Somebody described the level of education in Amdur with the following quip: half of Amdur was erudite; all of it was ignorant. Both parts of the statement are correct. My town had more than a few ordinary people, some of them illiterate according to old-time standards. On the other hand, in proportion to the population, there were many scholars, some of them extremely knowledgeable in several areas. I will mention a few of them:
Reb Borukh Ain. His own roots were from Shishlevits [Swisloch]. He was brought to Amdur as a son-in-law. We used to call him Bore Bere's, derived from the name of his father-in-law Bere; his wife was called Sore Reb Borukh's. He owned a large dry-goods store. He was quite stingy, but he was a renowned genius. His rich library of commentaries had many old, priceless texts, some of them unique. He owned a large house with a garden situated next to Bregman's House of Study. Reb Borukh was the author of Ta'amei HaMitzvota discussion of the reasoning behind the Commandments. He also contributed to the Hebrew monthlies Ha-karmel [journal published in Vilna (1860-1880)] and Ha-Levanon [an orthodox publication]. His articles used to bear the title Taalumot Ayin [mysteries of the eye], a nice word play based on his family name [Ain means eye], and he would sign his name Borukh Ayin of Amdur or of Shishlevits. He corresponded about religious matters with Reb Shloyme Haber of Lemberg and he often used to demonstrate the reasoning of the Noda B'Yehuda [Rabbi Yechezkel Landau] or Rabbi Tzvi Hersch Chayes.
While he claimed to be part of the Amdur rabbinate, in reality he was educated enough to preside as rabbi even in one of the largest Jewish cities. He was financially secure; he did not need the rabbinical salary.
He had only one son, Berel Reb Borukh's, who was sentenced to Siberia for revolutionary activities.
Reb Rafael-Khone Ure's. This genius came to my birthplace from Vilna. His intellectual mastery strode side by side with his geniality. He knew the Talmud, the Tosafot [a collection of comments on the Talmud], and all the post-Talmudic commentaries almost by heart. He was able to read a letter and immediately repeat it from memory. In his later years he became Rabbi in Vasilkove [Wasilkow], near Bialystok. After I left Amdur, he boldly announced that he had discovered the Jerusalem Talmud's section on the Order of Kodoshim [a section of the Mishnah], a finding which shook up all of Jewish Lithuania. It was determined, however, that this was one of his own creations and not the original, which had been lost right after the period of the Babylonian Gaons. Anyway, Reb Rafael Gordon displayed dazzling scholarship at editing the text. I studied with his son, Ure, Reb Rafael's, in the Amdur Yeshiva. He inherited his distinguished father's good disposition. I remember that he once recited from memory a page of Gemara from the chapter known as Shnayim Okhazim [two people claiming the same object] from the tractate of the Bava Mezia; he started at the end of the page and went backwards. I heard he went crazy.
My Uncle and Rebbe, Reb Avramel Reb Mottes's. He received rabbinical ordination by the age of 13. He married my grandfather's sister, and was the religious authority in the town for many years. He was forced to teach in order to earn a living. In his youth he was inclined towards
Hasidism. According to the old people, he was beaten up in the town of Valednik [Veledniki, Ukraine?] for talking against some poorly educated but pious Jews of Volhynia. He was the town mohel. He chanted the Musaf service beautifully. For decades he was the rabbi of the Chevra Mishnayos. He departed for Palestine in his later years, but he was not permitted to enter, for this took place during the era of Abdul Hamid [Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1842-1918), Ottoman Empire ruler]. He returned to Amdur and lived in his tiny room barefoot and naked, as the saying goes, in such poverty that he was on the verge of begging for handouts. Every night, when I came out of the Amdur yeshiva, my father, of blessed memory, sent me to study Gemara in his presence. I confess that I was not greatly interested in his lectures. He was an old man, over 80 years of age, and I never heard anything wonderful out of him. He would sit and doze off. I remember an instance when I was reciting a long and difficult passage by Rashbam [Rabbi Shmuel, son of Meir, bible commentator and Talmudist (c.1080-c.1174)] on the chapter entitled Khezkas Habatim [adverse possession of houses] from the tractate Bava Basra [Tractate of the Mishna]. I tried to skip a piece of the commentary, but he knew I was cheating and made a face. I tried this trick again later, but he slapped me, clearly proving I couldn't get away with it.
He would often take a little drink (all Jews in those days enjoyed making the blessing over liquor) and every Friday night I would bring him, as a gift for Shabbes, a quarter of a quart bottle from Ayzishe Mendel's. He once remarked to Ayzishe that the whiskey was watery; when he smiled, my uncle told him, Reb Ayzishe, you fulfill the prophecy, 'you will draw water with joy' [Isaiah 12:3] when you dilute liquor with water.
In the winter he would get up at midnight to memorize Rashi's interpretation of the long, complicated tractate of Mesekhte Shabbes. He once told me: You have to come to the next world with ready moneyI have no fear of the angel who escorts the dead to the other side, because I have the entire Mesekhte Shabbes in my pocket. And he truly knew all of Rashi's 157 pages by heart; that used to be the checkbook for religious Jews, the greatest wealth possible.
