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Kelem’s Jews as a Torah and spiritual People


Alongside the many and varied business pursuits of the Jews in Kelem, there was their Torah and spiritual lives, which were very rich. In Kelem, there lived Torah students, and enlightened scholars, one alongside the other, secular and extremely pious together. In town were wealthy folks who were learned in Torah; and, there were common people who knew Torah and Midrash. Kelem was the birthplace of Rabbi Eleazer Elyahu Friedman, who, in his book of memories from the years 1858-1926, writes that every male in Kelem, from one end of the shtetl to the other, was learned in Torah. Not even a single Am Ha'aretz (unlearned man) could be found in Kelem.

Almost every one of the better off Kelmers, economically speaking, knew Torah and was knowledgeable in Talmud and Jewish laws. Most of the other members of the community, who were of the common folk (workers, craftsman, porters, or just everyday people) knew “by heart” the books, Chaiyai Adam, Ein Yaakov, the Ethics of the Fathers, and the Midrashim. These holy books were always “on their tongues”. The people would not miss a day in the year of the daily lesson in Torah at one of the Batai Midrash (Houses of Study), or at the Shtieblech (small synagogues). Even after the long hours spent preoccupied in their daily work, they used to open the Gemara in order to study and delve into various Talmudic discussions. It is no exaggeration to say that Jewish Kelem had daily work and daily study intermixed in their lives.

All prayer houses in Kelem were houses of study. Poor young Yeshiva students weren't the only ones to study, but rather the important, well-to-do and leading business people also studied on a daily basis. Not only did the well learned study Gemara, but the common ordinary Jew did as well. Every person studied according to his talent and ability. There were a number of groups that studied Torah, such as Shas (the most important), Chaiyai Adam, Mishnayot, Ein Yaakov, Midrash, Minorat HaMeor, and others.

The Tiferet Bachorim was founded in Kelem in 1920 by Mr. Tarrisky. The goal of this movement was to enliven the religious spirit and faith among the youth and put an end to complacency toward our Jewish heritage. Most of the members in this organization were not actually from the most religious families: many youths in it were from both poor and from wealthy families. They studied Mishna, Ein Yaakov, Ta'anach, Halacha, and Shemerat Halashon (guarding the tongue). There was also a youth branch of this organization for boys 10 to 16 years of age. The younger branch had the same goal, to bring the younger boys closer to Torah and Judaism.

It was also Zionist orientated and did much for Eretz Israel and the Jewish National Fund. Those of us who survived, will surely remember these members of Tifert Bachorim; Raphael Asher Milner, Menachem Fraid, Chaim Charif, and others. Along with regular Torah studies, there were those who were “Great in Torah” and given the title “Genius”. Some of them sat as “Town Rabbi”, and were rabbis of the Musar movement. The Great Yeshiva and Talmud Torah belonged to this movement, whose founder was Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv. Rabbis from the Musar movement in Kelem were: R. Eleazer Gutman, Gitzel Halevi Horovitz (who was known as Shulchan Aruch, because he had memorized the whole book of that name), R. Eleazer Gordan, R. Zvi Yaakov Oppenheim, his son in law R. Kalman Benishovitz (who was the last town Rabbi of Kelem, R. Zvi Hersh Broide, R. Neta Zvi Frankel, R. Arieh Leib Frumkin, R. Eilikim Goldberg (called the Genius), and others.


Talmud Torah and the Great Yeshiva


The establishment which was called Talmud Torah was the most famous yeshiva of higher learning in Kelem. The Gaon, Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, who was an outstanding Torah scholar, founded the yeshiva. He thought that the Jews of Kelem, keepers of the commandments and learned in Torah, were worthy of an academy of higher Torah learning. It was a unique yeshiva which was conducted in the spirit of the ideals of its founder. R. Ziv was a rabbi from the Musar movement and a student of the founder of the Musar movement, R. Israel Salant. The Talmud Torah was founded to become a center for bright Torah students, who were chosen from other yeshivas to study there. Students were chosen after they passed rigorous examinations on the subject of Musar, which was an ethical and moral revival movement of great importance in Judaism. The studies in this Great Yeshiva put its imprint on the shtetl. R. Simcha Zissel Ziv preached an ethical and moral path in Judaism that was based on the system of R. Israel Salant, who emphasized piety and ethics, strengthening the soul's power, self knowledge, elevating the Godly qualities and their perfection according to the Torah's teachings and the instruction of our learned Rabbis of the past. R. Simcha Zissel Ziv preached not only for Torah study, but for all of living to be done in an ethical manner: that man should lift up his thoughts, cleaving to God and pure actions.

