I believe it would not be needless to tell here in short about the period of the cheder and the studying of the beginning of wisdom of taking a pen in hand. It is fitting to me, the graduate of that school, to start with such memories. I will not be exaggerating if I say that in Kobrin there was not one child that did not study in the cheder. Children of the poor whose parents could not afford to pay for them studied in the Talmud Torah free of charge.
The cheder held the most important place in the life of the Jewish child in Kobrin and in other towns in Russia at that time. At the age of 4 or 5 years, already he was handed to a melamed, a small time teacher, and gradually he would transfer from one melamed to another until he came to the melamed who taught him Gemara and with that usually would end his period of education. Only those who really persisted were traveling to places that were known in Lita as places of Torah. Others would continue their studies in the Beit Midrash of their town until their wedding day.
The Czarist law ruled that reading and writing Russian had to be taught in those cheders. From time to time there would come into the cheder a police inspector to check and to see if a Russian book was within reach of the teacher and if he was not breaking the law, God forbid. His bother was always for naught because he would only come and look at the work license that was hanging on the wall with a picture of the teacher in it and to see if the face of the Rabbi who was in the room sitting around the table with his students with the books of the chumash opened in front of them was the same face as in the picture.
Of course because of this and some other reasons, a Russian book could not be seen or found in the cheder But the Rabbi did teach his students in addition to the Chumash also writing, although famous writers did not come from this writing.
It is difficult to explain how those students succeeded under those circumstances to learn the art of writing the alphabet.
The Rabbi would teach his students to write in Yiddish and Hebrew (the holy language). The Rabbi would write the first lines in the notebook of each one, and the students would have to copy this line several times until the end of the page. Here is a sample line: It is better to have a poor piece of bread with joy than a steak of meat with sorrow. Better the bitter leaf from God than a sweet leaf from the dead.
When the hand was already trained enough for this kind of writing, they would
go to a higher level. The Rabbi would copy a paragraph from Shamir or from the
book of letters to Blushtein and would command the students to copy it. Usually
he would choose letters of a son to his father in America .which always
attracted us very much because the fathers of many of the students did
emmigrate then to America.
In the cheder of the teacher for Gemara there used to be invited a special teacher with a special fee to teach the children to write in loshen hakodesh (the holy language), in Russian and in English (the Latin alphabet, different from the Russian alphabet, the teacher used to call English).
One of the famous cheder teachers of that time was R'Issak Yos'l Yachas, a nice Jew with a long beard whose nasal voice when he spoke added something to his appearance. The degree of his enlightenment was very limited but the students respected him because of his cleanliness and because he was very nice to them. His duty as a teacher would end after the student learned to read a word of Russian, to do light arithmetic, to add regards to father in a letter that his mother wrote and to write the address in English on the envelope of that same letter.
The situation of the daughters of poor parents was very sad. There was no school for girls in our town and nobody even thought of the idea of sending them to the cheder of the boys. Indeed girls grew up without any Torah and any enlightenment and started to work when they were young under very difficult circumstances. After a time when the time came for them to get married, they saw themselves as retarded and they would think what would happen if they would have a bride groom from a foreign country and they would have to answer him in a letter.
There were then in Kobrin teachers that taught those working girls to read and
write, but they were not called a teacher because Jews are very careful about
those things, so instead they would call them writers.
Berl and Tzania, the Writers
In the Beit Midrash (school) in Brisk after the prayer of Mincha and Maariv they would assemble the young women of various ages sitting around the long tables and Berl, the writer with a nice beard with some gray, would sit at the head of it and would dictate to the listeners a letter in Yiddish, and do so every evening during the whole winter.
In exactly the same way acted Tzania, the writer. The difference was only in the home because Tzania conducted the course from his own home. Tzania had another way of making a living. He would write petitions to the municipal government or to the court.
Among the most famous was Feigel, the writer, or as she was called in a homey
way Feigel Asher Yankles. It is worthwhile to talk a little more about her.
|Feigel The Writer
of blessed memory
|Rabbi Matityahu Zuckerman
of blessed memory
The teacher did not have any special preparation for this duty but her healthy and folksy instinct was her guide. Thanks to this talent of hers she succeeded to have the confidence of her students who never in their life knew what a school was.
Aside from reading and writing Yiddish Feigel would teach them also a portion of the chumash and in an easy manner describe the content of what they read.
Thanks to her dedication Feigel would succeed in getting what she wanted. Although she did not know what name to give her important work, like the giving the enlightenment to working girls, now after many years it is possible to evaluate her work as a holy war against ignorance among the working daughters of Kobrin. This folksy and uncrowned teacher would not waste the hours of the day. During the hours of the day she would visit the poor young women in their homes and teach them as much as possible. The fee for that dedicated work was close to nothing.
Altogether in those days in Kobrin there was quite a bit of distress. The
people, the store owners, and the artisans did not easily make a living.