Reb Ayzshe Mendel's. His roots are from the Suwalki region. He was a grandson of the famous scholar Reb Yehuda Bacharach, Rabbi from Sejny, and the author of acclaimed commentaries on the Talmud, under the title Nimukei ha-Gryb (Insights of Ha Gaon Rabbi Yehuda Bacharach). The family name comes from the German city Bacharach. Heinrich Heine wrote about a huge blood-libel which occurred there in the thirteenth century in his epic, Der Rabbi von Bacherach. The family Bacharach had an historical family megilla, in which the family genealogy was recorded, stemming from the ancient Tanna [One of the teachers who helped create the Mishna] Reb Khanina Ben Tradiyon, in the time of Hadrian [Roman Emperor Hadrian (117-138)], may his name be blotted out, through Rashi [eminent commentator Rabbi Shlomo ben Itzhak, (1040-1105)] and the Maharshal [Shlomo Luria, sixteenth century Talmudic commentator]. This precious, invaluable document was burned, according to Reb Yankev Bacharach (see Akhiasof, ch. Hey, p. 326).
Clearly, Reb Ayzshe Bacharach, or, as we called him in Amdur, Ayzshe Mendel's, stemmed from an illustrious family. He lived outside of the city, and owned a profitable distillery. An important scholar, he had an imposing library, inherited from his grandfather Reb Yehuda, containing many manuscripts from the Vilna Gaon. He was held in the highest esteem in Amdur. His son Yudel (father of
Fani Rem's) was interested in philosophy, and read astronomical works in Hebrew. He additionally had the gifts of a golden nature and a kosher soul. Avramel Ayzshe's, second son of Reb Ayzshe, headed the office, a place downtown where they sold their liquor. He always had to intervene among the very many drunkards of Amdur who would get into squabbles. His four daughters, in their later years, distinguished themselves with their worldly knowledge and their lofty positions in Jewish communal life outside of Amdur.
This was a magnificent Jewish family in Amdur. What became of it after the Holocaust in Lithuania?
Leizer Efron (we used to call him Leizer Shael's) was a son of the wealthy Shael Efron. An unusual event in Amdur happened during his lifetime. Reb Shael used to deal with gold in the time of Alexander II, a business forbidden to Jews. He was arrested and spent a long time in solitary confinement, in the Grodno Citadel. A guard was bribed, and Reb Shael's body was exchanged with that of an executed prisoner's. He was carted out of the fortress like a corpse. Then he escaped to the other side of the border. The story shook up the entire government, but without results. Reb Shael lived in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, for more than forty years. He was always rich, but rigidly fanatic. He would not touch meat in Germany because he did not trust the ritual slaughterers in Frankfurt, even thought they were devout and strictly orthodox. He died in
1897, leaving a rich inheritance to his sons Moshe, a county judge, and to Leizer.
Leizer Shael's was a son-in-law of Moni Khozeh , an extremely wealthy and prominent Jew. He lived in the courtyard formerly belonging to Count Kozlovsky, former Prince of Amdur.
Leizer Shael's studied in Volozhin as a youth. He knew Russian, Polish and German well, and he was very advanced in Talmud and Hebrew. He received many newspapers. He served as Rebbe of the Chevre Torah . He was good-hearted. His son Berel (my friend) was not inclined to learn Torah. When I left Amdur, he left to study in Vilna. He became a dentist for the military. The older daughter of Leizer Shael's married a grandson of Shmuel-Yoshe Finn in Vilna, a well-known Jewish personality of the nineteenth century. And what became of this honorable family after the Holocaust?
Leizer Shael's published a book entitled Five Alephs. Why? He added up the alephs in his name, Eliezer Efron, his father's name Saul, and he wrote it under the pen-name Ben L'Adoni Avi [the son of my master, my father]. That totaled five alephs. How do you like this kind of mental gymnastics?
Hershel Tilye's was the son of the great scholar and Hasid Chaikel Tilye's; his name came from the name of his mother Tilye. Hershel studied in Volozhin. He was a businessperson and a learned scholar. He traveled throughout Germany but returned to Amdur, where he pored over the books in the Study House day and night. He was a young man with huge potential and ambitions, but they were not realized because of the system of learning in those days.
Motye Weiss was the son of Reb Yoshe Weiss, a respected householder in Amdur, Rebbe of the Chevra Ain-Yakov [Ain-Yakov is a sixteenth century anthology of Talmudic legends], and a former prayer leader. Older men of authority would associate his name with piety and honor. Nu, what's there to discuss? Yoshe knows His son Reb Motye was also an honorable Jew, a wealthy proprietor of a large ironworks store, and a remarkable scholar. His clients were almost exclusively Christian. People in Amdur used to joke: Motye Weiss is a big anti-semite: He will carry steel and iron for a Christian.. A short man, he was lively as a squirrel, always smiling and friendly. He had the privilege of giving two sermons a year in Sender's House of Study or in the Great Synagogue. On Purim he hilariously played the role of Haman's wife Zeresh, reducing Haman to a nothing. The audience, a bit intoxicated, was very happy and laughed wholeheartedly. Zeresh took castor oil, and after the understood result, she, that harlot, poured the whole container down from the second story, which landed right on Haman's head. All based on the verse [Chapter 6 Verse 12 of the Megillah] which says: But Haman hurried to his house mourning, and having his head covered. It was hysterical. It could not be better.
