time; and the stories in your newspaper are things that have no wisdom in them and no fear of God and you should stay away from them.
I was then about ten years old
My cousin Avraham (the son of my uncle Yoel Tzvi) was also one of the grandchildren whose education and upbringing my grandfather supervised. Once some information arrived in the village, and our grandfather demanded that Avraham come to him immediately. This seemed peculiar to everyone, and no one understood why he was being told to come to my grandfather at once. Next day he came to the village to my grandfather's house. When he asked what was the matter that he was asked to come urgently, our grandfather answered: I heard a rumor that you go once in a while to Rezina and that you go to the house of Mr. So and So, and they say in his house there is a Mendelssohn's I.Sh.V.'Interpretation' (ed. note: I.Sh.V. is a curse) and I suspect that while you are at his home you probably take Mendelssohn's books and maybe you peek and study them and from here it is just one step toward conversion .Got it? Well now you know why I called you to come to me?
Avraham couldn't deny it and began to apologize that Mendelssohn is not worthy of such a curse (may his name and memory be erased) and in his book there is no heresy and no reason for worry and suspicion. But my grandfather did not allow him to continue, and finished with a scolding that such things will no longer be tolerated in his house. And he got up and left the room. And after that there was a distance between them. One turned aside and issued a reprimand, and the other was irate.
After a while Avraham brought his grandfather a new interpretation of Psalm number 8 in Tehilim: Lord our God how excellent is your name in all the earth, an interpretation by the Malbeem. So Avraham wisely delivered the interpretation in a very elaborate and exact way, and my grandfather listened with interest, and after that they made up and their meetings returned to normal.
My grandfather used to take me with him when he went to Orgineshty, where my uncle Yoel (his older son) Tzvi lived. We traveled there quite frequently, whether for his business or when he wished to see his older son and his family. My uncle's family was the only Jewish family in this village and my uncle never forgot this special situation for a moment. He did everything to keep good relations with the people of the village, a relationship of friendship and understanding, although he was not always successful at this
The police officer (Uriadnik) was my uncle's regular guest on their holidays and especially on the Jewish holidays he would come and visit, and he would sit late over a glass of wine or spirits while making conversation about world events.
The Strosta (village elder) and the priest would come and sit at this table over the holidays, and they would enjoy my aunt's baked goods and the bottles of wine offered to them. And they would sit and talk, in conversation with good neighbors.
The people of the village knew that if they did anything to the Jews' property, no one would take action, and at the slightest opportunity would take a beam of wood or a bar of metal from the yard or a basket of grapes from the vineyard, and no one feared being sued
Even though the visits of these dignitaries at my uncle's house increased their respect for him, and no one in the village dared to hurt him in a vulgar way and to be openly disrespectful to him, when they would get drunk their tongues would loosen and they would spew words of contempt and disgrace and curse blasphemy toward the kike and his God. In the days of Krushbahn in Serbia when they started provocation reviling us in the newspaper The Serbuts (Krushbahn's newspaper) and these poisonous words penetrated to every village
Once during Purim I visited my uncle, and suddenly the Uriadnik came in as usual to bless the owner. They gave him delicatessen and pastries and he ate with pleasure and he drank the wine and spirits. He drank, he wiped his mouth, and he drank again. My aunt served him the strudel (baking) and he did not refuse. He took a mouthful of drink and gulped it again in high spirits with his head heavy from drink
When he got up he turned to my uncle with these words in Russian, Hershku, how sweet is your religion there is nothing like her, so sweet and delicious such delicatessen you will not find even at our priests! It's very pleasant to spend time at Hershku's house during the holiday. He was just about to leave and was at the threshold. His legs gave way, and he fell and got hurt. They called people from the street and with much effort they picked him up and led him to his home, and my uncle told me later that for months there were investigations ongoing about this issue. How come Uriadnik fell and was injured? And my uncle used the tested method to avoid court
The writer of these notes next to his sister Charna
We were at the portion of Noah. One of us would read the Khumesh, another one the Mikra (ed. note: the Bible) and another one the Targum (ed. note: the Septuagint, the Old Testament as translated by 70 Jewish scholars for Ptolemy II): God liked Noah. The rabbi interrupted in the middle and asked, Children, what does Kheyn mean? Kheyn is a tiny dot and thanks to the tiny dot in God's eyes, Noah saved the entire world.