In spite of the fact that some of Kelem's leading Jews opposed or had objections to the Musar system, they sent their children to study in the Great Yeshiva-Talmud Torah. It was thought to be a great honor to be accepted as a student. Many students came from other cities in Lithuania and from other countries to study in the Talmud Torah.

The Yeshiva was situated in a very large building, surrounded by a high fence, which symbolized its isolation from the rest of the community, which opposed its system of study. The students in the Talmud Torah put aside most of the Talmudical studies and concentrated on Musar studies. They sat all day wrapped in Tallisim (prayer shawls) and wore Tefillen while studying. They would not use secular speech or not speak at all for days. In their dress, they were very unlike other Jews, wearing long black coats down to their knees, black hats, white shirts, etc. All these clothes were made of the finest cloth. The maintenance of the building and support of the students came from rents collected from buildings owned in Kovno by the Yeshiva. That building was a contribution of a philanthropist from outside Lithuania, and it supported the existence of the Talmud Torah.

At the time of the founding of the Yeshiva, some secular subjects were taught there; Hebrew, Russian, and others. Secular subjects found their way into the Yeshiva by way of the enlightenment that spread throughout all of European Jewry at that time. It was an attempt to integrate the newer life styles with the frozen older style of Orthodoxy'; i:e, piety with short side locks, long intense prayers with shorter clothing, the voice of supplication in study, with a warm welcome, courtesy, good manners, and politeness between people.

The heads of the Yeshiva and the students did actually isolate themselves from the community, but not completely. The Yeshiva was inspired by the Jewish life in Kelem. The youth of Kelem and the children were allowed to visit, and did visit freely on certain holidays, in order to celebrate together with the “yeshiva bochers”, and to see and become impressed with the life of the Yeshiva. Many remember Simchat Torah, during which Kelem's youth would sing and dance along with the “yeshiva bochers”. Everybody was served with candy and cakes.

In the period between the two world wars, there stood at the head of the Talmud Torah, men who were learned and great in Torah, such as: R. Moshovitz and his brother-in-law, R. Mednik. R. Gershon Mednik was actually the administrative head of the institution; he was in charge of renting the building in Kovno and was in charge of the proper financial management of money from that building. All of that money was used for the upkeep of the Yeshiva, the students, and for the Rabbis.

R. Daniel Moshovitz was the spiritual head of the “Musarnikin”. He was married to the granddaughter of R. Simcha Zissel Ziv. He symbolized within himself, a spiritual personality, a highly elevated soul, a brilliant Torah scholar, a teacher, and philosopher. He was familiar with all the philosophies of the secular world. He was a very deep and brilliant thinker, an unusual “Genius”. Along with all of these qualities, he was a delicate soul, who radiated love for all men, regardless of their position. He was regarded with great honor, even in not so religious circles. It was said in Kelem that no one in Kelem ever succeeded in saying good morning or good evening before R. Daniel Moshovitz said it to them, to everyone in the shtetl.

The end of the “yeshiva bocherim” and their great Yeshiva, together with their famous teachers and holy rabbis, was as bitter as the other Jews in Kelem. They were murdered by the Nazi collaborators, the Lithuanians. Their bodies are buried in a mass grave in the fields of the Grozhebiski farm.

The Yeshiva Hak'tana

(The Small Yeshiva)

Alongside the Talmud Torah there was a Yeshiva for young men in their teens. The Jews in Kelem made sure that their children learned Torah early in their young lives. There was not a family in Kelem whose children did not learn

Torah in their youth. As in the rest of eastern Europe, the families had their children in “cheder” at the age of three or four, studying in the spirit of Torah. The institution of the “cheder” gave the young children a taste of Torah from teachers who specialized in that type of instruction.

At the time of the First World War, a “cheder” was established for girls by the “woman of valor”, Bessia De Ganz. There was recognition, at that time by the Jewish public, that girls, also, had to have a Torah education. The cheder of Bessia De Ganz served that purpose very well.

After the “cheder”, most of the boys studied in the Yeshiva HaKatana, the small Yeshiva. It was called this in order to differentiate it from the Talmud Torah (HaYeshiva HaGedolah). Boys studied there from the age of nine or ten and, sometimes even younger. The beginning age was dependent on the child's prior development.

