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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[1],” he

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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.[2] 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:

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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…[3]

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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Amdur Russian Teachers

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

My city of birth had a few uchiteles [teachers] who taught the public to read and write in Russian. They were not great experts in Russian literature, but they taught the young generation of that time to write an address and to read in the vernacular of the country.

Rabbi Leizer-Feivel – A Russian teacher, had the honor that he was referred to as Rabbi Leizer-Feivel; and he had justly earned this. A Jew, a tzadek [righteous man], a teacher, and he devoted his entire life to helping poor people, and everything quietly, calmly, so that no one would know, simply provide in secret. He would learn of the economic situation of an impoverished man and would come around with his support. He, himself, lived in want and cared for the other one. He was assistant “crown rabbi,” recorded all of the metrikes [vital records], and was able to adjust the situation for the “unregistered” – no record

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of this Jewish citizen – and would often be lenient with the young to save them from military service. His metrikes would be acknowledged by Gudkind, the chief “crown rabbi” of Grodno, in whose hands lay the civil office for the Jewish population of the entire Grodno Gubernia [province].

Rabbi Leizer-Feivel had a very clear handwriting. He would also teach writing in Hebrew; he would dictate and the children would write. He would give “a line” to be written at home, and to the best students – a handfor, that is, an entire page of writing with his beautiful letters that served as a sample pattern.

During the last years he received permission to give Russian classes twice a week at the Amdurer yeshiva [religious school stressing Torah study]. Rabbi Dovid Baran, of blessed memory, the rosh yeshiva [head of the yeshiva] said: “We must know how to write an address, and we can rely on Rabbi Leizer-Feivel”… He had a son named Shmuel-Yoel. He had a broad intellect, but, alas, his life ended in a home for the insane.

Sokol – A Russian-Yiddish teacher. Tall, nearsighted. He had gold-rimmed glasses and wore a short coat (Rabbi Leizer-Feivel, may he rest in peace, wore a long coat). He would take 50 kopeks a month for an urok [lesson] twice a week. His school was located in his residence, a room at the house of Yakov Josef the turner. He would use two reading books

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to teach reading: the second part of Paul Son and Russkaya Rech [Russian Speech]. I received my first knowledge of the Russian language from Sokol. I studied with this teacher for a half year in total. I remember how he once assigned the students in my class to learn a children's “poem” by heart with the title: Pietushok, Pietushok, Zalatoi Grebeshok [“Little cock, little cock, with the golden crest…”] – Hendl, Hendl with the golden comb - and when I recited my “poem,” ending: “Shto ti rano vstajosh i spat nie dajosh” – why do you get up early and wake me up from sleep – Sokol said to me: “With you we need to teach glagol (Russian: verbs) and I have no class for you”… With this I completed my studies in Russian with Sokol.

This Russian teacher would love to pray at the pulpit and would gurgle considerably with the Mi Sheberakh [prayer for the sick – “May the One Who Blessed…”] or Av Harachamim [memorial prayer – “Father of Mercy…”] at Leizer-Shaul's minyon [prayer group].

Shmuel Nofekh – He would be called Shmuel Moshe Oziorer's. His great grandfather came from the shtetl Ozior [Ozery]. He went to the Volyners [Volhynia?] area in his young years and came back with the title Narodi Uchitel – teacher of the people. He also played a very fine fiddle. He had a good knowledge of the Russian language and arithmetic. He also knew a little German. He was a good, modern teacher. He had many students. My brother, Shevakh-Avraham, of blessed memory, and I studied with him for a time. His classroom was in the Hasidic synagogue. Shmuel Nofekh was elected as the Amdur mayor during the last years of the Czarist rule.

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Shmuel Nofekh was Moshe Leyme's son-in-law, therefore, a relative of the Yelins from Argentina.

Remarks from the Editors:
Yedidya Efron here omitted still other Amdur teachers because he left Amdur in his youth. Let us here remember at least some of them: 1) Yankl the teacher (Yakov Zak, the father of Avraham Zak), a teacher of Russian, Yiddish and Polish; a petition writer and an aide to the “court rabbi” for a number of years; 2) Hirshl Himelfarb; 3) Alter Erbares; 4) Avraham Zak (in 1915-1916); 5) Tsilie Roytbart; 6) Dora Turbowitch; 7) Ahron Sorotshkin and still others between the two world wars.