And more from this rabbi's doctrine. We learned in the portion of Kitetze, When a man takes a woman and if he does not like her, because he finds something defective in her - he would divorce her and send her from his house. The rabbi explained, and he found something defective in her - she burned the meals, for example, she burned the roast meat or her 'tzimmes' took on a smoky flavor because she was inattentive. And one of the students addressed the rabbi in these words: So if she burns the roast or burns the 'tzimmes', is that enough reason for a man to divorce his wife? he said in amazement. And the rabbi answered immediately, Listen to me, children. The written text says in one place, 'love covers every crime and hatred will incite quarreling.' If because of the effect of the scorched roast and the smoky 'tzimmes', arguments, fights, and quarrels break out between the husband and his wife, it is a sign that there is no love and domestic bliss between them. And therefore it is better to give her the get (ed. note: a divorce) immediately so he will not continue to irritate her with such complaints.
Another one from the reaction of the same rabbi. There was a custom that on Purim people would pair up to collect donations for charity, and they would teach the young ones to perform this mitzvah. So the rabbi chose me and another child from our classroom, and he informed us of a very respectable family in great distress (the rabbi did not give the family's name) and it was our duty to ease the plight of the family, and he gave us his blessing and we both went out and canvassed the community for donations.
The people donated generously. Many knew us and we collected more than a ruble. We gave all the money to the rabbi. He counted the coins and bundled them in his handkerchief and told us, Now, children, come and I will buy you 'kvass' (a fermented beverage like malt) and will pay with the money you collected. We were both surprised at this and we looked at him with great astonishment - what does it mean? From the tzdaka (ed. note: charity) money? He probably understood what we were thinking and told us, Children, I know that you are wondering about everything I told you. Now listen and remember, among the people from whom you collected charity there are undoubtedly those who suspect that maybe you will take some of the donated money and put it in your pocket and if you are innocent of the above then this is a serious sin 'to suspect those who are honest.' Therefore come and enjoy a little bit from the donated money and the sin of the ones who suspected you will not be as great. And the three of us approached one of the owners of the kiosk, and the rabbi told him to give each of us a glass of kvass. The drink was bubbling and overflowing, and in my rush I brought the glass to my mouth and forgot to make the blessing. My friend noticed this and immediately got my attention: Itzikl - a blessing! But the rabbi hinted to me that I should heed his warning and drink quickly, and this was also very puzzling to us but we did not analyze it. Another time the rabbi was explaining a different case to us, and in his words he incorporated the verse performed a blessing, reviling God, and then he turned to me and added: Do you remember the glass of 'kvass' that you drank? It was better that you not bless it than bless it...
My classroom was in the apartment of little Peretz ( Peretzl der Kleyner) and it was an unlit room with one small window, blocked with a small pillow or blanket, looking into the yard, and another one that looked out on the street, and from that window came the light for the entire room. And in the room there was a long table, on one side a sofa with bedding on it, used for the shorter ones among us, and on the other side - a long bench, and on it sat the rest of the students. In the small yard behind the house there was a cow shed, and in the cow shed a cow and calf lay on the manure, which would pile up from one year to the next. For us, this cow shed was a kind of playground for those students who received permission to go out after demonstrating their mastery of the lesson for the week.
The customary curriculum in those days in our yeshiva was learning only the Gemara. They went from morning until noon, and then from noon until the evening.
On Sunday the rabbi would read the lesson for us, and we repeated it over and over all week except for one hour, when we would learn the Weekly Portion (ed. note: from Pentateuch - The Five Books of Moses.) On Friday we would go over two Mikra and oneTargum in the same Weekly Portion, as we followed along with the cantillations (ed. note: the symbols showing the tones for chanting.) They did not allow time for learning to write or even for secular studies. In the supervisor's opinion there was no need to cram the children's brains with external wisdom. So did we and our fathers and our fathers' fathers not engage themselves with it, and we saw life in our world. When they grow up, each one of them will be able to fill in whatever he is missing, and we only have to fill their brains with Torah as if 'stuffing and feeding an ox' - in the words of Yosef Duchovny, the yeshiva supervisor.