On one of the Sabbaths when the tochecha [the admonitions in Leviticus 23:14-45 and Deuteronomy 28:15-68] is read, from the weekly portions of Bechukosai or Ki Sovo, he would stop his usual sermons and give a more serious one, chock full of Torah, and esoteric learning. I remember the verse [Leviticus 26:44] And yet for all that [zos in Hebrew], when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not cast them away. It is very puzzling. What is meant by yet for all that?
He referred to the discussion in the Talmud [Yerushalmi, Taanis 3a] regarding the covenant with the patriarchs and the merit of the patriarchs. Motye Weiss said that the word zos is an acronym for the merit of the patriarchs is ended ['zechus ovos tomu]. The verse says even if the merit of the patriarchs has ended, God will not cast his people away in violation of his covenant with the patriarchs. The merit may have ended, but not the covenant. Even the driest scholars of Amdur would gesture with their hands and say, nu, not bad.
In the 1890s, there was a movement throughout Lithuania to strengthen the spirit of the Torah. Knowledgeable preachers from Kelme, Eishishok and Mozyr traveled from town to town, giving fiery sermons about the necessity of studying Torah more. In Amdur, as in other places in Lithuania, a society was founded to ensure that the Study House would never be devoid of the Torah, not even for one minute, neither day nor night. Members pledged to take turns; each was assigned an hour to be in the Study House. Motye Weiss was one of the most important souls in this society. Even in the middle of work on Tuesday, when his store was full of customers who both had to be reckoned with and watched so that they wouldn't pilfer anything, a day on which he was depending to earn enough to carry him through the rest of the week, he would take off and run to the Study House. Motye Weiss would be at his post even if his turn to watch turned out to be in the middle of the night. This is actually the way all the others in the Society responded--Torah above everything else.
In his old age, when Motye was a widower, he married again, this time to my aunt Chaya-Rokhe.
They left for Palestine. There, in Mea Shearim, he played an important role among those learned in Torah, according to information I received from Palestine.
Meyer Hershel Yelin was a son of Moshe Leyme's. A scholar with literary talents, he was a correspondent for Ha-Melitz [(The Advocate), the first Hebrew newspaper in Russia], Ha-Zefirah [(The Dawn), a Hebrew newspaper in Warsaw], and also for the Grodno regional newspaper, Grodnoskaya Vedmost. Although he was open to socialism, he was strictly Orthodox. In a letter to me dated 6 June 1936, he wrote that he was about to publish his treatise on Bava Kama and Bava Mezia [tractates of the Talmud]. The composition earned praised from Reb Shimon Yehuda [Shkop], head of the Grodno Yeshiva; Reb Shabse Ygli, Rabbi of Slonim; and Reb Reuven Katz, former Rabbi of Amdur and today Chief Rabbi in Petakh Tikva, Israel. In the same letter, he asked me to create a fund in Argentina to support the Amdur synagogue. A Jewish sympathizer of socialism dedicated himself to publish a treatise on tractates of the Talmud. What a golden combination of two different ideologies (and perhaps they are one). He and his wife were brutally slaughtered by Hitler's fiends.
Reb Meyer Tsvi-Hirsh Yelin has three sons and three daughters in Argentina. They are all honorable, involved in communal affairs, and are active Zionists, as are the other three daughters in North America.
Reb Simkhe Bytslyver [Karpovich]. His name was derived from the name of the village in which he once lived [Betsilovo, Ukraine?]. He was a distinguished scholar and a true holy man, quiet and calm. He spoke slowly. He always had the Shulkhan Arukh [a code of Jewish law] in front of him. He used to naively ask, What would Jews do, if, God forbid, they would not have the Shulkhan Arukh? Scream and shriekthey could not exist for one minute without it! He knew the text inside and out, the section entitled Orakh Khayim with the two commentaries, Mogen Avrohom and Mogen Dovid.
In his youth he was financially comfortable; when he grew older he grew poorer, but he still went around collecting copper and silver coins for the destitute, who used to circle around him like bees around honey.
He was a huge fan of practical mitzvos, all from the Shulkhan Arukh. He did not agree with the custom of eating dairy on Shavuos. I remember his response to the question, What do you mean, Reb Simkha, the tradition was discussed in the sixteenth century by RaMA [Reb Moshe Isserles], who fit the Shulkhan Arukh to Ashkenazic customs, and it is acknowledged in the Taz, Shach, Mogen Avrohom, Ba'er Hetev and other commentaries. He answered simply, on holidays we have to eat meatif not on holidays, when then? There is no happy occasion without meat. The tradition of dairy? Nu, I drink a glass of sour milk before eating, and I have fulfilled the requirement! I quote Simkha's speech word for word: Nu, and if you don't eat blintzes, the succah is null and void?
The night when my father and mother, may they rest in peace, and our whole family left Amdur, almost the entire town came to say goodbye. Among them was Reb Simkha; he was my father's uncle. My father asked Reb Simkha to bless him. He was a Cohen, a distinguished Jew. I remember how the Rabbi responded. Nu, of course, of course. Reb Simkha lay his hands on my father's head and tearfully recited all of the priestly blessing, and the huge crowd answered, Amen. My father was cheered; the kosher Cohen, Reb Simkha, had given his blessings.
