by Y. Zilbershtayn
(aka: Jacob Silvershtein; aka: Yashe Silvershtein; aka: Jacob Silverstein; aka: Yashe Silverstein)
Translated from Yiddish by Al Stein
for Michael Silverbrooke (grandson of Yashe)
Copyright © 2013 by Michael Silverbrooke and Al Stein. All rights reserved.
(Yakov Hersh Fishl soyfer's)
I, Yakov Hersh, the author of these reminiscences, was born in Kurow, to poor parents. My father, Fishl soyfer, was Shmuel shammes's son-in-law. His father was Avrom, Yitzkhok, the soyfer's son, from Ryki. Grandfather Avrom was a distinguished man who was very observant; he was well acquainted with the Talmud, but I will not say that he was a great scholar. He knew how to study and was an eminent khosid in Kozhinits.
He inscribed prayer books and Torahs for various khasidik rabbis. Scholars and ordinary people would seek his advice because he was a clever man and was well respected. He sent most of his holy books to my father for inscription because Fishl was an artist in his trade. Fishl's megillehs were well known for their beauty. The decorations above the lines of text were exceptional. He could also make fine inks. He was able to convert skins to white parchment, like fine writing paper, to sew the holy books together. The two of them, father and son, were the most distinguished khasidim in Ryki, Avrom for his praying before the pulpit and Fishl for his singing.
On Friday evening men would gather at Avrom's to drink tea. They would boil up the tin samovar, seat themselves around the long table to drink tea and listen to my grandfather tell stories about many different rabbis their wondrous deeds, their Torah lessons. He was a wonderful storyteller; an unending stream, fresh and clear, would bubble forth. Later, as an adult, I wondered from what source was he able to draw so many tales? I regretted that I did not soak up more of what he told; it was a treasure.
Grandmother was very pious. I seldom heard her laugh or saw her smile. She was always busy with her wifely duties. Fishl's [much older] brother was a virtuous man, observant and also a khosid from Kozhinits. He was called reb Lozer.
My mother was called Gitl Leah. She was very beautiful and observant. A few people called her Gitl Leah the saintly. She was Shmuel shammes's daughter. Both sides of my family were involved with the clergy: scribes, shammeses [sextons], supervisors [of Jewish dietary laws], writers of sacred stories, makers of prayer shawls. In plain Yiddish, in other words, we were one hundred percent poor…
At two and a half years of age I was taken to Meyer, the teacher of the youngest children. Many of the young children sat there soaked and soiled; they really needed their mothers nearby so as not to create such a stench that permeated the entire building.
From my earliest years I grew up rebellious, unruly by nature. I was drawn to the street, to the field and forest. I could not bear injustice and always stood up for the wronged. As a result, I was as a youngster given the nickname sheygets [the ignorant wild one]. Mothers reported my forbidden behaviour to the Rabbi or to my father. When my grandfather found out that I was growing up as a real brat, he ordered that I leave to study in Ryki and I had no choice but to go.
In Ryki, life was not sweet. Someone told my grandfather that I was climbing onto rooftops and jumping down [totally undisciplined]. My grandfather would then beat me as if I was a grownup. I would run away from home for several days. When I was caught, exhausted, I was left alone. Because on the Shabbes [Sabbath] I ran after the soldiers that marched by the town and didn't return until three o'clock without having said my prayers, the Rabbi grabbed me the next day to strap me. I kicked his legs so hard that he fainted. So I was sent back to Kurow where I studied more Talmud and Commentaries. I was still drawn to the street. I liked the way the non-Jewish boys dressed up on Sunday. I dreamed that I, too, would someday dress up like them.
And so I studied with various Jewish teachers until I was eleven. Then my father sent me to a small Orthodox synagogue to study. He was not concerned, as other fathers were, about me learning with someone who could teach me about the Talmud. No, he abandoned me. I wanted to learn and tried to attach myself to someone who might help me study, but I was too young for the older boys or young men to accept me unless my father asked them to do so. They wanted me to be their messenger-boy, to do chores for them. This was the usual set-up in the small synagogue and because I refused to do this, I was beaten. Because I refused to cooperate I had to study alone.
During the winter a company of soldiers was stationed in Kurow for training. I used to skip out of the synagogue and run to the place where all their gymnastic equipment, hurdles and ladders, were found. I was very good at gymnastics and often a sergeant would ask me to show the new recruits how I did it.
In the summertime, I was near the water. I was considered one of the best swimmers in Kurow (in Winnipeg, Canada, until only five years ago, I was able to swim for miles every day and perform different tricks in the water).
More than once I received a beating from shepherds who found me wandering in their fields. I was not submissive like other boys or like adult Jews with their meekness. I should have been born a Cossack, a Tatar or a Kirghiz. I often found myself in danger of being seriously injured; it did not stop me. My fists delivered special lessons on more than one occasion.
I was also able to imitate grownup voices, to sing like them as they prayed before the pulpit.
My Prank with the Cantor's Hat
In Korev there was a very virtuous, pious Jew; a learned man, a teacher. His name was Hersh Gershon's. When the elderly cantor, Leybish Yosel's died, Korev was left without a cantor. Reb Hersh Gershon's suddenly appeared in the Orthodox synagogue Friday before nightfall, went up to the pulpit, covered both ears with his hands and gave a shout that sounded like the hoarse whistle of a steamboat: Come, let's sing. Everyone in the synagogue started laughing, they prayed and laughed. Reb Hersh had a weird voice, always hoarse, and he also made strange gestures and grimaces. After his mekabl shabbes [welcoming the Sabbath song] people said to him: Reb Hersh, you have never before led the congregation from the pulpit! His reply: I have decided to become the town Cantor…
That a man could lower himself so! Give up his teaching, become a Cantor and have to go with a can on Friday from door-to-door collecting! This was incredible; surely devils were playing tricks and had convinced him to become the Cantor. He was an absent-minded man, a dreamer, always deep in thought, he often talked to himself. He was tall, had soft eyes and a long neck where his Adam's-apple moved strongly up and down. His short, thick beard barely covered his Adam's-apple. His long hands swayed a lot as he walked. He wore a hat with a greasy top, with the visor always on the side. His long frock was never done up. He walked as if someone was chasing him, he ran and his open frock looked like the sails of a windmill, his hands moving up and down, forward and backward as if he was preparing to fly to distant riches.
Once, Hersh Gershon's ran into the synagogue in the morning to pray and study. I take a look: he's wearing a new hat! This was different, almost against the law of nature, Hersh Gershon's with a new hat?! For us, urchins, this was a sensation. I gave a wink to my friends and we soon decided that we had to rip off the visor.
As soon as Hersh Gershon's had put on his phylacteries and become engrossed in a holy book, we took the visor off his hat. We waited until he was finished praying. When he went to put on his hat, he found a strange hat, like a velvet soldier's hat. He looked for his hat among the other hats on the table, but it wasn't there. He ran all around the synagogue looking for his hat. Whenever he saw someone wearing a hat similar to his, he would grab it off their head and quickly say, not my hat. He continued running around in the synagogue for quite a while, followed by a bunch of laughing youngsters.
When the congregants went home, taking their hats with them, he went to the table, picked up his hat, examined it carefully from all sides and started singing with his hoarse voice in a scholarly Bible study melody: Is this my hat? Then where's the visor? Is this not my hat, then where is my hat?… The bunch of us urchins twice loudly repeated his song after him. Suddenly, he grabbed his hat, put it on and flew out of the synagogue. We brats followed him with the melody: Is this my hat? Then where's the visor? Is this not my hat, then where is my hat? I now feel very sorry for my impudent prank.
A Revolution in the Korev Synagogue
Once on a bitterly cold winter day, when people ran instead of walked, we synagogue congregants, who did not have the proper clothes to protect ourselves from the frost, ran quickly to the synagogue. There we expected to be warmed by two large tiled stone ovens which always met us with a smile, especially when someone brought a few potatoes to bake.
Instead, we found both ovens cold. We clapped our hands together, we jumped up and down, we ran around the platform from which the Torah is read, trying to warm up. Forget about trying to study. The older boys gathered themselves in groups, talking, bickering; the younger boys wandered around. We burned paper, covers of old holy books in the ovens and everyone tried to get close to the ovens; grownups pushed away the youngsters. Mordkhay Mekhl, the gabai [synagogue trustee] did not show up. Shmuel, the shammes, said there was no wood left in the woodshed. For evening prayers they had brought a few pieces of wood, but not enough to warm up the whole synagogue. Everyone was upset with the property owners. Even the old-timers who came to pray were angry with the wealthy for such neglect had they abandoned their obligations in this world?
It remained the same for over a week. In the synagogue we argued during the reading of the Torah, nothing helped. The congregants were embittered and all of a sudden it happened a revolution. The adults gave us youngsters equal rights; we could do whatever we wanted with the synagogue.
I became a captain all on my own. The adults gave orders to the adults, and I to the youngsters. The first order was that the children should bring pieces of wood from their homes. This meant that the children had to steal wood from their parents. I took the jackets off all the oil lamps and turned the wicks up high. We barricaded both the men's and women's entrances to the synagogue and locked the doors from the inside. The barricades consisted of our large oak study tables which at the men's entrance reached almost to the ceiling. On top of the barricade we placed the large barrel full of water; it was dangerous to remove it.
We brought pieces of wood and lit the ovens and when the fire was burning well, we closed the dampers so that the smoke would stay in the synagogue. We lit the wicks of all the lamps and all the lamp glasses were quickly blackened. We got out through a window in the [upstairs] women's section. We pasted large posters on the outside of the doors with printed letters for all to read: We want heat in the synagogue so we can study Torah! If not, there will be no praying in the synagogue. By afternoon prayer time, the synagogue was transformed into a ruin, full of smoke and no one could get in. There was an uproar; nobody expected that pious little Torah students could be capable of such things. But the ordinary people in the community were on our side; a day later the battle was won.
I am always hungry. I want to be able to write.
And so time went by. I became older, the sheygets in me grew larger. I was often hungry, never eating enough to fill me. I had the appetite of an animal. I grew tall and by the time I was fourteen, I looked tall enough to be twenty. No one wanted to confront me unless he had allies with him. There were two bookbinders in Korev. One was an elderly Jew, Leyzer, an artist in his trade. His leather-bound books were a marvel. To have a Talmud from Vilnius bound by him was a luxury; you had to be rich. The second bookbinder was Kopl. Anyone could get a book bound by him for a small price. The synagogue members who looked after the books used Kopl as their bookbinder. Kopl always included two smooth, empty, white pages of paper in each book he bound. When a packet of Kopl's books was brought to the synagogue, the boys would use this paper for writing and sketching. They had pieces of pencil and penknives to cut them with. I had nothing. When they were writing in their Talmuds, I, too, wanted to write. But go write when I couldn't and didn't have the wherewithal. My father was a good writer, besides his beautiful handwriting. He had, I could say, style. Yet, he did not want to teach his children how to write. Somewhere, I found a piece of pencil and I, too, became a writer on the empty pages. Later I obtained a letter writing instruction book and started to write.
If you would now open up those old books and Talmuds, you would read there a lot of love letters, songs, stories, and see fine drawings by the synagogue students, as well as addition, subtraction, multiplication and fractions.
When fifteen years old, I, by chance, started reading Yiddish books by Bloshteyn, Mendele, Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, Linetsky, Frishman, Spektor, and other writers such as Hermelin, Latayner, Zeyfert, Libin and even Faygenboym's anti-religious booklets.
In this way I also became a reader of socialist literature. Nevertheless I felt helpless. I had not mastered any trade and I was not able to tear myself away from my surroundings. I was a master of dreams. Romantic literature had also turned my head; I built castles in the air in my fantasies. I waited for a miracle that would remove me from my surroundings, allow me to become educated and a person useful to society, a productive person able to participate in the struggle for a better, more beautiful world of truth, justice and freedom.
I suffered from hunger. My father could not feed a family of ten children. The eleventh child died. Later, four more children died. Six children were left, three boys and three girls and all with big appetites.
Socialism and Matchmaking
My father started getting messages that I was headed in the wrong direction, was chumming around with workers and reading secular books. Life at home became a hell for me. My father threw me reproachfully before my mother I was her son. They started quarrelling about me. They had discussions with my uncles about whether I should become a tradesman. My family did not agree. My uncle Hershl said that I had a good head and that if only I would be willing to study for two years, I would surpass others. The question remained, what should they do with me, if my head was somewhere else? Then they proposed that I should get married, that I should become a son-in-law who lives with his in-laws for free for an agreed period of time. This would alter my entire life style.
Once, I had to lie in bed for a while because of a sore foot. When I recovered, my mother told me that I was now betrothed. This was a big shock. As young as I was, I did not want to get married in the old fashioned way. I could not imagine that I could marry a girl that my parents would choose for me. I dreamt of love, independence. I felt freer with my mother than with my father. My father had stopped talking to me. I told my mother that I did not want to get married, that I wanted to first meet the girl. If she pleased me, I would get married, if not, I would not get married. My mother told my father everything I had said. The next morning, my father and I had a heated discussion. He told me that he would not allow me to do as I wanted. I would have to marry the girl that they would select for me. I would not be allowed to behave like a Gentile!…
One day, after afternoon prayers, my father said that I should put on my Sabbath frock and behave like a decent human being. They tidied up the house and lit another lamp. My mother put on her Sabbath bonnet and threw yellow sand all over the floor. Suddenly three men appeared in the house. After the usual greeting, the tallest man asked me which part of the Talmud I was now studying. I didn't know what to answer and stammered: kidushin [name of the portion of the Talmud that deals with the laws governing the taking of a wife]. The man went to the bookshelf, picked out a book of the Talmud, selected a page and said to me: read! I chanted the page without explanation. He didn't ask me whether I understood it or ask me anything about it. He closed the book and said to my father and the man with the red beard: if he studies, he will know… refreshments were served and the matter at hand was discussed. It was decided that right after Passover, we would all go to look at the bride. When the men left, I really gave it to my parents, but my father, being very stubborn, said that they would go as decided, to look at my intended.
And so they did. The girl lived in Konskivolye, not far from Korev. Before afternoon prayers, Borukh the matchmaker came in, said that I should put on my Sabbath frock and go with him to the betrothal ceremony. I said I wouldn't go unless I first spoke with the girl. I planned to tell her that I could not marry her. Then the matchmaker told me that my mother was waiting for me in a stranger's house where I could see the girl. So, in the end, I went. We stopped in front of a brightly lighted house. When we went into the first room I saw only women with plates in their hands. We went into a second room where I saw my father, the man with the red beard and seated near them, a man in a satin frock who was writing.
I was greeted by all and seated between my father and the red bearded man. They handed me a red kerchief which by my touching it would confirm an agreement. Then they put the betrothal agreement in front of me for my signature. I showed not one sign of opposition, I was completely powerless. A brave hero at home, I was a nothing away from home. A tiger at home and away from home a pussycat.
I Leave for Warsaw. My sport with the Underworld.
Later, after the betrothal, I got to see my bride. On our way home I told my parents that I would not marry the girl. That very summer I decided to leave for Warsaw. I had no idea what I would do there. I had no trade, didn't know Polish, I wasn't any good at selling. Besides, this was a time of great unrest, particularly in Warsaw it was 1905. After Sukkes [Sukkot], I packed a couple of shirts, put on my frock coat and without any money, left for Warsaw.