In the years prior to the Second World War, there were 100-120 boys in this Yeshiva, ranging in age from nine to sixteen. Most of the children were from other towns, with most coming from villages in the Zemaitia area. The fact that parents from near and far chose to send their boys to this Yeshiva showed that its reputation was of the finest.

The start of the study year in the small Yeshiva, as opposed to other schools, started on the first day of the Jewish month of Elul, and continued until the month of Av, with breaks at Rosh Hashannah, Succot, and Pesach.

In the Yeshiva HaKatana, there were four grades that were called She'orim. Every She'or had two parts; each one was a half year of study. There were no secular studies. The Yeshiva existed for the study of Gemara and some study of the Musar book “Magranaryt Yesharim”. There was also no study of the Ta'anach (Bible). The basis of Jewish studies on Torah, had already been studied in “cheder” or in the Yavneh or Tarbut schools.

In the Yeshiva, the boys learned Talmud and the tools for “self study”. The schedule of daily studies was as follows. After the morning prayers, the rabbi would give a lesson for an hour. Another hour was used for questions and answers. Except for the lunch break, and a break for the Mincha and Ma'ariv prayers, all of the time was given over to study and more study. There was, also, the system of having four boys studying together; they would help each other memorize the texts. Study was a system of questions and answers, recognized even today as a very advanced type of study, and which enabled the students to concentrate on one subject and sharpen their thinking. In the evening, the studies would continue until late into the night.

Students from out of town would rent rooms from Jewish families. Their families sent food supplies for breakfast and supper. The noon meal was organized by the heads of the Yeshiva. The students ate lunch at a dining room set up especially for them at the house of the Shmualevitz family. Most of them paid to eat there. Poor students were supported for this meal by the wealthy Jewish citizens of Kelem and by contributions from all of the shetls Jews. On Shabbat, the dining room was closed, and the students would eat with families who welcomed them. These families were not necessarily the wealthy ones. Almost every home in Kelem was ready to receive a Yeshiva boy for the Shabbat meals. It was a contribution of Kelem's Jews to Torah learning.

The Yeshiva did not grant a certificate to the boys who completed their studies. Those who wanted to, or were financially able to do so, continued their studies at the Talmud Torah or at the Yeshiva of Slovodka, Ponevezh, Telz, or at other famous yeshivas in Lithuania. Of course, not all of the Yeshiva's students continued their Torah studies. There were those who went into their family's business or found another occupation for their livelihood.

At the head of the Yeshiva, at the time of the outbreak of W.W.II, stood R. Shlomo Pianko, who was a native Kelmer. His assistant was R. Eliahu Kremmerman, who was later, made rabbi in Kerazyay. His son, R. Zalman Kremmerman, survived the Holocaust, and now lives in Jerusalem. The “Mashgiach” (overseer), was R. Pesach Sadovetski, who was originally from Shaduva. Eliezer Levin was the teacher of the third year students. R. Pianko taught the fourth year. R. Sadovetski was the “strong man” at the Yeshiva, and ruled with a strong hand over the students. Strict discipline was the rule, and serious punishment was given out for infractions of rules, such as stopping studying, reading of books other than religious ones, becoming “familiar” with girls, etc. From the memories of survivors of the Yeshiva, one can learn of acts of jest and pranks that the boys did, as is the way of students all over the world. Any deviation from studying was met with severe penalties.


Schools


Between the two world wars, there were not only Torah schools; additionally, there were kindergartens and schools for general education. The children in these schools studied the same subjects as did all school children in Lithuania and the rest of the world; such as, mathematics, nature study, geography, history, and others. Beside these general secular subjects, the children studied Hebrew (grammar and literature) and the heritage of Israel (Jewish studies).

The Shulamit School

One of the oldest schools for girls was the Shulamit school of the Yavneh movement. It was located in the house of Lieb Gershovitz. This school was for girls whose parents wanted them to study secular and religious subjects.

The day at this school started with the morning prayers. Prayers were said before and after meals. The girls dressed very modestly. Besides the general subjects, emphasis was put on Torah, Bible, and Mishnah. In addition, the girls learned about the commandments that are especially demanded of Jewish women, the laws of Kashrut, candle lighting on Shabbat and on holidays, and other commandments that Jewish women must know.

Some of the teachers remembered from the Shulamit school were Lis, Tavriski, Levin, Liba Kaplan Vantizhorski, Etel Shochat, and others.