* *
*

Here in Argentina, after the First World War, I learned that my teacher, Rabbi Dovid [Baran], was in Vilna and I simply longed for him. I felt the he had given me something and, therefore, I owed him something. But, where could I find him and how? I turned to Rabbi Chaim-Ozer Grodzenski, of blessed memory. In short, in a few months, I received a letter from the Vilna rabbi in which he confessed to me that Rabbi Dovid was studying day and night in the “Gaon's small synagogue” and was in need of support. I immediately began to send him a given sum of money, twice a year – for Passover and Sukkos [Feast of Tabernacles]. And thus I was in correspondence with him over the course of several years until once the Dutch bank – through which I would send the money to Rabbi Dovid – called me and let me know that according to information received from the bank division in Vilna, Rabbi Dovid, my teacher, had left the world.

The bank employee, a non-Jew, was curious,

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therefore he asked me what kind of relationship did the deceased have to me. I explained to him that he was no relative of mine, only that he was my rabbi, my teacher. And therefore I had to teach the gentile matters about the Talmud Torah, that according to Jewish law the Jewish teacher – the rabbi – stands on a higher level than parents, in regard to giving honor.

My teacher, Rabbi Dovid! May my lines serve as a remembrance for his holy, illuminated name.

His only son (he was named Asher-Kalman [Baran]), who was the head of the yeshiva in Ponevezh, was killed during the Second World War by the Nazi murderers, may their names be erased.


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Amdur Kohanim

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

I do not know why, but it is a fact: Amdur had an abundance of Kohanim [members of the priestly class]. In all of the houses of prayer and in the great synagogue, rows of Kohanim would stand for the priestly blessing, which would deafen the people with a mish-mash of voices during the blessing “who sanctified us with the sacredness of Aaron.” Old Jews, young ones, young men and bar-mitzvah boys would each want to out shout the other. One would hear voices as from a barrel, voices of basses, tenors, sopranos, falsettos and voices that defied classification and all in a dissonance that would deafen. Everyone would end the b'ahavo [with love – from the priestly blessing – “to bless His people with love”] with a different finale, and lastly a young puppy with the sharp voice of a little goat: “Ba-h-voooo.” I remember during the priestly blessing on the holidays that Kohanim would line up from the ark to the door. Lozer, the rabbi's son, once said that Amdur had an entire battalion of Kohanim
In truth, when they would go down after the priestly blessing, it

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seemed like a procession that marched without socks [the Kohanim remove their shoes before giving the priestly blessing]. The good fortune of a city…


Hebrew Family Names

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Amdur excelled with an abundance of Hebrew family names. Almost phenomenally. The names of the bigde kehuna [clothing traditionally worn by the Kohanim] were very well represented in Amdur families, particularly among the working class. The list that I provide here, alphabetically, gives witness that Amdur Jews, and particularly the artisans, were already inclined towards Hebrew at that time.

Avnet, Efron, Buky, Vophsi, Khazan, Khirom, Yoshpa, Yehlim, Yanshuf, Miznefes [Mitsefes], Manker, Margolis, Nefakh [Nofekh], Nakhby, Sofir, Min, Tsarefes, Shir, Shushan, Shoham, Tarshish.

At this opportunity I will establish that my family name is Efron – with an aleph [first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, similar to the English 'A'] at the beginning and not Efron – with an ayin [letter of Hebrew alphabet, similar to the English 'E']. Many Jews think that I cannot spell my name… And their proof is that it expressly states in the Torah: Efron [spelled with an ayin] the Hittite! [Genesis 23. Ephron (the usual English spelling) sold Abraham, at a high price, a burial place for Sarah.] However, the founder of the family Efron, in the time of Alexander I, was Reb Ephraim [with an aleph]. When a family name was demanded from him, he answered: “I am descended from [the Biblical] Joseph's children, may he be protected from the evil eye, from the Tribe of Ephraim.” From Ephraim comes Efron. It was corrupted – Efron [with an ayin].
And since several scholars have also cited me for my “incorrect” signature, allow me to cite a Tosafos [medieval commentary on the Talmud] on Gemora Megilah, 10a, on the name “Rabba, son of Efron [with an ayin] (I think he was an amoyre [3rd to 5th century rabbinical contributor to the Gemora]):

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ind153.jpg
Amdurer HaHalutz [pioneer club], 1927)

 

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One reads Rabba son of Efron [with an aleph] and not Efron [with an ayin], because the names of bad people [Ephron the Hittite] should rot and we do not remember them. (Incidentally, see list 6, part 6, page 335 – Ephraim.)