I suffered many hardships. I met a few itinerants from Korev who told me to sleep in the wood-chip factory. Later, a chap from Korev sent me to his friend in Povonzek, a small town just outside Warsaw. That guy suggested that I should become some sort of teacher, teach girls how to write Yiddish and how to pray. He said even older boys who now studied in the Polish schools would study Yiddish. I told him I wasn't a teacher. He tried to convince me: teach what you can, earn something, buy some clothes, then, we'll see what happens later. So I put my right foot in first and soon started to earn. I became independent. I bought some decent clothes. I began to come in contact with political people; began to take part in various demonstrations, to hand out proclamations. I helped provide the Korev cabinetmakers with bread during the big strike.
In Povonzek I lived in a rented room where my pass was not valid; I could barely move [from the room]. I ate well and became strong. I did tricks with my teeth, lifted heavy weights with them. I won't forget an event when I surprised a few underworld heroes. In the middle of the winter, news began to circulate that pogroms were taking place in Warsaw. The chauvinist nationalists were the instigators; the police helped them, or the other way around.
We immediately organized a means of self-defence. We all gathered in a room near where the horse-drawn omnibus from Warsaw stopped. We changed the watchmen every night. We were young people, carriage drivers, labourers, intelligentsia, the politically motivated, and a few from the underworld, with Shloyme the nose their leader. Shloyme always carried a weapon; without a stiletto he wouldn't budge. Not only Povonzek residents were afraid of him, even Warsaw knew about him. Every time he came to our room, he mocked the rest of us. He was very agile, thin and had a long nose. He saw me there. I was still wearing my long coat, a small hat and a shirt with a stiff collar. I was also thin. He noticed me among the others. Young women would visit; we would horse around, struggle and spar with each other over who would sleep with whom. Shloyme picked on me like a pest. Everyone laughed, especially the young women. That really burned me up. He said to me: you dupe, what are you doing here? If you would see an old Gentile on the street, you would run away! At this, I lost patience and shouted at him: Why are you laughing at me? I bet I can defeat you in any kind of wrestling match. You must only give me your word of honour that you won't later carry a grudge against me.
It became quiet. The laughter stopped. He had never considered that such a young snippet would have the audacity to talk to him like that. We stared at each other. His adjutants didn't know what to do. I waited for an answer; he couldn't avoid answering and said to me: I accept. Then he asked me which of the sports I knew better. I said, because he was older, he could choose. He chose arm-wrestling. Two chalk lines were drawn on the table so that our hands would be equally positioned; our left hands. Someone started counting, then we started our battle. We struggled for several minutes before I was able to overcome him. Everyone thought he would pull out his knife and stab me. Everyone stood there without breathing. He said: I didn't think the boy was so strong. I became an immediate hero. In the street they pointed at me: that's him, he who won over Shloyme the nose.
During the time when Borukh Shulman threw a bomb at Konstantinov and the great massacre that Skalon, the governor-general, with his troops from Ulan, responded with on the fourth of April, I began to feel too crowded in Warsaw. I felt that I was being spied on. So, I went back to Korev.
Back to Korev. Angry looks from my father and pleading looks from my mother
I no longer went into the synagogue. The way I was clothed and the way I behaved was different. I was looked at with suspicion. My parents were pitied for their shame. My father had already seen to it that I could not get a passport. I went around without a cent. I secretly became involved with socialist activity. Korev had no bundist [Jewish socialist workers' movement] organization, where support could have been found.
That summer was hell for me. The angry looks from my father and the pleading looks from my mother's blue eyes said: don't make my shame any greater! I was left with no friends; I wandered around alone and without purpose. The pressure from my parents, and from my in-laws intensified I finally gave in. In Israel there is still a living witness to my grief on that last day of my bachelorhood, before I went to the wedding.
In Konskivolye I was supposed to be supported by my in-laws for two years. But after a few months I had to find a practical purpose to my life. I became a weaver; I learned how to make ribbons and tapes from my wife's uncle. People from the radical socialist movement circulated in my house, even though my wife was very pious, had shaved her head and wore a wig in the Orthodox tradition. After two and a half years she bore me a son…
Still, I hoped and strived to free myself from this unnatural life. And the time came quickly. I had organised the workers not only in our ribbon factory, but also the whip handle workers who worked for the same owner.
Our work was paid by the arshin [Russian yard], and the whip handles by the dozen. Better and inferior kinds by different prices. Most of the workers were pious Jews, Khasidim. We organized a strike that lasted for several months. In the end we were betrayed by a few leaders of the Polish Socialist Party. This was my first disappointment in my new Torah, in the liberation of the working-class, and of all humankind. I and one other worker lost our jobs.
My Uncle prays on my behalf to the Police. To Canada.
I was forced by the local police to leave Konskivolye; this was my wife's uncle's work. I went to Nikolayev, where my elder-aunt lived without an address. I left in my old Jewish attire; a long frock coat, an old cap on my head, with a few shirts and five rubles in my pocket. When I arrived in Odessa, dead tired, the carriage drivers measured me with their whips. Without money, unable to speak the language, I was laughed at. I suffered through a lot before I became a clerk in a large wholesale grocery business. Two years later, my wife came to Kherson and we divorced.
During those few years in Russia I lost I mean politically and culturally 75 percent. I couldn't link up with a contact. I had some troubles with my pass, because the police had written something there about me. It cost me a couple of rubles to have it erased.
In 1913 I left for Canada. My spiritual baggage was: two copied-out poems by H.N. Bialik. Arriving in Winnipeg, I found there a Jewish socialist-communal life and I was soon involved in it. The first thing I did was to become a member in the Literary Society. As a matter of fact I didn't understand why the association had such a name. The association had eighty members, young men and women. Individual works of different writers were read aloud and then discussed.
My first presentation was: to recite Bialik from memory. I also said monologues in makeup and without makeup. My repertoire included: Dovid Pinski, Sholem Aleichem, I. L. Peretz, Bovshover, Edelshtat.
I became a free socialist, I was interested in thinkers such as, Peter Kropotkin, Johann Most, Max Shtirner, Proudhon, Alexander Berkman, Rudolph Rocker, Emma Goldman [many of this group were anarchists]. I corresponded with Emma Goldman, R. Roker, Joseph Kahn. I became active in the arbeter-ring [Workman's Circle]. I was a founder of the Workman's Circle School where I was Chairman of the Education Committee. I took an active part in the campaigns to support Tsish'A schools in Poland, CYCO and others.
I got married. My wife bore three sons and died in childbirth. I was left by myself with four children. I had brought my first wife's son over to me. Fifteen months later I married a doctor from Russia. She was very intelligent. Our house became a home for visitors such as Rudolph Rocker, Emma Goldman, Joseph Kahn, Jacob Pat, Aryeh Naymark, Kazhdan, Pinkus Schwartz. I was chairman of their lectures and banquets.
|Yakov Hersh Zilbershtayn and his wife [Bertha Koyle]|
I become a train-worker. 40 years of work
I was a steel-mechanic, worked in the railroad shop building metal freight cars. [missing text] I was an executive member. I played an active role in the Winnipeg general strike of 1919 where 35000 workers walked out. The city police and firemen were also members [?] of the I.W.W. [Industrial Workers of the World]. In my trade, I was the only Jew among over twenty other nationalities, and they all voted for me, even the Communists.
Twelve years ago I was one of those asked by the Workman's Circle to establish the local Jewish Workers' Committee. I was chairman of the first conference and also chairman of the founding group. I was protocol-secretary for a long time. Several years ago I was appointed Chairman, a position that I occupy to this day.
I retired from my job two and a half years ago. After 40 years of hard physical labour, my doctors advised me to leave the shop.
I am a grandfather to six grandchildren, the oldest of which is 22 years of age. We have 5 sons.
With my spiritual baggage, which is severely limited by a lack of academic knowledge and by only two languages, I have created a recognized position in Jewish political, cultural and community life for myself. Non-Jewish workers also recognized my activities and respected me. Many Jewish workers, who worked at easier trades, tinsmiths, painters, carpenters, took me as an example of a proud Jewish worker.
Our little town of Korev dark and light, bitter and sweet… the market, the river, the bridge
Almost ninety percent [? see footnote two] of the residents were Jewish. The non Jewish residents lived mostly around or outside the town; a small number lived on the Lublin highway, on Novi-Rinek Street and also on the Courtyard Street. It appeared exactly as if the Gentiles were our neighbours.
Korev mud decorated the men's long coats and the women's dresses, particularly those of the stall operators who didn't have time to turn up their dresses while selling. Courtyard Street and nay-mark Street were impassable during the time of mud. There was also a large swamp in the market, near Noakh Mendel's store up to Simkhe Koze's store. If someone slipped into that swamp, they had to be rescued by others.
There were two kinds of sellers in the market those who stood and those who sat. The women who sold meat, fish, and the innards, stood; their stalls were small tables or overturned cases. Those who sold apples, other fruits, cheese, butter, and hot drinks, sat and had stalls with troughs on cases. In wintertime they wore padded bloomers, quilted kaftans, several pair of warm socks and were wrapped up with warm scarves over their heads. They had small iron pots with glowing charcoal inside. These pots they would place under their dresses between their legs. More than once smoke could be sensed coming from under a dress and in no time a shout was heard: hey, Zisl, your bloomers are on fire! Unfortunate Zisl, frightened and ashamed, would jump up, quickly remove the pot and dump out the burning charcoal. Other women would help her extinguish her burning clothes.
The Gentiles had their stalls too. These were the pig-fighters who sold pork, black stuffed intestine and white ham. The smell of these stalls could make one faint the Jews would be disgusted when passing by these stalls. The market was always full of wandering dogs, goats, chickens, ducks, geese, pigs and pigeons.
The Gentiles from the villages surrounding Korev would bring eggs, butter, fowl, wood and vegetables to the market. You could hear the sounds of the farmers' scythes being sharpened on the flint stones as well as the clanging of hammers as the iron sellers made wagon-wheel rims from pieces of flat iron.
Korev could not brag about its public toilets which stood below the old cemetery near the river and could be smelled from a distance. The river, too, would from time to time help to embarrass our town. After a rain, the river would flood the toilets, up to the fence of the cemetery; the ground and even the fence would then become covered with a green fluid.
Korev cannot be considered inferior because of the few faults that I have mentioned. The inhabitants of Korev were proud of their town. At the end of the 1890's, Korev was well known for its scholars, khasidim, merchants, men of prowess, its industry, small factories and workers. The town was circled by green meadows, fields and small pools near the khasidik courtyard.
On the Pulaver highway there was a weir that kept in check the waters of three streams, the Klintev Dzhike, the narrow Dzhike and the river with the white-yellow lilies. The water in the weir was crystal clear and a pleasure to swim in. We boys would undress on the pasture near the narrow Dzhike and swim into the weir. The police would throw our clothes into the water because it was forbidden to undress near the road. It happened that they threw our clothes into the weir. We had to swim around until the police left. Meanwhile our clothes sank to the bottom which was as deep as four adults.
The river had enough water to drive a big mill which stood opposite the slaughter-house on the other side of the bridge. The women used to wash their laundry on the other side of the bridge, near the water-wheel. They would tuck up their dresses above their knees and kneel beside the water as they beat the wash. Their eyes would remain looking down because men would stand on the bridge and look down at them. More than one khosid or member of the synagogue was tempted to catch a glance of their naked legs.
From the bridge, the road went uphill and joined two highways: the Lubliner and the Riker. Beyond the bridge they drilled the soldiers who were quartered in barracks on the courtyard street as well as in private homes.
The yellow house, dances, discipline and frogs
The Lubliner highway was beautiful, enchanting. On the right hand side, little houses with flowers and the priest's orchard with the large, green pasture. Past the administrative office a pretty scene revealed itself: the highway was straight and was strewn with yellow sand on the sides. The valleys were decked with green grass and on both sides of the valleys white stones were lined up. Tall, thick linden-blossom trees were seen, the scent of which was like perfume and could be smelled from miles away. Fields of wheat, barley, oats, vegetables and red and black poppy blossoms were spread out on both sides.
Further higher stood the yellow house, the residence of the highway engineer. This was the gathering place of the young men and women who would then descend along the street leading to the courtyard. The borders of the street consisted of four rows of trees. Two paths existed for people and a wider path for carriages. The tree branches at the top had grown together over the road as if to form a long wedding canopy; the sun could not penetrate, it was cool there.
The young men and women danced there barefoot. Every Sabbath in the summer they sang and danced waltzes and quadrilles there. Then, when someone told their parents about these goings-on, many of these youngsters were severely disciplined by their parents.
Korev also had many orchards. The frogs would sing their songs of praise just like a well rehearsed choir; their concerts could be heard for miles from dusk to dawn.
The Korev Synagogue
I knew as a child that the synagogue was already two hundred years old. It stood downhill, behind the bes-medresh [Orthodox prayer and study house], in the middle of the old cemetery, where a few old gravestones were still visible, the letters worn and barely legible. Korev was evidently an old Jewish town whose wealthy inhabitants could afford to build such a fine synagogue.
Many different stories were told about the synagogue stories of devils, spirits and the dead who prayed there at night. It was even told that a few passersby were in the middle of the night called up to the Torah. So they went to the Rabbi who called the shammes [sexton]. The person called up had to mount the bima [platform from which the Torah is read] and without looking around, say the blessings and then leave moving backwards only.
It was told that the dead used to immerse themselves [for ritual purification] in the well that stood near the river. People were afraid to pass by the synagogue. Even those who lived near the synagogue were afraid to go out alone at night.
The synagogue was very high; you had to be a good stone-thrower to throw a stone over it. It had thick granite walls. The exterior architecture had a Spanish style. In front there were three tall recesses with a red brick balcony. From there, Shmuel, the shammes would on the holiday of simchas torah, throw down apples to the children. The windows were long, half circular and made of coloured glass. Three doors led into the synagogue. The door on the right led upstairs via a staircase to the separate women's section. The middle door led downwards via several staircases, to a heavy oak door, a long corridor, and an anteroom with holy books. From the balcony in the women's section, the women could look down into the men's section and throw nuts and candy when a bridegroom was called up to read.
Inside the synagogue, one was captured by its beauty and became overwhelmed with reverence. So many hanging lamps, big ones, small ones, some were very large and heavy and hung from long thick chains fastened to long red beams. The beautiful bima [pulpit] had the appearance of a crown and had steps on both sides. Opposite the readers desk there were half circle benches. The painted bunches of grapes were so realistic that you were tempted to pick them for eating. They were painted by Pini Itshe, the gravestone engraver's father, a great painter. A little higher toward the pulpit and on both sides, there were two brick cases full of sand on which were placed candles for circumcision celebrations as well as the yortsayt likht [death anniversary memorial candles].
|The Korev synagogue, the bima, the case with the yortsayt likht [death anniversary memorial candles]|
The East-Wall was covered by wonderfully artistic carvings; columns of leaves, snakes, doves. The small doors of the oren-koydesh [repository of the Torah scrolls in the synagogue] were covered with engraved silver. Many steps with railings and spindles led up to the oren-koydesh. The ceiling was made of thin, smooth wood on which were painted the moon, stars, signs of the zodiac, animals such as lions and deer with sacred verses written below. The Korev synagogue was recognized in Poland for its artistic style and the Jews of Korev were very proud of it.