In the early 1930's, this school ceased to exist. In the same building a secular school was established. Known as the Progymasion school, it was formerly housed in the Shectin house. It was a Tarbut school, one of many in the network of schools of that name which were scattered around Eastern Europe (Lithuania, Poland, etc.).

The Yavneh School

The school was for boys only. As at the Shulamit school, this school taught secular studies and Jewish subjects. The Yavneh school was located in a small Bet Midrash in a small street that was called Shul Gas by the Jews. In back of the school was a yard that bordered on the well known Stam family.

R. Stam was one of the founders of the Yavneh school. People from all walks of life had their children study here, rich and poor, religious and not religious. Some of the names of children who studied here are: Stern, Meyerovitz, Yankelov, Broide, Yankelvitz, Koifman, Rose, Morgenstern, Yanver, Chaluzin, and many others.

This school had four grades, from first to fourth. At the end of four years, there were government examinations. In order to monitor the examinations, a government overseer would arrive from Resain. Graduates received a certificate to continue their studies in the Gymnasia.

In Yavneh, there were about one hundred students. Torah and secular studies were taught, as we said before; i:e, Chumash and Ta'anach with Rashi commentary, Hebrew grammar and literature. Hebrew and Yiddish authors were studied, such as Shalom Aleichim, Mendel Mocher Seforim, Bialik, Tchernikovsky, Fichman, Peretz, Gordon, and others. They studied geography, general history, geography of Lithuania, nature study, mathematics, history of the Jewish people, and others. These subjects were taught in Hebrew with the Ashkenazi pronunciation.

The school day started at daybreak with morning prayers. After that, the children went home for breakfast. At 9.00 a:m, the lessons would begin, with short breaks between them. At noon, there was a long break for lunch and games in the yard. In the summer, they played ball, games with penknives, and hide and seek. In the winter, they built snowmen in the yard and had snow fights.

The children were the same as children in the rest of the world. They ran wild, had fist fights sometimes, and smoked in the bathrooms. When they were caught, they were punished severely. A graduate of Yavneh, Yitzak Levinski, relates how the bell rang for the start of the lesson, right in the middle of a smoke in the bathroom. The boys didn't want to waste the cigarette, so they put it in a pants pocket of one of the boys. In class, the students and the teacher noticed the smoke coming out of the boy's pants. There was an investigation, and many boys were punished for smoking in secret.

Studies continued until four o'clock in the afternoon. In the Yavneh school, there were theatrical plays and parties on Purim and Chanukah. Mr. Liss was the principal of Yavneh at its inception; when he left, he was replaced by Mr. Lichtenstein. Teachers who taught at Yavneh include Valski, Shochat, Levin, and others. Teachers in Kelem who were from out of town rented quarters from local residents. Mr. Levin, was a son-in-law of R. Pas. R. Pas also taught, usually Gemara. He was a very exacting man, and sometimes used his cane or a ruler on undisciplined boys. The level of learning at Yavneh was known to be very high. The boys acquired a variety of knowledge in those four years, in an optimal way. At the end of the four years, some students entered the Small Yeshiva, some the Lithuanian gymnasia, and some stopped their studies in order to help their parents make a living.

The Tarbut School

In order to teach Zionist ideals, there was no better tool than a Zionist orientated school, whose goal was to educate the Jewish children in the spirit of our struggle for our national home in the land of Israel. There was such a network of this type of school, and its name was Tarbut. Kelem was one of the first towns in Lithuania to establish a Tarbut school. Before Tarbut was founded, there was a grammar school for girls in Kelem, whose teaching language was German. Among the subjects taught were Jewish and religious studies. The girls were members of Young Zion or Gates of Zion (national religious movements). These Zionist movements were active outside of the studies and were in addition to the Zionist teachings at the school.

With the coming of independence of Lithuania in 1918, a teacher with Zionist leanings came to Kelem. His name was Akiva Vankutzer. He established the Hebrew Progymnasion. After a short time this school was linked to the Tarbut network and assumed that name.

The Jewish nationalist influence of this school was very great upon the youth of Kelem. It was also integrated; boys and girls, had classes together from their seventh year until the last class.

All the Jews of Kelem sent their children to this school, except those who wanted their children to have a pure Torah school. Those children went to the Yavneh school, and they continued on to the Small Yeshiva. The Tarbut school was located in the Schectin house, and when the Shulamit school ceased to function, Tarbut moved to the house of Leib Gershovitz. In the middle of the 1930's, the Jewish community erected a building for the Tarbut school at the end of Shialea Street. The lot upon which it was built, was given by the local counsel (Vals'chus in Lithuania).

