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[Page 281]

My Stolpcer Melamdim (Religious Teachers)

by Mordechai Machtey

Translated by Libby Raichman

The religious teachers played an important part in developing the future spiritual life of the shtetl.

I remember well my first teacher – he was Leib Inzelbuch (or as we called him in our shtetl – Leib Motshiches, by the name of his father Mordechai).

During my childhood years surnames only appeared on passports but did not come from the mouths of our local residents. We knew very little about the real family names, the nickname was the familiar name. As in the case of my father, being the ritual slaughterer, he used to receive letters addressed to Eliyahu Shuv.[1]

The “cheder[2]” institution and together with it, the religious teachers began to decline at the beginning of the 20th century and almost entirely declined after the death of Bonye the teacher and after the departure for Baranovicz of Reb Yehoshua, the associate of the Rabbi on legal matters. And in this way the ground was actually prepared for the then truly revolutionary accomplishments of Alter Yosselevicz in opening a mixed school for boys and girls, where instead of Chumash[3] they studied legends from the Bible. There was no separate room for the students. They studied in the cheder which also served as a dining room and a kitchen. At the time when the Rabbi and the children sat at the long table and studied, normal kitchen work took place in the front part of the room. In the winter the odours of the kitchen and the breathing of the students would blend. When the windows were hermetically sealed in order to keep the warmth in the room, then you could feel the true pleasant aroma. Of all the cheders in which I studied, I learned most in my first cheder with the elementary teacher, the teacher Leib Inzelbuch.

Without taking into consideration that Stoibtz was “blessed” with fires, for a long time the fire did not want to lick the “palace”. In my earliest childhood this old, crooked, rotten ruin, served as a “cheder” where small children received their first “education”.

The method used by the teachers to teach beginners consisted of three parts: (1) learning the letters and vowels; (2) learning to read; and (3) beginning Chumash.

When the students already knew the names of the letters and vowels they were then taught to blend them – kometz + aleph = aw, komtz + bet = baw, etc. After that they went on to “whispering” – that means instead of the student saying kometz aleph, kometz bet etc. aloud, he said only the aleph or the bet aloud and then quietly said (whispered) the name of the vowel and then shouted out “baw”. This lasted about half a semester and then they proceeded to read the siddur. As the term progressed they were already reading more fluently and were saying parts of the prayers and in the second half of the term they started Chumash. This is what they did so that after a year of study, the students were already reading well. I studied with the Rabbi for only one semester because my father, of blessed memory, made gravestones so I had already learned to read and I didn't have anything to do at the Rabbi's cheder.

 

Reb Chaim Yitzchak Borsuk

My second teacher was Reb Chaim Yitzchak Borsuk or Chaim Itshe the teacher. He was small, thin but lively and moved easily. From teaching alone he could not support his family so he traded a little in books. I think that he also read the newspapers “Ha'tzefira[4]” or “Ha'melitz[5]”. Where did he get the money to subscribe to a newspaper? – simple, until 1905 no one in Stoibtz subscribed to a newspaper on their own, but always in partnership with 3 or 4 others together, sometimes even more. It is understandable that this had an influence on the Rabbi. I can't remember if he used the whip on the students. I am inclined to believe that he did not. I think that he was not able to raise his voice and therefore perhaps, he didn't have many students because people were of the opinion that he, who spares the rod, spoils the child. A Rabbi who does not beat his students will not teach them much. In contrast he was loved by his students and they studied perhaps more diligently than those who studied with a Rabbi who used the whip. The books that he taught like Chumash, the Prophets and the Writings were loved by me.

 

Ya'akov Meir Tsarlich

My third teacher was Ya'akov Meir Tsarlich known as Ya'akov Meir or the ginger one because of his ginger beard and also to distinguish between a second Ya'akov Meir who was a part–time emissary and part–time teacher whom they called Ya'akov Meir the big one.

