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[Pages 55-73]

Old Images

By Yaakov Alpert

Translated by Eilat Gordin Levitan

Edited by his grandson, Dr. Howard G. Mendel


As if a little Jewish island surrounded by everglade forest and picturesque villages, sat the sleepy shtetl Kurenitz. What was the origin of the name and when was the settlement founded were not concern of the inhabitant. Only the faded Hebrew letters on the graves in the old Jewish cemetery bore testimony of the many generations of Jews who lived and died here. The town circumference was small. In the middle sat the circular town center that contained the market. That was where the town's curvy streets all banded together. In the heart of the market, there was a large square, wood building that contained the stores. Most of the Jewish population's income was derived from the stores. The storeowners would primarily sell to the Christian villagers from the surrounding villages. There was also a factory there that made soda that was funded by my father, may his memory be blessed. It did not contain electric appliances. It didn't have modern plumbing. The soda was made in a very primitive way, the water was brought in pales by Herschel, the well man. The wheel was turned by hand and that was the manner they produced the needed gas.

Life was tough, a mixture of lights and shadows. Only a few families were well off, the rest lived in poverty. The main food source was vegetables, potatoes, salty fish and dark bread. Meat was eaten on Sabbath and holidays. The center of our life when I was a small boy was the Jewish religion. The religious centers were the four synagogues; the Minyan of the Rabbi, the old Shteible, the central synagogue and Biet Hamidrash that belong to the Mitnagdim.

The minyan of the Rabbi belonged to the most devote Lubavitch Hassid's. The prayer there was done with great intent and enthusiasm. Not many belonged to that temple. Those who did belong were very reverent and greatly educated in bible studies.

I remember my first visit to the old shteble when I was a little boy, one cold day when outside it was 'Siberia' as the natives would call it, in the synagogue it was warm. The Shamash, Eliyahu Abba was not cheap with the firewood. He kept putting more and more wood into the furnace. Chayim- Zalman Yuda's (son of Yuda Zushas' Alperovitz ), a Jew with a somber, serious face was sitting near the fireplace wearing his talit and tfilin and studying Tnaiya. He was reading aloud and he studied vigorously some passages. He looked very strange, he was shaking and moving back and forth in excitement. He was continuously saying," Omer Hu Tzadik v'Tov lo, Omer hu Tzadik v'Ralo" "omer hu Rasha V'ralo, Omer hu Tzadik Gamor, He tells… My eyes met the smiley eyes of the Shamash Eliyahu. Since I was more then a bit mischievous I couldn't stop laughing. Immediately everyone started yelling at me, "Wild boy, you are making fun of us in a holy place!!!". My lucky break, at that moment the door opened and Chayim Abram Alperovitch entered. He was a tall sturdy man. He looked like he could hardly contain his excitement, his expression was full of delighted and he was holding a huge wine bottle. "Jews," he yelled loudly, "Drink to life, L'Chaim. My wife Yachka brought to the world a male child and his name in Israel would be Dania." (Dania perished in Naarutz)

The old Shteible was built with red bricks. Near the door in the Western Wall, there was a big sink to wash your hands. On the walls, there were shelves full of books. The people who would pray here were Laibe Masha's, Ykutiel Meir Kremer, Yisrael Micheal the Shochet, my father Eliyahu Alperovitz the Lemonade maker. They were also Lubavitch Hassid's and they would sit studying from early in the morning until late at night too. They would read the bible, they would say Tehilim and converse about social matters.

The central Syasgague was influenced by new concepts. Although the members were Hassidic Lubavitchers too, they were not as devoted. You could see that they took certain freedoms with the prayers. The prayers were short and done in haste. Sometimes during the Torah readings, they permitted personal conversations. There was not true devotion and truly some of the members were unhappy with the way prayers were done and transferred back to the old Shteible.

Biet Hamidrash belong to the Mitnagdim and many amongst the Hassidic Jews looked at that synagogue with a little disrespect. "Look at the way they pray" they would say," they don't even start with Hodu, the start with Mizmor Shir Hanukat Habiet…" In that place most of the members were working class people, the crafts men and handy men. There was hardly devotion or excitement. The prayers were quiet. The prayers were said with sweetness and softly. Often they would have a Magid and the crowd would listen to his speech intently.