Some of the teachers continued to teach in the Tarbut school. The teachers were Nachum Finkel, Leshem, Antizorski, Moshe Natosh, Aukon, Dr. Yoffe, Piontek, Friedman, Shub, Chaviva Naymen, Esther Vigdor, Rifka Dupchanski, Meir Katz, Moveshe, Moshe Gold, Mosniski, and others. The teachers in the Tarbut school and the Yavneh school were either native Kelmers, from the area, or from some other place in Lithuania. All were graduates of Hebrew Teachers Seminars, a recognized Zionist background. All the teachers taught according to the program of the Tarbut network, whose principal aim was, besides teaching the general subjects, to give to the students knowledge of their Jewish heritage in the Zionist spirit.

At the Tarbut school, there were two preparatory courses and five classes. The level of study was very high. Upon completion of studies at the school, the student could be admitted to any Jewish or Lithuanian gymnasia in the country.

Hebrew was the language of study, and all the students could speak it. In school, it was forbidden to speak Yiddish, the language of the home and the shul. Even during breaks, it was forbidden. All the basic subjects were taught: Hebrew literature and grammar, Lithuanian language and grammar, mathematics, geography, nature study, Bible, Jewish history, singing, painting, and gym. The knowledge about, and the love of, Israel was acquired by teaching about Jewish history and tradition, by learning songs then popular in Palestine, and by celebrating holidays and having ceremonies and remembrance days in the school. These were dedicated to commemorating important events in Palestine at that time; i:e, the building of Haifa's port, the starting of a new kibbutz, and, quite the opposite, the assassination of Arlozorov. At all ceremonies, the blue and white flag was flown and Hatikvah was sung. The students were very involved in work for the Jewish National Fund. For that purpose, they collected funds, albums, and stamps.

In the school, there was a library in which there was a large selection of Hebrew books. These were books from the Hebrew literature or translations into Hebrew.

In the Tarbut school, it was customary to involve the parents and bring them closer to the school and its Zionist policies and activities. Parents were invited to parties and plays, at which the students put on plays on various subjects, chiefly subjects taken from the Bible. In order to heighten Zionist and Jewish consciousness, there were lectures and evening readings from classic Hebrew literature by active Zionists in the town. These were the chairmen of the Chalutz movement, Meir Gilvitz, and the Jewish bank manager, Yehudah Mer. Also, any of the emissaries from Palestine who were in Kelem, were invited to speak there to the students.

Graduates of the Tarbut school continued their education at Hebrew Gymnasium in Lithuania. There was no such school in Kelem. Some studied in the Lithuanian gymnasia in Kelem. Many students discontinued their education in order to help their parents by learning an occupation.

The Zionist education that the students received brought many of them to the Zionist movements in Kelem, to training farms, and to aliyah to Israel.

Some of the parents in Kelem sent their children on to higher education. Higher education was very expensive and few parents could afford it, especially between the two world wars. There was, in spite of that, a number of youngsters who did receive a higher education, such as the daughters of the farmer Shimon Osher, who studied at Kovno University, Tzippora Miasnik, who studied to be a teacher, Zalman Elperin, who studied mathematics, and Chanan Abramovitz, etc.

Zionist Party Activities


The Zionist movement, which spread across the Jewish world, did not skip over Kelem. At the end of the 19th century, Zionist roots were planted in Europe. At that time, there arose

in Kelem, the Chovevi Tzion Union. Among the first activists was Eliezer Friedman, who wrote many books on the subject. In his book “Memories”, he writes about Kelem and of two Zionist parties in Kelem, Tze'eray Tzion and Sha'ari Tzion Dati.

In 1898, in the footsteps of the Third Zionist Congress, a Zionist conference convened in Vilna, in which there was a large procession to celebrate the first year of the Balfour Declaration. In 1920, A “sports day” was organized in honor of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In that year, there was in Kelem, a branch of the General Zionist Union, committees for the Jewish National Fund and for Keren Hayesod, the League for Labor Israel, Committee for Tel Chai, Mizrachi, and Agudat Yisrael. There was also the Zionist Socialist Party, the Revisionist movement, Brit Chail, Betar, Hashomer Hatzair, and Hechalutz. The variety of different parties are a witness to the split in Zionist thought.