If Reb Chaim Itshe taught just a little Tanach and in addition a section of Mishnah then Reb Chaim Meir divided his time between Tanach and Gemorrah and paid more attention to Gemorrah. The cheder of Reb Ya'akov Meir was separated from the kitchen with a little wall without a door, yet still separated and the students could concentrate better as they were not distracted by what was going on in the kitchen.

Reb Ya'akov Meir himself, a Jew in his fifties with a high forehead and with the imposing

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figure of a learned scholar, was always hoarse and had a habit of frowning even when he was thinking about a minor matter. I used to try to imitate his frown but my young forehead resisted and by no means would it imitate this interesting figure. On the table stood a small samovar that contained I think 12 glasses. During our studies he would drink from it using only 1 or 2 squares of sugar. His teaching was calm, without anger. He did not use his hands or the belt to “beat” Torah into us.

His calm teaching manner, even though he was an ardent follower of Chassidism, can be ascribed perhaps also to the fact that his wife, Itke Frayde, helped to earn a living. He was therefore able to accept a smaller number of students, concentrate on them and involve them more so we had no time to fool around and therefore learned more.

 

Reb Binyamin Cohen, Bonye the teacher

My fourth teacher was Reb Bonye as he was called in the shtetl. He was a sickly Jew, weak, with constant heartburn for which he systematically used soda water. Besides this he suffered from a chronic cough that that used to plague him constantly. When he began to cough badly, he became very red. A feeling of pity engulfed us, as we watched him suffering. Reb Chaim taught Tanach almost exclusively, Reb Ya'akov Meir both things – that means Tanach and Gemorrah, Reb Yehoshuah and Reb Bonye taught exclusively Gemorrah. He was regarded in Stoibtz as the best Gemorrah teacher together with the associate of the Rabbi, Reb Yehoshuah Medvetken (see the Baranovicz Yizkor Book, the Dayan of Stoibtz), who had to take up teaching because from his dayanut[6] he did not have enough to live on. I think that not more than 8 to 10 students studied with Reb Bonye and this was the reason why my father, of blessed memory, sent me to study with him. The semester that we studied with him, we really achieved a lot. His merciless death brought an end to our studies and we moved on to our 5th teacher.

 

The Porush[7] from Koydanov

After the death of Reb Bonye, the question arose for our parents; Zamke's and mine, about our continued learning. From Reb Chaim Itshe to Reb Bonye the two of us had studied together and were the only ones whose parents wanted us to know Gemara well. (My father, may his memory be blessed, hoped that I would become a Rabbi and Reb Leib Rubashov also wanted his very talented son to be a great scholar). No Gemorrah teachers of the calibre of Reb Bonye remained. We were still too young to be sent to Mir[8] (we were then only 9=) so our parents started to look for a teacher. At that time there appeared in the Chassidic shtiebel a Jew, a recluse, from Koydanov, and our parents engaged him as our teacher.

When they engaged the recluse, the question arose about a place to learn. The local teachers taught in their homes. As opposed to this, the recluse didn't have his own home (if I am not mistaken he slept in the Chassidic shtiebel). Therefore our cheder moved from house to house. The first winter our cheder was in the house of Bashe Dvoretsky, the grandmother of Chaim Dvoretsky. As we were only 3 boys, actually only 2 because the third came for only one hour a day, we did not need a large room and this little cheder could accommodate only us and the Rabbi.

The second semester in the summer our cheder was in the house of Azriel Stelmach, the father of the late Jack Stilman. We were only 10 years old and the street was beckoning us; come and play children and enjoy your childhood years but the Rabbi was unyielding and did not let up from Gemorrah the entire time. For him, outside of Gemorrah, nothing existed. Once on my way to cheder I passed Itshe Tanchum's house from where the tune of the Tanach could be heard. It awakened in me a longing for a chapter of Tanach as we did with Reb Ya'akov Meir and I turned to the Rabbi with this request: Rabbi, teach us Tanach! To this he answered: and you already know Gemorrah?