I remember that on Saturday before the Mincha prayer I went to the Beit Midrash to hear the moralistic statement of one of those Magids. He was a short, skinny Jew that had big black eyes with a gloomy expression. He stood next to the Holy Ark, wearing his talit and told his sermon in front of the crowd in a weepy voice, he would interpret passages. When he reached the passage, "Halachto ba'derech"he said "One time I went to a specific place and 'eshma Kolkore' all of a sudden while I am still walking I heard a crying begging voice of a man. Veahen Kol V'hor, meaning I began looking around me to see where the voices came from and then I saw, Oy Laanyim Sheko rohot, what do you think I saw? I saw that the angels of destruction pushed a man to the ground, held him by force, and huge cows stepped on him and squeezed his body to the ground. Veshalam Veomar, I approached the angel of destruction and asked, Mahetor Ve ma eashtor, what is the evil deeds of this man that you treat him like that. Veeshma Et Kolam Vecover, I heard the answer, a big sin he did he cut his payas". He was saying his sermon with a sad, expressive deep tone and the whole synagogue was dark and mysterious looking. All of a sudden he yelled with a big shaking voice," House of Jacob, seeds of Israel, immediately return to your old ways of the past, who knows, tomorrow may be too late." The Jews sat with a worried look in their eyes. From the women's section, there was a quiet cry. I was sitting next To Hershel, the water carrier. He was whispering either to himself or to me in a very expressive voice that was full of regret and remorse, "If the barber would once more dare to touch my Payas I will break his bones. This is my vow and if I don't fulfill it, it is as if I am not a Jew."



Shabbat

Other than Shabat, those other days were special in Kurenitz; Sunday was the goyim Sabbath, Tuesday was the market day and Friday there was the evening of Shabat. On Friday women got up very early and prepared the big ovens, then they would run to the market to buy fish. On Friday we (the young boys), would be studying in the Cheder only until midday. Then I would run like a leaping deer from the Cheder, home. It was customary on Friday to eat kugel…

Immediately as we would sit to eat the door would open and Shlomo Hyim would enter. We use to call him the Nail, I don't know why. He was a poor Jew and vagabond and would eat at our house every Friday. He was of average build with a dark long beard and sad eyes. When he spoke, he would stutter. He was very spiritual and artistic and would like to draw the holy buildings and the Wailing Wall. He had a beautiful voice and he like to sing Russian songs. Yet something was wrong with him, if you made any movement with your hand, like scratching yourself, immediately his face would wear a melancholy look, he would jump out of his seat as if a snake had bit him and would leave the table, go to my mother and start stuttering. I – Gaverit Hada – Hi – Ta – Hita – Bedal – Hinov – Hita – Sham – Srefa. My mother, a very generous woman would smile and say, "Shlomo Hyim, until you are done telling your story the day will end and I will need to bless the candles, and I still have so much work, so it is better for you to eat now." Shlomo Chayim could not refuse my mother, he was listening to my mothers commands intently and was always ready to eat her delicacies with a good appetite and would fill his dish with food.