The first tractate we learned in the Talmud was the Kidushim tractate (ed. note: about marriage), first chapter, The woman is purchased in three ways - money, a promissory note, and by having sexual intercourse. And I was then seven or eight years old. What was the reason we started in this tractate and in this chapter - only the gabe of the yeshiva and the rabbi have the answer to that. I probably was considered the best student in the class in the eyes of the rabbi and gabbaim. I learned this from something that happened.
In those days a rumor spread in our town, that the baron (ed note: as used here it denotes a wealthy Jewish landowner) David Ginzburg from Petrograd was about to tour his estate which was near Orheyev, and he was considering coming to our town to visit a few public institutions. And in the town, a big commotion of course. Every public institution, including the yeshiva, prepared to welcome the wealthy man. The rabbi chose me to be the first among those whom the baron would examine in the Talmud, and he started preparing me so that I would know the lesson in a very detailed and meticulous way, with the accuracy that you need to draw from the interpreters (Rashi, Tosafot, Maharsha, Maharamshif). They transferred our class to the supervisor's house (Y. Duchovny), better lit, a more spacious house, and in the center of town.
Men and women gathered at the door and windows to view the baron's face. It's a mitzvah to see the face of royalty. And here in a coach came the baron accompanied by the secretary, and they immediately whisked him into the house. And when he had taken his place, the rabbi gave me the signal to read the lesson. I started to recite all that I remembered and my eyes were fixed either on the Gemara or on the baron's face. As I was reading the lesson, I noticed a slight smile suggesting amazement on his face, and the smile became a broad grin, a laugh, after which I lost my composure, and I started to cry
The baron rose from his seat, approached me, and stroked my head to calm me down, signaling the gabe and the rabbi to approach him. The three of them entered a special room and conversed for a few minutes and then they came out, and the baron approached me and asked me: And Tanakh - do you know it? I did not know the meaning of the word Tanakh, and the rabbi, standing next to me, used simple words to explain what it was: verse, verse, and he opened the Book of Isaiah and I (a Gemara boy) read two or three verses, and I interpreted them, and with this the exam and the visit of the baron ended
Years passed, and I never forgot the baron's visit, and it came to mind every so often even though I still could not figure out and explain the smiling expression on his face. Years had gone by, when I met with Yosef Duchovny, the gabe, and I asked him, why did the baron laugh when I was examined before him?
Yeh, he answered laughing, and he told me - that in the tractate I was learning then, the tractate Ktubot page 11 the second side (probably after Kidushim we moved to Ktubot, - a logical progression) the topic was : she says 'I was struck by a tree' and he says: 'no, you were trampled by a man and when joined to the previous topic: he who marries the woman and finds she is not a virgin, the Gemara offers two opposing opinions, and the issue is in dispute - and I was the main actor in this story - a boy of nine or ten .
There were three classes then in the yeshiva: first grade for beginners - prayer and Khumesh (the first chapter in the Weekly Portion). The study in Khumesh was mainly to practice reading and translating the words into Yiddish with no relevant explanation, but a translation of every single word: and he said Adonai - Got, El - Tzu, Moshe - Moyshe (ed. note: and God said to Moses). Second grade - Khumesh and Rashi from the Weekly Portion and beginning of Gemara. And it was interesting that when we arrived in Rashi, with its content being a grammatical explanation, the rabbi would begin to explain and would immediately stop with the remark, This is a matter of grammar and we do not really need it, and he would skip to the next verse. Our impression was that the grammar in certain places in Tanakh, for example the chapters in Joshua 4-20, was in the same category as the community census, where there is no point or benefit in reading it for the student.
Third grade, entirely Gemara. The rabbi read a lesson the first day and he incorporated in his lecture the interpreters Rashi, Tosafot Marsh'a and we (a class of 20-25 students) had to repeat and memorize it for examination on Thursday. And this was the exam: the rabbi chose one of the weakest students and told him to read the lesson, and we had to listen and correct the reader every time he made a mistake. And there were many who would jump and correct, and the more you jumped, the better you were in the eyes of the rabbi
Besides the rabbi's lesson we would receive independent study do it alone that they would assign to one or two of us, a different tractate, a little easier, a marked lesson which the student would have to prepare by himself in a day or two. The test would begin on Wednesday and would sometimes continue into Thursday. Friday was entirely for the Weekly Portion with Rashi's interpretation - one for Targum - translation, and two for reading with cantillation the Haftorah in the traditional melody.
