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16  Podu Iloaiei as Depicted in Literary Works

The small town of Podu Iloaiei has not often been described in the Romanian literature, and its image is far from complete. Sometime around 1840, C. Negruzzi described a rather negative image of the place.

For M. Kogalniceanu (The Physiology of the Provincial) in 1844, “women between the ages of 15 and 40 should live at least in Sulitoae or Odobesti, in Herta or Agiud, in Memornita or Podul Eloaie (Pont d'Aloia as it was said in an inspired or transpired translation). It's like they are born in Iasi, which means they are just as good to be loved.” Vasile Alecsandri visited in 1846: “Millo's house in Podul Iloaiei …”

At the beginning of the 20th century, the humorist Gh. Braescu wrote in his story The Lucky Man (Selected Works, volume 1, Bucharest, 1967, pages 103-107): “The new cabinet minister for tolerance visited his native town, Podul Iloaiei (the Moldavians call it Podliloaei), and asked the people 'What are your concerns? What do you need?' He was asked for nails, an iron plate, a secondary school, glass, and the Jewish glass seller kept on insisting on windows.”

Beno Solomon published a story The Raoaiei Town in 1934 in the magazine Adam (No. 67, 68, and 69) about his childhood memories of the small town of “Podeloi” (the Yiddish name for Podu Iloaiei).

Naturally, the Yiddish literature has been more generous with this particular shtetl, which was mentioned by Adolf Magder in his work Alia, published in Romanian in 1912.

The dramatist Isac Abramovici wrote The Cheated Father-In-Law, a Yiddish comedy inspired by A. Goldfaden's The Two Kune-Leml. The plot and characters are set in Podu Iloaiei, but nothing specifically links the comedy with this place. The manuscript was kept in the archive of the writer Iulian Schwartz, who mentioned the manuscript on page 22 of his book Literarishe dermonungen (Bucharest, 1975).

An accomplished satirical description of day-to-day life in the town in 1919 was given in a revue show conceived by Ghetel Buchman (who was killed in 1941 during the pogrom in Iasi), Lupu Buchman, and the engineer I. Kern. Simcha Schwartz (1900-1974), who was well known in the theater world and was also a writer and sculptor, published several excerpts of the novel Podeloi in Yiddish papers. The famous poet Itic Manger wrote The Ballad of the Rabbi of Podu Iloaiei. I. Kara depicted the life of the town in his works A Moldevisher Yingle (A Boy From Moldova; Bucharest, Kriterion Publishing House, 1976) and Inghe Iurn In … Veiniker Inghe (Young Years and Older Years; Bucharest, Kriterion Publishing House, 1980). We mention the following stories: A Boy From Moldova, Calman the Medicine Man, Dudl Consul, along with an excerpt from the novel The Spring of 1917 which was published by Iulian Schwartz (1910-1977) in the anthology Bukareshter Shriftn, I, 1978, pages 76-82.

Interesting memories about Podu Iloaiei and Hirlau were published in Israel by M. Landau (1894-1976). More recently, the musician Iehosua Gurevici published Steitleh Mit Idn in Yiddish (Tel Aviv, 1975), and later a shorter Romanian version under the title From Podul Iloaie to Vacaresti Street [B-22].

The image of the town is completed by the local folklore discovered and published by I. Kara in Czernowitzer Bleter, Oifgang, and Yivo-Sriftn, and by Iulian Schwartz in Bucharest Writings in Yiddish (volume IV, 1981).

For a comparison of Podu Iloaiei with other small towns in Moldova, Maramures, and Bukovina[B-23], we recommend the works of the poets Iacob Groper (1890-1966), Leon Bertis (1900-1980), and Samsn Ferst (1886-1968), and the works of the writers Luta Enghelberg (1878-1948), David Rubin (1893-1977), I. Vaidenfeld (1884-1966), H. Goldenstein, M. Held, D. Ionas, and V. Tamburu.

There are, of course, other works to be mentioned that were written either in Romanian or Yiddish and were published in Israel but were not available to us. It is possible that other works concerning Podu Iloaiei may still come up.

 