Doors would open and close, Jews would go to receive the Shabbat. My father and I would also go to the Synagogue. Everything in the Synagogue was very clean and shining. Yitza Chatzies' (Charles Gelmans' father), was a very handy person he made beautiful lamps and the place had an oura of light blue splendor. The lamps would make a soft murmur sound that sounded like a devotional prayer. The eastern wall was crowded with long bearded Jews. They looked a bit pale standing underneath the blue light. They opened their Siddurs and immediately we would hear the voice of Gatze Dinerstein who was passing in front of the ark. When he would reach the passage; "Arbaim Shana Aku baor imtoeh l'vahem…" I would usually be very hungry and could not hold any longer I would run home early. My quick-witted mother received me with a smile and say to my sisters, " NU my daughters, come quickly, the town crier is here from the synagogue." While talking she would give me baked goods full of cinnamon and raisins. A short time later Father and Shlomo Chayim would arrive. They would take off their Tallits and we would walk quietly around the house. First my father, then Shlomo Chayim behind him and me in the back. We would sing, " Shalom Alechem Malechie Hasharet." The house would be all clean and sparkly and lit. We would wash our hands and sit by the table. Mother usually wearing a green dress with a colorful piece of jewelry in the middle, green was a good contrast to her light brown hair. My sisters were also all dressed up and in their braids little rings and ribbons intertwined. My father would do the Kiddush and give everyone the Hamotzi. Mother would then serve the fish and the feast would begin. Usually Shlomo Chayim would treat the fish like a hungry wolf and would put a lot of Horseradish on it, would start breathing heavily until his forehead turned blue and his eyes would tear. He would stutter with expression of reverence and blame, "Oh, ho the horse radish is like dynamite."

Saturday, early in the morning I am asleep, but father is already walking around the house and singing the morning prayers. Immediately after, they take the big pale from the oven and also the milk pale that now has a brown crust. So we sit and drink tea with milk. Then Jews started going to the synagogue wearing their tallitot. Yonkal starts with the Hodu prayer and when they reached El Adon, Moshe the forester would stand and pray Shaharit. Then it is time for little fights concerning the selling of Aliyot. Many people want Aliyot so they usually sell to the highest bidder. Now it is the turn for my father to go on the Beema to read from the Torah. Then for the Musaf, Yisrael Michal, the shochet would pass by the ark. When the prayers end the Jews would bless each other with friendship, good Shabbas, and our neighbor, Yekutiel Kramer would continue sitting by the table studying. Our neighbor Yekutiel was a perfect example for the big change the Shabbat can make for a Jewish man. Those days he lived in the house of Chyena, in her back yard. It was tiny house the size of a "sigh" as we used to call it. He was very poor and had many young children then. His income from the flower store was very small and six days of the week you would see him running around looking very worried and his clothes would turn white from the flowers. On Shabat you would not recognize him, it was as if he was born again. He was full of excitement and happiness and in his eyes, there was an expression of kindness. He would sit and sing and everyone would listen. "B'zman She Cohien Gadol Nichnas Vhisnashehor." Then he would explain the passage "when the big Cohen would come to the Holy Temple to pray, there were three Cohenim to hold him. One from his right, one from his left and one from the precious rocks. When the one that is above him heard the sound of the foot steps of the big Cohen he would hope he would open the ark". While he would read a holy expression would spread on his face.

After the Saturday rest, My father would sit in the synagogue and study. I can remember the tune even today. He learned the tune while studying in the Ramulous Yashiva in Vilna…

Pinya the metal merchant would study intently from "Tzemach Tzedek" and the tip of his beard he would hold in his mouth. It must be very difficult text that he would usually read, he always read very intently. And then when it seems like has grasped it he would start singing in a Labovitch tune. Fischel the tailor and David the shoe maker would usually sit next to each other and say Tehilim. My Rabbi Yitza Moshe would read from the Zohar, and his eyes would be very red since it was a tradition for him to stay awake all of Friday night. However, not everyone would sit in the synagogues. The youth desired some entertainment. They want to breath some fresh air, so they would take a journey through Dolhinov St up to the Delga all the way to the pear tree. Dusk comes and the Mincha prayers would go home to eat the three meals. But at this time it was usually depressing for me and my appetite would seem to be lacking. Nevertheless, it is a commandment to eat the three meals so I would force my self to eat. Soon after the meals people return to the synagogue in the dark with only one candle usually. In the dark everyone's faces looked somber and depressed. The children would sit around and tell tales about Tzadiks and ghosts that must return to Hell after Havdalla. And then there will be a sudden knock on the table that was on the Beema and then it was time for Ma'ariv service. Vhu Rachoom Iyaher Avon… and then the prayers would end. Jews would bless each other and leave for the streets and for some reason they would walk with heavy steps and a bit sad.