The learning methods and the relationship between the rabbi and the yeshiva students were not the same, there was no single accepted method in the institution which would be mandatory for everyone teaching there, but each rabbi would do as was his custom. Each rabbi had his method and his special relationship with his flock.
I remember one of them well, Mordechai Litvak, who slapped my face, and that was the first and only time in my life I got slapped, and this is what happened.
One day, at sunset, we were sitting around the table, and we were praying Minkha, each one reading a paragraph from a chapter. My fate was to read Ashrey, and when I reached the last verse and we are going to bless God from now on to eternity, Halleluyah, I read as if there was only one lamed. The rabbi commanded me: read again! I read again, and again the same thing. The rabbi: Observe and see what is written in the Sedur. I looked and I repeated my mistake because I did not know that both lamed's are pronounced, and the rabbi lost his patience and approached and slapped my cheek until it became swollen and red. I came home, and when I was asked: what and why, I burst into tears. At the same time the rabbi appeared also, and with a smile on his face apologized and said: Did you ever hear in such a kheder that a Gemara boy doesn't know 'to break the lamed.'
Another rabbi, whose name I don't remember, had a special teaching style. How? One of the students would fail in his studies, did not know or did not understand what the rabbi said. He was immediately ordered to leave the table and lean over, and another child got the konchik (ed. note: the strap) and he was expected to hit the boy who was stretched out for as many strikes as the rabbi wanted. If the child was slipshod in doing the beating, he would be immediately commanded to lean over, and a third child would take the role of beating both of them as the rabbi commanded.
In contrast with them, there were also other kinds of teachers. I remember one whose method was to attract the students' attention by telling fables and stories, especially when we learned Khumesh and the stories of the sages and the miracles that occurred in life. That one was not severe with us when one of the students did not comprehend what he said. Then he would command one of us to sit and review with the slower child until he understood what the rabbi meant. For the child that received a role like that - it was an aliya (ed. note: an ascent, like being called to do a Torah reading.) And I would get a task like that every so often.
Once Steinbach appeared in the yeshiva building, dressed up in the student uniform. The gabe, Duchovny, rushed up, and the students began to guess why the student came to us, and they kept guessing but no one knew anything for sure. It had recently become known, that our class would begin to learn Russian and mathematics twice a week at sunset. And they also announced that they would give each student a notebook and a pencil. That was quite a surprise in the life of the yeshiva students, and it was very exciting. Twice a week Steinbach came to us and engaged us in reading a Russian book for beginners and practicing mathematics orally. He never scolded us or rebuked us. On the contrary, he was soft and affectionate. With a little smile, he would correct and guide the child in his reading. Before he would come, there would be a lot of commotion. They would check their clothes to neaten their appearance, and when he would enter, we would welcome him with a sholem in Russian - there was a desire to impress him. All of this probably was not welcomed by the gabbai and especially our rabbi. He taught us for almost a month when he stopped, and for a reason that had nothing to do with him.
But he didn't give up. After a few days, he appeared again in the yeshiva and he had a new offer: If it's not expedient that he visit the yeshiva once in awhile, he suggested choosing two or three children to come once or twice a week to continue their learning.
The management agreed to that, and I was one of the two who were chosen.
Steinbach's apartment was in the Street of the Nobles, in the yard of Dr. Rabinovitz's house. They chose the morning hour for us, when he would awaken. I remember, that the rabbi asked us once, if I continued to visit the student's apartment, and how the studying was going. I answered about this and that. Then he bent over and asked me in a whisper, I beg you, Itzikl, tell me, child, he does not cross himself when he arises?