15.1  The Ballad of the Rabbi of Podu Iloaiei By Itic Manger

The old rabbi from the town of Lelioaiei
His forehead wrinkled with worry, says promptly:
“The night has covered every lawn
What have I done since it was dawn?”
His silent hands light a candle
His tired face reflects a light that's even greater
Weak, his fingers move attentively to all
The shadows quiver strangely on the wall:
“I've prayed, I've saddened, and I've wept
Comfort to me the psalms forever kept”
He murmurs, his heart throbs with pain:
“On this week's day, my sadness brought shame”
He puts on the clothes he keeps for days of joy
And slowly walks along the way.
He sees the stars above as embers smoldering
To him, small silver flowers flickering:
“A miracle beyond compare, that has never been;
Praised be, my Lord, for this day and night have not
Been tainted with the shame my sadness brought!”
But look, the street lamp trembles in the night
Playing with shadows of whispers hiding from the light,
And see the servant take to the black well
A horse. When suddenly a distant trill
Comes in his ears, listens carefully,
A rustle of wings, an endless tune may be.
The old rabbi from the town of Lelioaiei
His forehead wrinkled with worry, says promptly:
“It feels so good to walk on ground
Each step is a pray, each move is a sound”
He walks and his beard is waving in the wind
… Of grief, drained has become his eyes' light spring
The old man is blind; but his heart bold
And light finds ways across the world,
Blue paths, from ancient, sacred times.
The woods enclose him; the springs call out high,
His steps are each a prayer to the skies.
Watching, the trees stand up as magic swords
To the beautiful paths, they're humble guards.
The woods enclose him even more and stronger
The old man feels weak and death can wait no longer
He lies as grass cut in the glades
As golden wheat is devoured by hungry sickles' blades.
The thoughtful midnight now comes down
Over the old man who has fallen on the ground:
- What whisper thee, old man? - I sing as once.
- Thy face is pale. - My heart is light.
- You're shivering with cold. - I do not feel,
Sweet, holy spirit soothes all my pain.
- Confess thee, brother. - I cannot, poor me
My past is grief and tears. I sit here silently.
For tears taint the face of earth
And the grace of this day's light diminishes.
The old rabbi from Lelioaiei town
To the night responds in a wise voice.
So dies the old man; the moon grows paler,
And with a smile, whispers in secret:
“Only the right and kind are worthy
of such a death, oh heavenly father!”

—Translated from Yiddish to Romanian by I. Kara

 

15.2  The Rabbi of Podu Iloaiei by I. Kara

An old man of medium height, broad-shouldered, with a snow-white beard, a sharp, intelligent look underneath his long, silvery, rich eyebrows, and a strong, pleasant voice, dressed in modest, clean clothes, as is proper for a learned man. This is how I saw him 60 years ago.

On the eve of Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement, just before the Kol Nidre prayer, said for the absolution of the faithful from punishment for their disregarded oaths, he was standing humbly in front of the altar in the large synagogue. He was dressed in white from head to heels, his tales for prayer embroidered with silver thread though stained yellow because of long time use, murmuring passionately “Tefilah zaka,” the introduction prayer that shakes the souls of the faithful with emotion. Silently, in his inner self with tears and prayers and a high sense of responsibility for the mission he chose to assume, he was defending his flock on the terrible day of the final judgement.

Rabbi Ira (Uri) Landman, grandson of the tzadik of Strelite, was born in that Galician town on 24 Iyar 5598, meaning the spring of 1838. Having a sharp mind and inclined to study, he devoted himself to knowledge since his early youth. His ingenious commentaries were written in a capricious handwriting on long sheets of paper, which, to the end of his life, amassed in huge piles in the attic of his modest home. A small part of his works, written when he was young, was published in Cernauti in 1885 under the title Salom's Tears, a three-part necrology of some famous Hasidic rabbis. In town, where several other learned men were living, the rumor went that he could conceive a thousand interpretations concerning only the first word in the Bible, “Bereshit”.

Although he led quite a secluded life, the world was no stranger to him. Since he was known to be a peace lover, he was often called on to mediate when delicate issues were at stake. In his older years, he was no longer an adept of the Hasidic law; though the rabbis from Pascani and Buhusi appealed to him on a dispute concerning a possible in-law relation between them.

His opposition to the Hasidic law was discrete but constant. The tzadiks from Pascani and Stefanesti had many adepts in town. Actually, a real Hasidic dynasty descending from Rabbi Meir from Premislean was established here. After 1860, Reb Alter founded this Hasidic center. He was followed by his son Ben Zion, who was killed with his entire family during the 1944 bombing.

At nightfall, on the Saturday of “sales-sides,” the learned of the town would come to see Rabbi Ira and discuss his commentaries at that week's pericopa. He was also known for his intelligent, subtle humor, as well as for his morality. Even in his youth, he was greatly appreciated: “The Moldavian Jews recognize but three rabbi figures - Moshe Rabenu, Sifsei Hahamim (also known as Sabetai Bas from Prague who was a famous popularizer), and Reb Meir Premislaner.” As an elder, he was asked to see a stubborn man who refused to divorce his wife with whom he no longer lived. The wise, old man answered by adapting an old popular saying: “Er heirt mich vi dem ruv” (meaning he follows my advice as the rabbi's, which could also be interpreted as he follows my advice as the cat's). Mocking his poor living conditions, he once said: “If you want to say that a house is in good wealth with plenty of food and clothes, you may say 'There is some extra for the rabbi, but it will probably never get to the rabbi.'”

Talking about a local moneylender, Avram from the huts, he used to say: “Now, his money keeps on multiplying even when he sleeps; in exchange, at the final judgement, he will sleep and above him the grass will keep on growing” (meaning he will not reach eternal life). His satirical remarks remained in the memory of the local people. Thus, in town, the story went about one time when the rabbi had to go to Iasi. He had agreed with the wagoner not to take along the women who were going to sell chickens to the market in Iasi. The wagoner did not keep his word. In the morning when the wagon stopped in front of the rabbi's house, it was crowded, which upset the rabbi. Then, a bold woman asked him: “Why don't you like to travel with us, Mr. Rabbi? Is it that you hate us so much?” “On the contrary,” the rabbi sharply said and got up in the wagon. Another time, a woman came to him to complain that the boiling milk had spilled and got into the meat pot. The rabbi answered with a play on words in Yiddish: “If you had not hurried to the neighbors, the milk would not have spilled, either.”