With my grandfather to the synagogue in the middle of the night for the ceremonial search for leavened dough [carried out the day before the start of Passover, in which dwellings are cleaned of all traces of leaven]
This particular event I will never forget. I once went at night to my grandfather (Shmuel the shammes) for the ceremonial search for leavened dough. I saw that he held a wooden spoon, goose feathers, a prayer book, a lamp and a box of matches. He took me by the hand, gave me the prayer book to hold, went to the wall, took three heavy keys off a nail and said to me, come. I understood where he was going. I became frightened, my heart started quivering, my knees trembled, I prayed for a miracle so that I would not have to go with him to the synagogue at night when the dead were there. The miracle never happened. I do not know if he saw my fright; I followed him blindly. Shmuel shammes, the tall Jew with the high white forehead, with his long white beard; his beckoning someone was like a command you could not disobey.
We went up to the large oak door of the synagogue. Grandfather lit the lamp and gave it to me so that I could light the way. With the keys he gave three loud knocks on the door lock. This was a sign for the evil ones inside that living persons from the real world were about to enter the synagogue and that they, the devils and spirits must leave the synagogue for us.
When the door opened, he took the lamp from me and my teeth started chattering so loud that my mother at home must have heard. The first large dark shelf where several old gravestones leaned against the wall suddenly came alive. The shadows on the walls looked like the living dead. I felt as if they were about to grab my neck with their hands and choke me. I grabbed my grandfather's frockcoat and stumbled after him blindly, afraid to open my eyes, but still took a peek.
Suddenly my grandfather's voice was heard: Yakov-Hersh! Open up the prayer book! An echo repeated my grandfather's command. My hands and feet became uncontrollable, as if in a fit. If I tried to open the prayer book, it became alive. The pages made a noise. I felt that the dead were turning the pages with hundreds of hands and fingers. I was afraid to give the prayer book to my grandfather, for I would then be without an amulet [guard], and also would have nothing to fasten my eyes on. Well, I heard my grandfather's voice, why are you taking so long? The echo in the synagogue repeated my grandfather's trembling teeth: Ffinndd nnoww!
With great effort I found the page which dealt with the ceremonial search for leavened dough. Grandfather took the prayer book and held it close to his short-sighted eyes, said the blessing while scraping the bread crumbs into the spoon. Finished, we mounted the bima. Grandfather took down a thick piece of matseh which hung from a nail opposite the East-Wall. My fright abated somewhat. We went down from the bima, my grandfather with the matseh in his hand. Then we performed the ceremonial search for leaven among the shelves. We then went outside and grandfather locked the door.
I felt the cold air because I was wet. I ran home as if a bunch of devils was chasing me. I was afraid to look behind me, the hair on my head stood on end, my cap was on sideways. Like this, I fell into my home, as pale as death. My mother was very frightened, I was gasping. She asked me, where were you? Panting, I told her that I had gone with grandfather to the synagogue for the ritual search for leaven. She cried out with a voice not her own: to take a child at night to the synagogue for the ritual search for leaven?!
She wiped the sweat off me and told me to go to bed. I had terrible dreams. I told all the boys about my bravery while at the synagogue at night. They were very impressed and wouldn't leave me alone, kept asking if I had seen the devils, had I felt them. Tell us, tell us. I was happy to tell them everything, but about the terror and my great fright, not a word…
Shmuel the shammes the motke khabad of Korev
Many stories were told and are still told about him by those who knew him personally. Even the younger generation tells stories about him that they heard from the older generation.
I will try to portray Shmuel the shammes as well as I knew him: a tall man with the high, white forehead of a learned man, a clear face of rosy colour, blue eyes very short-sighted, a long white beard, a man of stately appearance. His movements were leisurely, but beneath them one could detect energy. His brain was always planning: how best to help those in need. He brought joy and laughter into homes. He was a dedicated Jew who had his own way of giving to charity always in secret. The most important thing for him was to make sure that lonely orphaned women were married.
Shmuel shammes always prayed in the bes-medresh on the holiday of Simkhes-Toyre. If he had to come to a circumcision celebration, a wedding, a calling-up to read from the Torah at Simkhes-Toyre, then he prayed in the synagogue. At kriyes-hatoyre [the reading of the Torah in the synagogue while praying], he would go to his house and bring back a big sack of apples which he then carried up to the balcony at the front of the synagogue. He stood there for a moment in thought, wrapped up in his prayer shawl. Suddenly he straightened up, looked down at the gathered children and adults in their prayer shawls, took two fistfuls of apples and gave a shout, tson-kodoshim [blessed sheep], meh, meh, meh! Then louder! meh, meh, meh!, and threw the apples down to the wandering children and adults who caught them. Once again, Shmuel shammes shouted, tson-kodoshim! This time, young and old responded, meh, meh, meh!
After eating a holiday feast at home, children would gather at Shmuel shammes's house. Shmuel, dressed in a white robe, handed out sacks or baskets to the children. He then went out all around town followed by a gang of happy boys, singing, dancing and shouting: tson-kodoshim, meh! Louder again, meh, meh! Thus did Shmuel shammes the shepherd lead his little sheep from door to door of the wealthy Jews who filled their sacks with khallehs [fine white egg bread], fowl, fruit and other treats. The wealthy Jews knew that everything they gave would be given to the needy. They honoured Shmuel shammes with a glass of whisky and he didn't dislike it. The more whisky, more fire, more singing
Happy, but not drunk, Shmuel led the procession around town. Even the Gentiles respected him and greeted him: Shmulke! Before minkhe [afternoon prayer], the shepherd led his singing and now burdened sheep back. The sacks and baskets were all placed in the bes-medresh where a large audience waited to hear Shmuel shammes perform the mayrev [evening prayer] before the omed [pulpit] in the style of the prayer for rain [said at the holiday of Sukkot]. Everyone there helped and supported him. Khaym Yehuda's, the batkhn [entertainer at a wedding or other special event, specializing in humorous and sentimental rhymes] was there with his fiddle, so was a klezmer with his double bass, a drummer with his drum (who may have been Khaym Yehuda's son). After the evening prayer, Shmuel shammes organized the crowd into a large circle dance around the bima. Hands were held together or were on another's shoulder and the band played: shishi vesimkhu, simkhes toyreh! Everyone danced and Shmuel shammes commanded all: Louder! Livelier! Lift your feet! shisi vesimkhu, simkhes toyreh!
Later, he mounted the bima and knocked on the reader's desk, at which everyone fell silent. He then called out the prices of various foods, wood, and other necessities for the winter. The prices were so little, for instance: a dozen eggs one penny! forty pounds of wood 3 pennies! The crowd laughed. He wished everyone a year of prosperity and success. The crowd dispersed, everyone ready to meet the morning workday with hope and faith in a good winter to come, followed by a kosher Passover
Shmuel shammes sent everyone out of his house, closed the shutters and the outside door and remained alone in order to organize the distribution of the food that had been collected for the poor. About eleven at night, people started to come, mostly women, who kept to themselves. Shmuel shammes had already seen to it that one person would not see another, that this would truly be a gift in secret.
Khanuka and a Song about Shmuel shammes
Khanuka was a big, happy holiday, particularly for the boys and the bes-medresh attendees. In the kheyders [schools for young boys], little studying took place, and in the bes-medresh, none at all. We got Khanuka-money, played the dreydl game [a game of chance played with a four-sided top], the older boys played their card games. But all of these pleasures were nothing when compared with the pleasure we boys had when once in the year, on Khanuka, we could get even with Shmuel shammes. For a whole year he wouldn't let us wander around or chase each other around the bima in the bes-medresh. Shmuel shammes would chase after the undisciplined brats and his lion-voice would resound throughout the bes-medresh: I'll tear you to pieces, shkotsim [unruly brats], be quiet!
He had no power over us during Khanuka. He would say the blessings over the Khanuka candles in the bes-medresh before evening prayers. He had a large, brass, Khanuka lamp that he would hang up on the wall every year, before Khanuka. The lamp hung at the front over the Kotsker table, a long table, three paces from the bima.
During Khanuka, Shmuel shammes would keep the bes-medresh almost dark between afternoon and evening prayers. The only light came from a few death-anniversary candles. After afternoon prayers, all the boys would stand up on the benches around the walls where adults were studying at tables, and as if from a well rehearsed choir, all in unison, the voices of the children could be heard: He comes! He comes! He summons! He summons! He lights! He lights! He cannot go to and fro, he can no longer do it!
Shmuel shammes would rush to the benches with strap in hand. The boys would disappear under the tables. When the danger was over we returned to our same positions and a new song would start: Shmuel shammes comes, his legs splayed out, his beard combed, but his pants torn, -- oh! oh! oh! oh! oh! oh! The adults also would enjoy our mischievous prank and this would go on until the time came to bless the Khanuka lights. When Shmuel shammes would light the candles, the choir would shout out: he lights, he lights, he lights!
When we heard a certain prayer, we knew that Shmuel shammes had said the blessing. It was impossible to outshout the children. Those adults closest to him gave a sign and he then began to sing and everyone joined in. Thus it went for the eight days of Khanuka, year in, year out.
The tradesmen as well as those who studied in the bes-medresh disguised themselves in various costumes in order to collect money so that the poor could celebrate the coming Passover properly. Some of the poor also dressed in costume so that they could collect donations for themselves…
The disguised collectors had a system. They measured out the town in length and breadth in order to be the last to arrive at the homes of the two richest men who had invited all those in costume to a Purim feast and to a make a l'khayim [to life, a celebratory toast]. One of the rich men, Shaul, lived on hoyptgas [Mainstreet], the second, Khaym, had the exclusive license to produce liquor and also owned a tavern opposite Sholem Volf's house.
The costumed people repeated their Purim plays, sang, danced and tasted everything. Then some of the players gathered in Khaym's tavern to have more whisky, beer, wine, mead, roasted goose, stuffed neck and gizzards. The three klezmer players with Yehude Garb as leader, also came to Khaym's and everyone ate, played and danced again.
Shmuel shammes would disguise himself on Purim night and all during the next day. Nobody in town could recognize him. People would bet with each other whether they could find him and then search the whole town. They would carefully look at every stranger, beggars, a German with a trumpet, a knife-sharpener, a soldier. On the day after Purim, Shmuel shammes was transformed into a great play actor.
Once, on Purim night, Shmuel shammes, disguised as a German with a curly black beard, showed up to have drink at Khaym's tavern. He noticed, among the others disguised, a handsome young man, a dandy with a black moustache and sideburns, aristocratically dressed. The young man was Moyshe Sholem, his only son. Moyshe Sholem was very good looking, a good draftsman, a good dancer and already a half a maskil [those who opposed the strict and controlling rabbis and who wanted to enlighten Jews through modern education]. Near him sat Yankl Piyekalik, dressed up as a scarecrow. Yankl had studied to become a state appointed rabbi [responsible for collecting data on the Jewish population in a certain district, for being an intermediary between the Jews and the Russian authority, for providing modern advice on community and family problems. They were often treated with suspicion by religious Jews], and had learned Russian from Tshatski's grammar.
Shmuel shammes could speak Russian so he sat down next to them, drank a whisky and spoke to them in Russian. The elegant young man matched him drink for drink. It seems that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. They could both drink. Shmuel shammes asked the musicians to play and invited the young man to dance with him. Both danced quickly and lightly on their feet. Shmuel liked the young man and whispered in Yiddish to him: whose little bastard are you? The young man remained silent. After the dance they resumed drinking. Yankl speaks in Russian, they drink, the musicians play a quick, cheerful piece and Shmuel again asks the young man to dance and the story repeats itself, whose little bastard are you? This happened a few more times until suddenly Shmuel burst out laughing and said loudly to all present: you know what! This young man, pointing to him with his finger, can be no one but my own little bastard!
Once, the day after Purim, I went to my grandfather's. From a distance I saw a limping, Gentile beggar leaving the house. He had a long stick in one hand, in the other a crutch. He wore an old non-Jewish hat and had a short beard, not completely grey. He wore two sacks, one completely new, the other one old. Then I saw Avrom, Naftoli the naturopathic doctor's son, leaving the house carrying a small suitcase. I thought perhaps he had just cupped my grandfather.
I went into the house; no one was there. On the table there was a lamp and several burnt corks from flasks. I went back outside where I heard children shouting, some were squealing like pigs. I ran in the direction that the beggar had gone and saw that some children had twisted the skirts of their long frocks into what looked like pigs tails, put this in their mouths and were grunting like pigs. I joined the circle, the beggar raised his stick and yelled at us with a hoarse voice that he would kill us with his stick.
Then a few Jews arrived and strongly scolded us, shouted that they would tell our fathers. One of the Jews said to me: ay, Shmuel shammes's grandchild, precious brat, wait ‘til I tell your grandfather, he'll pull your ears so hard that you'll be able to lay them on your shoulders.’
Moyshe Sholem, Shmuel shammes' son,
who died in Israel
Royze Kartman, Shmuel
who perished in the Holocaust
The beggar went away to the church and sat down near the old men, took a piece of herring and bread out of his sack and started to eat. He placed a bowl near him into which the Gentiles passing by threw coins.
Later, this beggar became a German-Jewish merchant who walked around the marketplace. Then he went into the inn on the Lubliner highway (I've forgotten its name). The Jewish owner was very stingy, wouldn't give a charitable donation; he was thoroughly disliked. Shmuel shammes [disguised as a German] ordered a fine meal, a good bit of whisky and spoke German. The proprietor sat down next to the German and a conversation started. The German treated him with whiskies and they continued to drink and talk. The Jew got up and thanked the German for the honour. The German continued to drink and didn't pay. When the proprietor turned aside to answer someone, the German jumped quickly to the door and ran outside. He ran to Itshe Shnayder's store. Another man (I think he was called Israel Balkes) ran after him shouting: - catch the German! A cry went up in the marketplace: - catch the German!
They caught him and the Jew who drank with him told everyone how the German ate and drank a lot and didn't pay. The German said that the Jew also drank a lot. The Jew said that the German treated him. The German said that he couldn't afford to treat the owner. After a long dispute between the two, the strong young men said to the German: - pay up! If not, we'll break your bones! To which the German responded: - all right, but I want to hear how much I owe him. Let him add up what I ate. The Jew reckons: a bottle of ninety, a quarter of a goose, a gizzard, carrot pudding and a stuffed neck. The German says: - I have no money! Some men started to shake him and it looked as if blows would soon follow. Then the German said: - what do you think, should Shmuel shammes have to pay him for a meal? Laughter and shouting broke out, the strong young men asked Shmuel shammes to forgive them. The inn owner was cursed and abused as he left. This story became known far outside Korev.
A Similar Happening
Once, Shushan-Purim [the day after Purim] fell on market-fair day. All the sellers and brokers were there trying to earn something. A German showed up at the fair, carrying a stand on his shoulders. He stopped in the middle of the market, set up his sharpening wheel and called out to the women to bring him all their knives, scissors and cleavers to sharpen. Many women and poor folk too, brought him all their knives and scissors to sharpen. The German was soon very busy, preoccupied with his sharpening. He never bargained with his customers, whatever they gave him he accepted. The women praised him: a good German, whatever you put into his hand he takes and says danke schoen.
After several hours of sharpening, a woman came running to the sharpener with her knives and cried out: all my knives won't cut! Another woman soon appeared: oy vey, he's ruined my scissors, they won't cut! The German remained silent. Soon there was a circle of Jewish women around the sharpener, all complaining bitterly that their knives, scissors and cleavers wouldn't cut now.