For two weeks my friend and I continued to visit the student's house early in the morning before the morning prayer. It was in the fall when the winter rain had started, and my friend and I did not have galoshes. We decided between us to stop our visits until the mud freezes. We did not tell the teacher about it. The teacher asked us the reason, and he sent Menashe Feinsilver (the son of Alter Menashe), who was a regular visitor there, to investigate to find out why we stopped visiting his home. And he learned the reason, he sent a message by messenger to say that we should not pay any attention to that, and we should continue to come, and by the door he prepared an iron scraper on which we could clean the mud from our shoes before we entered his room.
One day he suggested that we remove our hats from our heads while we sit at the table to learn. We unwillingly fulfilled his request. At that time I was God-fearing and observant and I was very strict with every commandment. And when I thought about the fact that I have to sit the whole hour with my head exposed before my bar mitzvah, my conscience bothered me and I saw it as breaking away from the yoke of Jewish law. In my heart I decided that I should not continue---and when I passed this on to my friend, he also agreed to it. But we decided first to consult with other people. First of all we turned to Rebbe Alter Menashe (Alter Feinsilver), one of the leaders of the community and a yeshiva supervisor, a religious man, observant, but not a zealot. The zealots would gossip about him and they were suspicious that sometimes he reads newspapers, and others added that he should be suspected for occasionally reading chapters from Be-ur (ed. note: Hebrew commentary on the Bible by Moses Mendelssohn and his disciples) which his son-in-law (Shmuel Gershon Baru) had at home. Despite all that, he was highly respected and accepted. We turned to him and I was the one who started with this question: Can a man from Israel sit uncovered before his bar mitzvah while he is preoccupied with such and such a thing? Rebbe Alter listened to me while a little smile floated on his lips and he turned to me with a smile of a merciful father and said: Itzikl, dear child, if only all Jewish parents were blessed with such children as you but please do not forget that we live among the goyim, they rule over us, and we are under their authority. Every person, whoever he is, has to know the language of the country where he lives. Also among our sages, may their memory be blessed, there were many who knew the Greek language and sometimes they learned external wisdom, and despite that, they remained loyal Jews. Here you may receive some kind of paper or document from the authorities, and you do not know what is written in it, and you have to look for a person to translate what is written in it, and that is not so nice. It is not good for a person to be dependent on somebody else's interpretation, so you should therefore not make it graver than it is, and you had better continue in your studies.
I could not accept what he said, and I told my friend, What he says does not make sense to me, let's ask our rabbi, and let's see what he has to say. The rabbi heard our story, my reasoning, and he jumped from his place and called out, Be blessed, children! that you did not allow Satan to control you. You begin with uncovering your head, and you continue with not following the commandments and not being observant, and you finish with forced conversion In these days when there are more and more people who break the yoke of the commandments, every Jew has to behave in a more restricted way and stay away from committing a sin. Do not continue to visit in this fellow's house Who knows, it's possible that he is not even circumcised since his face looks goyish and we of course did as he told us.
I remember I was just about to finish the tractate Mokot ( ed. note: Blows). I came and entered her room holding the Gemara in my hand. She asked my name, I answered her, and she said, Very nice, like the name of one of the fathers, and she added her blessing, You should always study Torah, and it will watch over you your whole life.
When I finished and I was about to leave, she stopped me and said to me: You are going to eat lunch with me, and she caressed my shoulder and patted my face with both hands. And her hands were warm and soft, like velvet. The look in her eyes was happy and heartwarming, and her face lit up with a small, modest smile and I remember my feeling then, that that was the first affectionate touch (and possibly - the only one) that I had in my gray childhood
In the study house, we were free to work independently with no supervision or guidance from anybody, and learning - meant Gemara. It did not occur to us to think about other subjects, even though new ideas were stirring in our town, and I don't remember how they also reached me. I approached Fishel Shtern, one of the first teachers in Orheyev to open a progressive school with subjects other than Gemara, and his students were from the wealthy, among them the sons of Yisrael Krasner and Shmuel Lipshits, and more. In this room all the students sat facing the teacher, and every hour the bell would ring, and the students would all go outside for a break. A thing I did not understand; for what and why are they going hourly to the yard? Surely there is in it an annulment of Torah study and in my heart I thought: this is what they mean when they say that the rabbi gets money for nothing. I don't know how it happened that I became close to F. Shtern, and it is possible that one of his daughters, whom I would meet by chance, was the reason. He gave me instruction in the book of Haskalah (ed. note: an 18th-19th century movement among central and eastern European Jews, begun in Germany under the leadership of Moses Mendelssohn, designed to make Jews and Judaism more cosmopolitan in character by promoting knowledge of and contributions to the secular arts and sciences and encouraging the adoption of the dress, customs, and language of the general population - the enlightenment), and once or twice a week he would choose for me a book that he liked. I took the book to the study house also, and when there was no one there, I put it on the Gemara and I read it standing and swaying, nobody noticed, if I read one of the books of Haskalah at that time.