Just like in other towns, also in Kobrin there were a lot of people without any trade. Without a firm base people would marry, give birth to children without the possibility to provide a living for them. Then they would pawn a few of the jewels that the bride brought from the home of her father and they would collect a few tens of rubles for the travel expenses to America, the foreign country upon which they put all their hope. The rest of the people of the house would be left sighing in town.
These women whose husbands went across the seas suddenly felt the great sorrow of the impossibility of writing with their own hand a letter to their husbands and telling them all their sorrows and their sufferings. They would now need writers who would be known in town and obviously you could not tell all your secrets to a strange man. To all these poor women Feigel Asher Yankles was literally a mother in front of whom they could reveal all the secrets. To the groups of .the letter writers also belonged R' Yos'l Yachas, the old Jew who was known for his expertise in writing letters to America. He knew the taste of his customers, women of middle age. He would sit in his wooden house all of which was one small room in front of a big dark uncovered table with duck feather pens in front of him and an ink well in the color of copper. In front of him would sit a woman who did not hear from her husband in America for a long, long time. R' Yos'l Yachas, who felt and knew very well the broken and suffering heart of his customer, would start the letter in the known style: With God's help. To my very loved husband. It is with great joy and happiness that I am holding this pen to notify you that we are all healthy and fine. I hope that we will hear the same thing from you. Amen Then there would start the story of moralizing, giving regards from the children and also a request that he would come back home or that he would bring her and the children to him in America. R' Yos'l Yachas on his part would add his opinion and his recommendation. Did the words of his recommendation help? God only has the answer to that.
At around the year 1900 something happened in the matter of education in Kobrin. Yedidia, the baker married his daughter to someone from abroad and his son-in-law, who was a Hebrew teacher, was brought to Kobrin and opened a reformed cheder. To this reformed cheder, parents did not send their sons, but their daughters. There they learned from the instruction book, The Artist Pedagogue. In town people spoke a lot about this news, positively and negatively, but this reformed cheder did not exist for a long time because the founder emigrated to America.
Above I mentioned that the Russian regime forced the teaching of the Russian
language in the cheder. But on the other hand that regime was also interested
that the Jewish children would know the language.
For that purpose there existed in Kobrin a Russian school for the children of Israel. The principal of that school was R' Matityahu Zuckerman. He was a scholarly Jew who knew his Torah. He finished the seminar for teachers in Vilna which produced Jewish teachers to teach the Russian language to the children of Israel. And although that school was designed for sons and daughters, not one father sent his son and there were only daughters who studied there. That school existed until the First World War.
In that school there was planted in the young hearts, together with the Hebrew language, the love for the land of Israel and for its history, through which later rose Zionists who were dedicated and conscientious.
A major part in distributing the Hebrew language among the children of Israel was done by the teachers Baruch Gerber and Yakov Moshe who was also know as the son-in-law of Wolftcheke.
These two teachers gave private lessons in the homes of rich people. This
educational period went on until the First World War and then a new era in the
history of education in Kobrin began and there developed a whole network of
schools with teachers who were important professionals. But reality uprooted me
from my native town for tens of years and I was not a witness to this
development. Others will do better in telling about it.
The synagogue in Kobrin on Pinsker Street was fenced on the east and north by a brick fence. On the west the synogogue's yard bordered the lot of the Pole Frankovski, and on the south the border was the river Kabrinke over who's bridge you crossed to Horodnikas Street.
In the synagogue's yard was also the old Gass Beit Midrash, and according to the old people they used to pray there at one time Sephardi style.
Many years ago the synogogue's yard housed in it also the municipal bath and Mikveh that belonged to Herschel and Frieda Kamanietzky (later, when there was not a trace left of that bathhouse, people continued to call Frieda the bath attendant). The external appearance of the synagogue was in the old Polish style. It had three gates and they were all on the west side.
Through the gate you entered the great entrance (Falish) and through the third
entrance you climbed wooden stairs to the Women's Gallery. From the entrance
to the inside of the synagogue led a double door, wide and painted dark brown,
and above it was the verse, This is God's Gate. The Righteous Shall Enter It.
You went down 12 stairs and you were inside the synagogue where there was a floor made of bricks, wide and exceptionally clean. Four big and thick columns supported the ceiling and one of them was not finished as a remembrance of the destruction.
Every worshiper had his regular place and his post. The more respected among the landlords, even from the far away streets, would come to the great synagogue on Saturday and definitely on holidays. For tens of years R' Aaron Leib Vladovski was a sexton of the synagogue. After his death the sextonship passed to R' Meir Tenenbaum.
In the circle on the ceiling were painted 12 pictures of the Zodiac in a traditional way. On the long wall of the Women's Gallery that took the whole width of the synagogue were various drawings to demonstrate the verse: Light as an Eagle, Fast as a Deer, and Strong as a Lion to do the Will of Your Father who is in Heaven. In the drawing of the eagle in its flight, light and quiet, the deer in its quick running, a run in which the ground is not touched and the lion with a head of someone who is very sharp and knowledgeable with two intelligent, contemplative eyes, standing on the lawn, a stance which has confidence in its might. On the same wall on the right side was also a demonstration of the verse in Song of Songs: My Dove in The Crevasses of the Rock. The innocent understood the meaning of the verse the same way that the Rabbi explained it to his teachers on Friday during the study of Song of Songs: A rock filled with holes and from one of those holes comes a dove and when she comes up, there in front of her is a venomous snake curled around the rock and waiting for its victim and above the dove a hawk ready to devour her and the dove is terrified to death seeing the great danger.