After I left Amdur, Reb Simkha left for
Palestine. His eternal wish was to walk in his socks on the Temple Mount -- a Cohen's dream. In 1908 a messenger from Jerusalem arrived. He brought regards from my uncle. From Simkha? I asked him. Even in Mea Shearim he's called Reb Simkha, the messenger answered. I learned that in Jerusalem Reb Simkha was called Rebbe. He died when he was more than 100 years old. May he rest in Paradise.
Hanokh Likhnyover. I find I am also indebted to the memory of his brother Hanokh Likhnyover. He lived in the courtyard Likhnyove. The prince owning the courtyard, Pan Lyekhnitsky, used to call him honest Jew, especially regarding finances. He built the first wall in Amdur. He used to study Eyn Yakov, commentaries, and the Mishna. He was an early morning learner in Bregman's Study House. A dear, kosher Jew, he had many children. One of them, Alter Hanokh's, was an extraordinary scholar, a son-in-law of the Rabbi of Adelsk. Alter Hanokh's youngest daughter lives here in Argentina. There are also many other members of Hanokh Likhnyover's family in Argentina and North America with the family name Karp or Karpovich. Tankhum Efron, from the colony Rosh Pina (Entre Rios, Argentina) is also a son-in-law of Hanokh Likhnyover.
Avrom-Shloma Tsine's was an old proprietor in the city. He was a Gemara scholar, with an astute, sharp mind. Because of all these good qualities, he was always asked to arbitrate complicated disputes among the wealthy. He was not overly good-natured and he was also a bit of a pedant. People would joke that in Amdur it was hard to find two things: first, that Avrom-Shloma would laugh at someone else's funny tales, and second,
that nobody would laugh at Avrom-Shloma's. His house stood at the corner of Grodno and Volkovysk Streets. Important businessmen would gather on his porch in the summer and exchange information about city matters, about bargaining the tax on kosher meat, about welcoming a new cantor, about sending a delegation to the chief of the district, about voting in the town legislature, and so on.
He read the Torah in Bregman's Study House. In his later years, he made a concession to me: he allowed me to read in the Study House on Shabbes (the privilege was due to our family ties). Yom Kippur, while reading the 29th portion of the Torah, After the death [Leviticus 16] after the morning service, he would burst out crying. There is a prescription in Jewish books for preventing children from dying while their parents are still alive. Avrom-Shloma, however, was not successful in this regard. His two daughters had died, leaving behind them young children. No wonder he always sobbed at this passage about the death of Aaron's two sons.
Avrom-Shloma was a fiery opponent of Hasidism. When a young man, Velvel, son of Itshe the clockmaker, suddenly became a Hasid and characteristically gestured wildly with his hands during prayer, Avrom-Shloma was not happy. He explained that two things are not good when they're done too early. Being pregnant is very good and necessary for young wives, but not for girls. Hasidism is perhaps good for the elderly, but not for young boys. His wit was very sharp and hit the mark.
When I left Amdur, he was already in financial decline and he had turned to his children for help. When my father, may he rest in peace,
received the news in Argentina that Avrom-Shloma had died, he was in mourning for weeks and could not be consoled.
Moshe Toiba's. My grandmother Toiba's second husband hailed from Zamut. He was an enlightened and extraordinary scholar, a wonderful singer and an outstanding prayer leader. His rendition of Musaf was widely renowned. He used to say his Hosannas with so much sweetness and emotion, that all the worshippers in Bregman's House of Study used to cry along with him. I remember his imposing figure, when he used to go around the pulpit with the esrog and lulav in one hand, and a prayer book in the other, singing. After every phrase he used to scream, Oy, sweet father, Hosanna.
He was a Cohen but without the legendary temper. He used to study Midrash Rabbah day and night. He wrote a treatise on the Guide for the Perplexed. He wore eyeglasses, a gold watch, handsome, clean clothes, and polished boots. In the Study House during the Priestly blessing, he gave the key tone, and the other Cohens had to chant after him. He was a scholar with all good qualities; Jews used to say that holiness resided within him. Yes, there used to be a time when generations were full of Torah and Jewish knowledge; there were generations of fine businesspersons who were also greatly learned. Unfortunately they are lost.
Ephraim Abba's [Margulis] was a Kotzker Hasid, deeply learned. He was often asked to solve complicated disputes. Even though the Rabbi opposed Hasidism, he would ask Ephraim to judge. He used to wear long payes [sidelocks] that reached his shoulders, but in the street he would pin them up and keep them under his yarmulke. One night he would sit and study in the Hasidic synagogue from sundown until sunup, and he used to complete all his prayers in one minute, as is the custom in Kotzk. The next night he would play cards, according to the practice of Jewish husbands [Aramaic quote from traditional marriage document]. His
learning and cleverness redeemed any faults he might have had.
Leibe Efron (Leibe Khane-Ete's). His name was derived from his mother's. A fervent Kotzker Hasid, he was an extraordinary scholar with a thorough knowledge of Hasidic literature. He used to drink 90 proof liquor in a tea glass. When somebody would warn him, Reb Leib, you will, God forbid, burn a hole in your stomach, he would answer: God forbid, one can be burned from water, because steam rises from it. Leibe Khane-Ete's, however, was never drunk, and he never forgot to say the appropriate prayers at the right time.
When Jews would sit on the ground during Tisha B'Av for Lamentations, he would go into the Prayer House holding a rod, calling out: I'll hit whoever wants to cry. His income came from teaching. My younger brother Arye-Leib was one of his students.