In the third semester our cheder was already in the home of Arre the wagon driver. In comparison to this place our previous cheders were palaces. The house was not plastered and not even white–washed and the winter sun had no effect through the small little windows and darkness always reigned there. Only the two of us remained there because the Rabbi left to go to the home of the third boy. When the Rabbi left we occupied ourselves that is Zalman used the time to publish a newspaper. I remember how Zalman suggested that I should also write something but one has to have talent to write. For a few consecutive days I struggled until I wrote a few lines. In contrast Zalman wrote the whole “newspaper” on all sides of a large sheet of paper. Zalman only published two editions and then he became ill.

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That winter he no longer came to cheder and at the end of the term our studies with the recluse from Koydanov also came to an end.

We studied with the recluse for 1½ years. This is actually not altogether correct. I studied with him for 1½ years but not Zalman. After the break with the Rabbi (see the Recluse of Koydanov by Zalman Shazar), approximately in the middle of winter Zalman became ill and did not attend cheder again. Seeing that the third student studied only one hour a day, I remained alone in the cheder the whole day. The Rabbi taught me without a break from almost 8 in the morning to approximately 8 in the evening without considering that I was only 10½ years old. During the winter term he managed to finish teaching me the whole of tractate Chulin.

Including the 5 years that Zalman and I went from Rabbi to Rabbi, my cheder instruction now came to an end. Here our ways parted. I went to the yeshivot and him to other learning centers.

My notes however, would not be complete if I do not mention, even with a few words, the other teachers, those with whom I personally, did not study.

A Talmud Torah still existed alongside the cheders. It did not have its own fixed premises but they studied in two places, in the communal council room and in the women's synagogue in the great synagogue. The teacher there was Avrom Shapira, known as Avremel the Talmud Torah teacher. There was also a teacher Avrom Shmukler (great grandfather of Sonia Barishansky – Tunik) and in order to differentiate him from the Talmud Torah teacher, he was called the big Avremel.

He lived opposite Reb Ya'akov Meir and like him also taught Tanach and Gemorrah but gave more attention to teaching Gemorrah.

A separate place amongst the teachers was occupied by Reb Chaim Yitzchak Esterkin or Itshe Tanchum. He was both a teacher and a preacher. He was an outstanding speaker who used to charm his audience with his speaking. When he spoke in the little Yurezdik Bet Midrash, it was packed and there was no place inside so many people stood below the windows and “licked their fingers” from their enjoyment of his compelling parables. He was also a top–classics teacher and only taught Tanach. He had his own method of teaching so that the student quickly grasped the meaning. I remember what one of his students told me, how the Rabbi interpreted this verse from Jeremiah (ch. 2:13) “For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me for the fountain of living waters.” With his specific melody he sang: “for my people have committed two evils – firstly they have forsaken me and secondly, I am still the fountain of living waters.” The students did not need any further explanations. He would probably have had a very big following as a teacher if not for his love of alcohol that affected him, leaving him with only a few students. With time he became only a preacher. It was told that before he gave a sermon he would have a drink from a bottle. So he was once asked: “Reb Yitzchak why do you drink so much?” He answered in Hebrew in his own specific melody “my tongue is like the pen of a quick scribe” – my tongue can be compared to the quill of a good writer that must be dipped so that it will write. I too am like that.

 


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Shuv refers to a slaughterer and inspector. In Hebrew the word “shuv” is written with the letters “sh” and “b” which stand for “shochet” and “bodek”. Return
  2. Cheder is a traditional elementary school teaching the basics of Judaism and the Hebrew language. Return
  3. Chumash is a term for Torah in printed form as opposed to the Torah scroll. Return
  4. ”Ha'tzefirah” was one of the first Hebrew newspapers of the 19th century. Return
  5. ”Ha'melitz” was the first Hebrew newspaper to appear in Russia, founded in 1860. Return
  6. A dayanut is an associate of the Rabbi to assist him and to be involved in legal matters – settling disputes and making judgments. Return
  7. A porush is a recluse, one who separates himself and devotes himself exclusively to the study of the sacred texts. Return
  8. Mir is a town in Poland, the home of the famous Mir Yeshiva. Return


A Bundle of Memories

by Aharon Chait

Translated by Libby Raichman

My parents, a remarkable couple in the old home

My shtetl is in ruins, away in smoke and flames, wiped out in the blood and marrow of our holy and pure ones.