The German remained silent as more and more women came running, all protesting loudly that the German was not a sharpener and had swindled them all. The crowd grew larger, more noisy, everyone wanted to see what would happen. The German stopped sharpening, wiped his face, looked at the women but said nothing. But now two women arrived with their husbands and pointed to the sharpener. The two healthy men said to the German: Pay back! Pay for the scissors you've ruined! Some in the crowd around started yelling: the German deserves to have his bones broken! One young man went up to the German, grabbed him by the fur collar of his jacket and shook him: Pay up or resharpen properly! The German quickly twisted himself free and with a knife in his hand said: I'll kill anyone who touches me! The young man jumped back. The German shouted: Do you all think that Shmuel shammes is a sharpener?! My father and my grandfather were not sharpeners! But poor Jews don't have money for Passover, so someone has to collect for them!
Some women spat, tfui [to ward off the evil eye], it's really Shmuel shammes! A resounding laughter followed and the women soon changed their minds and became soft-hearted: Reb Shmuel, may you live another year in good health and prosperity in order to fool us again!
A Glass of Spirits and Cheese Dumplings
Shmuel shammes had a sort of unwritten law which was followed almost one hundred percent. If Shmuel shammes was invited to a wedding as a relative, in-law or friend, and not as the shammes, then Shmuel shammes would see to it that a meatless meal would be prepared for the guests the morning after the wedding. The meal had to consist of cheese dumplings [boiled] served with cinnamon, butter and sour cream.
The money for this meal would come from various sources. Sometimes, the wealthy father-in-law would pay for the meal, sometimes they collected money. When a wealthy father-in-law was stubborn and refused to pay for the meal, Shmuel shammes found a way to make him pay.
Once, a wedding of poor people happened; they were fine people, very pious. A number of wealthy property owners were there as guests. Shmuel shammes was the bartender and he handed out very small drinks, barely enough to wet one's lips. The property owners said to him: reb Shmuel, how about a little more! Shmuel shammes replied: if you want it and I also want it, I'll bring my own whisky and sell it by the glass. Yes, yes, reb Shmuel, many voices were heard, as if they were already drunk.
Shmuel shammes went home and returned with several bottles of ninety percent. He charged five cents a glass, in advance. The property owner who was given the first drink, swallowed it and grimaced, but he wanted the others waiting to have the same pleasure, not wanting to be the only one deceived. The second in line did the same, so did the third. More bottles were requested. Only after the last glass was sold, did laughter break out. They had paid for water instead of whisky. Shmuel shammes then called out: tomorrow morning there will be a meal for all with cheese dumplings!
A Jew from Korev arranged a marriage with a wealthy Jew from Warsaw. The wedding took place in Korev. Everyone prepared for the wedding for a long time. The in-laws arrived with great show as befits the wealthy. They brought with them many chests and suitcases packed full. They arrived a few days before the wedding with many relatives and celebrated with parties every day at which they served cakes, strudels and pastries of all kinds, but only for their side. The Korev in-laws and guests were not invited.
During the wedding they kept their distance, separate. The poor-folk of Korev were beneath their dignity. The two families were at odds and upset. The Korev families could not endure such arrogance, the others had to be taught a lesson!
Shmuel shammes was a guest at the wedding. The conceited, uncivil behaviour of the wealthy Warsaw families upset him a great deal. After the wedding meal and during the first dances, he disappeared. He searched for and found the chests they had brought with them for the wedding; they were locked.
The klezmorim [musicians] played on an on. The dancing and partying went on until daybreak.
Shmuel shammes, meanwhile, disappeared again. He went up to the second floor, found a few chests of the Warsaw in-laws but all were tightly locked. Moving quietly to the bed he sees the mother-in-law sleeping in her silk gown with a gold chain around her neck. Her gold watch lay by her side fastened to the chain and she had a gold broche on her chest. Shmuel shammes, although he was a koyen, [descendant of the priests in ancient Judea and therefore accorded certain privileges and obligations by Jewish religion. He would have been forbidden to approach a strange woman, especially in these circumstances] nevertheless went quietly closer to the mother-in-law and stealthily took off all her jewellery. He went out, closed the door, went back downstairs, went to the Korev in-laws, called over several friends and said to them: - friends, tomorrow morning we shall have not only cheese dumplings, but also honey cake and whisky! Perhaps we shall also get two poods [roughly 80 pounds] of wood to heat the bes-medresh! He then left to pray in the bes-medresh.
Several hours later screaming was heard from the second floor; a commotion, much running and pushing ensued. The mother-in-law stood disheveled, frightened, shouting loudly that her jewellery had been stolen! The mother-in-law bellowed, the father-in-law was beside himself and the Korev guests smiled…
And so the drama continued until Shmuel shammes returned from the bes-medresh and said: I don't believe that your jewellery has been stolen. If you will sponsor a meatless meal and make a donation for the bes-medresh, your jewellery will reappear; because who has ever heard that visiting in-laws should come to the bes-medresh to pray, be called up to read a lesson from the Torah [a great honour], and not give a donation to the bes-medresh?
It became cheerful, whisky was brought out, wine and many delicacies appeared, and two wagon-loads of wood were bought for the bes-medresh. Shmuel shammes started partying, he distributed copper frying pans, rolling pins, brooms, pokers, shovels and he became the conductor of this orchestra. Everyone danced and sang. The Warsaw visitors emptied their travel chests and half drunk sang: ay, ay, ay, korever, korever [oh, those residents of Korev!]
Shmuel shammes marries-off an orphaned woman
Once, there was a meeting at Pinkhus Goldshleger's, who lived on Courtyard Street. The elders of the community, the wives of the synagogue trustees [often involved with philanthropy], representatives of the association concerned with the marrying of orphaned or poor girls by the community, were all assembled to talk about an older spinster who should have been married yesterday. The treasury of the association was empty. A gown and a pair of old shoes they would find somewhere, but what would they do about a wig for her head, and a few rubles for a dwelling? The groom had little income; the couple would need support, at least to begin with. Then one of the men asked Pinkhus: where is your cousin Shmuel shammes?
They sent someone to summon him and he soon came to the meeting. They discussed the matter at hand once again. After a long consultation, Shmuel shammes stood up and said that he would return in a few hours: meanwhile, he said, carry on with whatever you can do, gather a few property owners, send for the rov, the bride and groom and the wedding canopy; I'll look after the rest. He then left the meeting.
An hour later, a carriage pulled up at Naftoli the unlicensed doctor's house. A military doctor, a colonel, got out of the carriage. He was wrapped up in a wide cape with a red lining and wore an officer's hat. When he entered the house, Naftoli sprang up from his chair and greeted the doctor. Naftoli was refined and courteous, aristocratic in the way he dealt with people as well as in the way he dressed and presented himself. He looked like a professor, quiet and modest, the opposite of Khaym Shmuel the feldsher [old-time barber-surgeon].
Naftoli, frightened, asked the doctor, in Russian, to please be seated. The doctor sat down and started telling him that he had heard allegations that a peasant woman had died after being treated without effect by Naftoli. And you know the law!
Naftoli became speechless; he struggled to maintain control of himself, to keep his poise.
Naftoli excused himself and stood up. He went to a dresser, opened a drawer, took out a hundred rubles and put them down near the doctor. The doctor shook his head, no. Naftoli showed the doctor two fingers and said, two hundred! The doctor said no; instead he gave Naftoli a friendly clap on the back and said: no money, you are an honest man and I like you! Come with me.
They went outside to the doctor's waiting carriage well, get in, said the doctor. The doctor told the driver to go to Khaym Popinator's tavern where they drank a few glasses of whisky. Naftoli felt much relieved and became cheerful. The doctor ordered two roast geese, a few gizzards, marinated herring, bread, a keg of beer, several bottles of whisky and a few other small things. This was all loaded into the doctor's carriage and Naftoli paid for everything. Then the doctor asked Naftoli to come with him somewhere and they drove to Courtyard Street. Naftoli wondered where the doctor was going. The doctor stopped the carriage at Pinkhus's house, the driver was paid and asked to carry everything inside. When the doctor and Naftoli entered the house, everyone there was frightened. Naftoli looked at everyone present, a lot of women and men, the rov, a wedding canopy, many lighted lamps. He could not understand what was going on.
Shmuel shammes took off the big cape, let out his long beard, which he had artfully folded around his neck so it would look much shorter and round, and said to Naftoli: in the name of the community representatives gathered here, we ask you to be the best man at today's wedding of two round [as in rolling around, unsettled] orphans.
Naftoli grabbed hold of Shmuel shammes: Shmuel, it was you?! You really fooled me. What you are doing here today is truly a very good deed.
Shmuel shammes then ordered the bride to be veiled and said to the klezmorim [Yiddish musicians]: play something sad while the bride is being veiled! He started to sing the sad melody that traditionally is heard when the bride is readied for the wedding ceremony. All the others there accompanied him: oy, oy, oy. Shmuel shammes seated the bride with a fine verse that he knew and everyone there accompanied him perfectly in rhyme and to the rhythm, as if they were klezmorim themselves. The women cried. The bride cried.
A fine wedding ceremony took place with many wedding presents. Shmuel shammes found his instruments, pounding mortars and pestles, frying pans. The dancing and singing continued until dawn. This is how Shmuel shammes married off two orphans.
Yakhetl the Gabete [the wife of the Gabai, trustee of the synagogue, or more rarely, the female trustee of the synagogue]
This woman carried all the community's sorrow and worry on her shoulders. She was always busy helping the poor and the sick and she always worked with a smile on her face. Summer and winter, the cold, rain, snow and wind did not prevent her from helping the needy. The Jews of Korev always had a loving smile and warm hearts for her.
She would also enhance Jewish weddings with her traditional dance which brought joy and laughter to those present. She amused them and filled them with happiness. The tradesmen, especially the younger ones, would have fun with her, sometimes ridicule her, but in their hearts, always loved her.
On a cold winter day when the frost burned, you would see what looked like a small creature wrapped up with a thick warm shawl over its head, moving quickly through the snow. You might have thought that this was a seven or eight year old child that a mother, unfortunately sick, had sent out to buy something. The mother probably didn't have whole shoes for herself. Only when you caught up with the child would you see Yakhetl the gabete's smile. She was on her way with some broth to either someone sick or to a poor woman in labour. Yakhetl was lively, always moved quickly, almost running. She wore a stiff brown kupke [hat worn by religious women] decorated with two brown ribbons, with a few white flowers attached, that hung down her neck.
She wore a long skirt that covered her legs past her ankles; the spring mud would decorate the hem. No one in Korev knew how she made a living, how she was able to feed herself. She was like a bee, never having time to stop for a long conversation with anyone. One minute she was running to collect donations, the next she was running to collect candles for the Friday evening service in the synagogue, and no one denied her. She never got older and no one knew her age. She was always the same; she appeared not to have changed since she came to Korev. Without youth, without age, she seemed to be eternal, an institution.
She had a custom that became a tradition. In Korev it was customary to hold weddings in the synagogue or outside near the synagogue. The bride and groom would be led to the ceremony through the town streets with music. After the ceremony, the klezmorim would play a traditional lively, cheerful wedding dance. Yakhelte's custom was to dance in front of the bride and groom with the large wedding khalleh [braided egg-bread] in her hand. Her dress would be raised a bit and held there by her waistband. She would hop and twist and wave the khalleh in the air, then point the tip of the khalleh to the bride and groom and wave it close to their faces. The other wedding guests would clap their hands to the rhythm, especially the joyful younger ones. This would heighten her exultation. She would place the khalleh under her arm so that she could clap to the rhythm with the others while dancing. Then, the khalleh would again be seen above her waving and twisting in all directions.
This is how Yakhetl danced the night away. You never saw her eat anything at weddings and she never failed to perform her traditional dance unless she was sick.
Once, I found Yakhelte with a sad face and tears in her eyes. This was when the great cholera epidemic raged in Korev and took many lives; people fell like flies. The still healthy men organized a rescue-association. They gathered bottles of strong spirits and divided the work. They went from house to house to help the sick, rubbing them down with the strong spirits so they would not get the terrible cramps that foretold a certain death. The vomiting and the diarrhea were not so fearful; as long as the dreaded cramps did not come, there was still hope. A lot of the rescuers were among the first victims, but this did not stop the others from continuing with their work.
Suddenly, the Governor, several doctors and assistants arrived in Korev. The first thing they did was to distribute carbolic acid and lime and then paint the houses, fences, toilets and stalls with this. Then they sprayed all the unclean places and removed the piles of garbage and manure. They commandeered a large house as a hospital and took beds for the hospital from houses where the epidemic had not yet reached.
The assistants went from house to house with stretchers to take the sick to the hospital. At the same time, behind the well, near the river by the old cemetery, a large fire burned where the wooden beds and all the bed linen of the sick was burned. The funerals were unending. All of a sudden, a story spread that all the sick that had been carried away to the hospital were being poisoned, because not one of them came back.
A rumour circulated that everyone, men and women, should watch out for the catchers with their stretchers. If someone fell ill, others would keep watch and notify the family of the sick person that the catchers were on their way to the house. Then the family of the sick person would dress the invalid and prop him or her up in a chair. The invalid would summon all his strength and play the role of a healthy person until the house search was over.
My mother fell ill and we notified the rescue association. Eli, the butcher and another man came and rubbed her legs down with spirits and told her not to cry out in her pain. A few minutes later the front door burst open and Yakhelte stood there with fear in her eyes. She was trembling, as if in fever and shouted in a voice not her own, quickly, they're coming! Then she disappeared into the night.
The house became a blizzard of activity. We dressed mother; she had to play her role and we ours. We sat her up in a chair near her bed, father sat reading a book and the children played nearby as if nothing was out of the ordinary. Then the door opened with a noise and three men dressed in white jackets and pants strode in; they looked at us, we looked at them. Mother was able to play her role and the men went away. Later, mother became well, but I cannot forget Yakhelte's strange shout, the fear and dread that stood in her eyes. I think this was the only time I saw Yakhelte without a smile on her face.
Shmuel shammes Drowns
One Friday afternoon when everyone was preparing to meet the holy Sabbath, the sky became completely covered by thick cloud, the day darkened and the heat became unbearable. People barely moved in the suffocating heat that Korev had not experienced for a long time. Clothing stuck to bodies. The women who baked khalleh for the Sabbath, perspired copiously, and those who heated the ovens for the preparation of the Sabbath tsholnt fared no better. Everything was done without strength, without energy, without the will to do it. It was difficult to breathe, to move, to work; everything was difficult.
It didn't rain or thunder, but everyone felt that a storm would soon arrive. People tried to do whatever they could before the storm broke out. They ran to the cool waters to immerse themselves in ritual preparation for the Sabbath greeting, a few went to the bathhouse. Almost everyone was either in the bathhouse or by the waters. Only a few small children were to be seen running around trying to catch summer birds. Mothers found it difficult to bring their children inside, to scrub their little heads with kerosene, to wash them in preparation for the blessing of the candles. You could hear the mothers calling: Khanele, Moyshele, Tsipele! Where are you?
Suddenly there was a commotion; people were shouting, everyone was running to the mill and from the mill to the weir. Cries of alarm were heard: Shmuel shammes is drowning!
Shmuel shammes was the best swimmer in almost the entire district of Lublin, not only among Jews, but among all; his ability was well known outside of Korev. His crawl that we called cudgel-strokes was masterful. One saw a tall man with a white beard who appeared to stride in the water, his upper body stretched out above the water. After every stroke, his body would move forward several lengths. We called it the dry-crawl in Korev. Nobody else could duplicate Shmuel shammes's swim-strokes.