Leibe-Moshe Hoshiye's was a Jew of extraordinary learning in both religious and secular subjects. He had good command of the Russian language. He knew practically by heart all the rules about serving in the military (especially about those privileged with red, blue, and white tickets). He used to even know all the laws that came from the Senate and the Holy Synod. How did a Jew know all these things? A puzzle. Leibe Moshe Hoshiye's practiced silence; he was quiet as a clam. He was always looking into a book or a newspaper. He always had a critical smile on his face. When he used to talk with a few select people about global politics, he spoke in short but pithy sentences like axioms. He had a discussion about anti-Semitism with my father, may he rest in peace,
which remains in my memory. In those days, people in Amdur did not use the word anti-Semitism; I wonder if anybody in the other Jewish towns did. Leibe Moshe Hoshiye's would speak about hatred towards the Jews. I was a boy of ten and understood the distinction he made between a people's anti-Semitism and government hatred of the Jews. He comforted himself by thinking that hatred for the Jews in Russia was a product not of the people's sentiments, but of the government's. The reign of Alexander III will not last long, and the Russian people are not anti-Semitic, he would add. This was the first time I heard that word, and Leibe Moshe Hoshiye's explained at once the origin and root of it. [The word was not widely used anywhere before 1881.] He wrote Hebrew quickly. His Hebraic writing style was embellished, but clear and substantive. A short while ago I had the opportunity to read a few letters he had written from Amdur to my father, of blessed memory, in Argentina, dated in the month of Iyer 5662 [May 1902] . I marveled at that Jewish scholar and his core Hebrew. Leibe Moshe Hoshiye's was more than a dilettante; his knowledge in all things was deep.
He had two sons and daughters. Israel-Chaim and Yehoshe both had open minds. Israel-Chaim, the older son, was a writer for the parliament. He commanded a literary style in Russian and a gorgeous calligraphic handwriting. He was not a great genius; in fact, because of this his marriage did not take place. The bride's father broke off the engagement because Israel-Chaim drank just a tiny bit on Purim and started to babble in the presence of his future father-in-law. Yehoshe was cursed with the plague located under the hat.
He was a young, sharp scholar. He mastered the Russian language, had a good head for mathematics, and was additionally a fine singer. Yet his physical limitations ruined his life.
Shael Hinde-Rokhe's was a good Jewish proprietor. He lived in a large, beautiful place, not far from Bregman's Study House. He owned a large dry-goods store managed by his wife, the honest Hinde-Rokhe. Saul used to be in Warsaw all year long acting as a commissioner. He would come home only Passover and Succos. He always wore a black hat and a gold watch. One of his sons studied with me in cheder. We used to call him Tevel the Crook, because when we played with buttons or nuts, he would always win. Hinde-Rokhe died in childbirth. I remember how the shofar was blown in town to induce the fetus to be born after the mother had died. It was Hoshana Raba, and the town was in confusion. Hinde-Rokhl does not want to give up her child.
After she died the family fell apart. Shael and his children moved to Warsaw, and Amdur lost a first-rate businessman.
Monye Khozeh [Choze] is a good example of a wealthy Jew in the old days. He hailed from a prominent family in Amdur. The Amdur courtyard, which used to belong to the polish Count Kozlovsky, fell to Monye after the last Polish uprising. So all of Amdur belonged to Monye, according to old Polish laws. Jews in Amdur used to have to pay the owner property tax. There were constant harangues and interruptions during the readings in the synagogue in order to persuade Monye to give this up. Jews were angry because
he did not let them use his grounds for pasturing their horses, cows, and goats. There was an anecdote about the former Count. Before the last Polish rebellion, Polish princes would come to the Study House or synagogue, aiming to convince Jews to vote for their special candidates in the provinces. During Succos after the morning service, old Kozlovsky came to request Jewish votes for his candidate. Everyone was aware that Jews had little interest in local Polish corrupt politics in those days, especially knowing that Russia would soon take over the Grodno province. They only cared about the lawns for their animals. A Jewish owner of several goats called out to Kozlovsky, Panye Khrabya, the goats will be permitted to graze? The Count answered, They will be, they will be. The Jew then said to the prayer leader, Nu, an end, say Hallel [the prayer praising the Lord]. We used to say that all the goats voted for Kozlovsky's candidate.
I knew Monye Choze when he was already an old man, a Jewish personage with a gray flecked beard who always walked proudly. He was very learned, wrote a fine Hebrew, and spoke Polish and Russian grammatically. He was highly regarded by the Polish princes. Pan Choze made a mark. He had four daughters and one son. One daughter, Tsine, married Leizer Shael's, about whom I wrote earlier. Another daughter Mary, a very stingy person, wed Zshamen (Serebrenik), a young Hasid who was very educated, a son of a Polish-Jewish very wealthy man. They were among the richest people in Amdur. They owned mills. The third daughter, Etke, after 30 days of mourning for her father, married a Boris from Bialystok, a young man of prominence. She always wore a cape, and in winter she wore skunk fur.
Monye was considered educated by both Jewish and universal standards. Abke, his son, was completely paralyzed. Monye brought a Jewish governess from Vilna for him, one very assimilated in outlook. They fell in love; the result: a wedding. One of their sons is in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Shoshke (or Sofia), the fourth daughter, was also paralyzed.