One day as I was standing by the window, a funeral passed by, and I found out that the deceased was one of our neighbors. I rushed out, and I forgot to hide the book which was on top of the Gemara. The funeral was delayed a little bit and when I returned, it was already time for the Minkhe (ed. note: evening prayer) when the shames Rebbe Leib would go between the rows (the bookstands) to remove the books and organize them in the cabinet. He found my book on top of the Gemara, he was shocked, and he brought it to the worshippers: Such a scandal, a desecration of the holy, we should teach him proper behavior and he issued the verdict from on high, that he would not continue to give me a candle every evening, as he does for all the students, and I was forced to approach one of the students to share his light, and I continued my studies by his candle. I was in torment for two or three days until one evening Rebbe Alter Menashe happened to come to the study house, and when he saw me doing this, he asked me, why am I standing like that? I told him with great shame what had happened to me, and he answered me, with a slight smile spreading across his face: There is a time for everything, and he ordered the gabe Rebbe Leib to stop withholding the candle. And since I again mention Rebbe Alter Menashe (Feinsilver), it is worthwhile to relate that he was handling something special that we did not appreciate appropriately.
The benches that were along the walls in the kloyz were made from crates. Some of the crates were filled with Names (ed. note: a symbol or vehicle of divinity, in this case pages from the prayer books and Torah) rendered unfit ( ed. note: ripped or ruined pages) until they were taken out to be put away, and other crates were full of regular paper that Alter Menashe would take care of. He would go to Yisrael Pagis's printing house or to Henzel Polonsky's bindery and would pay one of the boys five kopeks to fill a sack with their leftover paper to put in the crates in the study house, and the people would use them before the blessing of The One Who Created
In the yard of the study house there was a kind of bathroom, and the people who used it knew very well that the paper in those crates was for their use and interestingly enough he knew and felt that the wide community of worshippers would look at his deed as if it was an oddity and would mock him, but he paid it no attention and continued to take care of it as if it was just one of the needs of the community, and once in a while he would make sure to fill the crates with scraps of paper
I continued my studies in the study house for two or three years and the learning went on with no excitement. From the four or five friends who started together in the study house, I was the only one left, each of the others went his own way. This one had the answers to his craft in his hands, the other one took on work or commerce and one, Binyamin Mishkis, he was successful and he devoted all his time to Russian literature and to different sciences, and he became famous. And I, my life became empty with no contacts and no direction.
And at home, poverty and shortage, and I a young man fourteen or fifteen eating and not doing. My father, although he was busy all the time on the tobacco plantation, could never make a profit so that he could help support the household.
In those days I felt that I had become restless. For days I would walk around confused and absent-minded, and some kind of strange emptiness enveloped me and I couldn't figure it out, inside of me bottled-up pain which I could not express. I neglected my studies. I would sit for hours next to the Gemara, my eyes in the book, as if I were reading and analyzing it, but my head and heart - away from it. I did not find rest at night - usually I had nightmares - and when I would awaken, I could not close my eyes again.
One of those nights when I lay in bed, I couldn't sleep and was thinking about the stressful condition at home and my own condition:
How do I accept such a condition, living on the sweat of my sister's brow, she is weak, eaten up by worries and concerns, and her strength is fading what to do? To whom to turn? Which way should I choose? I was lost and helpless, in my heart a great confusion. When I got up in the morning I decided to go to Polonsky, a store owner who also had a book bindery, and to offer him my help in the store! Polonsky had known me for awhile. He was from the Tailors' Synagogue and once in awhile he would honor me with a Maftir (ed. note: reading from Prophets.) At the Tailors' Synagogue I was a Gemara Yingl and everyone knew me and treated me with respect.