His backstroke was so fast that a boat could not keep up with him. He could stand in deep water and cut his fingernails without shaking, as if he was standing on the ground. He would take one leg in his hands and with the other leg swim like a wheel. No other swimmer in Korev could learn this trick.
Korev had good swimmers. The old Rabbi was a good swimmer who considered himself second to Shmuel shammes. How could it happen that Shmuel shammes would drown?
It happened like this: fishermen had paid for the right to fish the river. Recent rains had overfilled the river and the weir. When this happened, the weir gates would be lifted to let the excess water flow down on the other side of the bridge.
The fishermen had spread their nets in the river and also around the weir. The landowner had given them permission to lower the water level in the river and the millers had lifted the gates very high. In this situation, it became impossible to swim in the weir and to swim across the Klintevitser Dzhike River which was almost two thirds of a mile away from the weir. The current was very strong and to try to swim in the weir then, was very dangerous and could lead to death.
Shmuel shammes was very short-sighted. He didn't see the strong current or see the danger. Besides that, Shmuel shammes was a very self-confident swimmer who thought that nothing bad could happen to him. He went into the weir on the side a bit farther from the bridge and soon noticed that he was swimming on one spot. He could not swim back to the edge and get out. The water pulled him toward the bridge where the strong current and drop-off would mean death. He tried swimming obliquely against the current, along the side of the weir, hoping that gradually he would be able to reach the side, but he couldn't.
He struggled with the Angel of Death. His crawl stroke did not help; flailing the water with his hands did not help. The current drew him ever closer to the bridge where there was a deep drop off, perhaps sixty feet deep. Shmuel shammes continued to struggle, but his strength began to weaken. People nearby shouted: Shmuel! Shmuel! Don't give up! Swim to the side!
They had no means of saving him. They had no rope to throw him that he could grab hold of so they could pull him out of the water. People stretched themselves out on the ground. Two people held the first person, others held the two, and so on, forming a human chain. With outstretched hands they shouted: reb Shmuel, come a little closer, swim here!
They couldn't reach him. Hundreds of people came running, the women were screaming, his daughters and grandchildren came running, everyone was crying and shouting. Then Shmuel shammes cried out: Jews! Make sure the current doesn't carry me too far away! So that you won't have to desecrate the Sabbath! My last breath is coming!
Then suddenly his daughters' cries reached his ears: father, dear father, please save yourself! Shmuel shammes found new strength. He began to work; applying all his swimming skills, he began slowly to come closer to the edge where people lay with outstretched hands. The human chain moved further into the weir, people clung to each other however they could. Steady cries of, a bit more! don't stop! swim! were heard. Gradually Shmuel shammes was able to approach the outstretched hands that grabbed his fingers, then his hands. Then the human chain with Shmuel shammes was dragged closer to the edge. They pulled him out and lay him on the ground and covered him with a shirt. The women were shooed away to light the Sabbath candles. The next day, on the Sabbath, Shmuel shammes said the blessing traditionally said by Jews after escaping a great danger and invited everyone in the synagogue to join him at a celebration in honour of a joyous occasion.
David on the Liyedre
When I was a young boy, I was drawn to the tailors' little factories, to see how they worked, how they stitched with their machines, how the wheel turned so quickly, how the pieces of cloth came together and a garment would appear from the machine.
I was very bashful when young and afraid to just wander into a strange tailor's house uninvited. But when my mother took me to a tailor so he could make me something out my father's old overcoat, my joy was unbounded. I was then able to see them sew and hear them sing; among each group of tailors there was always someone with a fine voice to be heard. The noise of the sewing machines would accompany their singing.
The tailors always had time for a joke, a story, or to play a trick on someone. If a boy came to learn the trade, the tailors and the owner himself would send the boy to another workshop to borrow the fine scissors. That shop would then send the boy to a third shop, and so on. The boy would spend the whole day going from one shop to another and come back exhausted, poor thing, and say to the owner that the last tailor-shop said that they had long ago returned the fine scissors.
The tailor-shops were always happy places, especially so if young women worked there. Then you would always hear singing and laughter.
The happiest tailorworkshop was at David's on the liyedre. Why on the liyedre, I don't know. David was a thoroughly happy poor man. If his name was mentioned, people would sharpen their ears to hear about his latest trick and how he had led someone astray.
David was of average height, thin, pale, with the high forehead of a Talmud scholar. His small eyes moved quickly. He had a steady smile on his lips and a small pointed beard. He always wore an overcoat when outside, but it was never buttoned up. This was either because the buttons were missing or because he just didn't pay attention, having more important things on his mind, such as thinking about who could he trick today that would create some merriment.
When a mother and child would enter his workshop to have something made, he would meet them with a broad smile and say nothing. He would just listen. Then he would hand a piece of material to the mother to hold and the scissors to the child. He would meanwhile do his measuring and cutting. The mother would continue to hold the piece of material, the child the scissors, waiting for him to tell them what to do. David would ignore them completely, as if no one was in the shop. A long time would pass until the mother would think, how long did she have to hold the piece of material? The poor child was already tired from holding the scissors. Finally, the mother would ask David: how long must they remain standing and holding? David would shrug his shoulders and answer: you can put them down anytime.
David on the liyedre played tricks on Jews, Gentiles, even on the police. It sometimes happened that he was in danger of being beaten up for his pranks, it didn't stop him. Gentiles would threaten to have him punished, it didn't deter him. Playing tricks on others was part of his nature.
Once while out for a walk, he happened upon two Gentile drivers standing near their wagons full of wood. The two were having a friendly conversation and laughing. David went up to the wagons, examined the wood and asked the two of them how much they wanted for their wood. One driver approached David and said his price. David responded, good! Then he asked the second driver how much for his load. The driver gave his price and again David said, good!
David asked the drivers to deliver the wood to his house. He showed them the way and they followed him. He led them below the bes-medresh , close to Shmuel shammes's door where he asked them to unload the wood. He then left for home. Shmuel shammes came out and saw the two drivers unloading a big load of wood. He thought nothing of it, assuming that a wealthy Jew had donated the wood to heat the bes-medresh, so he didn't ask anything.
When the drivers were finished unloading the wood, they went into the house. Shmuel shammes asked his wife to give the drivers a drink of whisky. They all sat and conversed, but neither Shmuel shammes nor the drivers mentioned the load of wood. When it started to get dark, the two drivers started bickering between themselves about who should ask for payment. Suddenly, both of them stood up, went up to Shmuel shammes and asked him to pay for the wood. Shmuel shammes and his wife looked at each other with surprise. They never bought wood; they always heated their home with wood that belonged to the bes-medresh.
Shmuel shammes asked: who bought this wood from you? They answered: a little Jew. Shmuel shammes said: I don't buy wood. They waited quite a while for the little Jew to return. It got dark and the drivers needed to go home. The drivers had to go out and reload all the wood into their wagons and this is when the real wedding started. Each time one of the drivers would pick up a bigger piece of wood, the other driver would say it was his. They soon started fighting and made a bloody mess of each other. Their shouting could be heard everywhere. A crowd of Jews came running to see how two drivers were shouting and beating each other in the dark beside Shmuel shammes's house. Some said, they're getting what they deserve, let them not try to fleece us. Others had pity on them and said to the others: what you are saying is blasphemy and Jews must not do that. The two drivers finally left badly beaten and sworn enemies. David was back in his workshop and someone certainly was holding the scissors….
David arrives for the Sabbath
David was in Markushov one Friday afternoon. He had been working for a wealthy landowner near Markushov for a whole week and wanted to go home to Korev for the Sabbath. He lingered on the highway, hoping to find a wagon that could take him to Korev. It was already getting late. If it was early Friday, he would have walked home. But Friday afternoon! It would be bad [a transgression] if he got stuck half-way before sundown and the arrival of the Sabbath. What could he do? Then he heard the sound of a wagon approaching. A little hope arose; maybe someone was going to Korev. A Gentile farmer arrived on a nice wagon with two fine horses; he stopped, got down and went over to where several large logs lay.
The farmer examined the logs carefully and David on the liyedre also looked them over. The farmer greeted David and asked him why he was looking at the logs. David replied that he was building a house and needed more lumber. David then asked the farmer why he was looking at the logs. The farmer replied that he had bought more land, was going to build a large home with stables and needed a lot of wood. He had been here before and wanted to buy the logs, but they were too expensive. David asked him the price and when the farmer told him, David smacked his lips [made a face] and said: too much!
David then told the farmer that in Korev he had seen bigger and better logs than these here and they were half the price. David said that he was on his way to Korev to buy a few logs and was waiting for a wagon to take him there. He said, if the farmer would drive quickly they could get there before the merchant left for synagogue prayers and the farmer could buy his logs for half-price.
The farmer thought, looked at the sun and said: it's getting late. David said: with your two fine horses you'll get there in time to even hire wagons to take the logs. The farmer thinks, considers, finally tells David to get up on the wagon and they leave for Korev.
When they arrived in Korev, the sun was still quite high. David said to the farmer, You see, it's still early. You have time to go in and buy. I'll show you the logs. I know the prices. You should pay for each log separately because they're all different. Some are very large, others are middle-sized and some are smaller.
David asked the farmer to drive to Novi-Rinek Street to a Jewish wood merchant who dealt with every kind of building material. David showed the farmer the different sizes of logs and told him the prices which were very, very cheap. The farmer could hardly believe his ears and was amazed: such wonderful oak logs for such cheap prices?! This David must be crazy.
David said: select the logs that you want; I'll tally up the prices and tell you how much you should pay. You should then go into the merchant's house, put your money on the table and tell him how many and which logs you are taking. If you will take the logs on Monday he will hire men to help you load them. David then took out a pencil and piece of paper and summed up how much money had to be paid.
In the merchant's house, everything was already prepared for the Sabbath. He had put aside his prayer-book and satin frock and was ready to go to the synagogue to greet the Sabbath. In the middle of this, a Gentile with a whip in hand comes into the house. He puts his whip down near the door, takes out a wallet and starts counting money, again and again he counts. The people in the house had no idea what was happening, they looked at the farmer who remained silent. The farmer went to the table where the candelabra and candles stood ready for the Sabbath blessing, where the khallehs lay covered with a white ceremonial cloth and put his money down on the end of the table. He then went up to the merchant and took his hand wanting to seal the business deal.
The merchant looks at the farmer, doesn't understand what's happening and asks him what the money is for. The farmer says this is payment for the logs he has selected that are lying outside near the house. How many logs? Six. How much money have you here? The farmer tells him how much. The merchant says that's only enough for two logs. The farmer says he was told it was enough for six logs. Who told you this? The farmer replies: the Jew who was here yesterday buying logs from you. The merchant says: yesterday a Jew was here who wanted to buy logs? Where is this Jew? He's waiting outside. They went outside to see this Jew. No one was there.
David had meanwhile put on his frockcoat and was on his way to the synagogue.
More Mockery and Jesting
It happened when David saw the bell ringer from the church. David cried out: quickly, go ring the bell, there's a fire in town. The bell ringer ran to the church and rang the fire bell. The whole town went crazy; everyone was running, screaming where's the fire? No one knows. The Jewish firefighters [volunteers] ran everywhere. Nobody knew where the fire was.
Another story: David happened upon the trustee of the Jewish Burial Society [a voluntary group responsible for the ritual preparation of the deceased and all arrangements related to the burial within 24 hours] and said to him: what are you waiting for? Khaym Leyzer has died. When? Just now. The trustee quickly gathered together a few men from the Burial Society and they took with them the board on which dead bodies are laid for cleansing before burial. Arriving at Khaym Leyzer's they found the corpse sitting at his table enjoying a bowl of hot barley soup. The men were frightened. Why have you come, asked Khaym Leyzer. What do you mean, they answered, David on the liyedre told us that you had just died…
David used to trick the landowners in many ways with concocted stories. The Gentiles wanted to teach him a lesson that he would remember for the rest of his life. They never succeeded in this until finally they tricked David into coming to a place where they had prepared a large pit, skilfully concealed so no one could see it. David fell in and broke a bone in his back near his seat. He was sick for a long time and from then on always walked with a slight limp.
David was an artist at his trade. He could fashion a garment from the least material. He was a wonderful storyteller of elaborate dreams and exaggerations.
Leyele, Khaym Shmuel's wife, with her Sons
Leyele, Khaym Shmuel's wife, was a Cossack of a Jewish woman, known for her abusive language. She was recognizable from a distance, her body was very outstanding, round from top to bottom. She had wide shoulders and large hands and feet. She was famous for her strength, not just among women, but also among men. Strong men were afraid of her. She had the strength of an athlete. She would fight with strong Gentiles and overcome them. Her voice was loud and her laughter could be heard from far away.
Her sons didn't go to kheyder and didn't study in the bes-medresh. They didn't play with other Jewish boys and were dressed differently. They were more often seen with the non-Jewish boys.
The oldest son, Moyshele, left home for Pilev when he was nine. He wanted to join the army so he could play in the military brass band. He was gifted and soon became an excellent player on several instruments. Apart from this, he excelled on the side drums. While drumming, he could throw the sticks over his head, under his legs and arms, catch them and not once lose the beat.
When he would come home on leave or for holidays, in his army uniform, the children would follow him everywhere. Our little brains couldn't grasp how he could live among non-Jews, eating pork, speaking Russian and Polish, sleeping among them, going on maneuvers with them. And his parents were proud of him? This was a puzzle that we couldn't answer.
Summertime, the two regiments of soldiers stationed in Pilev would march through Korev on their way to Lublin for maneuvers. The bands would always play when they marched through the town. The whole town, young and old, would turn out to watch the soldiers march on the Pulaver highway. The young boys especially, wanted to see Moyshele play in his uniform with the red striped epaulets on his arms. Moyshele marched in his soldier's hat with a small shield attached, and in his wide-toed boots. One year he would play the trumpet, the next year the horn, the following year the side drums. The children would accompany him on the Lubliner highway all the way to the yellow house. Gradually, Moyshele grew up to become a tall man whose strength was renowned. The tricks he used to play on people were also well known. The few stripes he earned for his service, he quickly lost for his rebelliousness.
It happened once that the band gave a concert for higher-ranked officers. The band leader wanted to impress the officers so he asked Moyshele to demonstrate while drumming, how skillfully he could throw the sticks in every direction, backwards, over his head, under his legs. During Moyshele's performance, an older, three-striped band player who sat next to Moyshele began to make fun of him. Moyshele got angry and deftly threw a drumstick right at his neighbour's mouth, knocking out two teeth. He quickly caught the stick and continued drumming without missing a beat. Moyshele was punished, lost certain privileges and was stripped of his stripes.
Moyshele came home for Passover once in his civilian clothes. He had a friend, a cigar maker who was lame and had a fine singing voice. Together, they went into the bes-medresh. Walking around inside, they proceeded to bother everyone, this one with a tickle in the armpit, that one with a flick on the ear. When they approached the kotzker table, they noticed a good looking, well-dressed young man.
This young man had also come home for Passover. Moyshele looked at the young man and couldn't decide whether to bother him or not. Yes, no? To miss out on such an opportunity was simply against Moyshele's nature. Then Moyshele asked someone nearby: who is this young man? The man answered that the young man was Nakhmen, Shmelki Bronitse's from Viatriks, son. Nakhmen was strong, just like his father, but quiet and easy-going. To get mixed up with Nakhmen you had to be very strong and capable. Moyshele and Nakhmen were a good match. Moyshele went up to Nakhmen and asked him something. Nakhmen's answer was not to Moyshele's liking. There was an exchange of words, soon followed by an exchange of fists. The two were quickly encircled by a crowd and dozens of hands got mixed in that were barely able to separate the two. Everyone wanted to see who the victor would be, who was stronger, but they were not able to decide.