When we would hear this our eyes would express pain and suffering and the Rabbi would explain the meaning of the fable: The dove is the people of Israel and the snake and the hawk are the nations of the world who are threatening to destroy us
A very special part in our life was the ark in the great temple in its splendor. It had very interesting artistic designs and it was thought to be one of the most exceptional in all of Russia and Poland. In its height it reached the ceiling. It was divided into three parts:
The crown of the Torah was made of the Ten Commandments and above them was a
golden crown. The Crown of the Priesthood was two very beautifully carved
hands raised in the priestly blessing and covered with a Talit (prayer shawl)
with blue and white embroidery and above it the golden crown.
The king's crown was a great eagle with two heads as the emblem of Czarist Russia. As usual, the eagle held in its one foot a ball and above it a cross and in the other foot the sceptor of the king. Our artist succeeded in finding a Jewish motif: The eagle held in its toes a Lulav and Etrog and above them the crown.
The holy ark was covered with a thin, silver layer. On that layer of silver could be seen various imaginary birds, fish and animals that were themselves covered with a gold that had a light green tinge. To the right of the holy ark was the column also covered with delicate cloth that was embroidered with silver and gold. Steps about as high as half a floor led to the holy ark that was covered by an expensive silk curtain upon which was embroidered the name of the women who donated that curtain.
During the Sabbath and holiday there would be hung on the holy ark magnificent curtains and upon which were embroidered verses such as In Honor of Sabbath and Holiday and etc.
Once a year, on Hosha'na Rabbah (seventh day of the feast of tabernacles) all the walls of the synagogues would be covered with tens of curtains and by them would be lit hundreds of candles. The lighting and the decorations were done by Berl, the caretaker. And after some time when Berl became too weak, Kopel, the sexton, took charge of that work.
Among the citizens of Kobrin was the fairy tale that an artist who created the holy ark also created a bear made out of wood and it was equipped with a special mechanism which would make a frightening sound when someone opened the ark.
Once there was a guest from afar who was praying in the synagogue and they honored him by inviting him to open the ark. When he opened the doors of the ark, the bear made this noise and the guest fell on the floor fainting with fear. That prompted the assembly to put the bear in the attic and this was carried out.
We, the kids of the Cheder, knew the story about the Bear in the Attic and it
really fascinated our imaginations. To reach the little door in the attic was
possible only through those wooden stairs and not one kid would dare go up
there by himself. On the Sabbath when ten to fifteen kids would assemble, we
would stand in line one after the other, the braver among us at the head of the
line, and then we would start to march to the attic and when the first ones at
the head of the line would come to the little door at the attic the ones at the
end of the line would let out a bitter and great scream, The bear! The bear!
and with beating hearts we would turn around and retreat. This journey to the
bear we would postpone for the next Sabbath.
During several Sabbaths we thought of actually accomplishing this terrible adventure but we never got to the bear in the attic. We only planned it.
Life took me away from the town of my birth and far from the synagogue in the neighborhood where I lived as a child. After tens of years I visited Kobrin with a famous painter, Moshe Appelbaum. My story about the beauty and magnificence of the Holy Ark titillated his artistic urge and when I escorted him to the synagogue he stood fascinated in front of the ark and was really taken with the silver and the various colors that stood the test of time for so long and did not lose their freshness even a bit. And altogether he was taken with the deep Jewish thought that was imprinted in every detail. Only one thing was missing: the eagle. When I approached the sexton, (Moshe Koritze) with the question, Where did the eagle disappear to? He took us to the western wall of the synagogue and there we found out the end of the historical chapter: When the Poles took over Kobrin they commanded that the great eagle with the two heads be taken down. When the eagle was taken there was left an empty and poor looking place, so a person from Kobrin who made money during the war ordered a crown made out of tin and covered with silver dust. He inscribed it with his name and the name of his wife and added a menorah into which he inserted electrical light bulbs and also some colored glass. When the crown was lit there was a poor looking light also on the names of the two people who donated it through the green, red and yellow colored glass. We very quickly left the synagogue depressed and insulted.
There have passed many years since I last visited the synagogue. The Nazi murderers demolished the Jews of Kobrin and only a few survived. Some of them came to us, to Eretz Israel, and when I listened to the horrible stories of those who survived, I asked in a whisper, And what happened to the great synagogue, to the holy ark that used to be there?
And the answer was short. The synagogue was turned into a grain silo and the holy ark remained in its place torn and desecrated together with thousands of Jews in Kobrin.
Broken and ashamed I lowered my gaze and I did not ask anymore.
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