Branches of all the Zionist parties from the left to the right were found in Kelem. The youth, who were active in the various parties, and who spent time at their club houses, did not absent themselves from the synagogues of the town. The goal of all the Zionist parties was Aliyah to Israel. For that reason, each party had what was called Hachshara (training farms). The youth who were on these farms had a better chance to get a certificate to go to Israel.

During the 1930's, many Kelmer youth did come to Israel. These were movement youth, who went through Hachshara. Every movement got a very small number of certificates, because of the British opposition to aliyah in big masses, and to aliyah in general. The lucky ones, who did get certificates, were the very active members of the movements, and the best hachshara people.

With those who yearned for certificates, there came to Israel (Palestine) at that time (among many others), the Demant family, the father with five sons and daughters, Penina Elpern, Yosef Rol, Haviva and Baruch Nayman, three daughters of the Udvin, Rachel Yanver, Chaya and Rivka Chaluzin, children of the Ziskind, Breckman, Disler families, the Adler daughter, Rachel Tzvik, Tzipporah and Rachel Zaks, Yehuda Mark, Ezra and his sister Fruma Leibovitz, and many others. These young Kelmers joined various kibbutzim, such as Givat Brenner, Afikim, Yagor, Degania, Dafna, and others.

Kelmers also settled in the Ben Shemen Youth Village. Among them were Moshe Shectman, Eliezer Borbaiski, Sarah and Rachel Danin, David Friedman, along with the active Zionist teacher, Van Kutzer. Dr. Lehman (headmaster of an orphanage in Kovno), together with orphans and other Jewish youth made aliyah and settled in Ben Shemen.

Joseph Rol, who came to Israel in 1932, settled in Daphna and was in the Haganah. He later settled in Ben Shemen, where he was very happy to find other Kelmers, such as Moshe Shectin, Eliezer Borbaiski (the storeroom manager), David Freedman, and Sarah Danin (the nurse).

The diverse political parties in Kelem show us that the Jews in Kelem were very active Zionists. Political activity was only the background to the main Zionist goal of aliyah. Every Zionist party had its own clubhouse for its own activities. There, they held meetings, heard lectures on Zionist consciousness, passed out literature on the Land of Israel, held celebrations, put on plays, held sport competitions, etc.

There were divided political opinions among the parties, mainly between the ones on the left and right of the spectrum. Many times, these differences caused serious arguments, name calling, and angry confrontations between rival groups. Well remembered is the jingle of the Betarnikim - “Stalin and Hitler together with Ben Gurion,” and many others.

The two largest groupings had sports clubs. They held sports days for boys where soccer and other athletic activities were played, while the girls participated in “rhythmnica” and light athletics. Most of Kelem's youth were in Zionist youth groups, and among them were young married couples. These groups and their activities had a great influence on all levels of Jewish society in Kelem. The religious authorities never came out with outright condemnation of Zionist parties; and, the two Zionist streams, the secular Zionists and the Torah Religious Zionists, existed side by side in harmony and respect for each other.

Synagogues


As in all towns in Lithuania, there were synagogues in Kelem, around which there were organized communal activities. In Kelem there were two principal synagogues, the Old Shul and the newer Bet Hamidrash. Besides these main synagogues, there were other smaller and secondary ones, which were used on holidays when the larger ones were filled with worshippers. These prayer halls were also used as study halls and were called Shtiebelich.

The Old Shul was not the largest, but was famous for its ancient artifacts and its uniqueness not only in Kelem, but in all of Lithuania of that time. According to tradition of “father and son”, the age of the shul was over 300 years. From this we learn that the Jewish community in Kelem was about that same age. The Shul was build by the Poritz Grozheviski. The whole town belonged to him. He lived on a big estate next to Kelem. He was a descendent of the Polish King Zigmund. He was a very rich man, powerful and a great anti-Semite. It is told that he had no male heir, and for that reason he asked the Jews to pray for him in his desperation for a son. In that very same year, a son was born to his wife. The Poritz built a synagogue for the Jews and also freed them from taxes in gratitude for their prayers.