The Charitable Institution: Gmilut Chesed

When I was a young child, I was obviously not knowledgeable of the social affairs in town. There is one thing though that was very clear to me: the poor natives were never neglected and passers by, whom we used to call "guests", on the eve of Shabat would always be invited for a Shabat meal. Considering the fact that our town's Jews were not particularly well off, my father, rest his soul, was known as a well off Jew, but he too needed loans for his business. People were always ready to give a helping hand, and a hand that was begging was never ignored. They would collect money for the brides and the weddings, Achnesad Kalah. For "Albushat Avyonim," meaning to cloth the "naked" and "Maot Chitim," to feed the poor. The money was collected for both the needy from Kurenets and outside of Kurenets. Most people happily gave, each one as he could afford, and some of them more than they could really afford. There was a Jew in Kurenets, a very respectable looking Jew, by the name of Lebim Nashesh. The essence of his existence was to give in secret "Matan Baseter." (So, the poor would not be embarrassed) Often during the winter, he would send a bag full of wood to one of the numerous homes whose residents could not afford buying them. Another righteous woman in our town was Zipah, the wife of Yashe leb Kramer, who knew every detail of the property of every family in town. Nothing would prevent her, not snow nor rain. She was always in a hurry collecting money for charity. One time for a Jewish girl whose time of marriage had arrived;" it's shameful to tell, but she didn't have any underwear to wear". Another time for young child who "reached the age to go to the Cheder, but he sits at home and cannot go study the Torah, since the winter is in its midst and he was still barefoot without any shoes." Another time for "a family who's breadwinner was sick and there was no income". Ever since I remember, my father was the Gabai of Gmilut Chesed, the charity institution. Since that was his job, I was able to experience the difficult financial situation that was occurring those days within the Jewish population. The rules of the institution were so that my father was allowed to lend money only if they gave collateral that had some monetary value. Many times, my father did not keep the rules and it was enough for him that they would just bring something symbolically. If someone would have asked those days to learn and investigate the Jewish economic situation in town, all he needed to do was to climb the ladder to our attic. There he would see a large inventory of the pounded town's possessions. Pots and pans, candle holders, silver spoons, books, hats, and copper containers. It was like a little supermarket. Father's assistant in his work was Abraham Eetzah, the teacher, an old Jew, tall, but now from old age all bent. He had a white beard, and his face was very pale. He held in his hand a cane. He was the accountant and the payment collector. This duty was done every Friday in the afternoon when he was done with teaching in the Cheder. In small steps, leaning on his cane, he would enter our home prior to the blessing of the candles. From his pocket, he would take a small cloth bag. With his shaky hands, he would open the ties and, carefully, he would put on the table copper coins of different denominations and start sorting them into organized denominations. After he was done with organizing and counting, he would take from his religious bag a little blue notebook and, since his eyesight was poor, he would ask me to help him. With shaky lips he would read for me and I would write. Sheemunatah Deteloh didn't give anything. He had no job. David, the shoemaker, didn't give anything, he had no penny. Or, sometimes, he would say the opposite. Sheemunatah Deteloh is done with his loan and David, the shoemaker, paid so-and-so. This blue notebook had the answer to the question: why do the Jews in Kurenets immigrate to far away places. I remember many times a particular woman would come with her fur coat in her hand and beg my father. "Reb Eliyahu," and with embarrassed face she would continue, "The gentile came and gave me the fur coat for sewing but he didn't come to take it back so I didn't give anything to Abraham Eetzah. However, I must have the candleholders to bless the Shabbat. It would be too embarrassing if the neighbors saw me without them." She would clear the tears out of her eyes with her apron and continue. "Do me a big favor Reb Eliyahu, Get the candleholders and take the fur coat as collateral." So father would take her fur coat and bring it to the attic, and from there he would bring the candleholders. On Sunday, the woman would come and bring the candleholders for exchange. One time, Seepah, the wife of Yasha leb Kramer, came running to our house wearing a big kerchief on her head and boots on her feet. She was talking so fast that we could hardly understand what she was saying. She said something like, "Reb Eliyahu we must do something for Mooshah the daughter of Eetzah. She's already ready for marriage. The poor soul is an orphan from her mother. Now we find a Sheedech for her, but she is so poor and has nothing. Her dresses are patch on top of patch. Eetzeh Moshe taught three generations of men. You, yourself, studied with him. Now Yonkeleh, your son, is studying with him. Chesed must do something for her. The women are already doing a lot." While she was telling us that, she shook the coins in a kerchief. When she saw my mother, she jumped towards her and yelled, "Hadah!" then whispered something in her ear. Mother opened the closet where she kept her underwear. A few minutes later, Zeepah leaves our home with a little package. I ran after her and said, "Zeepah! Father sends a sixth small coin." And I gave her the coin that father gave me to buy some candy at Benyah's store. Zeepah understood that the small amount is not from father. She took the coin and pulled me toward her and kissed my forehead and ran off. Father didn't tell me how much the institution gave for Mooshah, but one thing I know not too long after, she was married.



