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[Page 137]

Amdur Melamdim and Teachers

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Images remain in my memory of melamdim [kheder - religious elementary school - teachers]: Bertshik, Leyme, Leybe Chana's Note's, Itshe Ber, etc. Wanting to be loyal to the profession – I have been devoted to Jewish education for my entire life – I will note several who earned special attention. Perhaps, here in Argentina, I am the last of the Amdur “Mohicans” of that generation.

Like every Jewish city and shtetl [town] at every time, Amdur had many teachers who taught the Khumish [Five Books of Moses] and Rashi, and Gemara [rabbinical commentaries on the Mishnah or Oral Torah] teachers, several of them “artisans” and “efficient teachers.” However, others were incapable, simply cripples. They would engage in thoughtless activity

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and stuff the students with Torah. There were two Talmud Torahs [religious schools for poor boys] in Amdur, where a large number of poor Jewish children would study truly naked and barefoot, in addition to the yeshiva [school for older boys]. Both institutions were supported by community pushkes [containers in which coins are collected for a charitable organization]. Both melamdim were very poor. One was called Hirshl Khashe's and the second, Efraim the Talmud Torah melamed. Hirshl Khashe's was involved with another job; he would help people with tooth aches… At sunset after teaching he would go to the sick and do his “dental” work – two kopekes for each “operation”…

Efraim, the Talmud-Torah melamed, devoted himself to “industry.” He would manufacture groshns out of cardboard. In Amdur, a groshn was a coin. A quart of sour milk or a quart of buttermilk or other treats would be bought for a groshn… People felt that there was a shortage of coins and the mentioned melamed was the inventor of the cardboard coin. Even the post office would accept this change. Ten paper groshns would be bought from the “manufacturer” for a tsener [coin with a value of 10] and Efraim was always responsible for taking back his coins. His profit came from the exchange process; many groshns would tear or get lost – just paper – and this was entirely profit…

There were several more teachers of the youngest children in Amdur: Efraim-Elihu the melamed. Leybe behelfer [helper or assistant], Motke the melamed and Shimeon the melamed. The last two had nicknames because of their asher-yatzar [“who formed” – a prayer recited every morning and after using the bathroom] errors…

Motl Golde's. – A popular melamed of Tanakh [The Five Books of Moses plus the Writings and Prophets], beginning Gemara studies and writing. He excelled at whipping even large young men; for each word that one did not know in the Tanakh

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an equal number of lashes. Leybe Dovid the banker's, a draft age young man, received lashes 21 times for the third chapter of Isaiah – “[In that day the Lord will take away the splendor of] their anklets, headbands and crescent–shaped necklaces… - in which there were 21 difficult words about Jewish grooming habits in the past of the Daughters of Zion. “Akhor lo yishuv rikm” [“Not one of your words] returns unfulfilled…”] …was administered for each word. Motl Golde's did not produce any scholars, but all were students who left with beautiful calligraphic handwriting.

He moved to Grodna to teach before I left Amdur.

Ahron Kadish the Melamed - a distinguished scholar, Hasidically disposed. He would teach Khumish and Rashi to children. He was a great master at creating the breastplate and vestment of the high priest out of the paper from candy. He would reveal his artistry in biblical clothing in the weekly Torah portion, Veatah Tetzaveh [“You shall command”]. In addition to being a Hasidic sympathizer, he was the acknowledged bel-tekeye [blew the shofar or ram's horn] in Bergman's Beis-Medrash. He would reveal his Hasidism on Purim. On that day he would go through the street wearing a turned over sheepskin and with a drum in his hand, singing Shoshanat Yaakov [The Rose of Yakov] in a grating voice… He would never pray in a hasidnaria [Hasidic hostel and shtibl (small one room house of prayer)], only in Bergman's Beis-Medrash.