The Old Shul was built of wood and had a wooden shingle roof. The roof was reminiscent of a pagoda. This style was common in all of Eastern Europe. It was a tall building, inside and out. A series of steps led down to the entrance, according to the Biblical passage, “From the depths I have called upon the Lord”. After a number of years, the building began to collapse. A grandson of the Poritz strengthened the walls with pine boarding. At that time, the wealthier Jews of Kelem decorated their synagogue with a special wooden Torah Ark. The artist was a son of Resain, whose name, according to records, was Yaakov Ben Schlomo. He carved the Ark with only a penknife, and completed the work in 1775. Upon the Ark is depicted trees, plants, flowers, and animals such as lions, gazelles, and exotic birds. This was all done according to the Jewish artistic tradition.

After 45 years, the leaders of the Jews of Kelem decided to buy a chandelier for their shul. An artisan from Vilna made it out of copper, according to drawings that were left by Yaakov Ben Schlomo. From a central trunk, there branched out forty stems, in many shapes and beautiful curves. All the people of Kelem contributed to the buying of the chandelier, and it belonged to the community. When it was brought from Vilna, it was greeted on the outskirts of town by all of Kelem's Jews. At most ceremonies at the Old Shul, this chandelier was hung next to the Holy Ark. The day that the chandelier was first hung was called the day of the Great Joy (di groiseh simcha), and took place in 1820. There was a wall painting in the shul that depicted the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The wall painting was done by Aaron Chait, who produced other artistic items, including the Throne of Solomon. This was a wooden chair, on the legs of which were carved scenes of the famous trial before King Solomon. On this wonderful chair there were also carved portraits of the members of the Sanhedrin. Aaron put twenty years of work into carving that throne. A detailed description of that chair will follow.

With the increase in population of Kelem's Jews, the Old Shul could not accommodate them all. A new building, plastered in white, the Bet Hamidrash, was erected. It was beautiful and large. All along its width and length, there were windows, decorated with reliefs in the shape of lilies. The windows were made of colored glass, the work of a true artist. The Holy Ark in the Bet Hamidrash was not as beautiful as the one in the Old Shul, but was also beautiful indeed. Its curtain was woven with gold thread. Above the Torah Ark were represented two palms, the fingers of which were spread according to the custom of the “priestly blessing”. On both sides of the Ark, lions were carved. From the ceiling, there was a chandelier that hung near the Ark. It, too, was made by an artisan. There was also a special floor clock, which was made by a Kelmer, Reb Yecheskl. The clock was set in a wooden case, and told not only the time, but also the date and holidays.

After a number of years, a small Bet Midrash was build next to the large one. Standing near the two buildings were a number of smaller buildings, called by the people “shtieblech.” They were also used as prayer rooms, but were used principally as study rooms for the study of the Gemara. Here, too, study sessions for the “small Yeshiva” were held.

At the end of the 19th century (the actual date is not known), a huge fire broke out that burned most of the Jewish houses that were made of wood. By a miracle, the synagogues and Beti Midrash were not damaged. The Jews of Kelem took that as a sign from heaven. They, therefore, built another building called the Kloiz.

In addition to the Kloiz, the house of the rabbi of Kelem was erected. This building eventually housed the Yavne school. A very extensive green wooden fence was set up to enclose the whole area of all of these buildings and its open areas (the shul hoif). There were two large gates in the fence, which were opened only on Sabbaths and Holidays. For all the other days of the year, the entrance was through smaller gates in the fence.

The Story of an outstanding Jewish Work of Art

“The Throne of King Solomon”

by Yaakov Chait


My father, Aaron Chait, was born in the town of Kelem, Lithuania. He was an artisan by the “grace of God”. Most of his works were done in wood. He was educated in the Jewish traditions. He, therefore, devoted his whole life to Jewish ceremonial art and decided to create the well-known Throne of the Kingdom of King Solomon according to the description in the Second Targum. He worked on it for five years, working from morning to evening. He also put all his life and will into the Throne, in addition to his money. As I stated before, my father believed with all his body and soul, that by completing this wonderful relic from the Jewish past, a stream of light would light up the gray lives of the Jews in their long exile.

My father would travel from town to town and from city to city with his exhibit. It really was a great work of art. The length of the representation of the “palace” was ten meters; its width five to six meters; and, its height was three meters. It contained a great many details carved in it.

Here is a description of the work. In the center of the composition was a round platform with ten steps. Underneath a round canopy, held up by four poles of marble, was the King's Throne. Above the canopy, was a crown of gold, and above that an eagle with spread wings. Above the canopy, was a golden decorative carving. Above that was colored glass and that spelled out the inscription “God's judgment is righteous”. The background behind the Throne was purple velvet with gold threads and decoration.