Passover

What energy the women of the town put preparing for Passover! The poorest of them painted their homes by themselves and came to our house to take the paint. The wealthier homes would hire painters but this was not done hastily and simply. In our home, the painters were Stach and Yachmina, a Christian couple. They were average in height, with red noses and watery eyes from being perpetual drunks. The had a run-down house behind the bath-house near the big swamps. They were the town's goyim shel Shabbat. When they would come to work, The first thing we had to put for them was a bottle of wine and salty fish. "Hadah", they would say, "without a glass of wine our hands are paralyzed". After breakfast, they would mix the paint and start to paint the wall. To enter the room was a very scary proposition. If someone dared, he would come out of there covered by paint. They were not painting, they were spraying. "Stach," my mother would ask with a warm smile, "I ask you please to paint the walls, not the floor and windows." When Stach would hear mother's request, he would start laughing and answer, "Ha ha ha. Don't be worried Hadetzkah. We will make your house so so beautiful! And when your holy God will enter your house he will be so please that he will bless you and you bear another son! "(Stach knew a lot of the Jewish customs and knew that in Passover we opened the door, so as he could understand it we were opening it for God who was making a journey from house to house) The house would look like a battle zone. Tables and chairs would be moved. However, ultimately they would arrange things and then everything, all the tools and dishes would be washed. The matzahs in the guest room would be covered with white sheets, and I would hold a lit candle and father would hold a wooden spoon and a goose-feather. We would go window by window and Abbah would clear every gram of Chametz and would say, "Call Chameerah, the Eeshal Belshoodee." On the morning of the evening of Passover, we would get up very early. Since my father was his parents' oldest boy, every year he would do the Seeyum of the Maschitah. We would hurry to pray with the first minion. After the first prayer, we would drink Le Chaim in the synagogue and return home. When we would return, we would find that the last rooms were already prepared for Passover, and Emmah would not let any of us enter. At 10am we would eat the last Chametz meal. Father would take the wooden spoon that was covered and tied and would burn the Chametz in a little oven would say, "Asher kidshanu bemitzvotav, vitzeevanu al beuoor Chametz." All the town's furnaces would be burning. According to the rules, the furnaces must be so hot that the rocks would glow red like fire and throw sparks. From every chimney, you could see smoke coming to the clear spring skies. The fear of fire was large, particularly in Smorgon Street, where there lived a thrifty misery Jew who never cleaned his chimney. The smoke that came from his chimney was somewhere between black and red. We are all in a hurry that day. We cleared the last dishes in the bathhouse, we took down the Passover dishes from the attic. Now, my mother gives me and my sister, Rocheleh, a new job, Lachtosh Misot, to fix the matzot. This is a difficult job, but I have no choice. Most of the work I have to do. My sister, Rocheleh, who is very tricky always managed to get away. She would say, "Yonkel, my stomach is hurting me awfully," and she would run to the yard. She would return to help for two minutes, then say, "Oh, my hand is tired. You do it Yonkel, in return I'll give you some nuts. I'm mixing and mixing and I'm so tired that I can't feel my hand." Dressed like noblemen, I in a new suit and my new shoes that are a little big for me, my mother put cotton in them, Father in his black and white suit we go to the synagogue. After the Mariv prayer, my father sends me to bring Saftah Gelkah Alperovich to the seder. Saftah Gelkah, tiny and skinny, her face full of deep lines, but her little eyes still sparkling with light, never seems to get old. I dearly loved my Saftah (grandma) Glekah. She always had a present for me. A cucumber from her garden, wild pears, and others. When I would come to Saftah, I would find her all dressed, shining in her black dress and jacket, I would take her to our home for the seder. Father sits at the head of the table, reclining on pillows. Next to the white pillow cases and the white tablecloth, my father would appear a little pale but his eagle eyes shined and his Hertzel beard had a few white hairs was all very groomed. And mother, it's a miracle, she worked so hard, when did she find time to get dressed and look so beautiful! Everything in the house is shiny and clean. The wine in the glasses seems to be winking in the light. Father reads Kalah Machelanah, I ask the four questions, and then we read the Hagadah. We eat and drink from the wine that warms the body. There is one thing that I was never able to do: steal the afikomen. I would watch my sister with seven eyes, but she would always be first and not only that, at the end she would mock me and point at me. The next day, Stach and Yachmeena would get rewards for the painting of the house. They would get the wine that we used for the 10 plagues and call it Makot. My little sister would say, "Stach, Mechnah, makot?" Stach would make a happy facial expression and would tell his wife, "Smatzah! Davie yashtah!" Each home in town had a seder. Many homes couldn't afford real wine and they would use another beverage, usually honey water. In houses that couldn't afford Cheft fish, they would eat the Yazga fish. Nevertheless, matzah was in every home and people would say the hagadah very intently. There was a story about one Jew in town, who came from the synagogue and saw the wine bottle on the table, couldn't wait for the seder and started drinking glass after glass. When his wife begged him to read a little from the hagadah, her drunken husband answered, "What is there to read? We all know that the Pharoh was son-of-a-gun" While I'm telling that story, I must tell the story of Abremel Eibender who, came to the synagogue the day after Passover limping and on his forehead he had a big bump. Everyone was wondering. It was known that Abemel was not a wild man, he would not touch a fly. And his wife, Yonah, is a peaceful person too. So how was he so injured? Mayeebel would not answer the questions but in Kurenets, you couldn't keep a secret and eventually we found out. Since he was a very devoted Lebabovitch Chasid, he had a tradition not to only tell the exit from Egypt, but to" live" the exit from Egypt. He would put a big pail full of water in his house. On his shoulder, he would put a big bag. Moreover, like the fathers of our fathers, he would quickly jump from one side of the pail to the other as if he was crossing the sea. However, that Seder was not a lucky one for him, and his foot fell into the pail and that was how he was hurt.