The following day I went to Polonsky and I asked him to accept my help in the store. In the beginning he hesitated, and wanted to know what led me to this, and embarrassed, I answered his questions and most of the answers faltered. Despite that, after a few minutes we agreed that I would start coming to the store and he immediately told me that I would earn half a ruble a month (50 kopeks). When I brought home my first pay and handed it to my sister, she burst into tears, and I couldn't calm her down for a few minutes, until I promised her that I would continue to study on Saturdays in the kloyz, and then she calmed down.
I was a helper in the store for about two years, and my salary was raised to four rubles per month but the business in the store and the friendship with the helpers in the store did not give my mind rest. I remember that I was invited once to a dance club by a fellow worker. I came and I did not fit in with them, and that night I decided to leave the store and the helpers and I moved to the Polonsky's bookbinding place. There I met Ben-Zion Finkelshteyn and also Ben-Zion Furer, both of them old workers at Polonsky's place. At this job I felt much better than at the store, the company was much more comfortable and pleasant.
I don't remember what inspired us, and we, a young group of people, most of us students, got organized in a club which was called Clear Language. Binyamin Mishkis was the lively spirit in the club. He was the initiator, its chair, and its writer/secretary. In what were we engaged? Conversations, and B. Mishkis led the conversations. Usually he would be the one to begin them, and would usually also be the lecturer. The subjects were: the question of the Settlement in Israel and also the history of our people. After every lecture, the discussion and questions began. It was everyone's duty to participate in the conversation. And if one tried to evade it, they would comment: You did not say anything yet, and he had to express in one or two sentences remarks regarding the discussed topic. Per one of the decisions each one had to make time for Hebrew conversation one hour a day, it had to be in a place where many people would pass by, as for example in the Street of the Nobles (the street of the aristocracy.)
In my second year of being a binder, and my salary already 6 rubles per month, Moshe Korenfeld, one of the famous externalists (ed. note: one who taught non-religious subjects) in Orheyev (he lived in Sloboda) made me an offer to leave work and to travel with him to the town of Dumbrovitsa, where he was to open a modern school. He would be engaged in teaching the general topics, and I in teaching the Hebrew subjects. This offer appealed to me, and after I said goodbye to Polonsky, I left Orheyev and I began teaching.
From then on I got further away from Orheyev, the course of my life had its ups and downs which got me even further away from Orheyev and its people
The people of Orheyev say that Leibel Mundrian, may his memory be blessed, was the first Orheyev teacher for Hebrew and my friend I. Spivak, also an Orheyev native, was the second one.
Translated by Rachel Weitz and Marsha Kayser The Jewish public library was established in 1902. A group of enlightened intellectuals, headed by Moyshe Ravich, appealed to the public and explained the need for a cultural institution where the Jewish reader would find a book he could borrow and a newspaper for his use in the reading room. The public was asked to contribute books and money to open a Russian Jewish library. The public responded nicely and the library opened in 1902. The first attempt to open a library was made in 1866 (see Hamelitz - March 9, 1866) by Mr. Savitch, a Christian community activist and a liberal person who believed in facilitating the public's access to knowledge and culture. Most of the readers spoke Russian and a minority read Hebrew.
The institution also supplied Hebrew newspapers like Hamelitz, Kol Mevasen, and Carmel.
The library existed for a long time. From 1902 until the destruction of the city (1940) it experienced a number of crises due to the tumultuous nature of the times.
During the period leading up to World War I the library continued to develop at a good pace. Everyday the library drew many visitors, and those who came enjoyed the pleasant atmosphere of the place. During this time those who served as librarians were: the old man Yosef Kiperchensky (1902-05), then the late Zelig Veinberg (a member in the Association of Hebrew Speakers) and last Pini Gelbrukh. Many of the people who came to learn would volunteer to rotate the task of keeping order and quiet, and this added a special warm spirit to the library.
During that time the members of the executive committee were Moyshe Ravich, Shmuel Pisarevsky, Sara Nayman, Zolman Nayman, Shmuel Lipshin, Velvel Shaposhnik, Rukhel Ravich, and more.