One more of his quips: The prefect of Iasi heard that a wise rabbi lives in Podu Iloaiei. One time, when he was inspecting the town, he called on the president of the community and asked him to arrange a meeting with the rabbi. The president chose the Hasidic rabbi who owned a better house. The discussion with this rabbi did not impress the prefect who expressed his disappointment on his way back. The president of the community told him that there is one more rabbi in town, and they went to the Rabbi Ira. The discussion, which was led by a translator, impressed the prefect who expressed his consternation that the first rabbi, whom he thought wasn't too great, lives so comfortably while the wise Rabbi Ira does not enjoy the same conditions. Rabbi Ira Landman answered: “The other rabbi makes his living from the Jews' troubles, while my life depends on their joys.” The prefect was delighted with the answer.

Rabbi Ira used to say: “A community rabbi is like a headache, a Hasidic rabbi is like a stomachache; if your stomach aches, you don't know exactly what it is, while with the headache you know exactly what and where it hurts.”

During the last years of his life, Rabbi Ira was sick for long periods of time. He became blind and someone had to take him by the hand to the synagogue, but he did not lose his sense of humor. Once, a child who did not enjoy studying was brought to him, and, as proof, the child could not answer even the most elementary questions about the Bible. So the rabbi exclaimed: “The rabbi of Podu Iloaiei cannot leave his congregation at this time, for this boy is not able to replace him.” The first months of the 1916 war brought many troubles to Rabbi Ira. When his end was near, his son-in-law Iosl Schapira, the great grandson of the famous Rabbi Levi Itzac of Berdicev, was standing next to him. Iosl asked his father-in-law to give him his blessing. The old man answered: “You should give me your blessing, for our Heavenly Father listens to you more.” Then, he took his son-in-law's hand, kissed it, and then passed away. A biblical expression could describe this as “death through a kiss.”

 

15.3  Podu Iloaiei by Simcha Schwartz

In town, nobody knows how many years old Zeida a Babii is. Since they can remember, he has had a white, curly beard and rosy, skinny cheeks almost like a baby's. Still, Marcu Ghetel is the only one who knows Zeida from his youth, from the time when they were partners in taking care of the town's taxes—a job they took over from the old Greek—and collecting the tax for passage on the bridge over the Bahlui river.

How many years ago did this happen? Mr. Marcu pretends not to remember. And the mystery of their old age haunts the imagination of the townspeople. Mr. Zeida has no idea how old Marcu is, and Mr. Marcu takes his revenge by saying: “I don't remember well.”

But Kiva, the janitor of the synagogue, tells a story from which it becomes clear that “the old rotter,” meaning Zeida, is almost 90. He heard the story from his grandfather, blessed be his name: It was sometime in the year 1859, when King Cuza took the throne. One day, the king passed through the town. It was the fast day of Tisha B'Av. It was incredibly hot, and the Jews, with their beards all tangled and wearing long coats and striped cloaks, were standing idly around the market tables and talking endlessly, so that the fast day would pass easily. Suddenly a beautiful carriage stopped right in the middle of the marketplace, and a young nobleman stepped down, wearing polished boots, a long mantle, and a small, black beard, as the French fashion dictated. He said in a loud voice: Who's the boss in this town?” The people didn't realize what was really happening, and the “nobleman” continued angrily: “Why, masters, do you still use forged weights?xx (text mentions Turkish Oka, which is a measurement tool that was adopted from the Turkish people, but which later was forged, in the sense that it was lighter than it indicated, being carved in its interior, thus fooling people into thinking they were getting more product than they actually were).Why do you sit here, around the tables, doing nothing instead of working your lazy bones? I shall give you land, as to the peasants. I shall see that you will be given land to work, you lazy ones!” While saying this, he took a small notebook from his pocket, wrote something in it, said goodbye, and went back to Iasi.

At first, they all thought he was some unknown, local nobleman, and they were merely surprised. But when they finally realized that it was the new king, the whole town started to worry: “My Lord, what a misfortune, what a calamity.” They all ran to Mr. Zeida who, as a “friend” of the Greek who had much influence in the royal court, could give them advice.

Back then, Zeida was a man passed the age of 40, and his oldest son, Duvid Leib, was already married. Kiva makes all sorts of calculations, and he is very close to finding out Zeida's exact age. Just then, Dudl Consul opposes, contesting Kiva's calculations. The dispute is ready to begin. Dudl argues that 1869 is the year that Cuza[B-24] took the throne. This infuriates Kiva who looks straight at Dudl, plays nervously with his beard, and tells his opponent that “his head is full of manure” and that all he says is rubbish. “How could Cuza become king in '69, when he was forced to abdicate by Bratianu in 1960 and King Carol was brought to the throne in '66.”

Dudl would have had something to say against the year '66, with which Kiva would have contradicted him in front of the other people. But he felt that they would not agree with him. Kiva was right, since 40 years of King Carol's rule was being celebrated right then.