My parents are dead: rooted out of our sinful earth.

The Nazi murderers, may their names be erased, killed my father. He was not even given the honour of resting in peace in his own grave. They desecrated his gravestone and ploughed over the mound of earth on the old cemetery.

Who knows whether an unclean Gentile foot treads on the kosher, holy letters of the elegant font on the gravestone, that is possibly set in the asphalt of a street, of my now entirely Christian shtetl?

My Mother dragged her old bundle of bones here to America and it was here that she turned over her purified soul to the Creator, a soul so clean and pure, just as she received it from Him, leaving behind in a local cemetery, a thin worn–out body that was not destined to have “love and pleasure” even after death.

And I, a lonely son, wandering around with nostalgic yearning between two continents whose soil holds my greatest treasure. An irony of fate and in addition a privilege that they, at last were brought to be buried amongst their people – others did not even have that “luxury” ……

I transport myself to the “holy place” of my own memory and I arrive at the “grave of my Fathers” so that here in this prayer book “Ma'aneh Lashon” (a book containing prayers recited at a grave) through the lines of the descriptions I say the “new Techinah”(a book of prayers specially for women) for Avrom the Vatnik and Tzivia the daughter of Ahre, may peace be upon them, who brought me and our family into the world.

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Reb Avrom and Tzivia

 

What was, was. It is no longer here but memories cannot be disturbed, they are unforced, immortal.

 

Stoibtz, my little shtetl Stoibtz!

A simple little town in the big wide world: a spot on the earth's sphere, a poor, respected corner, but for me it was a kingdom, a central point, a significant place – and above all – a home.

And from these very ashes and from the dust of my little shtetl, from between the colourfully rich panorama of Fathers and Mothers, my own parents stand out, most beloved and unforgettable.

The name of my Father, Avrom the Vatnik, Reb Itshe the Vatnik's son, was a name that engraved itself In the memory of generations: a name that brave sons of my home town, students and admirers, took with them on their journeys over the seven seas, escaping from military service, from hard labour, from prisons, from the czar “his lordship”, in search of good fortunes and bread, in freer lands, under lighter skies.

People remember Avron the Vatnik because he raised the youth of the shtetl on his knees and perhaps some of them still have a blue “bruise” from the “teacher's leather whip” . Together with the beatings on their bottoms he “beat” a considerable amount of Yiddishkeit into their heads. Oh, the lashes, the youth–lashes …

He was not only the teacher of parents, children and grandchildren but also Shliach Tsibur (the messenger of the community), the cantor of the shtetl, who with his tunes and his old traditional style of reciting prayers, would represent the congregation on the bimah, serving as their defender and asking for a good year.

Who can forget that slender, handsome, tall Jew with the little black, round beard who on the eve of the High Holy Days would soak his throat with Wissotzki tea and a lump of sugar? – these were the congregation's gift to the cantor and a treasured one, so that the Satan of destruction, the evil one, should not, God forbid, sneak in and make his voice hoarse. Who can omit from their memory of those days, the sight of Reb Avrom with a shawl wrapped around his neck so that no angry wind, Heaven forbid, should approach and do him harm? And who cannot remember his “ya'alot” and his “n'tanne Tokef” his “Hi'neni He'ani mi'ma'ash” that split all the heavens: his “tal”(prayer for dew) that caressed the air of the coming Spring or “geshem” (prayer for rain) that drizzled with the soaking wet of the autumn rains.

And Reb Avrom was not merely a person with a religious role but a teacher, a cantor and also an educated Jew, the “notary” of the shtetl, who distinguished himself with his calligraphic handwriting and his knowledge of accounting, Russian, German, Hebrew, a special expert in the forms of prayers of various kinds, of congratulations, epitaphs and a florid style of writing titles (illuminations) etc.