After his military service was over, Moyshele went to Warsaw where he became a changed man. He became the concertmaster of a symphony orchestra and also played in opera orchestras. When he would visit Korev, he could be heard playing the violin at home for his parents pieces from Shulamis and Bar Kokhba and other Goldfaden melodies. He then went on to play in the Yiddish theatre in Warsaw. Later there was a rumour that he had gone blind.
Moyshele's second brother was an athlete, a hairdresser by trade. His third brother, Meier, was also a hairdresser, a good singer with a fine baritone voice. The youngest brother, Reuven, also a hairdresser, was involved with the socialist movement.
A Big Dish of Potatoes
I don't know the year of my birth. I was already going to kheyder when my father registered me. One thing I do know: I was born at the time of Purim.
I became eligible for army conscription in 1913 (the same year I left for Canada). I don't know exactly in what year the great cholera epidemic in Korev took place and I don't remember how old I was. I remember only that I ran after the disinfectors who sprayed lime on the yards, fences, walls and ditches. It smelled of carbolic. I ran after the visiting governor who wore an officer's hat with a band on it. He gave orders and the disinfectors carried them out.
I remember a lot of things. Here is something that I remember happening to me when I was a small boy. I heard shouts, cries: my child, my child! I was tickled, prodded, pulled. I wanted to sleep, only to sleep. I heard shouting, crying: woe is me, my child. I opened my eyes and saw a few pairs of outstretched hands, a few pairs of frightened eyes. My mother was shouting: quickly, save my child. I was carried. Someone shouted: slowly, slowly, I turned my head and looked around. I saw the large hens' dish under the bed with a few potatoes on it. The dish was familiar to me. I thought it was the dish used to feed the hens in my grandfather's house where we lived in an alcove. But this dish was always found under my grandfather's bed. Now I am in the dark alcove. During the day a bit of light would come in through the cut out square hole in the wooden board that served as a window for the alcove. I thought that a while ago I was not so fat. Now I am so fat; fat hands and legs and a big belly. Hands lifted me, carried me, put me in a bed. My mother was crying: quickly save my child. Run, do something, raise the dead, the child is lost! The women went outside crying, my father looked at me with his squinty eyes. I don't know what his eyes mean love, pity, prayer. I was too young to understand. He put his hand on my face and with his fingers he held my eyelids as if to close them. This upset me, but I couldn't keep my eyes open. I strained to keep them open, was afraid of something of what, I didn't know.
I hear whispering quiet, he's coming! it becomes quiet. My father takes his hand away from my eyes. I want to sleep, they tickle me gently: - open your eyes, open. I open my eyes. I see a non-Jew standing beside the bed with a leather bag in his hand. He speaks to me in Yiddish: well, show me your tongue, stick out your tongue. He puts a little spoon in my mouth and asks me to say ha ha. He puts his ear to my chest and asks me to pant. He lifts his head and taps his fingers on my chest. He puts his ear to my chest again, asks me to breathe then stop breathing. It is difficult for me to breathe, even more difficult not to breathe, but I do what he asks. Mother and father sit me up and the doctor taps on my back, puts his ear to my back, asks me to breathe. Then they lie me down.
I hear my mother say to him: Sir feldsher, well? He answers her: you should not have allowed him to get out of bed. He must not eat any potatoes. He ate potatoes from the hens' dish. His swelling is very high, near his heart.
Crying started in the house then I heard nothing more. Suddenly I hear them waking me, shaking me. I open my eyes and see my father doing something with the lamp hanging on the wall. He turns up the wick so it will be brighter. My mother, father and my aunt Sarah come nearer, all three take me out of bed. Father sits down on the long bench that is near the bed. He put my legs inside his. I am bent forward with my face down, my aunt Sarah holds my head, while my mother is doing something at my buttocks. Suddenly I feel sharp pains in my stomach. It feels like a balloon is inside me and it is getting bigger and bigger it feels like my stomach will explode just like a balloon. I shout, I struggle, I kick, but my father holds me tightly. I feel like my insides want to come out but my stomach won't let them. I want to struggle with my legs I can't; I want to shout I can't. I become soaked in sweat. I want to free myself from these three ruffians difficult, impossible. But suddenly I feel easier, I begin to float in the air, to glide without effort a real pleasure. I hear a voice, very weak: save him, save him, he's dying! I hear more voices, getting louder, stronger, I hear crying. I feel my face become cool in a few moments. I open my eyes and see faces with frightened eyes. Then I start to float again, I fly around the bes-medresh, around the synagogue, until I come to rest in a green pasture.
How long I lay there in that pasture I can't remember. I remember that I heard talking. Opening my eyes I saw the same non-Jew who spoke Yiddish standing by my bed. He did something to me, I can't remember what. He asked me something and I couldn't answer, I could barely breathe. He said something to my mother and she answered: thank God! Please let it not be disrupted!
I closed my eyes, I don't know for how long, then opened them again and saw my mother's loving smile. I smiled back at her. My breathing was easier now. I wanted some hot chicory and a white roll. My mother said I wasn't allowed to drink chicory but she would bring me a white roll with warm milk.
Later, my stomach became steadily smaller, my hands and legs too. My mother warned me not to crawl under the bed and never again to eat potatoes from the hens' dish.
Four Names, two children of fourteen
My father had four names. This was because most of my grandparent's children did not survive. Of their fourteen children only two remained my father the boy and Lozer. My father was a sickly child and after every sickness he received a new name. He was named: Ephraim, Fishl, Yerukhem, Yoyne [the renaming of a sick child to confuse the Angel of Death, and thereby save the child, was one of many superstitions of the day]. These four names were used only when he was honoured by being called up to read from the Torah. Other than that he was called Fishl soyfer.
He was taller than average, a thin and frail man. He was sometimes too mischievous for a scribe. He had a pale face, a long nose and his moustache on the right side was a bit higher as if it had campaigned to rise up. This was because he had the habit of supporting his face, under his lip, with the thumb of his right hand. He had nice blue eyes but was short sighted. He squinted when he looked at someone. He had a small black beard and a high forehead. He was a Kozhenitser khosid [a follower of a khasidik rebbe or spiritual leader from Kozhenits]. He loved to sing, had a fine tenor voice and an understanding of harmony.
The Scribe Composes Chants
My father used to compose chants [for prayer and study] even though he did not know musical notation. He simply relied on his wonderful memory. When he went to Kozhenits, to his rebbe, the khasidim knew that Mr. Fishl had brought with him his own new merchandise. They would soon surround him and say: well, Mr. Fishl, let's hear it! A circle of young men would soon form and they would quickly learn the new chant which would later that day be heard at the study tables or during Sabbath songs.
At home, it would happen that bent over his table inscribing a parchment for a Torah, his pen would suddenly stop. He would turn to us and say: you, Yakov-Hersh, learn and know, in case you are honoured by being asked to sing the song shir hamayles [first words and names of chapters 120-134 of the book of psalms]. And he would start singing. My brother Manes and I would have to listen carefully to the new chant, the musical motives that came to mind while he was writing, so that they would not dare be forgotten.
He created little songs, chants, marches. The first to enjoy his creations were the khasidim around his rebbe. I helped him when he sang. When I was asked to sing something, he would choose the melody and help me out.
My father also liked to associate with the young men in the bes-medresh, especially with those who had good singing voices. He was always drawn to the young. Even between afternoon and evening prayers he would be found encircled by young men.
The Friday night celebrations were mostly transformed into concerts of collective singing. The singers were khasidim from various rebbes. Lozer, the horse dealer's son-in-law, was a fine singer, a bass. Before he married, he sang with various cantors [Lozer was Fishl's much older brother].
Poor but singing
The singers would sit outside on long benches that stood along the walls of the bes-medresh. Others stood. They would sing chants, marches and songs which could be heard everywhere in town. Craftsmen would stay awake to listen even though they had to get up early for work. The singing would continue at the highest volume, undisturbed, until late at night. A town full of poor people and all were full of joy. The worries of tomorrow were forgotten.
My father used to tell us children that to help a person in need was one of the greatest good deeds. We were obligated to help each other, even singing. When father sang, the children had to fulfill the good deed. Naturally, I fulfilled this good deed when I was little. But when the time came that I wanted to stroll on the Lubliner highway on the Sabbath, and father held me bound to this obligation, the good deed became a burden.
Reb Shmelke of Kozhenits
But I still went with father to the rebbe's table when reb Shmelke of Kozhenits, who was born in Korev, used to come for yortsayt. Kozhenits had three rebbes. The most important was reb Moyshele, Aaron Karliner's nephew, who created the tune yah akhsif. Shmelkele was from Korev, his parents, great rabbis, were buried in the new cemetery with a monument over their graves.
Reb Shmelke would hold celebratory tables in Korev for a few weeks at Velvl the hide merchant's place. My father went to these observances even though he belonged to a different Kozhenitser khasidik group. My father would sing his songs there and I would help. The rebbe himself would often ask me to sing, but I already wanted to free myself from this, and did not have the courage to do so. I did not want to shame my father. He began to notice my unrest and became upset and a grumbler at home.
As soon as he was out of the house he became lively, especially in the bes-medresh; a totally different Fishl. His eyes would light up and a smile would capture his face. The young men would soon encircle him and ask: well, Mr. Fishl, how about a song? Don't make us beg you! He would soon start, at first quietly and then louder and louder. The young men would soon join in and a few would even tap the rhythm on the lectern. This would understandably take place in the afternoon when there were few learners in the bes-medresh.
I never heard either of my parents use each other's name when speaking. You would hear only so-now and so-now from both of them. From mother: so-now, are you prepared for the Sabbath? From father: so-now, have you bought raisins for wine?
When we children became old enough to understand, we became intermediaries between them. Father: tell your mother it's time to pour the water off the meat [meat was always soaked in salt water for a period of time to remove any trace of blood, thereby ensuring it would be kosher]. Mother, who was only a few feet away from father: tell your father that I'm going to Khaym Hersh's store to buy a few things.
From time to time we would notice that neither father nor mother would hand something to the other, they would instead put it down where the other could pick it up.
Concealed signs of love
Once I noticed that mother ran into the house with a kerchief over her head. Her face was very red and she put the keys directly into father's hand. He smiled broadly and his eyes looked at mother with such love. She, smiling, but with her eyes cast down, went off to a corner of the house where her clothes hung…
My mother, Gitl Leah, was Shmuel shammes's third daughter. She was a very cordial and loving woman and was called Gitl the righteous. She was very beautiful, blond, with a pink face, blue eyes, and a sharply chiselled little nose. She had a majestic figure. She had a smile for everyone, never spoke badly about anyone and would not let her children speak badly about others.
My Mother's Friend Tziporah
As girls, my mother and Tziporah, daughter of Shmelki from Viatrik, were friends. Tziporah was also pretty. The two of them were considered the most beautiful girls in the town. Tziporah married Lozer, a contractor to a regiment of soldiers in Pilev. Before that, Lozer worked in Warsaw.
My mother married Fishl soyfer from Ryki. Tziporah's life followed a modern path. They moved to Pilev after they had a few children. Two of their boys and I learned together in Shmuel shammes's kheyder. In the modern environment of Pilev, Tziporah lived in a different society. She was not able to be as fanatical as my mother.
In her later years, she immigrated to America, and her address there became the address of immigrants from Korev. She was a mother for the newcomers from Korev and helped them in many ways. I believe that the Society of Korevers in New York was her creation. Her sister Beyle, Simkhe Khaym Hersh's, wife, was President of the Korever ladies auxiliary.
My mother led a pious, Orthodox life, like all the Jewish daughters. In constant poverty and need she nevertheless looked after the household with a proficient hand. She had to be a great mathematician to figure out how to nourish twelve or thirteen mouths on my father's meagre earnings. She had to apportion about half a pound of meat, once or twice a week, so that each would have some and father would get the biggest portion…
When mother would occasionally bring home a sweetbread, we had a real celebration. We would dunk the thin rye-bread in a broth until we had cleaned our bowls. Appetites, thank God, we always had, but enough to satisfy them, never.
Poverty is really no disgrace, but…
We children did not display our poverty in the street. As hungry as we were, no one had to know. If someone came to visit before mealtime, we had to wait until he or she left the house. More than once we almost fainted from hunger, but we did not cry, did not ask for food as long as a stranger was in the house. Many times the neighbours would guess the situation, but they weren't sure. My mother had eleven children; five died and left room for the rest of us in the world of pleasure and splendour.
For a whole week we yearned for Friday to come when we would be revived. Getting ready to greet the Sabbath was a joy that my pen cannot describe. The first joy was being able to come home from kheyder before noon, sometimes even before ten. Father would put away his writing very early in order to fulfill the commandment to help those in need. He would press the raisins for the kiddush wine, he would help chop the pound of fish (skin and bones included so there would be more). My mother would sweat by the oven, baking bread for the whole week and a few small khallehs for the Sabbath blessing.
About two o'clock we went to the bathhouse and when we came back mother gave us a bowl of hot farfel with schmaltz. The house had taken on a different look. We lived in one not very big room. In this room there were two pull-out beds which were meant for four people. Several iron procrustean cots were placed near the oven and these cots were covered with piles of rags so our bones would not be broken. Near mother's bed there was a crib in steady use in our house… In the room there was also an English stove and a brick-oven to heat the house.
Behind father's bed there stood a tall chest, decorated with metal and on wheels. In case of fire, we could at least save our bit of poverty. Near the window there stood a table on which father would inscribe his holy books. Further away from the table, near the wall and the door, the water cask and slop-pail were found.
Behind the oven, at the head of mother's bed, there stood a bookstand with holy books. Other than that, there was a long bench with several chairs. On the wall, opposite the table, there hung a pentagonal lamp that provided more shadow than light. On Friday nights another lamp was also lit.
Home from the Synagogue
Father slept with three boys, mother with three girls. The crib was almost always occupied… It's no wonder that the other children had the sense to relocate to the world of truth…
And yet, Friday was a happy time. We watched as mother would knead the dough and make round loaves. When she took them out of the oven, she would baste them with egg-white and sprinkle them with poppy seed. To us the bread had the appearance of a beautiful face with many beauty spots. Mother cooked the fish with a lot of broth so that we could dunk the fresh bread. And if occasionally there was a giblet for Sabbath, our happiness would be doubled. Then, mother would get busy and make a flavourful tsholnt, a khalleh kugl, carrot tsimes [stew] and a stuffed neck. This was the called-for true enjoyment of the Sabbath on Friday evening.
When mother was finished preparing the tsholnt for the next day, she would get busy with her daughters. She would wash their little heads with kerosene, comb their hair and braid it so that it looked like a twisted ceremonial candle used to greet the Sabbath. Finished with her daughters, she would tidy the whole house and spread yellow sand on the floor. Then we would all accompany father to the khasidik synagogue to greet the Sabbath. After the service we would all go home happy, father's bent back would be straighter and happiness would shine in his face. We children would hop our way home with great anticipation: khalleh, wine, fish, meat! No small thing! And tomorrow there would be the tasty tsholnt, kugl and carrot tsimes! And tonight the songs that we would sing!
Manes Zilbershtayn (a brother of Yakov-Hersh) with his family: Dobe, the children, Fishele, Nemile, Tobele. Aunt Miriam Dina and uncle Motl Goldflus and daughter[s] Feyge, Khanele.