Monye lived by himself on the estate. He would pray in Bregman's House of Study. He came to hear the Megilla in his carriage drawn by the Christian coachman. On Simchas Torah he would read the most important, the last, portion of the Torah, and he would weep at the prayers. When I left Amdur, he really was in his glory. In addition to being wealthy, he lived in a place with a huge orchard on the side. He was strictly Orthodox. His daughters were also. Before Passover he himself would go to the Rabbi, driven by his coachman, to sell his own khomets. I was told that when he died, a huge crowd came to his funeral, Jews and Christians alike. All the princes of Amdur came to hear him praised, which did not please the Rabbi of Amdur. After his death, none of his riches remained.
Dovid Kantorshtshik, or Dovid Shalom-Leizer's, was a son of Shalom-Leizer Rabinovitsh, who in his day led community politics. Dovid had the name Kantorshtshik (office counternik) because he owned the house where Ayzshe Mendl's had his office. He was a fine proprietor. He received Russian and Hebrew newspapers. He lived like a rich man when he was young. He had a beautiful house. In his later years, he rented it out to
the Amdur post office. He had six sons. Most of them were spastics and fools. I knew all of them. Not one had inherited his father's good qualities. The cantor of Amdur, Eli Tsur, once said, Dovid Kantorshtshik is a miracle worker, he creates golems. Somebody tried to match up his son Nisl with Moshe Bik, an old Amdur idiot. Moshe did not want the wedding because Nisl did not have a pretty wardrobe.
What a pity that Dovid Shalom-Leizer's, such a brilliant administrator, did not pass down his intellect. According to information I received after I left Amdur, he died alone and poor.
Moshe-Ahron Shalom-Leizer's was his brother. Well-versed in Russian literature, he also read scientific works, and was an expert in Jewish texts, especially in Eyn Yaakov [an anthology of Talmudic legends]. His wife Feige had a sort of small drugstore. He was in the town of Yarmolinets a whole year; he came home only on holidays. He wore gold-rimmed glasses, a hat instead of a cap, and a cape. He dressed like an aristocrat. When he would come from Yarmolinets for a holiday, the congregation in Bregman's House of Study would stand near him in his designated spot in order to greet him properly, and to ask him about news from distant places in faraway lands. Moshe-Ahron would report, like a professor, about the lands of Volhynia, Kamenets-Podolsk, Tultshin [Tulchin?] and other areas. I remember, as a boy, pushing myself in among the grown-ups to listen to his stories and his enlightening information about every city and its historical events: about Shabbetai Tsvi [false messiah from the 1660s]; Yakov Frank [false messiah from the eighteenth century]; and not to be mentioned in the same breath, the Baal-Shem [1700-1760, founder of Hasidism]
about Reb Yitskhok-Ber Levinzon [Haskala (non-religious) writer] who lived in Kremenits [Krzemieniec, Ukraine], and others. When the crowd would disperse, a few would remark: Torah and greatness paired together (said of a Jew both learned and rich) [Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Gittin 59a]. Moshe-Ahron Shalom-Leizer's was a handsome, modern man of influence in the old-fashioned sensegood to God and to people, as the women of Amdur would say.
Leibe Mendel's was a son of Mendel Vatishtshiner and a brother-in-law of Ayzshe Mendl's, about whom I've written above. I remember that when Mendel Vatishtshiner died, he was eulogized on the floor of the large synagogue which was still uncompleted. Reb Avramel quoted Lamentations 1:16: because the comforter that should relieve my soul is far from me [comforter = menachem = Leibe Mendel's Hebrew name]. Leibe Mendel's had his apartment near the priest and lived like a rich man: a whole day the samovar was on the table. In order to understand the bitter relations between the Polish clergy and the Jews, keep in mind the following episode: Leibe Mendel's begged for the priest's intervention for one of his sons, who at the time was about to be drafted into the military. He remarked to the priest that they were somewhat neighbors. The priest retorted, A Jew is not a neighbor. And that was the response of the tolerant Catholic representative.
Leibe Mendel's was not a base Jew. He gave his children a good Jewish and worldly education, according to the circumstances in Amdur at the time. His sons, successful businessmen, later lived in Kovna. His daughters were in Grodno.
Sender the Small. He was called this in order to differentiate him from Sender the Large. In truth, he was a short man, and handsomely clothed. He had a very pretty place in the center of Grodna Street, with a polished floor, a sign of wealth in those
days. The second House of Study in the town bore his name. In his last years he would rent his residence to a doctor from the city. When soldiers would stay in town, one of the commanders would stay at Sender the Small's. Sender had a son who was an excellent student; he left to study at the Volozhiner Yeshiva. Sender the Small was a good example of the old time Jewish man of influence.
Leyme Margulis was a brother of Ephraim Abba's, and in Amdur he was actually called Leyme Abba's. Far from learned and very close to [Jewishly] ignorant, he still was a smart Jew with a sharp mind and quick understanding. Earlier he had lived as a tenant on an estate, and later he went to the city and fixed up a nice apartment where he led a very comfortable life. He was a wit, from time to time even a cynic, but he peppered his remarks with Jewish taste. He would often be called on to arbitrate difficult financial disputes.