He was also known as the auditor in the shtetl bank where he would go very often to see to the accounts. He was also an active worker in the shtetl Gemillut Chesed where he helped to give out loans.

Reb Avrom was intimately involved in all aspects of shtetl life – an institution. and a community in one person.

Outwardly he also made an extraordinary impression. He was aristocratically neat, a dandy dresser with well–fitting clothes, a “goldfinch” as they called it in the shtetl. He impressed with his elegance. They used to say that on the coldest days Reb Avrom took in a handful of snow into his house to spruce up his clothes; at that time a primitive substitute for the current chemical cleaning.

Very often one would see Reb Avrom on a voluntary mission through the town to collect wheat money or ice for the town's ice–house, in order to provide for the needs of the community. It was also his function to estimate the yearly sale of the pews in the synagogue and to maintain the town's book of records.

And this remarkable Jew who dared to blend Torah and enlightenment, who created ambassadors from Stoibtz itself and throughout the entire world. From letters received from Argentina, South Africa, America etc, there would come greetings to the shtetl, describing how native wanderers in distant places used to gather to soothe their sadness with a tune or witticism of Reb Avrom.

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My grandfather Reb Ahre

A true wife, a life's companion not only in family life but also in her spiritual influence in the shtetl, was his wife, my God–fearing Mother – Tzivia the daughter of Ahre. They referred to her in this way out of respect for my grandfather Reb Ahre, a righteous man who was much loved in the shtetl and whose good qualities my Mother inherited and passed on.

Tzivia the daughter of Ahre, belonged to that type of small town ”lamed Vavnikkes” (one of the 36 most righteous souls in her generation) who are only seen through the concealed veil of their good deeds.

She was a true woman of valour, satisfied in years but young in spirit, one of the last Mohicans of a generation of righteous women who disappear from the surface.

Small in stature, thin and shrunken, she was however sharp of mind, big–hearted and very wise. Her fellow townsfolk of Stoibtz remember Tzivia, the daughter of Ahre, as a teacher who helped Reb Avrom to put together a system of teaching for a modern time, teaching and managing the “Cheder” (Hebrew school). When her exhausted husband used to rest from fatigue with a “prayer book, a Pentateuch or a pointer”, she would then take over the education of the children. She also taught domestic skills to girls and young women, special prayers for women, the Yiddish translation of the Pentateuch for women and a “tsenna u'r'enna” (a Haggadic interpretation of the Pentateuch in Yiddish).

Before their eyes, there stands the picture of Tzivia, the convenor of charity. This thin Jewish woman with the wig on her head and the bright warm look in her soft eyes, used to shuffle around

 

Stayptz Jewish Co–operative Folk Bank 1922 – 1926
First row at the top from right: Yechezkel Volfson, Aharon Machtei, Avrom Chait, Dovid Sveksvine, Yossel Moltshadsky, Berl Bruchansky
2nd row: Chaim Leib Kaplan, Natan Vinaver, Elimelech Miltsenzon, Avrom Levin, Chaim Yitzchok Tseshler, Avrom Russak, Mordechai Machtei, Chaim Hirsh Akun
3rd row: Baruch Garmizze, Asher Akselrod, Eli Rabinovicz, Shlomo Harkavy, Eliakum Miltsenzon, Isaac Borishansky, Shlomo Palay, Nachum Malbin, Yitzchok Katz

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the shtetl in the evenings and shake out loaves of bread for poor families from the folds of her apron. Then she would immediately disappear in the shadows in her modest way. The same sensitive ear would absorb the groans of a heavy heart: the same lips would whisper a prayer and a word of comfort for a bitter mood; the same hands would help poor brides, lonely orphans and abandoned widows. She would work alone and through the “Ladies Committee” in the town.

Tzivia the daughter of Ahre is also remembered as the town's wig–maker who would adorn the heads of observant women with a covering of modesty and enlighten hearts with faith in God's word.