I will describe an episode that shows that my Rebbe, Ahron Kadish, did understand matters of pedagogy, although his teaching methods were far from pedagogical methods. Once on a summer day, he sat in the Beis-Medrash and quietly studied. I and other young boys of my age disturbed him with our pranks. He understood that he would not succeed with us through angry words and a trick occurred to him: divide the “gang.” He called me to him and showed me a Tosafot Yeshanim [Commentary of the Ancients] in Tractate Yomah, page 22 that interested me and I left the

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gang. It was quiet in the Beis-Medrash; the group had nothing to do…

Years later when I studied the 10 pedagogical laws in the normal school, one of which teaches – “Activity is a law with children. Accustom the child to work.” – I then understood the strategy of my rabbi, Rebbe Ahron Kadish, of blessed memory. Although he had not studied Pestalozin [Heinrich Pestalozzi is considered the “father of modern pedagody]… Yes, Reb Ahron Kadish! I bow my head to your learning, from which I cut valuable coupons today…

Every yom-tov [religious holiday], my father, may he rest in peace, would send an invitation to the Rabbi for tea and both would argue about Hasidic-misnagid [opposition to Hasidism] politics, using all kinds of arguments.

Alter Paye-Ete's – A melamed of Khumish with Rashi, Swarbe [book of scriptures] (esrim v'arba'a [the 24 – designation for Tanakh which has 24 books)) and beginning Gemara. I studied the chapters of Eilu Metziot [Talmudic passage concerning the return of lost articles] and HaMakfid [The Owner] (Bava Metzia [Talmud – Middle Gate]) and HaMeniakh [The Places] and HaKones [The Collector] (Bava Kamma [First Gate]) with him for one year. He was called the “educated sara demata” (official city scribe) because he would write letters for mothers to their sons who were on sluczba (military service), for young girls to their grooms or vice-versa. Everyone would relish his letters. The mothers or the brides would contend that “Only Alter Paye-Ete's can put together a letter.” They would pay him two or three kopeks for each letter. The poor would not reward him. He would refuse no one. Amdur appraisers [said ironically] would say that he earned more from “writing” than from teaching. However, he was a “well-established” poor man for all of his life.

Shlomo-Moshe the “Rebbe's” – A provisional melamed of nice appearance, with a fine blond beard and neatly dressed. He would have an effect on the students with his speech. He was a Slonimer Hasid. Once during the “Three Weeks*,” he

*[Translator's note: The “Three Weeks” precede Tisha b'Av – the commemoration of the destruction of the Temple – and is a period of mourning.]

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taught we children the Mishnah chapter in Gittin [Tractate of the Mishnah dealing with concepts of divorce – get, plural gittin], the part that speaks of the destruction of the Temple. He cried intensely aloud and we with him. I think it is a simple episode, but I now judge the entire story retrospectively and I feel that my rebbe planted in me a love of Zion and of Jerusalem. May these words serve as a sign of admiration for my late rebbe! I studied with him “Bava-Metzia” [Middle Gate] and despite my youth – I was nine years old – he had the time to make the doctrines of Rachuv and Manhig [about riding an animal and leading it] and Tagrei Lud [The Merchants of Lod] understandable to me.

When Shlomo-Moshe the “Rebbe's” left the teaching profession – his wife Rywka ran a little store – my father, of blessed memory, wanted to call him to a din-Torah [religious court] … “How come! He provided such progress in learning and suddenly left in the middle…

The Ostryner Melamed – His name gives witness that he was not from Amdur; he came from the shtetl Ostryn, not far from Amdur. He wore a pair of blue glasses and was nicely dressed. He acted modern, taught his students how to swim and would go swimming with them. This was great progress for Amdur at that time. He was a great clarifier of Tanakh. His sweet singing while teaching would make a strong impression on the students and onlookers. The lessons that I attended at his invitation remain in my memory. He almost gave a sermon with a sweet melody on chapter 8, verse 14 of Ezekiel, “…and behold, there sat the women weeping for Tammuz.” He then spoke about the Jewish mother who needs to devote herself to the education of her children. He remembered the verse, “…a foolish son is the grief of his mother.” And what did the holy prophet see returning temporarily to Eretz Yisroel from Babylonia? “…and behold, there sat

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the women weeping for Tammuz.” I remained very impressed by this. Young men with wealthy parents studied with him. No scholars or those passionate about the Hebrew language came out of his kheder; but perhaps several did, who left Amdur evenearlier than I. The Ostryner melamed would also teach Khumish to older Jews during the winter at the crack of dawn in Bergman's Beis-Medrash. Jews were delighted with his teaching.