His son, Shmuel Leyme's, used to be a broker for princesbuying and selling estates, fields, and grain. In his last years he had a large dry-goods store. He was the administrator of the large synagogue. But nobody has everything: he had no children. Prayers of religious Jews did not help. I remember how a genius from Yampol came to Amdur; he was a Hasid who presented a table laden with miracle foods the Rebbe had tasted and pronounced to be remedies.
The good Jew from Yampol was, in truth, a breathing
bag full of holy books [Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah 28b], and also a master of new and old questions and their answers. He had a special gift of using a person's initials, on the spot, to refer to quotations in texts. I remember when Shlomo Kasoy, a cross-eyed teacher, came to him. He was a Hasid and his Hasidism was demonstrated principally in his ability to drink 80 proof as though it were water. The man from Yampol asked him, after a proper greeting, what his name was. He answered, Shlomo. Right on the spot the Yampoler recited a religious phrase using his initials. Shlomo Lo Min Hahasidim, Shlomo is not one of the Hasidim. Chaim Rabnes entered. What's your name? Chaim. He immediately said that in the Gemara Tractate Hullin [91b], it is stated that God loves Jews more than the angels. Or in Hebrew: Chavivin Yisrael Yoter Mimlachim. Many initials, abbreviations, and quotations of that good Jew are embedded in my memory, but this is not the place to dedicate myself to such mental gymnastics.
The pious Hasid remained in Amdur for Passover and stayed with Shmuel Leyme's. They hoped the kabalistic combination of letters and holy names, as well as the various Hasidic signs, would be effective in curing Shmuel Leyme's childlessness. Nu, the rebbe dispensed a large amount of special, custom-designed prayers and amulets, but Shmuel Leyme's wife refused them. She got her way.
Leyme Abe's and his son Shmuel were two worthy men from my shtetl.
Hore Lasher. This name was derived from Hore's once having lived in the village of Lashe. His home was near the border of the shtetl, not far from the priest's manor. His wife Golde was a quack physician, a supposed healer. If a child's throat was swollen, he or she
was immediately taken to Golde Hore's, or Golde the Great, as she was called. She would take out her lead spoon, open up the child's mouth, and immediately say to the mother, dear Peshenke, two obstructions like potatoes. Then she would dip her black finger into rose-honey, put it in the child's mouth, touching all the sides. The child would become green and blue, scream from the pain, and bend into thirds. Golde would devilishly move her eye, spit out three times, and say: Feh! An ugly child as a remedy against the evil eye. When a child would become pale and skinny, the mother would run to Golde Hore's to have her pour wax. Golde would take a pan, black from soot, and would warm something up in it. In the meantime Golde and the mother would have a dialogue:
Golde: Wandering in the streets?
Mother: Golde, my dear, I cannot keep him even a moment in the house; he is day and night at the market. I slap him and he does what he wants. A devil is in him.
Golde: Woe, you could spoil the boy, don't say it out loud.
Golde took the pan with the melted wax and poured it into a tin can over the boy's head while giving the mother a mysterious look. Looking into the tin can with the twisted stick and melted wax, she screamed out: You see now! The child was scared! My birds, only
God sees; a drunken soldierwoe is himlook how drunk, bent over, can't stand on his feet. Oh, my little girls. Golde the Great saw the obvious. Listen, she said to the mother, the child was frightened, snatched away in the nick of time. Thank Him for whom I haven't yet washed my hands [A Jew is forbidden to mention God's name with unwashed hands] Beylinke, little bird, keep him, for the love of God, in the house, and give him a little warm cabbage on the eve of every new moon, and the boy will stop losing weight. Golde Hore's was adept in pouring wax, one of her medical treatments.
Hore Lasher was an ignorant Jew. I am not sure if he even understood the meaning of the words he chanted, yet still he ran to the pulpit. During the holiday at night, when he used to make Kiddush in the study house, strange words would come out of him, and the congregation would smile good-naturedly. Tisha B'Av, at Lamentations, in the morning service, he would cry with bitter tears at passages without knowing what they meant. But he was a Jew with a warm Jewish heart. He was a man who screamed and was often angry. In Bregman's House of Study, where he used to pray, Jews would snicker over what he said during Shemini Atseres concerning the prayer for rain. On a wintry Friday afternoon, he rode home from Grodno with other Jews. As is customary, Satan interfered, and devilish things kept occurring: the sled turned over, and all at once, the arch broke. Help! The work of Satan. We will, God forbid, be forced to violate the Sabbath. You shouldn't open your mouth for the devil. Then Hore stood up and screamed out, looking at the sky:
With whom are you playing, with Horen? Horen travels on the Sabbath also, nu, what will you accomplish, ha!?
Lasher died on a Friday night. His burial took place Saturday night. All Shabbes in the Study House, Jews talked among themselves about Hore's merits and his shortcomings. All things considered, they concluded he would be missed in the House of Study. Shevakh Posrednik, a Jew embittered by age and poverty, took a pinch of snuff and remarked, Hore would not travel on the Sabbath, he would wait until after Havdala. Up there, he said, pointing to the sky, people don't ride, they don't carry, nor do other things forbidden on Shabbes. Leizer Mos, an old Jew, a bit of an exaggerator and a joker, kept agreeing with Shevakh's words. He concluded, as usual, with a joke.