It should be mentioned: I write only from memory and it is certain that I have omitted many Hebrew family names in my notes because in the former shtetl people were seldom called by their family names, but according to the name of their father, mother, wife, husband, employment, profession or nickname: Leizer Shaul's [Efron], Leibe Chana Ete's [Efron], Mote Toybe's [Efron], Peshe Mate's, Alter Paye-Ete's, Leibe Mendl's, Aizshe Mendel's, Ephraim Aba's, Hirsh Mashe's, Ephraim Talmud-Torah Melamed [teacher in religious primary school], and so on and so on.

I am sure that I have omitted many Amdur Hebrew family names. The Amdur Jews of earlier generations have said: We have not made our family names Lithuanian, Polish or Russian, but we have made them “Biblical” or Hebraic.

seemed like a procession that marched without socks [the Kohanim remove their shoes before giving the priestly blessing]. The good fortune of a city…


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Amdur Doctors

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

It would often happen that Amdur would be without a doctor. There was no hospital in Amdur. In cases of illness, the city would rest on the backs of Gdalyika the rofeh [traditional healer], Yisroelke the rofeh and Hershl the sofer [scribe]. There was for quite some time a retired Russian doctor in Amdur who no longer practiced. He was called der grober dokter [the fat doctor]. I remember two of the official doctors: Dembe [Dembo] and Vizgird; the first a Jew, the second a Pole. Dembe was a brother of the converted doctor [Isaac Dembo] who in his time scientifically defended Jewish ritual slaughter against the proposal to forbid it by the Russian anti-Semites – the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of that era.

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His book of defense was translated into Hebrew and made a strong impression among Jews. This book was used many times in other European nations against the anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish ritual slaughter. Yet, it did not help that free Switzerland would place a paragraph in its national constitution forbidding Jewish ritual slaughter on its territory. There was no pity for living things in Buchenwald, Majdanek, Theresienstadt… Only when it concerns Jewish ritual slaughter – which is less cruel than non-kosher slaughter or stabbing – then, “those who pity living things” put forth their argument. I know that the Kadima Library in Mosesville [Entre Rios, Argentina] had a “unique copy” of the book.

Hasidic Jews of that time would remember Dembe's name favorably despite his conversion. The Amdur Dembe was a very good person and an exceptional doctor. He would speak Yiddish to his patients, something that would be difficult to do with many other Jewish doctors of that time. I also remember the important doctor Zamkow, who was very well known in all of Grodno Gubernia, only spoke Yiddish to his patients. An Amdur Jew once said in a Grodno hospital, in Russian, that it was bad because the past night he had a fever of 42 degrees [107° F] and Zamkow answered him in Yiddish: Angels, fires and holy animals have 42 degrees temperature.

A few words about der grober dokter. He was named Gregorov. He was a Russian. It should be understood that we would call him der grober dokter not because of his slenderness… His residence was at the end of the town, but not far from the Jewish houses. He was not an anti-Semite. He had a large pig that would often visit the Jewish inns. It was

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not that different from the other gentile corpulent ones who did not inconvenience us a lot … A stick, a little hot water was the honor they received, but der grober dokter's pig would receive “respect”…

There was tumult in the town when the edict of “purity” arrived in Amdur – in a certain year – and the government chose a special commission; it was forbidden to keep piles of garbage near each home. In the past, Jews would accumulate garbage for an entire year, each near their home. The first advantage of this was convenience; the house was cleaned out, and right on to the pile; when the slop pail became full, it was poured onto the pile; Shabbos at night, when the tub contained excess, full of the remnants of cholent [stew] and other foods, a stick would be placed in both ears [handles] of the tub and both were turned onto the pile of garbage… Simply a pleasure. The second virtue, a very great one: after Passover, when the snow and ice melted, Jurke would come, Kazimir or Jurke, and would take the pile of garbage to fertilize their small piece of lean earth, where he would plow and the owner of the pile of garbage would plant potatoes there. At the end of summer, the landowner would plow the earth so that the Jew could pick the entire product and everything was thanks to the garbage pile… So, the commission came and struck down the piles of garbage, no more piles, not to be had… Good heavens! We would die from hunger without potatoes. And who was guilty for this? – der grober dokter, because he was one of the commission members; with the Kruliker Major and Preobazshenski, the district writer.