The first days of Passover the air is usually still, cool, but the sun is shining and the street shines in a golden light. The frost is gone from the windows, but you still see a few drops of shining water from the edges of the roofs. Birds fly in the blue skies. Everyone is dressed in holiday clothes, visiting each other, and the heart is full of hope.



Rosh Hashanah

The synagogues are completely filled since morning. Jews come dressed in white and the Shachareet prayer with the Chazan is very long. Then, they take the Torah out of the ark, and father starts reading with a special tune for Rosh Hashanah. Vedah Beched Etzkarah. After the reading, there is a short break. Then, Rav Noach and Israel Michael Hashochet go to the beema with their talit covering their faces. Moshe Baruch de Shamach hits the table with his hand as if he is warning the crowd. Israel Mechal, under is talit, is praying. Min chametz ebati yeal chamatee beah. He's not finished with the first sentence before everyone in the synagogue answers him and says the passage. When they are done, Reb Noach says quitely, "Shavareem tuat keeyah." I remember that one Rosh Hashanah, I was very sad during the Krieyot. I was reading one of the passages and there was a passage where you have to do it very slowly, carefully, not in one breath, and with great intention. I was not careful, and said it in one breath. That made me so scared that cold sweat came to my forehead. When they are done with the Keyot, they return the Torah to the ark and now it's time for Israel Icha the chazan to pray the Moosaf. Then, his helpers go to the steps that would take you to the ark. One would be Netkah, the son of David the hat maker, a small boy who has black eyes and pink cheeks; his voice is as beautiful as a nightengale. Then a few other kids go up. There is total quietness in the synagogue. Then enters Israel Shedrech dressed all in white. He whispers something to his assistants and they nod their heads in agreement. Then he gives a saying to Rasheb Mabarooch and hits his head on the table. His sweet singing is done in hushed tones "Hee nah nee hee nah nee." And the assistants help with the hum. Then, he will start much louder almost yelling, "I came here to beg for you! To beg for the nation of Israel." From the silence to the loud begging in such a short time, it leaves a huge impression on me. And not just on me, the child, but all the adults are shaking. Their eyes are tearful. Still today, many years later, I shake when I remember this moment.