Motte-Moshe Eleazar's. People used to call him Motte-Moshe Eleazar's, derived from the name of his father, who had been a rich Jew, an influential person and a fine proprietor, whom I did not know. Elderly Jews used to tell anecdotes about him. Motte was called Motte Dzshentshik; I do not know the reason. His wife was called Gute Moshe Eleazar's, or Gutke the Fat. They did not have any children. Motte-Moshe Eleazar's was a society doorknob. He mixed in everywhere. He lived off the prestige of his father. He was loud and stingy. He treated the poor with contempt and more than once he was beaten up for his haughtiness. However, he built the Great Synagogue and the big Study House after the huge fire. People would mutter that he did not do it for free. Nevertheless, he moved heaven and earth to get the required donations, and he saw to it that both holy places were constructed. They became Amdur's jewelry and an example to other small towns from
Grodno province. Motte-Moshe was not a scholar, perhaps he was even ignorant; yet he was an example of a concerned Jew who accomplished positive results in the shtetl in which I was born. His name should also be recorded in my memoirs.
He had a brother, whom we called Chaim Moshe Eleazar's. He had a place near Bregman's study house. He was a miser and not overly sympathetic. He was very far from being learned and knowledgeable. His beautiful daughters would stroll in the small park near the house. Two sons left for America before my time. He considered himself to be a just businessman in Amdur.
Chaim-Hershel Yisrael Yankel's. We used to call him Chaim-Hershel Srayankl's. He had a large and beautiful house at the end of the Jewish street and the beginning of the Christian one. He was not overly clever. One of his brothers, Moshe Bik, was the town idiot. Chaim-Hersh was a grain merchant and had a prominent position in Jewish affairs. His children were distinguished. Alter, his older son, was a good Jewish businessman.
Reuven Birbrayer. He had a beer brewery, the only local industry in Amdur. Reuven's beer was considered to be good, especially when fresh; it cost 6/bottle. There was another kind of beer that was brought from Grodno, from Kuntz's factory, a much better one; in Amdur we called it Barish beer. There were drunken quarrels about the derivation of the name: some said the root is from the word barish [a bargain drink] because it is drunk at the conclusion of a transaction; others decided that the word was used because the beer was from Barish [Bavaria].
This was truly a thorny topic. Yeshua-Velvel the butcher used to ask, What's the difference? On both you say the same shehakol [the benediction over liquids other than wines].
Reuven's brewery you could also buy thin yeast to bake, low fellows, from second class meal. When this kind of bread would come out sour and bitter, curses would fly on Reuven's head: He should have such a year as the yeast he sold us; he should have as much agitation in his stomach as I am agitated by his yeast.
Reuven Birbrayer had his plant near the Amdur River. Passover, when the river would spill over its boundaries, it would also flood the factory. It was a big deal for him when he had to sell his precious khomets before Passover. The beer is something, barley, malt, a grain of the five types which become khomets on Passover, God knows what, he would mutter.
Reuven was not learned. He was a borderline ignoramus, but he was a good businessman and he claimed the biggest honors at the Torah readings. It happened once that Nyoma Elke's, the Torah reader from Bregman's Study House, called him for the fourth aliya in the portion Pinkhes where one reads of the daughters of Zelophchad and it say If a man dies without sons and if he has no daughters and if he has no brothers [Numbers 27] Reuven was angry and exploded. It was determined that he should not pray in the Study House anymore. Nyoma Elke's did not go up to read; his place was taken by my brother Dovid, may he rest in peace, still a young bachelor at the time. He tried to make peace with Reuven, giving him the sixth aliya, a special honor, the portion that begins, And the sons of Reuven owned much livestock. They
had almost been ruined, but Reuven remained on his feet; he and his sons became rich, and read portions of the Torah. This is an example of how my brother, may he rest in peace, corrected Reuven's bad luck.
Reuven had two sons and a daughter, all fine people. His daughter married a nice young man right after the requisite 30 days of mourning. She died in childbirth. In the same week Ayzshe Mendl's daughter-in-law died, also in childbirth. A cry went up: Sins in the town! Young mothers are leaving this world because of strange sins. So people looked for evil in the town, but they did not find any.
When Reuven Birbrayer became sick, his older son Chaim came to visit. This seemed like a good deed, but he came with his wife and children. The younger son Abke understood that this display of respect for the ailing father smelled of inheritance matters. Chaim Reuven's was impoverished. A few days later a wagon arrived with the remainder of Chaim's possessions. Abke began to protest. Meanwhile Reuven departed for the next world. People all over town made comments. Some criticized Chaim's behavior. Others noted that Chaim, as a first born, is entitled to a double share of the inheritance. He has a family, but Abke is still a bachelor. Another Jew screamed in the Study House: What! Simply come into the town with a club and take, Feh! Shame! But in the end Chaim Reuven's inherited the brewery. He took his father's position in the synagogue. The town inhabitants argued until they forgot about it. Abke, Chaim, and also Yisrael
Kalenitser, Reuven's son-in-law, a destitute man, haggled until the matter was straightened out. When I left Amdur, Chaim Reuven's was already sitting in the beer brewery like an old, established balebos.
|Amdurer Rebitzin Dinah Mishkavsky, wife of R' Baruch and daughter of R' Avraham Ezra, may he rest in peace (a relative of the Efron family).|
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