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Curses and shouting was heard: How will we live without a garbage pile? Shemaya Yona's, a shoemaker, a great joker, consoled the Jews: It will not last, the edict will be removed because der grober dokter's pig will die of hunger without Jewish garbage… And Shemaya was correct. Jews again spread their garbage near their houses. Gregorov proclaimed: “Clean, clean!” and the swine got fatter and fatter every day…

A word about the Kruliker Major. Kruliker was the name of an estate not far from Amdur. Its owner, an old Russian veteran major, was a converted Jew, the son of a Cantonist [Jewish-Russian soldier of a certain era]. Tall, with a gray, Jewish beard. Jews did not treat him with scorn. The young would run after his coach and shout after it, mashumid [convert], but there was, God forbid, no trouble as a result. He employed a Jewish arendar [estate manager] in his courtyard – Yudl Kruliker, he was called. Amdur Jews, who arrived in Argentina after I left Russia, told me that during the last years a brother visited him from somewhere in Lithuania and he helped him with a large sum of money. And the poor in Amdur were very envious of him…


[Page 157]

Amdur Apothecary

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

There was one apothecary for the town and its surroundings. So many villages existed in the region – from Amdur to Grodno in the north was three miles; to Krinik in the south, four miles, and to Kuznice in the west, two miles – and in the entire area there was only one pharmacy and only one doctor. Non-Jews would almost never make use of the

[Page 158]

pharmacist. Almost never was anyone sick, and if yes, it was without ceremony: lay for several days and to the cemetery … the rich Polish nobility would make use of “Feygl Yehuda Mordekhai's,” a Jewish quack, and in the serious case – Gdalyika the rofeh – who would write uncomplicated prescriptions that would be taken to the apothecary. At the time of the Russian-Turkish war of 1898, he was the official military feldsher [surgeon-barber] and from then on he had the concession to be the city healer. The surrounding lords would speed to Amdur or Grodno in cases of need. All told, both the doctor and the apothecary actually had little work in my birthplace.

For the 16 years I lived in Amdur, I remember two pharmacists; one a Jew and the second a Pole.

[Footnote in original:] The last Jewish pharmacist in Amdur was someone who arrived from White Russia; he was named Yosom [literally: orphan]. He was a Jewish nationalist, an enthusiastic Revisionist – his family spoke Hebrew – both he and his wife and their children, who were raised in the Jewish spirit. The most significant Hebrew writers and thinkers were found in his home library. His house was a meeting place for the small circle of the town intellectuals. He and his family perished during the Hitler era. One of his sons, Emanuel, who he sent to Israel before the war, lives in a kibbutz.

Ed.

The apothecary was located in Monye Khoze's house on the first floor. At the entrance – a little bell. In the antechamber, in front – a picture of Alexander III. (Nicholai II ascended to the Russian throne a year before my departure from Amdur.) It would give the impression that this was a government institution. The Jewish pharmacist, I remember was named Yones; not very tall, a genteel countenance with a large

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bald spot on his head, dressed correctly and a very quiet person. I cannot give a judgment about his intelligence because I was still a very young child then. However, I was told that he was very educated. His wife was very beautiful, but very much assimilated: she ran a non-kosher kitchen, and yet she called for young boys from the kheder [religious primary school] during childbirth to recite the Krias-Shema [“Hear O Israel…” the central prayer of Jewish worship] and hung up the Shir HaMaalos [Psalm 121] over her bed as a remedy against evil or demons. She was a true exemplar of the Jewish-Polish assimilated woman – a Poliatshke fun Moshe's gloybn [a Polish woman of the Mosaic religion] – who had a tendency to Catholicism and at the same time had a mezuzah at the door and fasted on Yom Kippur.