Yom Kippur

The Meencha prayer on the evening of Yom Kippur was done very early. It was entertaining for me to see respectful Jews with their long beards lying on the floor like cheder boys and the very short Moshe Baruch the Shamas would hit them with a whip to clear their sins. In our house, we would eat our Harucha Mafseket, the meal before the fast, when the sun was still high in the sky. Father would change his clothes and my oldest sisters would wash the dishes. Mother would bless the little children, who were my sister, Rochaleh, and I. When she ended the blessing, she would hug us. She will tell me, "Nu, shanah tovah, my only son. May you grow, my son, healthy and complete and be a good Jew. And may I be blessed so that I can bring you to the Hoopah and have the pleasure to see you grow and become a man, my dear one." Then we will go, my sister Rochaeleh and I, to Saftah Hinda to bless her with… Safta (grandma) Hinda was skinny and bent, she was light and pale and her eyes would be shining with tears of excitement. She would come to close, kiss us and bless us. "Shenah tovah my grandchildren. I so hope that I will be able to be at your weddings. Then I will dance like a young girl."


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Eltkah nee Perski with Husband, Eetzah Rabunski


Uncle Eetzah Rabunski, tall and strong, his face is fresh and his blue eyes are smart and peaceful. Usually he sits with no kippah on his head. Now he sits with a hat. Next to him sits his young wife, Aunt Eltkah nee Perski (sister to Shimon Peres' father), a very pretty woman with a turned up nose and a beautiful smile. They would hug us and kiss us. I remember one time, when I was ready to leave, my uncle, the brother of my mother, Eetzah Rabunski, said with a smile on his face, "Yonkel did you ever hear how the Russian czar would say Kol Nedre?" I looked at him wondering what the Russian czar had with Kol Nedre ? Then Uncle Eetzah takes out a newspaper that is published in Vilnah and starts singing while reading it in the tune of Kol Nedre. "Kol Nedre, all the promises that I gave concerning the constitution and all the rules that I made prohibiting the hurt of Jews, all of them are canceled. Vosh chelim velot chenin. All my promises our worth nothing. Nadrana voderee nashtanah otmaot. All that I swore with my life is worth as much as a bark of a wild dog." And, while laughing he continues, "Yonkel, remember that tomorrow in your prayer you must ask that the czar, the Vilnah governor, and all the helpers will be brought to a strange death." Aunt Eltkah nee Perski laughed, but Safta Hinda is mad at the lightheartedness and the joking on the evening of Yom Kippur.

The synagogue is full. Everywhere there are containers full of sand and in them there are big candles, medium candles, and small candles. Candles everywhere. They don't wear shoes, they wear ______. Israel Eetzah, his assistant and his choir start with Kol Nedre. After the prayer, many Jews stay in the synagogue. Some say preteen. Some Jews stay all night in the synagogue, they just lie for a short time on the tough benches and then return to the prayer.