So Kiva should be attacked from his weak side. Dudl attacks: “ Let's leave the calculations. Anyway, Zeida remains the most honorable man in town.” This time, Dudl didn't fail. Kiva's large beard moves with indignation: “Why? Maybe because, since I've known him, he has never given a nickel to the synagogue? Or to the poor?” Dudl answers back: “The town would not be the same without Zeida. Who managed to save the old public bath from demolition? I believe it was Zeida! Who talked the prefect into granting us a new place for the cemetery? He resolved many of our problems with his tears. Who brought forgiveness from King Cuza for giving us land? Wasn't it Zeida? He went to the palace in Iasi. He threw himself at the king's feet, he cried, ripped his beard, he persuaded the king to leave our town in peace.”

“Really! Big deal! And now that the Jews from Bivolari have land, is their life worse than ours is? Stupid cows! You think that fighting for a bargain with the peasants, for a weight of salt or a box of fuel oil is a better thing than working the land?”

So the fight went on, and the people forgot about calculating Zeida's age, which remained an unsearched, blessed treasure.

—Translated from Yiddish to Romanian by I. Kara

Yiddish Translator's Note

I bring here some extra information about the real heroes of this story. The writer Litman Vigder (1901-1972) told me about some episodes characteristic of Zeida a Babii. The news of Theodor Herzl's death was much discussed by the townspeople. Surprised, the old Zeida asked: “Was he an important man? How much money did he leave?”

Zeida's wife was deaf and even stingier than he was. If someone entered their home and asked her for a loan (she was also a moneylender), she would think that the person is a beggar and yell to Zeida from the kitchen: “Zeida, don't give away a thing!”

After World War I, the old man deteriorated. It was a sad thing to see the physical and psychic degradation of a man whom, hardhearted as he was, used to be one of the community's leaders.

Regarding the millionaire (in gold lei) Marcu Ghetel's spirit of economy, I remember the following story from 1919. To increase the number of riders on the railroads, fourth-class carriages were introduced on local routes; the carriages were actually trucks with wooden banks barely holding, and it was hard to climb in. Marcu Ghetel, almost 100 years old, had some business in Iasi. Following his eagerness to save money, he bought himself a fourth class ticket. When asked why, he answered: “Because there's no fifth class.” It's true! Still, he donated a considerable sum of money to the primary Jewish-Romanian school in town that now bears his name.

When the news of Herzl's death was heard, Jan Meirovici, book seller and “printer” of the town (he printed ”business cards”), member of the committee, and candidate to the position of community leader, displayed in his shop window a large portrait of this great personality draped in black. An employee of the town hall saw the portrait and discretely asked whom it represented. Meirovici informed him: “There used to be one Theodor who died, and this is his photo.” This Meirovici was the first to publish illustrated postal cards depicting the primary Jewish school and the main streets of the town.

 

15.4  “Podeloier Times” (“Podu Iloaiei Hotchpotch”)

World War I and the great changes it brought in Europe, especially the reunification of Romania, had among its consequences a remarkable increase in the Jewish population —both in quantity and quality — which strongly influenced the “local” Jews' cultural life, including the amateur theater. The amateur theater troupes, who had been performing since the end of the 19th century, were no longer satisfied with the old repertoire. They were looking for modern plays dealing with that time's reality — plays written in a more alert style, taking as a model the Romanian revue shows or, after 1919, the shows performed by the couple I.Sternberg-I.Botosanski who came from the other side of the Prut River[B-25] in 1914 and led a remarkable cultural activity.

Young intellectuals from small towns like Podu Iloaiei, Buhusi, Moinesti, and later Falticeni, Botosani, and other places, imagined revue shows on themes of local interest and with a marked satirical-social message. Several young people from Podu Iloaiei —the student Ghetel Buchman who was murdered in 1941 during the Iasi pogrom, the engineer Iancu Kern who died in the United States at an old age, and Simcha Schwartz (1900-1974) who later became a famous sculptor — wrote together the text and music, did the scene painting (with the help of Hamburger, the excellent makeup specialist from Iasi), found “actors” like A. Mendelovici (now a retired physician in Iasi), Levi Leibovici, Aron Iosupovici, and Velvl Buchman, and performed in the revue show “Podu Iloaiei Hotchpotch,” twice in Podu Iloaiei and once in Tirgu Frumos.

It was the winter of 1919/1920, and the public impatiently awaited the premiere of the show to be presented in the local Yiddish dialect. The literary value of Sim Schwartz's prologue was higher than that of the parts written by the other two co-authors who used the pseudonyms Leteg and Bokai (Ghetel and Iakob, respectively). The author himself performed the prologue, and the text became known in Bucharest and Cernauti, and then in Paris, Buenos Aires, Holland, Eretz Israel, and elsewhere. None of the co-authors—nor their relatives or friends—was spared from the satire's sting. The following is the Romanian version of this prologue, which was sung on the motif from the “Hakdumot” prayers recited on Shavuot:

“Akdumois milin”
Before I start babbling, my beloved brothers,
Insistently I ask you, don't become upset.
We shall start right now with a serious matter
And later end with a lunch prayer
Here, we shall serve dishes that are special
By choice or fix menu, all at reduced prices.
The hotchpotch is boiled in butter and honey
Still, we couldn't leave apart just a bit of venom
The cooks put in lots and lots of salt
They do not know much; it is not their fault.
When one cook is deaf, the other is blind
And one who knows music cries out “Ghevalt”
The first one wants profit, but loses it all
With empty words, another fills the whole world,
The first one studies the undead and ghosts
The other, from the Bible all the verses quotes.
The first one, when sees something
Falls to its feet, declaring his love
The other likes old papers, I say,
And reads them all as the calf eats hay.
They cooked this hotchpotch, since
It's said in the book “with raw beans.”
Reb Eli served us with ritual water
Mr. Hers Swars—some boiled gizzard.
Zeilig Moser gave us kosher meat
As the saying goes “like Usar's girl”[B-26]
Moise Buchman readily sold us wood for fire
While Arn Rosental put some gas on fire[B-27]
Iancu Leibovici rings the bell if danger
Ianculovici, Iosupovici bring a fire engine
David Leib Davidovici has good intentions.
The hotchpotch is ready thanks to all this help
So the good old tradition requires
And, please, don't give up just now.
Do not frown, come one, we're even
And the hotchpotch will be served in just a minute.

It would be too much to translate the whole text, which is composed of innuendoes that were familiar only to the local audience. It made a list of the small, local habits. Most of the people mentioned in the text were actually flattered to be at the center of “public attention.” The rest showed “bonne mine au mauvais jeu,” meaning good face for nasty jokes, while those who threatened to sue for defamation only increased the humor, success, and efficiency of the show, beyond its theatrical scope.

Dr. A. Mendelovici (1902-1980) who helped me reconstitute some of the verses, told me how much enthusiasm was put into the rehearsal and performance of this show, which, as a fact, had a short life on stage. The young artists went their separate ways and chose more “serious” careers. Still, the taste of the “Hotchpotch” remains on the lips of those who tasted it, back in those days.

 

15.5  A Boy from Moldova

by I. Kara

If the angel of life had forgot to hit a fillip under my nose, so I forgot everything that happened up in the heavens before I was born, I could have told you all about my genealogy. I could have told you about my father's grandpa, his father's father, Nuham sin Hers, also known as the “cheese man,” since he traded “products” like fresh and processed cheese, lambs, wool, and skins. I stumbled upon his name in the 1849 census for Podu Iloaiei, my native town. The town was founded around 1816 in the Iasi district, in the vicinity of a small inn and bridge that were in the custody of a woman named Leia or Lelioaia, and so the name of the town became Podu Lelioaiei. The bridge over the Bahlui River is still standing, although it has been rebuilt.

Maybe I could have mentioned my father's grandma, his mother's mother, Motl, a short, agile old lady who would not let our parents spank us, telling them “don't hit the child” in Romanian so we would not understand. And they would listen to her. I was only three years old when she passed away, and I can only see her image as in a hazy dream.

I remember my great grandmother Basie much better—a tall, clever lady but moody and fastidious. If she were offered a seat among the older ladies at a wedding, she would be upset that they had put her among the “hags,” and if her place was with the younger women, she would complain that they had placed her with the “teenagers”. Yes, it was hard to satisfy great grandma.

I shall spare you my nostalgic memories about all my uncles, aunts, cousins, and other relatives from several generations. I won't go and describe my little town—all hidden among the hills, covered by forests, and close to the swamps of the Bahlui riverbed. The mosquitoes, malaria, and frog concerts are no source of inspiration.

I don't really remember any particular event before my fifth birthday. When I passed thirteen and, since I did not show a great deal of enthusiasm for my morning prayers, old Hana, the cook, would reproach me about my indifference and recall the time when I was less than three years old and would wear a towel instead of a “tales” and go visit the neighbors singing the Friday night prayer “Lecha N'Ranana” to everbody's amusement. “But now….- she used to say, and then let the sentence unfinished…..“Now it's different; my mind should no longer be as a three-year-old's,” I would answer her silently in my thoughts.

From the time of “heder,” our modest confessional school, I shall evoke only several moments. Iosl “belfer,” the teacher's substitute, would come home in the morning, recite the prayer together with the kids, and then take them to school. He carried a basket with the children's lunch on his back. During the rainy and muddy days in autumn, he would carry us on his back too. Each period with its own means of transportation…..

The “restrooms” at the heder were “natural.” During the breaks, the kids would line up on the bank of the Bahlui River, and relieve nature with the open sky above their heads. If one considered that he was too close to the kid next to him, he would remember a local tradition and start shouting: “Your mother will give birth to cats!” And, since no one would have liked his mother to give birth to kittens, the person would move away without paying attention to what he trampled on. After the break, the air in the class didn't exactly smell like roses.