It happened that the Kelmer Maggid [preacher], who in his time aroused all of Lithuania and other regions of Russia, and even Germany, with his sermons, arrived. The synagogues and the Houses of Prayer would be filled; there was no room to throw in a pin; people would be packed in. He was himself a student of Israel Salanter, of blessed memory, propagandist for the theory of Toras-haMussar - doctrines of morals and ethics – and a true follower of his great rabbi. He would draw a giant audience from all classes to his sermons. He was endowed with extraordinary oratorical capabilities and a sweet voice. He would vividly paint gehenim [hell] and Gan-Eden [Garden of Eden, e.g., heaven]. One would actually find himself in the atmosphere that he would create and the auditorium would simply become electrified by his talk. It was accepted all over Lithuania that the Kelmer Maggid had reclaimed thousands of freely disposed [to secular activities] Jews. It is superfluous to say that all of Amdur – men, women, pious and free thinkers – filled the synagogues and Botei-Medrashim [houses of study and prayer] when Rabbi Moshe-Yitzhak – this is what the Kelmer Maggid was named – was found in Amdur. Also

[Page 160]

Yones the pharmacist came to hear him. In his sermon, the Kelmer developed the lengthy tract, Rabbah Bar Bar Hana [3rd century Talmudic scholar], about the fat geese that he [Rabbah Bar Bar Hana] met in the desert who were so fat that their feathers would slide off their bodies. Rabbah Bar Bar Hana asked them if we could somehow benefit from them in the other world. And one goose presented him with his raised wing. And one presented him with his wing descending. And here the Kelmer began with his rich rhetoric and artistically described each symbolic goose that Rabbah Bar Bar Hana discussed: What? – he had argued – the holy Rabbah Bar Bar Hana deals in geese, tapping them to see if they are fat or emaciated? Did he have to look for fat geese in the desert? And he sang: The fat geese, these were the souls of the treyfnikes [those who did not keep kosher], who while alive would eat non-kosher drumsticks, had non-kosher kitchens, fattened themselves so much that rendered fat would pour from their fatness and now, after their death, they ramble, poor things, around in the desert and seek a redress for their souls. And the Kelmer became enraptured and began a talk with the geese, no longer singing, but simply, a discussion. He asked them: Fat ones, non-kosher ones, what is going on in the other world? How are things there? Is it not so that there is a valuable kitchen there where fat geese are fried; tell us, tell us, fat geese… And the Kelmer then answered with the voice of a goose that rattled and quacked, “one goose showed me his raised wing, saying: 'oh, little righteous man, it is not good in gehenim [hell], we burn, we singe, we roast and after everything, whoever was a goose, wanders around in the deserts and all because in life he wanted to rest, gorge oneself with nonkosher geese and live a good day' … The other
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goose had raised his wing, crying and rattling: 'have mercy on us, save us, seek an aliyah'” [invitation to read the Torah during the Sabbath prayers] – and here the Kelmer sang: “Neshomin ertilain” – empty and naked souls. And finally the great preacher shouted out: “Listen and be amazed, gentlemen! Do you know what Rabbi Elazer said [Talmud Baba Basra 73b] about these souls, 'Asidin Yisroel liten aleihem es hadin.' Jews will need to give an account [on the day of judgment] for every unfortunate soul that suffers so much, poor things.”

In the morning, the pharmacist demanded of his wife that she keep a kosher kitchen in the home, but she said no. Two forces began to wrestle at the Jewish apothecary in Amdur: the Kelmer Maggid on one side and assimilation on the other. Rabbah Bar Bar Hana's geese frightened Yones. The Yonesikhe [Yones's wife], the Polish lady, was vanquished by the greatest moralist and Yones divorced his wife and left Amdur. In his place came a native born Pole.

Years later, when I heard other preachers – the Eishishker, the Skidler, the Mazurer and others – I understood the great power of the great student of Rabbi Israel Salanter, may his memory be blessed, along with the immense influence that he had on Lithuanian Jewry. I heard him again in 1894 at the time of Slikhos [prayers recited between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur]. He was already old then and frail, but his oratorical power had not weakened; the same melody, the same fiery voice, the same stamping with his feet and the same persuasive power. I think

[Page 162]

that everything he said was taken from Alsheikh [Moshe Alsheikh, a late 16th century rabbi and biblical commentator]; we would explore and examine this shortly after the sermon, but it would come out new from his mouth, something different, something new born from this. I heard 28 of the Kelmer's sermons, when I was nine years old and later at 14; I am influenced by this great personality to this day. His sermons were published – I did not see them – but it was said that the Kelmer's speaking was stronger than in writing. When this was said to him, he answered that the publishers were at fault because they did not include “his stamping with his feet”…and naturally, it lacked his facial expressions and his gesticulation which added to the effect and power.