Teaching, astuteness, modesty, charity, love of people, contentment and “Tsidduk Hadin” (a prayer said at a burial acknowledging Divine Judgement and the whim of fate). She took on the suffering of others out of love – together these attributes created a floral wreath of virtues. One often wondered how such a small body could maintain such a beautiful spirit that managed to do wonders on both sides of the ocean, in the old home as well as in America. Her love and charity for all Jews were outstanding.

A separate, special talent of my Mother's was her handwork, the embroidery and artistic weaving that she would present for charity. She was also granted the gift of a talent for writing and she left behind an unfinished diary. Her stamina knew no bounds and here in America she completed an English Elementary school in the evenings at the end of many days of hard work in running her household.

The knitting needle and the book were her inseparable companions until her last breath. She was constantly surrounded by people; she was their friend and adviser until her last day. She left the world in the midst of weaving a beautiful, kosher, holy life, in the middle of her hand–written lines between pen and paper, knitting needle and knitting, with a treasure of nine decades of fruitful and beautiful years.

 

The house of Avrom Chait

 

We grew up in this atmosphere between our parents. Our home was the mirror of the generation, the pulse of the shtetl. Our table was the stage for various ideological clashes, of modern winds, but also for words of Torah and ethics. The romantic storm of our time took place between the walls of our house.

This was one of the most light–filled, noble, ideal homes of our little town of Stoibtz, alongside the quiet waters of the Niemen River: a nest whose Fathers and Mothers are in the next world and the children and grandchildren carry the great inheritance and the sunny dreams over the great entire, world.

 

At the funeral of Hirsh Machtei
From right: Moshe Liss, Shaul Ginsburg, Mendl Machtei, Sarah Machtei, Moshe Yitzchok Bernshtein,
Fyve Liss, Rochl and Roshke Kushnir, Mandel Matshosky, Moshe Ryser, Liebe and Velvl Tunik, Yossl and Elly–Hendl Machtei, Minye–Golde Machtei, Feigl Machtei (Leibe's daughter),
Ruven Machtei, Chaye Machtei, Liebe Kantarovicz, Leibe Machtei, Feigl and Ettl Machtei, Bashe Machtei (Leibe's daughter)

 


[Page 292]

Shlomo and Chiene Ruchl Mirski

by Arye Leibl Mirski

Translated by Libby Raichman

I remember my father when I was a boy as young as 6 years old. For many years he was the head trustee of the Chevra Kaddishah. During the first World War when the battles were taking place around Stoibtz, he took upon himself the duty of travelling to the battle front to find if there were any fallen Jewish soldiers and bring them back for burial to a Jewish cemetery. This was a combination of great self–sacrifice and danger to life.

After the rise of the Polish State, when the border was established between Negoreloye – Stoibtz, many Jews smuggled themselves across the border from Russia in order to immigrate to another country or to the Land of Israel. Many of them were caught and arrested. My father, using his acquaintance with the Polish “Governor of the Province” at that time, Graf Tsopsky, was very active in freeing those who were arrested.

At the end of the World War chaos ruled in the shtetl and a depressed atmosphere prevailed. At night bandits attacked the shtetl and robbed Jewish shops. The night screams and cries for help would wake my father and he always readily went to help chase out the bandits and thieves.

Hunger reigned in the shtetl and my father was chosen by the town council to distribute food among the Jewish and White Russian populations. Of course, this was a thankless task because it was very difficult to please everyone.

My father was also a Torah reader in the Great Synagogue and for many years he was a loyal communal worker.

When the Gentiles wanted to take the Jewish pasture from us, my father participated in a delegation to Warsaw, to the Minister of the Interior and was successful in persuading him that we were in the right.

My mother Chiene Ruchl was also an active communal worker. She helped to establish the Women's committee in the shtetl whose task was to provide for widows, orphans and to marry off poor girls.

In honor of their memory.

 

Shlomo Mirski

 

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