On the platform, underneath the canopy, on top of three additional steps, was the Throne, on which sat his majesty, the beardless, young king Solomon. He wore regal clothing, and on his head was a golden crown. In one of his hands was a scepter, and with the other hand he stroked a lion, which supported the Throne. The king's feet rested on a velvet pillow of red interwoven with gold. The Throne itself was carved with beautiful carvings. Above the head of the King, small birds rose up in the air. These were, according to the legend, birds that flew around the kingdom and reported back to the king about what had transpired among his subjects.

According to the legend, these birds told the king about all that happened in the world and in his kingdom. At the king's right hand sat the high priest on a golden chair. We wore silk robes, lined with gold. On his head was a silk turban, and on his chest was the Urim and Tumim. This was a breastplate made up of twelve squares of crystal glass set in gold. In every square was written a name of a tribe of Israel. On the king's left sat the assistant to the high priest. Some twenty soldiers, dressed in armor and carrying swords and spears, guarded the king on every side. At the back of the Throne, carvings of golden plants and flowers sprouted from the floor. The steps were covered with green rugs. Along the sides of these steps were carvings of different kinds of animals. On one side there was a lion opposite a lamb, then a panther opposite a kid, and so on. According to legend, they would take the king on their shoulders. On the steps were baskets of flowers. On both sides of the steps, on the floor around the wall, sat royal chairs upon which sat the seventy-one members of the Sanhedrin. All of these were dressed in the finest clothes, appearing very old, with long dark and gray beards. In back of them were scenes of ancient Jerusalem.

Near the steps in the center, the famous trial, at which king Solomon would be the judge, took place. On a carpet, lay the body of a child. A soldier in a red uniform with a special helmet, holds the sword in his right hand. In his left hand, he holds the child by his feet, ready to execute the judgment; that is, to divide the living child in half, and give each “mother” one half of him. The real mother kneels on the floor at the foot of the executor, and her hand catches the hand with the sword. The other woman (the false mother) stands on her agreement to carry out the king's judgment. Both women are dressed in long dresses. Both have long, dark, frizzy hair. At the entrance to the palace are carved two rows, one opposite the other, one of lions and one of eagles. The structure was in the frame made of carved, decorative figures and flowers of wood enclosed in gold. At the entrance of the structure stood rows of soldiers.

That was the description of the composition as it is engraved in my memory. Sixty years have passed since then. There are still Kelmer Jews, living today, who remember the Throne of Solomon. It is difficult for me to imagine how my father, a man who had no artistic training in creating human figures, animals, and birds with such anatomical realism and perfection and in such large numbers, could have created the Throne of Solomon. Every figure was thirty to forty centimeters high, and there were a few hundred of them. It is interesting to state that all of the work, including the sewing of all the clothing and all of the woodwork, was my father's own handiwork.

One week before he died, when I was only twelve years old, I came home from school and found my father beside the fireplace with a hammer in his hand. He had banged out the figures of the Sanhedrin, one by one, pulled out their clothes, beheaded them, and threw out their heads into the burning fireplace. About twenty or thirty of these figures “found their death” that way. My interference prevented the destruction of the whole composition. My father hugged me, and with tears in his eyes, explained that he had committed a great sin, because the Holy Torah forbade the making of “graven images” and “do not make a statue in the likeness of God”. He felt that his end was near and wanted to appear before his Maker without a stain. This sin bothered him greatly. Within a week, he had passed away. He was sixty-nine at his death. My mother was left a widow with two children with no support. Storing the work cost money, so my mother was forced to give it to YIVO (the Institute for Jewish Research). Dr. Sudarski was its director at that time.

The last time that I saw the Throne was in 1939; it was in the Jewish Ethnographic Museum in Kovno, on Mapu Street. According to reports of former Kelmers, Herman Hirsh and Rabbi Yehuda Stam, who were in the United States, the great work is in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. I had once turned to them, and my request was turned down.

In the Second World War, I was a soldier in the Lithuanian Division of the Russian Army. On our way from Russia to Germany by way of Lithuania, I came into Kelem with other soldiers. I requested permission to stay in my village. While there, I found out that my mother and most of Kelem's Jews had been killed by the murderer from Kelem, the young Gasunas and his friends. My younger brother, Hersh Chait, was also a soldier in the Lithuanian Division. He died in the battle of Alekseyevka, near the city of Ureul in Russia.

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