The Kelmer died in Lida in 1900 at the age of 71 when I was already in Argentina. I read then that women caught the water from the ritual washing [of his body] in bottles as a remedy for various illnesses and other troubles. And the Lider Rabbi – I do not remember if this was the gaon, Rabbi Yitzhak Yakov Reines, of blessed memory – had to issue a strong prohibition against defilement of the corpse. Thus was sanctified the great Kelmer preacher.

seemed like a procession that marched without socks [the Kohanim remove their shoes before giving the priestly blessing]. The good fortune of a city…


[Page 162]

Amdurer Wine House Keepers

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Amdur Jews would not drink too much wine. A quarter of raisin wine for kiddush and havdalah [ceremonies commemorating the Sabbath] Friday night and Saturday night, and enough to fulfill the “remembrance of the Shabbos [Sabbath] with wine.” What are we, drunkards? We made kiddush and havdalah and we were finished. We did not drink for the sake of drinking, God forbid! We drank liquor because the Torah ordered us to make

[Page 163]

kiddush. Wine from grapes – we did not know of this in Amdur. It was said that the nobility drank wine with food. Amdur Jews who traveled through Bessarabia would talk of the miracles and wonders of the Bessarabian Jews who drank wine with dinner. During the last years before I left Amdur, wine was brought from Bessarabia, not of the best sort, naturally, but Amdur Jews would say that it was not as good as the raisin wine…Something “unpleasant” – they would remark while drinking and smacking their lips. A new liquor! The poorer class would use a liquor for havdalah that was called szlachcic [Polish: nobleman] – the refuse from Amdur beer. It was judged as chamar medina [an inferior drink used in place of wine in some localities]… - wine enough – and we were done. This cost [only] a groshen for a quarter. That it was called chamar medina was therefore irrelevant.

On Passover, we would use mead – honey wine – for the four cups of wine. It was yellow in color and when it was fully successful, it would be very sweet and pleasant. Eh, why do we need then “wine becoming red” [Proverbs 23:31] – reddened wine – after all, while in a time of emergency, one is satisfied. (And when is there not a time of emergency for a Lithuanian Jew?).

And for the “wine-drunkards,” Amdur had three wine houses. A few words about them.

Tzalel [Izraelski] the Wine House Keeper was a Jew, not a Torah scholar and yet he was referred to as rabbi. A righteous resident of Amdur. He had an open hand for everyone. All the poor people, widows, orphans, crippled, blind and beggars in general – all came to Reb Tzalel and his wife, Chana-Sheyne. His house was very large. There was also a large tavern there. He also had an “ice house.” During the summertime when ice was needed for typhus patients or wospalienie mozgu - brain

[Page 164]

inflammation – they would run to Tzalel. In the winter, a pickled cucumber for a young wife – to Tzalel. Such a treat cost a [full] kopeck and several women would mutter that it was a disaster. Feh! Non-kosher [disrespectful] wags! … They would make the wine for kiddush, havdalah and the four cups [for Passover]. Tzalel's raisin wine had a good reputation in all of Amdur.

The room in which Tzalel lived was in the house of a wealthy Amdur man, Leyzer Bregman [Eliezer Bregmann], who lived in Grodno. He built the Amdur bath that in its time was considered modern because it functioned and was driven by a parovke [steam engine]. He also built, lahavdil [word used to separate the sacred from the secular or profane] the Beis-haMedrash that carried his name – Bregman's Beis-haMedrash. After the fire, Tzalel's home became the central point, almost the only place in the middle of the city that remained unburned. The old Rabbi, Avraham-Ezra, of blessed memory, moved in there and he died in it.