Strul melamed, my first teacher, was a good-looking man, broad-shouldered with a black beard and brown eyes. He had a good heart and, as a teacher, fulfilled his duties quite well. Soon, we moved to a more modern confessional school, with desks in rows and a blackboard, just like in the primary school. Here we studied the Pentateuch and even modern Hebrew using S. A. Gold's schoolbook printed by Samitca at Craiova. I still have one of those schoolbooks from 1912; I don't remember which edition. Even before I registered in the primary “Jewish-Romanian” school in town, our mother had taught us to read in Romanian and “a bit of French.” During the Balkan war in 1913, I was able to read the headlines in the papers. The first grade of the primary school was no problem for me. Our mother, Ester, was an intelligent and beautiful woman, and she could adapt to all sorts of changes in life. She was born in Tirgu Ocna, in a family where the father was a ritual chicken slaughterer. She was the youngest among four brothers; she became an orphan at a very young age and married young. I don't know when or how she managed to learn French satisfactorily, in the company of the rich girls educated by Mademoiselle Petavain, or when she “picked up” German from the illuminist Professor Feldbau. She even learned the Bible in Hebrew and some of the Talmud, simply by listening. If needed, she could give some help to a less smart student of the Talmud. She helped her children with their first, most difficult steps in school. Mother learned Romanian at random, but she gained solid knowledge of the language and even learned Russian, around 1940, in Cernauti. She showed much understanding for her children's advanced ideas. Since she became a widow in 1928, she had to face heroically a harsh fate. Those close to her used to say as a joke that her children address her as “miss mamma!”

Our father, Hersl, dedicated his childhood and teenage years to the traditional study of the Bible, the commentaries, and the Talmud. He married at age 20 and quickly wasted the dowry money. Quite early, he showed the real side of his personality: energetic, persevering, driven to initiative and exploration, and displaying an optimism that wasn't always justified. He died at age 51, “a victim of the commercial honesty,” consumed by disease in several days.

A curious thing: A social hierarchy was established by the way in which children addressed their parents. In modest families, “father” and “mother” were used. Other children more linked to the rural way of life used “granpa” and “grandma.” In the “enlightened” families, children called their parents “vater” and “mutter” (German); in other houses, including our own, “papa” and “mam” (French) were used. Everywhere in town, the language to be heard was a Moldavian Yiddish, but you could also hear Romanian. An old nanny, Aunt Maria, could repeat the Hebrew prayers with the children and was familiar with the complicated Jewish ritual, even though she was a good Christian Orthodox.

When the 1913 war was over, and tens of Jewish soldiers returned, the only one missing was a poor widow's only son who had died in battle. This was a prelude to the world war that was drawing near. Between July 1914 and August 1916, the period when Romania maintained its neutrality, commercial life flourished. The Germans bought massive amounts of raw materials, cereals and food, and paid good money for them. Some merchants even made some fortune and started dreaming about extending their business to a larger city.

The mobilization on August 15, 1916 opened a page of crucial importance in history. A world was fading and with it the first years of the childhood of a boy from Moldova.

 

15.6  Calman the Medicine Man by I. Kara

On Friday afternoon, Vasile the bath-house attendant hasn't even finished walking through town, ringing the bell and calling “Idara budara!” (To the bath, fellows!), when there they are, rushing to the community's bath with basin, oak broom, and clean clothes in their hands. Three of them were regular customers of the bath; they open and close the “party” of the weekly bath. After spending the first “session” of steam on the highest step in the room, they descend and solemnly take their seats on the large benches covered with mats in the room where they left their clothes before the bath. They talk about the quality of that day's steam and forecast the taste of the traditional goulash with hot corn flour, their Friday lunch.

The oldest of the three “musketeers” is Meir Kolomeier, an old man of long, lanky stature. He is a sales agent, a man trusted by the landlords who has seen many villages and towns. The second is Calman, the medicine man for cows. He is of medium stature, a little overweight with a rare, pointed, goat-like beard just like Meir's. The youngest is David, the sieve maker, who walks around the villages carrying his huge sieve on his back. He works for both landlords and peasants, winnowing their wheat. All three men wear rustic shirts and broad, red girdles over their thick cloth pants. Their entire life is linked more to the villages than to their little town. The bath is the place where they rest and recall the old times.

In their youth, the poor Jews of the town used to wear tight trousers, peasant shirt, girdles, and fur caps. You could distinguish them from the other peasants only by their mantle and their beard and side whiskers. They complain that the prices are high (it is 1912!) and remember the prices of the times before: three nickels for a measure of good wine[B-28], ten for a quarter kilo of smoked meat, and bread cost almost nothing. They mention with a sigh the buxom, hardworking, and daring bartender woman and many other things from their past youth, which they now see through pink glasses.

In the meantime, the people of the town rush to take their bath and return quickly to their homes. The three old men are lost in times of yore and are preoccupied with their repeated steam baths and cold baths; they do not realize that the time passes. They keep on talking and do not go home until the bath attendant comes in to tell them that the women have come to take their bath.

***

On the main street of the town, all of the houses' rooms that face the street are dedicated to some kind of business: stores, manufacturing, warehouse, bureau, butcher store, café, or candy store. This is the “commercial street.” In the yard, there are warehouses, barns, stables, chicken coops, the summer kitchen, and sometimes a small garden. At Calman's house, everything takes place in the part of the house that faces the yard; in summertime, on the porch, and in winter, in the kitchen. He doesn't stay much at home. He lives his life mostly in the country, where there are stables, grasslands, sheepfolds, and winter camps. If someone needs him for some sick animal, he enters through the back door.