[Pages 87 - 88]
Translated by Rachel Weitz and Marsha Kayser During World War I (1914-17) the library was closed, hundreds of books were scattered among the readers, and there was a real danger that this important cultural treasure would vanish.
With the outbreak of the Russian Revolution (1917) a small group of academic students decided to take action to open the library. The city was divided into districts and the volunteers visited all the houses and collected hundreds of books in a very short time.
Since they had no means to pay for this big job, the members of the group who had volunteered - Tzevi Guralnik, Yisrael Grobokopatel, and this writer - arranged the catalogues, worked passionately for many days, and fixed up the library. The woman member, Gilishenskaya, was invited to be the paid librarian. New books were purchased and the readership kept growing.
In the year 1918 the Romanians invaded Bessarabia. Their first action was to uproot the communist movement and Russian culture and impose Romanian as the predominant language. The government was suspicious of the library, where most of the books were in Russian. In the year 1921 a few communists who were regular visitors to the library were arrested, and after the secret police searched their apartments, they also searched the library. Although they found nothing suspicious, they still arrested the head of the library M. Rotkov and the librarian Rukhel Keyser. They were investigated and subjected to threats and insults until a very late hour, and only after secretly bribing the officer of the secret police were they released. Even so, the library was closed for a few months, and only after tremendous effort and persuasion was the library reopened to serve the public.
This disturbance caused a financial crisis, and the community activists worked very hard to maintain the library. The purchase of new books was very limited and only through the reorganization of the community board (1924-1925), was a certain amount of money dedicated to the purchase of books, while the income from library members' fees and fund-raising parties covered the day-to-day expenses of running the library.
Of course the Zionists were stirred up by this action too, and the provocation between the two movements was extremely hard, but the outcome was good, and it was for the best. As the result of this provocation the library added hundreds of members who paid membership fees in advance, and this brought financial relief to the management, which had been experiencing difficulties.
Participation was very high at the annual meeting and the room was overcrowded. From the very beginning, the atmosphere of the meeting was highly charged. It became stormy the commotion grew to such a point that it was impossible to run the meeting. Thanks to the interference of Vaynshtok, the head of the community who was present at the meeting, the meeting was brought to order and (the attendees) followed his suggestion to begin immediately to hold the elections. The members of the league saw this as a complete failure, and they left the meeting before the elections proceeded.
The management was chosen, and they immediately applied themselves to their mission with renewed devotion. The books which the league had donated were returned, and they opened their own library. Many members joined it, and therefore it hurt the budget of our library. The community committee responded once more to our request and set aside a specified sum of money for purchasing books. This help arrived at just the right time and encouraged the management to continue to advance the institution with renewed enthusiasm.
I remember when the librarians Rukhel Keyser and later on Malka Rotkov bore the burden of the difficult financial situation and only because of a few devoted friends did they manage to sustain it. With every political change the library was shaken up and closed - and Rukhel and Malka left the job. The boredom and thirst for books weighed heavily on the young people. So we got up a young group (Mordechai Vinberg, Yeshaya Frank, may their memories be blessed and may they live long, Nachman Genikhovitz and the writer of this list), and we volunteered to begin with renewed vigor to open the library. The main difficulty was obtaining a license from the government. The public figure Liuba Gluzgold came to our rescue. He invested much effort and a substantial amount of his own money, he promised the government that the library management met political requirements, and finally he got the license. Then we again applied ourselves vigorously to the collection of the scattered books, we rented a suitable apartment, we invited Miryam Frank to be the librarian, and the library began to operate again. In the meeting that was conducted after its opening, the management was chosen (Gluzgold, Yeshaya Frank, Yehoshua Rappaport, Freida Chokla, a few more and this writer). Because of the difficult economic situation in town at that time, we struggled hard to maintain its existence. With tremendous effort we managed to collect membership fees, and we held evening fund-raising parties so that we could purchase books in the Russian, Romanian, Yiddish, and Hebrew languages.
Member Miryam Frank, the manager of the library, tried to meet the demands of the readers of various levels. She made the selection of library books accessible to them in a very organized way and in a discerning manner. She also served the Christians well, and she continued that successfully for a few years until she made aliyah to Israel (1935).
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