I remember that when the large Beis-haMedrash was built – after the fire – and they endeavored to have the old cornerstone from the old one built into the new one, Tzalel stood with a crowbar in his hand and worked with other Jews to pull out the old cornerstone and, therefore, sweated extensively – he was then an old man. Holy books say that sweating during a holy thing is a great way to atone for an iniquity. Rabbi Tzalel died Friday before sunset on a winter day. He was buried Saturday night. The entire city mourned. When Moshe Leyme's, the gabbai of the yeshiva, came to welcome the Sabbath, he called in a moan: O! Shabbos is spoiled in the city.

His son, Shlomo-Itshe Izraelski, remained the heir. He went in his father's path: a great philanthropist, modest, pious;

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he hired a rabbi to study Gemora and was a member of all of the societies, but he was an unfortunate man – he had no children. His wife, Rayzl, did not have a child…the public found a remedy: tried and true… go to all of the synagogues, for “kol han'orim” [when all boys are called up to the Torah under one prayer shawl] on Simkhas Torah … But the sterility was very stubborn and she was not given the key to having children… Finally, after 10 years of living with his first wife, he divorced her, divided their possessions and married another one.

The new match was Sonia, Yoshe Anshil's daughter. Yoshe Anshil, a respected merchant; had half a dozen daughters – in addition to sons – one more beautiful than the other; he had a brickyard in the Chadoline courtyard and therefore he was also called “Yoshe Suchadoliner.” Sonia, a beautiful girl, demonstrated the art of having a half dozen boys and girls with Shlomo-Itshe without the remedy of going up to the Torah with the boys. The family is now in Montevideo and Israel.

Tzalel had a brother; he was named Moshe-Dovid and he would be called Moshe-Dovid Tzalel's. A pious, old, unmarried man; he hired my older brother, Shevakh, of blessed memory – a Jew, a scholar – to study Gemora with him. He did not want to get married. Lazer the Rabbi's said: “Moshiekh [redeemer] will come and Moshe-Dovid will still be an unmarried man…”

Naftali the Wine House Keeper also was a dear one, a pious Jew. He was a rich merchant during his young years; an impoverished man in his old age. His house was near Avraham Shlomo Tsines'. His wife was named Breyne; she ran a tavern. Every day the Jewish excise collector would “makhen an akt” [impose a fine] for selling whisky without a patent [license] and Breyne would faint at each “akt.”

Naftali the Wine House Keeper became very fanatically disposed in his older years. He would carefully watch to make sure that young men

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did not play cards or “31” in Bregman's women's house of prayer. And an anecdote was told about the matter. Erev [evening before] Rosh Hashanah, the young men gathered in the women's synagogue to play cards. Naftali detected this and caught the group in the act. Several young men escaped. One, who just then had three kings, had not had time to make his escape and placed his kings in the shofar [ram's horn], which the shamas [assistant to the rabbi] had hidden so that the group would not blow it. Not seeing the young man do that, Naftali took the shofar and gave it to the shamas. In the morning, at the blowing of the shofar – the shofar sounded bad. After the completion of the first “Tesharet Teshet Teret” [acronyms for the names of the blasts of the shofar: “tekioh, shevorim,” etc.]. The congregation said the Y'hi ratzon [May it be (Your will)] with rapture. Ahron Kadish the melamed [teacher] – the eternal shofar blower in Bregman's house of prayer – turned over the shofar and the three kings fell out. Motye Rashe's called out with tears: “Thanks to the angels [malochim, a pun on the word “kings”] departing from the trumpet!” True.

Reb Meir-Tzvi Yelin, about whom I write in another chapter, should be remembered here. He was Naftali's son-in-law; he married Naftali's daughter, Rashke-Reyzl; he was truly a good son-in-law.

Itshe Cyrl's – A Jew, a scholar; had a large house with a tavern. The village gentiles would celebrate their chaliches [weddings] there. The dancing would be heard throughout the street. Each tap of the foot would make a hole in the floor. And when they took to their glasses [drinking] they would begin hitting each other until bloody. In Amdur, it was said in such cases: Neshekhim [gentile wines] go together with casualties…

Itshe Cyrl's would also make wine and was a great expert at making mead. His mead for Passover was a renowned

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thing: “Mead should be bought from Itshe Cyrl's.” Gentiles would relish his whisky, too.

And a characteristic case occurred with his Passover wine that is worthwhile remembering. I remember how the old men of Amdur would remember the matter and how Rabbi Avraham-Ezra, of blessed memory, took care of him and they would mysteriously say: Well, the old tzadek [righteous man]… he knew everything.