It's Saturday morning, on a day in September. At the open windows, the devoted Jews slowly recite that week's pericope from the Bible. Since dawn, Calman has sat on the porch bench, watching the people. On his head, he has his black fur cap, which he always wears; on his back, his old vest that he never leaves without. The red girdle is at its place as always, “keeping him in health.” Suddenly, at the door, appears old Gheorghe, who is the shepherd at the sheepfold that belongs to Miss Pascanita, the owner of the Scobalteni estate. After saying “Good morning!” to each other, Gheorghe readily announces to Calman that there's no need to worry. There's no case of disease. He came to town with an “interest” at the local Court of Justice, and stopped by to visit his friend. Calman moves over so that the man can sit next to him, and together they go on recalling the old times. On their lips, the same sweet, soft, calm, and mild Moldavian dialect blooms.

“Do you remember, Calman, that summer night when you saved Ion Cutan's red cow and its calf from death?” And there go the praises to the unique breeding cow, nice and of good breed just like a maiden, even if the cow and generations of its cubs had passed away into eternity long ago with the butcher's kind help.

Calman rests his eyes on his six-blade pocketknife, with which he has saved so many cows from death. They remember a snow-stormed, moonless winter night when they rushed in a sleigh to a sheepfold, where the wolves had massacred sheep and lambs. Only Gheorghe's skill and cold-bloodedness in handling the horses saved them from being eaten by the wolves, for the pack was chasing them and roaring terribly. They also remember the village parties at which Calman never ate meat. But he was as skillful a dancer as anyone else in his large boots. As well, he was anyone's equal in drinking wine.

In town, Calman is considered too much of a “peasant,” but they all respect him for his skill and hard work. He has saved many animals from disease or death: someone's cow or goat that provides food for the family, someone else's horse that is used to make a living. He even cured, with his herbs and medicines, the town's breeding ox that had an injured leg from jumping over a fence. Lost in memories, Calman doesn't realize that by now the people have filled the synagogue he also attends, and that the sermon has already begun. Fortunately, old Gheorghe remembers his “interest” that brought him to town. The old man drinks to the bottom his glass of strong brandy, takes a bite of the white bread that the lady of the house brought, says goodbye, and heads toward the Courthouse. Calman quickly grabs his Saturday “tales” and goes to the Aziel synagogue, the oldest in town, in which his father, grandfather, and great grandfather, one of the founders of the town, prayed.

***

The entire town is discussing the news that the postman has brought Calman a letter, together with two boat tickets for him and his wife, from his only son who immigrated to America many years ago. Calman is overwhelmed. It's true that the Balkan war and the Great War of 1914-1918, and the events that followed, produced radical changes in Calman's old world. His two friends died, many things changed in the village and in town, and nothing is as it used to be. “My, world, world …”

Calman understands that he will have to leave behind all that has made up his life until now. He wishes to know where he is going, and he finds out. New York is a big city with as many inhabitants as Romania's entire population before the war; the houses have many floors (“They surpass the clouds,” Calman says to himself) and people of different origins live there. Calman cannot imagine a city larger than Iasi. He was there several times, and the crowds of people, the tramway, the houses with two or three floors, the noise, and the motion left him perplexed. He came home and felt sick for a couple of days. And America is so far away. You go by train and by boat, and the journey never ends.

Calman is walking through the rooms of his home, feeling like a stranger since his wife sold or gave away everything and packed their bags. He only took his “tales” for prayer, his stamp collection, his coat, cap, and boots. His friends in town and from the villages accompanied him to the station. Calman looked like an oak tree that has been uprooted from its land in the woods of Arama (Cooper) and taken to be transplanted in America.

In New York, Calman lived for one more year, a plentiful life but a lonely one. Then the news came that the old man had died. His longing for his town, the field, the woods, the shepherds and the sheep, and the places that had made up his life for over 70 years had consumed him quietly.

Good people, the end of my story is sad. But this world's wheel never stops spinning, and it is in vain to cry over past times. The times are changing and so are we.

 

15.7  Dudl Consul by I. Kara

In the small towns of Moldavia, “Shabbat Hagadol”—the Saturday before the celebration of Pesach—was considered the day of those who were bald or had some kind of scars on their heads, “kareches” the bald men. This was of course in memory of one of the ten plagues, with which Iehova struck the Egyptians. It was said that on that day, these people were supposed to go to Mitzraim. The practical jokers had already made up the list of all those with “bare heads,” and they would display the list in front of the synagogue. Above the list, a bowl with cabbage juice was hung, supposedly a cure against baldness, as well as a damaged comb as a hint to those who, as children, would not bathe. In time, the “kareches” would receive some kind of citation order at their home, indicating the exact date and place to embark for Mitzraim. The town had fun on this subject, except of course those implicated, and the joke would last until the day of Pesach as a prolongation of the carnival-like Purim.