Uncle Moyshe Sholem, before his departure in 1937 to eretz yisroel [Palestine under the British mandate] to the children Rokhl Leah and Gitl.
Songs of Praise to God by the open Window
The first song came after the fish dish. Father would accompany us and harmonize in several ways. Sometimes he would sing the first voice then switch to the second voice. Another time he would take the bass part. We sang between each dish.
Summertime, the windows were open. More than once, on a Sabbath eve, people would gather near the windows to listen to Fishl soyfer and his sons sing. And each time father would reveal a new song for his quartet. His daughters would also join in even though father would pretend to get angry and say to them, girls mustn't sing!
While singing, father would become ecstatic, close his eyes and spread his arms as if he was flying in the heavens.
I grew up and changed. Father began to notice this and became frightened. He felt that something new and strange was beginning in Jewish life. He didn't want this to happen in his family. He didn't want the old, deeply-rooted traditions and customary Jewish life style to end. He tried his best in various ways to restrain me, to hang on to me.
He would lengthen the prayers on Friday and the Sabbath more and more in order to keep me at home. He found new songs of praise which might help to curb me. I knew he was doing this intentionally. Each Sabbath became more difficult. I didn't want to shame my father or cause my mother grief, but my mutiny was inevitable. Once he even bought pumpkin seeds and peeled them all in order to prolong the prayers. Until finally it happened: I said my prayers alone and left the house. This was the first tear in our relationship.
Later, father sang without me. Then he stopped talking to me. We remained distanced for many years. He thought of me as a lost son. New times arrived and our lives went in different directions.
I seek a trade, a purpose
When I left childhood, I thought I was already a grownup, but in truth, I was still a boy. Yet I began to sense injustices and to look for the reasons behind those injustices. I began to think about a practical purpose in my life. I had no trade in hand.
I saw how great our poverty was a house full of children, always hungry. I alone, the strong one, as I was called, had the appetite of four.
Become a tailor? My father could not accept this. No trade was found suitable for a scribe's son. That my sisters should become maids? Certainly not! And my mother was already sick for a long time something was stuck in her throat. She was getting steadily worse. I was in a quandary. I saw no way out and no future. I wanted to learn, to study. Other than the little bit of Yiddish that I spoke and read, I knew nothing. I thought of myself as hopeless, a real nothing. I was no longer drawn to study of the holy books and began to neglect them, I even began to skip certain prayers.
Psalms as a cure for fever
One day while mired in my sad thoughts, mother said to me: Yakov Hersh, look, woe is me, Khanele has a fever! This woke me up. Khanele was a delightful child, eight years old. I loved her dearly as did all the neighbours' children. She never just walked, she sprang and seemed to float in the air. She was the sweetheart of all who knew her.
My mother wrung her hands. She soaked a cloth in cold water and put it on her head. She asked me to stay in the house while she ran to aunt Rivka's. They brought back with them a woman who exorcised the evil eye. Father immediately grabbed a psalm-book and read with great fervour. After every page he went to the child and touched her head to see if the fever had not already gone away.
To the Doctor or to the rebbe
They didn't call Khaym Shmuel the herbalist nor did they call a doctor. Meanwhile the child was getting worse. There was nothing left to pawn in the house. The fine leather-bound books of the Pentateuch had already been pawned. They used only folk remedies and grandmothers' cures.
Mother sat near the bed, faint from lack of sleep and hunger, heartbroken and crying. Father sat in a corner, said psalms and cried. The grandfather, Shmuel shammes, with his long white beard, sat rocking over a holy book with another psalm book nearby. The child got worse from day to day.
We all sat immersed in dreary thoughts. What could we do to save Khanele? The herbalist was called, but his mixture didn't help at all. Suddenly, father said to all of us: You hear? I have faith that God willing, Khanele will recover.
Mother cooked a few potatoes with a bit of schmaltz which we ate with a few thin crusts of bread to still our hunger. The little ones were somewhat rejuvenated; for the past few days they had been completely neglected.
A few hours later, Khanele's fever rose. The child was on fire. Father grabbed his overcoat and said: I'm going to see the rebbe! Where would he find transportation? And money for expenses? From Korev to Kozhenitz was quite a distance [about 30 miles] and you could never be sure of finding a wagon going there. You had to go through Ryki and Modzhik.
Mother looked at him with tear-filled eyes in which the question, where will you find money, could be read. I'll speak with Hersh-Leyb, said father. Hersh-Leyb Yosl's had a grocery store and father owed him a large sum for food. Mother was ashamed to go to Hersh-Leyb to borrow even though they were good friends. Father said that if Hersh would loan him enough money and a wagon was available, he would leave immediately.
He said: goodbye! I will come back with a complete cure for Khanele. Then he left the house and we didn't see him for several days.
It was late at night and we were all exhausted and hungry. Mother boiled water on the oven and made tea for everyone. We drank our tea with small pieces of sugar. Mother swallowed her tea together with her tears. The children went to bed frightened, crying. Mother resumed her place near Khanele.
Khanele is sick because I stopped praying
It's dark in the house. One small lamp on the wall is burning. Grandfather rocks over a small psalm-book. Mother bends over Khanele to listen to her breathing. I sit near the oven and my heart is broken. Tears choke me. I think father is frolicking in Kozhenitz with khasidim and through this wants to cure Khanele! Grandfather's voice interrupts my thoughts, he asks me to come closer. Sit! he says. I sit down next to him.
Grandfather says: during my entire time here I have not seen you put a Jewish word in your mouth, or look in a prayer book. Why are you not saying psalms? Yakov-Hersh, take stock, you are already old enough to get married and will soon be matched up. I have heard that you are straying from the straight path toward bad habits and away from Judaism! Can you not see what's happening in this house? How God is punishing us and this is perhaps because of your sins?
I bend my head down and remain silent. Mother is silent. Her heart breaks. She looks at grandfather, then at me, but says nothing. I lift my head and look at grandfather. I see a Jew sitting, of stately appearance, with a long white beard, an open psalm-book in front of him. Then I glance at mother. I feel her sorrow, her distress. I look at the little ones together in bed who went to sleep hungry. And I think again: in Kozhenitz right now they are dancing to Fishl soyfer's tunes. There, they dance for a cure, and here my little sister is dying. Here, we sit starving, broken, writhing in pain and sorrow, trembling over every minute, every second, it's happening now!
The Child Dies
The night passed in this fashion. In the morning the aunts came and brought us a bite to eat. They asked mother to lie down and get some rest. Grandfather went to the synagogue to pray. Several women went to the graveyard to raise the dead and plead with their ancestors. From there they fell into the synagogue in tears.
Several days passed without any change. One night I was sitting with mother near Khanele's bed. The little ones were sleeping and we too, nodded off while sitting. Suddenly a rasping noise woke us up. Khanele started to wheeze, her chest went up and down with a rasp, like the sawing of wood. The wheezing was accompanied by a whistle. Mother cried aloud and hit her head. The little ones all woke up. It was late at night but neighbours came running and also started crying. The children, frightened, joined the crying.
Father obtained a complete cure through prayers, but the child didn't obey…
Suddenly we heard a crowing together with a rasping and soon after a loud hiccough. Then Khanele became quiet, and remained so forever.
The neighbours gathered up the children and took them away. The crying became even louder. I suddenly heard someone run by our window and start tinkering with the door. I opened the door and saw in front of me father. He came in and immediately understood what had happened. He started hitting his head with his fists, hitting his head on the wall. Like a wild man he shouted: the rebbe said go home, your child will recover completely. God in heaven, I won't endure this!
He couldn't forgive himself that he wasn't with the child. He had no one to whom he could empty his heart. He just looked at mother then at the dead child and tears flowed into his beard. He looked at me too and couldn't decide which of us was responsible for Khanele's death. He had so much faith in his rebbe, so much faith, and now… with the money it cost him to travel to the rebbe, they could have brought a doctor from Pulav!…
I lived in Konskivolye [a town about 5 miles west of Korev] with my wife and worked as a weaver of upholstery bindings. I was not liked in Konskivolye. They whispered behind my wife's back that I had been forced to marry her; that I disappeared for days on end and no one knew where I went; that I associated with people who were not suitable to my in-laws.
Once, I really did get lost for quite a while. They found out only later where I had been. I was in Korev. I had found out that my mother was dangerously ill, so I left for home on foot. Arriving home I found mother lying in bed very sick. When I asked her how she was, she didn't answer. She just looked at me with her pretty blue eyes as if she wanted to fathom whether I was happily married or was my mind still full of those old persuasions that used to frighten her so much.
I needed to be close to her, to embrace and kiss her, but how could I do this? I was now a man!… I can't remember the time when my mother would kiss and caress me, nor my father. There was always a barrier between the children and our parents. I knew that mother loved me very much, with all my faults. Even all the bad news and predictions about me she received from God's Cossacks did not lessen her love for me.
I must not embrace my mother…
I stand by her bed and reflect: I am, I think, a modern person who has broken away from all the old traditions and gone forward unafraid, ready to sweep away all the thorn bushes and stones which block the path to a more beautiful world, a world of truth and justice. And here I stand beside my beloved sick mother and dare not embrace her…
I sat down beside her bed and cried. My brothers and sisters gathered around her bed and cried with me. Mother did not take her eyes off us, but was silent. I asked the children why she wouldn't talk. They answered quietly that she had stopped talking eight days ago. Father walked around the house with his hands clasped behind him and spoke to no one.
They had sent for Khaym the herbalist who came, looked at mother, took away a few pennies and wrote a recipe. When we asked him what was wrong with mother, he shrugged his shoulders. We guessed from this that her illness was critical. Then, all the old methods were tried: they went to raise the dead, they prayed before the holy ark in the synagogue, they applied old remedies, amulets, said psalms with a minyen of ten men. Several days of psalm-saying, praying and crying went by and no improvement was seen…
Several aunts came in one day, wailing and crying. Mother, it appeared, understood her situation. She turned her head away as if she had resigned from everything. Later, more women came in. One carried a long board that looked similar to the board on which noodle dough was stretched. A second woman carried a large pot in which lay a kind of thick yellow stuff that looked like wax. A third woman carried new white sheets. My mother turned her head, saw the women and trembled.
Two of the women went to father and had a quiet conversation with him. Then they took off their kerchiefs and went to work. They fired up the oven. One woman came to the bed and asked me go somewhere else. They moved the table beside the bed and put the long board on it. One woman put the large pot on the oven while a second unfolded the sheets. The woman at the oven stuck her hands into the pot and started moving them as if she was kneading dough for bread or for pastries for the Sabbath. Then she put the stuff that looked like wax on the long board, twisted it and rolled it with her hands until it took the shape of a yortsayt candle of a pound weight.
They honour a candle
Mother is frightened. The weeping becomes louder. The children, the adults all weep. Then they picked up the candle and put the board into a laundry tub. One woman held the candle over the length of the board while another poured a pot of warm water from the oven on it. The board was then put on the table and the body was put on the board.
The woman with the white sheets measured the body then quickly ripped the sheets, stitched together shrouds and put them on the body. The board [on which dead bodies are laid for cleansing before burial] was taken away and the corpse, the body, was placed on the table with the feet toward the door. Candelabras with lighted candles were placed on the table. The candles were shaded by a dark cloth.
New wailing broke out in the house. Mother lay silently, tears ran from her eyes. The women go to father and tell him that he should now apologize [ask forgiveness] to the piece of wax. The aunts apologize to everyone. Then all the children were placed at the head of the body and I was told that as the oldest, I should be the first to apologize to the corpse.
All these absurdities completely confused me. I was not prepared for this. I was seeing this for the first time in my life. Such wild superstition! To use a piece of wax as redemption and give it all the honours usually given to a deceased person! And the sick person lies there, cannot speak and must watch the entire wild spectacle!
I don't want to apologize to a candle
Everyone's eyes turned to me. I stood there perplexed, my brain working quickly. How should I now conduct myself? One inner voice said I must comply, because if something bad were to happen to mother, they would not forgive me. The second voice said: act as a free person, mother will not be healed by all of this, in fact, this is driving her more quickly to her death! Suddenly I tore myself loose and pushed through all the assembled women with a decisive shout no!
I ran out of the house. It was very cold outside and I stood there a long time. It was the 16th day of the month of adar ‘b’ [the sixth month in the Jewish calendar, usually coinciding with parts of Feb. and Mar.]. It was a leap year [hence the ‘b’].
While standing there outside, shivering from the cold, I saw the grave-digger approaching with a trough in hand. He went into the house and a little later came out with the trough on which lay a black piece of material. The women accompanied the candle out of the house as if it was a dead person. The candle was buried in the new cemetery, probably under the fence.
I went back into the house with my head bowed down. I was shivering from the cold as if in ague. I held onto a chair for support, I was totally broken down. I was by nature a strong person, but what I had experienced was beyond my strength. This day was a frightful date in my life!
The next morning mother's condition was worse and she died that day. It was the 17th day of adar ‘b’. Honour her memory.
The Strongmen of Korev
The Jews of Korev could justly take pride in their strongmen. Even the well-learned were proud of the strongmen, healthy, strapping Jews who had a reputation even beyond Lublin province.
The khasidim used to tell stories about the strongmen exactly the same way they told about the miraculous deeds of their rebbes. Korev was rich in Jewish strongmen. No other city in the Lublin area could compare with Korev in this regard.
Many books could have been written about the stories told about Korev's strongmen. Let us, at least, remember a few of them: for instance, the Dondikes brothers, Fayvl the shoemaker and his younger brother Leybush the wagon driver.
Fayvl was a bit taller than average and cross-eyed. Summer and winter he went around with rolled up sleeves from which two strong arms stuck out. He was very agile. He was always looking for someone to quarrel with in order to fight, to exercise his arms; it was for him a kind of sport. He wasn't choosy a Jew or a non-Jew, as long as a fight would result. So long as people would hear about him and say: aha, Fayvl has beaten up someone. Most of the fights took place between afternoon and evening prayers in the bes-medresh…
Yosep, his father, was quite a different person. Fighting in the bes-medresh would have been beneath his dignity. Yosep Dondik was the tallest person in Korev, even amongst the non-Jews in the surrounding villages, and even in the entire Lublin district. He was almost seven feet tall. When he stood at the intersection of the Pilev highway, he could be seen from near the priest's orchard.
He had wide shoulders, large, long hands with wide palms. He had a round face with black, swift eyes, a black moustache and a small beard. He couldn't fight in the bes-medresh; he would have had to first put aside several groups of people before he could use his long arms. His fights took place mostly on the street, in the marketplace or on the roads and not only with one opponent, but with several at the same time.
It was said that Yosep could drink a full bottle of beer at one go and then blow into the bottle so strongly that it would break. He was a quiet man with an easy-going manner. He would fight only when he had no choice. He would never provoke a fight.
Leybush, the youngest son, grew as if he had been leavened. He seemed to shoot up overnight like a tall pine tree. He was always restless, unable to stay still on one spot. Being a wagon driver, he would often harness up horses from a stranger's stable…
Leybush was a pupil of Wolf Dovid's who had returned after serving a sentence of hard labour. Wolf came from Konskivolye and was the king of the horse-thieves. He was built like a piece of steel, massive, with a large, wide, brown beard like a rabbi's, but with the build of a Russian peasant.