A day or two before Erev Pesach [the eve of Passover], someone brought a denunciation to the excise collector that whisky was found in Itshe Cyrl's cellar – something that was not permitted. The denunciation was made with the intent that the gentile functionary would meanwhile touch the barrels of wine during his inspection and they would thus be made [non-kosher and forbidden to Jews as a wine offering. No whisky was found. But the wine became gentile wine, which would ruin the poor wine house keeper. Itshe-Cyrl's income for a few months depended on the income from Passover wine. The city went into motion.

They ran to the rabbi. The “old one” immediately went to Itshe Cyrl's to examine the cellar, found the barrels closed with a cap. The tzadek immediately asked the question: “Reb Itshe, did you see the gentile tap the barrel with your own eyes?” – “Yes, Rabinke [diminutive of rabbi], I cannot deny it. The excise collector defiled the wine with his paws”…

And Reb Avraham Ezra called out sarcastically: “A gentile brain! The barrels are capped and, after all, it is Reb Itshe … kosher, kosher, kosher, Reb Itshe. This year I will buy wine for the four cups [consumed during the Passover Seder] only from you, to remove every suspicion among the public about your wine.”

Jews who exaggerate would add that in that year Itshe Cyrl's “benefited” from the four cups … but Itshe

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Cyrl's did not become a rich man. One thing I do know: every Tuesday at night, after heavy, strenuous work supervising and serving the bitter drops to hundreds of drunkards, at the same time aware that the excise collector might “come down for a supervisory visit,” tired and exhausted, he would come to the beis-medrash to study Gemora with my father, Heikl the Large and Motye Rashe's.

And I remember with pride: They studied the chapter Yesh Nochalin [Some Inherit] in Bava Basra [The Last Gate and the Gemora on the Mishnah, “The daughters of Zelophehad took three parts for an inheritance.” Really, a difficult piece of Gemora, particularly for tired Jews. I was then studying this Talmudic treatise and I was asked for my “intervention.” I interpreted the great Rashbam which I knew well. Motye Rashe's then said, “A sharp little head.”

That Jew had so much strength: tired, worried about his livelihood, coming at night after the market, concerned about the Daughters of Zelophehad and their part of the inheritance at the partition of the land. Everything concerned Itshe Cyrl's; all that was lacking for him was to calm the Daughters of Zelophehad…

Itshe Cyrl's, may he rest in peace, came to Argentina with his family. His daughter, Beylke, the devoted and virtuous Keren-Kayemet [Jewish National Fund] worker, married Yitzhak Kaplan, the dear and respected cooperativist and longtime Zionist worker. May God give them long and good years. Itshe Cyrl's perished in an unfortunate accident. He hurried off a wagon and died on the spot. May my words serve as a memorial for the dear Amdur Jews who fell on the sacrificial altar of the Jewish colonization in Argentina. May also be remembered here

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his wife, Etke, or as she was called in Amdur, Etke Cyrl's. A dear and virtuous Jewish woman and mother. She accompanied her husband in the difficult Jewish life, in joy and in suffering. In 1895, when she and her family, together with mine, left for Argentina, she went to the cemetery to take leave of her closest relatives and she kissed the gravestones. She shouted with bitter tears: “To whom am I leaving you, Father, Mother?” … This somehow reminds me of the words of Rabbi Yehuda Halevi in his lament O Zion, Thou Most Desirable Crown: “Take delight in your stones and be tender to your dust.”

Etke died much later than her husband. She was here, in Buenos Aires, the one who broke the record with the Jewish National Fund's blue pushke [charity box]. Before blessing the candles she would throw her coins in the pushke and then would sanctify the Sabbath with her blessing: “Asher kidishonu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu l'hadlik neir shel Shabbos” [“Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to light the lights of Sabbath”].

Her daughter and son-in-law are her devoted followers.

 

Translator's and Editor's Footnotes

  1. The “Three Weeks” precede Tisha b'Av – the commemoration of the destruction of the Temple – and is a period of mourning. [Tans.] Return
  2. As others from Amdur remember, she later married and gave birth to two children. Her husband was Mendele the shamas. [Ed.] Return
  3. 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. [Trans.]Return

 

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