In my native town, the “shiny heads” had a diplomatic representative nicknamed “Dudl Consul.” Otherwise, he was an interesting, picturesque character. He was descended from a notoriously poor family and had many jobs but little progress. Mainly he worked as a “stone hewer,” a mason, but since few people built brick houses, he wasn't too busy. An incredible thirst for knowledge and science devoured this poor workman—the craving to become better and do extraordinary things, impulsive dreams about traveling to exotic countries. He was the double version of “Benjamin the third,” Moldavian version, model 1900.

I don't believe Dudl ever attended the primary school, but he could read Romanian quite well, and he was one of the few in town who subscribed to the magazine Sanatatea. He read and carefully studied the articles in the magazine and tried to cure the sick ones in his large family by following the advice and prescriptions given in the pages. He was always ready to discuss medical subjects, and for him Sanatatea was almost a Bible.

One time, someone took him seriously and asked for the magazine to verify the arguments brought up in a discussion. The joker pretended to look over the articles. Seeing an ad for a medicine against hair loss, he showed it to Dudl who couldn't give an answer, for this was his weak spot.

Dudl passionately read Popular Science and Travels Paper. When the number of “students” in town (meaning high school boys) increased, Dudl tried to engage in discussions with them on physics and technique. During the students' vacation, he used to borrow their schoolbooks, and, in time, he became a passionate searcher for the much sought after “perpetuum mobile.”

He lived in the basement of a miserable building, at one of our neighbors. Each year, the rivers Bahlui and Bahluiet “took pride in their waters” and flooded the field along with the suburbs of the town, the camps and huts of the Gypsies and poor Jews, and sometimes even the yards of the up-town houses. One spring, Dudl's yard became a pool. His imagination grew wild: He was feeling the call to navigate. He took an old bathtub from the cellar. For a mast, he used a no-longer-used shovel that he took from the neighboring bakery. He tied to the shovel the all-patched and only sheet in his home and proudly set out to explore the world. Fortunately, the “ship” stumbled upon the yard's fence, and our hero took only a cold bath in the muddy waters of the over flown Bahlui River. If he had somehow managed to leave the “harbor,” the town would have counted one more poor widow and a household of orphans.

Dudl survived “the flood” and then tried to grow a coffee tree right in his backyard. The soil was just clay, covered with bricks, ash, and pieces of glass, among which weeds and thistles were growing. He remembered a picture from Popular Science and Travels Paper. With his family's last savings, he bought coffee beans and planted them in the clay that the flood had left behind. While waiting for the harvest, he and his family had at breakfast a cup of chicory[B-29] without milk and a slice of black bread with jam. The dream of a cup of genuine coffee with milk and cream and some fresh rolls was still far from reality. Such is life…..

After World War I—which for Dudl meant starvation, disease, and all kinds of miseries—new houses were built in town. Dudl could not “keep up” with the developments of science that reached the level of Einstein's works, but instead he had plenty of work as a bricklayer. He even had enough money to build a bakery oven on which he put the following message in capital letters: “Raised by David Pietraru in the year 1918.”

Now he could peacefully pass away.
And he didn't have to wait for long.

(A Boy from Moldova by I. Kara, Bucharest, Kriterion Publishing House, 1976, p. 44-46)

“Not far from the famous city of Iasi, there is the well-known, little town of Podu Iloaiei that became famous through the Svart family, which included four art creators; and not far away from the town there is a village very much the same as all the other nearby villages with good-looking houses covered with iron plate and poor people's huts covered with straw.” (p. 75)

“And this is the story of the Velvl clan. His background was in Podu Iloaiei. Here, his great-great-grandfather Iancu Moise found a place to settle and founded a “dynasty” of shoemakers. He “ruled” for 30 years and had three sons, all shoemakers, of whom two had no offspring. The second son, Velvl's great-grandfather, had two sons and three daughters. He was able to earn the first place in the family, but not the money to make a living. One must be extremely clever to see his three daughters married, especially in Podu Iloaiei. Velvl's grandfather also proved to be a “clever” man. He married his daughters to his apprentices.” (p. 49)

(Haim Goldenstein: A Century of Silence, a novel written in Yiddish, Bucharest, Kriterion, 1979). Translated by I. Kara.


  1. [Ed-Com] Vacaresti: a famous street in Bucharest. return
  2. [Ed-Com] Moldova, Maramures, and Bukovina are some of the historical provinces of Romania. return
  3. [Ed-Com] Cuza Alexandru Ioan Cuza was the first Romanian king to rule the newly united counties of “The Romanian County” and Moldova, known since 1862 as Romania. He ruled from 1859 until 1866, when he was was forced to abdicate. return
  4. [Ed-Com] The other side of the Prut River means the part of Moldavia which was taken by the Russians in 1878, reunited with Romania in 1918, but taken once more in 1940 old Basarabia presently, the Republic of Moldova. return
  5. [Ed-Com] This is a play on words. Kosher in Romanian is spelled cusar and the Hebrew name Asher is spelled Usar. (The Romanian S is pronounced as an English SH). In Hebrew, Kasher can be read as K-Asher, meaning “Like Asher”. return
  6. [Ed-Com] Putting gas on fire means to be lazy. return
  7. [Ed-Com] a measure is about three pints. return
  8. [Ed-Com] Chicory is a substance extracted from the flower of the chicory plant; it is used to make a drink that resembles coffee return

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