The Day of Yom Kippur

The sun had just risen. The ground and the grass in the fields were all wet from the morning dew, and there was the mist of early autumn. If Rosh Hashanah appeared as a storm in the synagogue, the day of Yom Kippur seemed like an earthquake. People would pray with their hearts filled with pain. Their lips would move, sometimes in whispers, sometimes in screams of angst. Pity us! Don't discard us now that we have reached old age! The people who came for the prayer of Shah harit would read from the Bible, and Israel Itzha would pray “Musaf”. Jews would sway back and forth with fervor, and then they would stand for the prayer of Shmona-Esreh (18). They would beat their fists against the tablets of their hearts (on their breast) for all their sins, and then Leibe Masha's would approach the Ark and bang the table and all the congregation would stand up and say, “Venatna tokef kadushat hayyom…”

The impression that the Jewish congregation left on me as a child was unforgettable. The way they swayed and shook, and the way their voices cracked when praying in ways that would break your heart. “ Hayyom norah veh ayom. Ke lo yizkor, beh eneha badim…” (The day is horrible and frightening since they will not receive justice in your eyes). But even deeper and more powerful than that was the impression left in me from the minutes when the entire congregation stood as if frozen without the slightest movement at the moment when Israel Itzha, who was the messenger of the congregation and his helpers, would start with Berosh Hashanah Yikatvun (In Rosh Hashanah they will be inscribed). He would stand with his eyes looking skyward, and he would spread his arms upward to the sky, and the sleeves of the kitl which were very wide, made him look like a miraculous bird that was flapping its wings, saying, “Mi l'chaim ou mi l'mavet?” (who is to live and who is to die?). His assistant, in a soft, splendid and clear voice, was joined by other singers whose faces became red from the task. They would sing “Beyom, tsom kippur yakhtemun” (In the day of the fast of Yom Kippur, it will be signed).

From the other area, where the women sat, came down voices and cries that would quickly spread throughout the entire synagogue. I would recognize the voice of Sarah Rifka, the wife of Yekutiel Meir Ha-Cohen Kramer, and truthfully Sarah Rifka had a good reason to cry: not only did they have difficulties in eking a living, but in their house grew up a blind child (David) that the physicians had not been able to cure. Everyone's heart would cry when we would watch how they helped him walk to the synagogue. “ Mi bekitzor, mi lobektizor?” (Who is at the end of his days? And who is not at the end of his days?) cried Israel Itzha, and the entire congregation would join in crying with him. After this prayer I would watch my father and would see that although he was usually not among the sentimental people, he would also weep, and surreptitiously wipe his eyes with a kerchief.

Many hours would pass, the sun would set in the evening in the west. From the windows you could see the sun's last rays of autumn, and soon you knew that her light would vanish. The colors of the sky would shift at dusk, from blues to reds… Pale fogs would envelope the forest behind Kosita Street. On the train tracks, a loud, fast train would go in the direction of Vileyka. The engine car would billow out smoke and small, fiery explosions. Then you would hear a loud whistle that would shake the heavens! This sound was foreign to the holy atmosphere of the gut-wrenching prayers of the faithful soul-searchers. The synagogue would be shadowed by painful and depressing blackness, only a few little candles would still be flickering in the containers in the sand. The Hazan's voice would already be strained, and the congregation of prayers would be exhausted from both the fast and the emotional prayers. But in the sky, the first stars would appear, and a loud announcement would be made for, “Next year in Jerusalem!” Then Israel Mikhail would blow the shofar loudly. In this darkness it seemed as if a little flicker of hope would be sparked. Everyone seemed to be uplifted and Jews would bless one another for a good year.

Pinya, who sold iron goods, did his entire prayer all the way from early in the morning while standing and he did not sit down for even one second, would start singing with great excitement a tune of Lubavitch Hasids, and many would join him. “In the mercy of our father in the heavens, we overcame Satan the Executioner, may we soon be blessed to hear the sound of the shofar announcing the coming of the Messiah!” Now people would pray, more comforted, the prayer of Maariv. Even when the Maariv prayer was all done, people in the congregation were in no hurry. They would step outside to bless the moon, renewing it. Old Jews would start jumping as if they were little children, babies ready to go to their first cheder, saying to each other, “Shalom aleihem, shalom aleihem, shalom” whiile pointing to different congregation members, being in no hurry to return home.


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Kurenets youth celebrating


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