Nokhem the Shamas's Daughter – Chaya-Toybe the Teacher – I would not be honest in the mission I have undertaken of leaving a trace of my birth city if there were lacking the phase of “culture builders” among the people of Amdur of the past era and if I did not mention that young woman who taught the entire city – particularly the girls and wives – to read and to write. A pure product of Amdur, who deserves to be recorded in the annals of that Lithuanian shtetl. But, first of all, her biography: Her father was Nokhem the shamas. He himself was rather crazed. He simply lived in a ruin, a miserable hut that looked like a pit. Other poor people lived there, too, beleaguered by the third plague [fleas] of Egypt…

On what did this Jew and his family live? Miracles and wonders. He served everyone. He was at every funeral. He healed all of the sick with the worst sort [of illness]. He always read books and seforim [religious books] of all kinds: The Shivkhei haAri [In Praise of Ari], Shivkhei Baal Shem Tov [In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov], Ma'aseh Alfas [Alfas' Work - by Rabbi Ben Zion Alfas], Sefer ha-Berit [Book of the Covenant], Shomer's histories and Dinezon's novels. He bought everything and read. Where did he get the money for this? The one God knows. His son – Dovid-Leyb – taught himself the Russian language thoroughly and became a teacher of the young. Crazy as his father. He would wear a straw hat during winter and in summer – a worn out Astrakhan [lamb's fur from Central Asia] hat. Later

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he entered the Moscow Judicial Faculty. I do not know what happened to him after I left Amdur.

Nokhem's daughter, Chaya Toybe – a cripple from birth, with half a foot and deformed hands – was the teacher of the city.* There was not a girl or a woman who did not go to Nokhem's daughter to learn to read and write. Something amazing! This cripple had a pearly handwriting, spherical and elaborate letters and her teaching would bring great results. All of her students would learn how to read a siddur [prayer book] and a book, and in a short time write letters from a manual of model letters.

The tuition was minimal, simply a laughable amount – a six-groshn coin a week, that is 3 kopekes, and with these earnings she fed the entire family. In the beis-hamedrash, Nokhem, her father, would boast of the art of the czysty pisanie (clear handwriting or calligraphy) that his daughter possessed. When I was in Europe in 1936 and in the United States of North America, I met several women from Amdur there, who would boast that they had to thank Nokhem's the shamas's daughter, Chaya-Toybe, for their entire education. It is not an exaggeration when I say that that cripple saved the entire poor public in Amdur from illiteracy.

It is not in vain that we studied our sages:

*As others from Amdur remember, she later married and gave birth to two children. Her husband was Mendele the shamas.

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Respect the poor class because it is the spreader of education.

Leybe Shevah's – He was my father's rebbe. And also was his cousin. A deep and quiet scholar. No one even heard him breathe. When all of the Jews would pray in the beis-medrash with ecstasy, he would sit over his Alfas or Rosh [Asher Ben Yechiel – a Talmudist famous for his abstract of Talmudic law], murmuring quietly. It was said that once when Jews were reciting the makhzor [prayer book used on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur] during worship on Yom Kippur, crying during Slikhe “We cannot be aware of all of our sins and we expect You to guide and protect us on our path [penitential prayer recited on Yom Kippur; plural slikhus], Leybe Shevah's sat looking instead at the Gemara reading of the day. What is the concern of Leybe Shevah's liturgical songs and slikhus of Reb Eliezar haKalir [Eliezer ben Kalir – an early liturgical poet]]? Gemara – this is the most important; praying, slikhus – this is of the least importance.

I will also devote several lines to his wife. Let her also figure in the album of Amdur personages. She was named Sura-Peshe and was somewhat renowned in Amdur. She was a large person and loquacious. There was not a curse from the Toykhekhe [Biblical chapter of curses] that Sura-Peshe did not use for her adversaries. She had a small room near the large Beis-Medrash. Her neighbors were not of the best sort; the great number of them – fighters and combatants, and yet they would all run when Sura-Peshe would appear in the “arena”… Sura-Pesha was fire and flame and, in addition, very smart. I remember that in our family when we needed to designate one of the women as smart and bad, the name “Sura-Peshe” was enough… She lived next to the old rabbi, Reb Avraham-Ezra, of blessed memory. He would suffer as a result of Sura-Peshe's chickens which would often enter the synagogue. Once he heard one of her chickens “cackling” as she lay dying. “This is about Peshe's chicken”… -

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he jokingly remarked. Leybe Shevah's and Sura-Peshe had very beautiful children. Their two daughters, Malka and Reyzl, were true personages. One son, Mosheke Sura-Pehse's, knew Russian and Hebrew well.

Welwl Sholom's – An old Gemara-melamed, entirely blind in his old age. Ignorning his physical imperfections, he would be given the best students to teach Gemara – young men – because he was a very efficient teacher. When he would hear an incorrect version of Rashi or a critical commentary on the Talmud, he would raise the eyebrows with his hand and look inside. Often the slaps would fly after this. He would show that the students were combining two phrases that needed to be read separately. His Gemara specialty was Gittin [Tractate dealing with a get – religious divorce], which he knew clearly by heart including Rashi and the critical commentary.

He lived in a small room – the minimum in which a person can live – in which his wife would also sell barley. His kheder was also there. When he would honor his students with blows, they would slip him a sack of potato peelings, in which he would invest all of his blows…

Truly blind, simply equivalent to a dead man and yet he did not give in. He toiled for his entire life in order to spread learning. He died on a Friday, almost at the time when people were being called to the synagogue. His burial was done hastily. He was not given a eulogy. Only Nukhem the Shamas spoke into his grave: “Rabbi, have pity, it is almost six groshn for a pound of black bread”…

Nukhem the Shamas delegated the blind Gemara-melamed as the Amdur meylets-yoysher [intercessor] to the other world on behalf of Amdur

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poor… Six groshn for a pound of black bread – this was the alert for the ministering angels!...

Nukhem the Shamas had no idea of “Bontshe Shveyg's” roll and butter…*

*[Translater's note: Bontshe Shveyg - Bontshe the Silent is a story by Y.L. Peretz. Bontshe dies and goes before the Heavenly Tribunal. At the end of the story, he is told he can have whatever he wishes and he asks for a roll and butter each day.]

Eliezer the Rabbi's – He was called Eliezer the Rabbi's, the younger son of Rabbi Avraham Ezra, or blessed memory. The older one was named Reb Avigdor; an extremely brilliant mind, he received rabbinical ordination from Reb Yitzhak-Elchanan, of blessed memory, at 17. He was the rabbi in Grajewo and Ostryn. He died very young. Reb Avraham-Ezra did not learn of his death for 30 days and then sat shiva [mourned] for an hour – shemuah rekhokan [if one receives news of the death of a close relative 30 days after the death, shiva is observed for only a hour on the day the news is received] – he called to his wife, Etshe: “In the other world, they will also not deny that Avigdor is our son”… He was the author of Korban Torah and Anvei Gefen among other books; the first on “Responses” and the second on the Five Scrolls [The Song of Songs, Book of Ruth, Book of Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Book of Esther].

As opposed to his great brother, Eliezer was secondary, not a scholar. He had an unfortunate life. He married several times. He divorced his first wife because she was a “barren woman” – naturally childless – who he, as a kohan, was required to divorce according to Jewish law. However, she was very beautiful and he did not want to separate from her. The old rabbi refused to talk to him [as if excommunicating him] – did not want to come in contact with him. In the end, he divorced her after all, married a second woman, who was crazy at times and he also separated from her. He remained an unfortunate, idle man for his entire life. Day and night, he lay in the synagogue, chatted and slept. He was a melamed for many years. He possessed certain ancient pedagogical abilities.

He rambled around the synagogue for his entire life.

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He was unable to carry on any kind of family life. He could not divorce his second wife because she was not always clear in her thoughts. With all of this, he was shrewd and a joker. He interpreted his situation with the verse: “I am always ready to take a wife, but my pain is always beside me; I still have my earlier tsela [Hebrew – rib] near me.” He translated tsela [Hebrew – rib] as “a wife.”

All of his students left him knowing a chapter of the Khumish and Rashi and also a chapter of Swarbe.

He died alone and forlorn. This is what one is paid for teaching the Torah.

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