Wolf was a devout Jew. If you saw him in the bathhouse you would notice the blue marks on his legs which remained from the chains he wore in prison. He was the rabbi of the thieves and Leybush was one of his best pupils, learning this torah with diligence.
Leybush's fights took place mostly in the nearby villages, at market fairs with non-Jews. His lungs were damaged and he died young.
Isaac Shuster was the pride and joy of Korev. Young and old, the learned and the simple Jews, loved to tell stories about Isaac's prowess, of his many fights with non-Jews in the village fairs.
Isaac was tall, broad shouldered, had a round face with large smiling eyes and a steady laugh on his lips. The muscles of his body were visible through his clothes. He had a strong neck and a broad chest. He was an amiable and good-hearted person, but if someone provoked him he became transformed into a tiger with fiery eyes, as agile and sure-footed as a cat.
He would enliven community celebrations. He was the central figure at the celebration held when the reading of a holy book was concluded. The whole city, including non-Jews would then run to see him. He would then dress up as a Turk, with a red fez and tassel on the side and with a Turkish shawl thrown over his shoulders. He pasted a long, black moustache to his upper lip and wore a coloured shirt. He sewed up a pair of long pants out of sheets which he wore to cover the long stilts he wore on his legs. When he stood up, took his fifteen foot long stick in his hand and started walking, it seemed as if a devil from another world had appeared. His stilts made him so tall that his shoulders reached the roof. The onlookers were afraid he would topple over, but Isaac moved steadily, with a broad smile on his lips.
If a celebration parade started during the day, when a new holy book or parchment was picked up from a scribe and taken to the custodian of the congregation in order to sell the letters, then music was heard in the streets and Jews danced. Isaac danced on his stilts with the support of one hand. Everyone was worried that he shouldn't fall.
The non-Jews would cross themselves when they unexpectedly saw Isaac coming their way. His unnatural height frightened them. If the parade took place in the evening, Isaac would lead it, disguised as a Circassian riding a horse.
Most of the time Isaac would use his strength on Sundays and non-Jewish holidays when the young Gentiles from the nearby villages would come into town and start bothering the Jews. Then Isaac and the other strongmen would teach them a harsh lesson. After these encounters the young Gentiles, bloodied and bruised, would scatter like mice and the street leading to the church would become empty.
Many Gentiles would seek advice from Jews. Isaac also had many Gentile adherents who marveled at his Gentile strength and were proud of him. I remember how once on the Sabbath, Isaac took on three Gentiles at the same time and they all fell like bloodied logs.
Yosef the Crazy Man
Yosef the crazy man was not actually crazy. This was his nickname, because he behaved a little differently from others. He was a middle-sized Jew with a small white beard. He walked quickly and was light on his feet. He was reckoned among the strongmen.
He was a merchant with a small business. He traveled with his own little wagon to the nearby villages to trade. When he spoke to someone he kept his head bowed down so that it appeared that he was smilingly talking to himself. His whip was always in his hand except when he went into the bes-medresh. Even when his horse and wagon were far away, he was never separate from his whip. He made a living from his business and never had to ask others for help.
Every morning after prayers he would visit Shmuel shammes's for a drink of whisky. At Shmuel shammes's one could buy whisky, pieces of roast goose, gizzards, stuffed chicken necks, marinated herring and other good things. Shmuel shammes's was the place where a lot of Jews merchants, butchers and tradesmen liked to have a bite to eat. After a business deal was concluded, the participants would go to Shmuel shammes's to have a drink. Only the khasidim found it unsuitable to gather there. They would send their messengers there to buy all the good things, but have their get-togethers in their little study houses.
Yosef never had time for long conversations. He would always interrupt a conversation in the middle and run away, as if someone was waiting somewhere for him. Yosef was a close relative of Velvl the merchant and Velvl was a competitor of Hertske the waxmaker, who later became the owner of the bathhouse.
There was a longstanding animosity between them and Yosef's sons against Hertske. They were always eager to teach Hertske a lesson. Hertske was a strongman who used to fight with Isaac Shuster. He once unexpectedly, for Isaac, attacked him with a mortar in the bes-medresh.
Hertske was tall and had a big black beard. He looked like a Roma and had fiery black eyes. But against Yosef's sons he was powerless; they often beat him. In the end, Hertske set fire to Velvl's house and everything went up in smoke his grain storehouse, hides and pig hair everything was destroyed. Hertske served a few years in prison for this.
Both of Yosef's sons were very strong, but the youngest son, Zbondik, was the strongest. What this nickname meant, I don't know, but that's what they called him. Shimon was not tall but was broadly built, with protruding jawbones. He had two heavy hands hammers. Woe to him who received a blow from them!
Shimon worked for Velvl, making wax. The wax was squeezed with a large screw mechanism that pressed it out onto a heavy slab that lay underneath. The screw mechanism had four large holes in which large, long oak rods were placed. Most of the time one rod about ten feet long and fifteen centimeters in diameter was used to turn the screw. Three men together would walk around the press, pushing the rod, turning the screw as far as it would go, then they would put the rod in the next hole and repeat the process until it would no longer turn. Then the hot wax was drawn off into half open little casks. In the summer, people would stop and watch how wax was made. Many simply enjoyed the smell of the hot wax.
One time, onlookers watched as three men turned the large screw until it would go no further. Then they started to tease Shimon: Shimon, I would have talked to you about a marriage arrangement, but you don't seem to be suitable for anything and you're not at all as strong as some people make out. He was teased from all sides and Shimon just laughed. The onlookers provoked him further: let him show us something, let's see what he can do!
Shimon responded: do you know what? I'll bet you that after three men together have turned the screw as far as they can, that I alone can turn it one more time. And so it happened. Three men together pushed the rod around until it would go no further. Then a sum of money was wagered. Everyone laughed and teased Shimon, certain that they would win.
Shimon spat into his large hands, pulled the large rod out, placed it in another hole and gave a mighty push it moved a bit. Another push and it moved a bit more until finally he completed one full turn of the screw. Everyone was amazed; they couldn't believe such a thing was possible to do. Shimon won the bet.
To list all of Korev's strongmen would take a lot of room, besides those found among the student khasidim. So let's just stop to describe the teacher Borukh, Zisl the tobacco-maker's son-in-law. He was a strong Jew. People talked about the strength that lay hidden in this man.
When Borukh got angry with someone he was afraid that he might kill him with one strong blow, or else leave him crippled. So instead, he would bring his fist down on the end of the table breaking it off. He would do the same with the other end of the table. The wife would start to scream and the man [the target] would run away.
Or, let's talk about such a student as Moyshe khokhem [the wise]. He was called this because he was anything but wise. A lot of jokes were told about him. Moyshe khokhem had a meaty nose and a childish laugh. He had an iron store that consisted of a few scythes, a few iron pots, a few flat pieces of iron to make edges for shutters or doors, a few hinges and a few pounds of nails of various sizes. In addition, he also travelled to the nearby villages to sell.
Once, in a village, a Gentile said to him: I need a new scythe. Moyshe khokhem answered: why don't you come to my store? The Gentile said: I don't have a horse and wagon. So, Moyshe khokhem picked him up and carried him several kilometers to his store in Korev to sell him a scythe.
Once, two healthy Gentiles started to get smart with Moyshe in his store. He grabbed them both by their collars and smashed their faces together until blood ran from their noses and mouths, then threw them out of the store.
I was once a witness to Moyshe's strength. I was sitting with other students in the bes-medresh at the Lubliner table where Moyshe was sitting in the middle. We asked him to show us an example of his strength. He took a large coin out of his pocket and placed it half off the edge of the table. Then he stood a gemora [a Talmud book] on edge on the table. Then he sat down on the floor with his mouth under the half coin, inflated his cheeks, pursed his lips and blew so strongly that the coin flew over the gemora to the other side of the table.
Moyshe would not use his hands to fight unless he had no other choice. Among the strongmen were also Avrom and his sons. They were called Chechens and were all powerfully built giants who nevertheless could learn a page of the gemora.
Or a man like Leybush Lozer the horse dealer's son. A giant and a very fine learner. He would learn a few pages of gemora in the bes-medresh after evening prayers. He would use his strength only when he was among Gentiles at the fairs. He was a quiet and congenial man.
It was a spiritual pleasure after evening prayers to watch such healthy giants sit and rock back and forth as they studied the gemora or the yoyre-deye [laws] with great zeal. The sound of their chanting blended with the chanting of other young learners such as Matesl Hekht, Yisroel Malke's, Avrom Melekh Shildkroyt, and other great learners Hersh Gershon, Abale Rapaport who became ordained as a rabbi and many others.
Abale, in addition to being a great student, was also an important artist, a painter and carver of great merit. The beautiful, finely carved menorah that was part of the pulpit in the synagogue was his work.
Korev had many important learned men. The sound of the Korev gemora learners could be heard day and night, often a whole night, especially Thursday nights.
And these same khasidim, zealous students, good Jews, also knew how to use their fists. The bes-medresh students often had altercations with the workers and tradesmen. Fights would erupt mostly in the winter Saturday afternoons when the older Jews were not in the bes-medresh.
It would start when the workers would throw snow on the bes-medresh students as an invitation to a battle. These fights would last only until afternoon prayers.
It went on like this year after year. The workers called the bes-medresh students kotshe lapes [shovel paws incapable of using their hands] and the students called the workers ignorant louts. But the fights were never dangerous, they were after all between Jews…
David of the Slaughterhouse
Korev's slaughterhouse stood almost halfway in the river, on large, heavy posts, so the blood would run into the river.
Inside, large iron rings had been built into the floor and the ceiling. In these rings there were thick ropes which served to restrain the animals while they were being slaughtered. I often watched when an animal was brought to be slaughtered. A bull would be brought with its eyes covered. Half a dozen men would be involved in the work. They would lead the bull with a thick rope around its neck. As soon as the bull came close to the little bridge and smelled blood, it stopped and would not move from the spot. More butchers or just plain strong men had to be called to help lead the bull into the slaughterhouse. A long time was often required to succeed. If the animal would not stick its head inside, ropes from the rings would be thrown around its neck and it would be pulled inside, its legs would be bound and it would fall on the floor. All the ropes were then pulled tight until it could no longer move. The bull howled, gasped and cried like a living person. Then several men sat on the bull while others held its head. The ritual slaughterer shaved a portion of the bull's neck, creating a white stripe which stood out strongly against the black hair. He then cut the bull's neck with his slaughtering knife and the blood sprayed out with such force it seemed to be coming from a large pump. This lasted a couple of minutes, until everything was taken care of. The bull lay silently.
The manager of the slaughterhouse was David, David of the slaughterhouse. I'm not sure whether David was the owner, was hired, or received a portion of the proceeds. I know only that he worked hard. But earnings he had. He never went without a piece of meat of every kind. His entire family looked like butchers.
David had athletic, muscled arms on which the blue veins stood out boldly. The young boys were envious of his strong red neck. He had a gentle face that expressed friendliness and contentment. He liked to play with children if he had the time and also to joke around often with the older ones. A favourite trick of his was to lift up his arms threateningly when he approached a grown boy. The boy, trying to push David's arms away, would put his hands on David's arms. In an instant, David would pin the boy's hands in his arms and do with him what he wanted. The boy would then plead: Mr. David, let go, it hurts! I was myself, more than once, a captive of David's strong arms. I learned how he did this trick and when I grew up it came in handy as I used it on others.
David's work also entailed distributing the meat to the butcher stalls and the hides to the hide merchants. Almost every day you could see him going uphill to Velvl the hide merchant with a large pack of raw hides bound with rope on his shoulders, his head bent down to the earth as if he was counting his steps.
The hides were very heavy to carry. I don't know how many hides were in each pack, but people used to say that he was stronger than iron to carry such loads every day. As soon as David was freed from his heavy burden, he would start to play around with the children on his way back to the slaughterhouse.
Every week, before Sabbath, a figure of sorts, half human, half animal, would appear in town. Walking so slowly that it seemed to be barely moving it would make its way uphill from the slaughterhouse to the market. From behind the figure, you saw a pair of boots and pants up to a belt. From the belt up over its head you saw half a white, blood flecked, skinned cow. Over the figure's head a red ribbon of wet blood could be seen. By the sides of his pants, the long legs of the cow, naked, with two red toes, could be seen. The figure moved slowly, step by step. It looked as if an animal had swallowed a man from the waist up and was using his legs to move.
Two large arms with closed fists hung from its shoulders. In the middle of the red mass, a thick beard stuck out on a face with a cap on its head. You could have thought that a human head was completely surrounded by a frame of red meat, blood and bones.
Like this the figure moved step by step until it remained standing before the door of the butcher shop. It was too tall to go inside. The butchers came out and helped free the figure from its animal.
This was David of the slaughterhouse. He was a dear man, a quiet strongman.
Elye the Butcher
Elye didn't look as if he was as strong as Isaac Shuster or Yosep Dondik. Still, people were afraid of Elye. His large black eyebrows, prominent jawbones and long eyelashes warned: don't bother me!
Elye was a man who believed in eating. He would go on a spree. In his basement there was always a small barrel of Bessarabia. Every day about three o'clock Elye would drink tea with wine and have a snack of rye bread. I was once his guest at three o'clock and shared the refreshments.
Elye was afraid of nothing, not the living nor the dead. I heard him talk about the many things that he had done with his strength. Korev Jews often found themselves living beside his battles. They would then close their doors and windows and be afraid to go out on the street until Elye had won the fight.
One time, Elye had this kind of idea: he sewed up his own death shrouds, invited the members of the ritual burial society over and they all had a good bit of whisky. Then he put the shrouds away in a chest; in case anything happened he didn't want to have to ask his children for help.
The shrouds lay for a long time forgotten in the chest. Then it happened that a fine but poor man died. The burial society had no supplies and said that their treasury was empty. Complaints here, excuses there, nothing was happening and meanwhile the corpse lay waiting. Then Elye remembered his shrouds. He removed them from his chest, took them to the manager of the burial society and said, use these shrouds, respect his rights, don't fail to support the dead one.
A while later, the same thing happened. He again sewed himself death shrouds, invited the members of the burial society over for a good drink and then put the shrouds away in a chest. Another poor man later died and Elye again did the same thing, he gave his shrouds away for the dead man. Later, Elye began to believe that by giving his own shrouds away he was ensuring his own longevity.
Once, Elye went to another town on business. He went into a tavern to have a glass of whisky and was recognized by a couple of Gentiles. They began to whisper to each other and all eyes were turned toward Elye. Among the Gentiles there was a strongman, a giant, known as the strongest man in the district. Everyone was afraid of him. He looked Elye over from top to bottom and couldn't believe that Elye was such a strongman.
The Gentile started making fun of Elye and Elye didn't make him wait long for an answer. One remark led to another until the Gentile asked Elye to go outside and fight.
Everyone in the tavern went outside and before Elye had a chance to look around, the Gentile punched him in the face. He was dazed by the blow and fell down. The Gentile fell upon him and they began to struggle. Elye was successful in being the first to get up and delivered a blow under the heart of the Gentile which left him senseless and unable to move. Elye waited for a while for the Gentile to get up but then had to leave. As he walked away through the rows of Gentiles no one dared to interfere with him. The Gentile was put in a wagon and taken home. He died soon after.
Elye the butcher stabs Lilith
In Korev there was once an epidemic on young children; many died quickly. Many baby boys did not survive until their circumcision [traditionally on the eighth day] and many baby girls did not live to be honoured by their fathers by being named in the synagogue. Psalm recitation did not help nor did papers inscribed with words from the kabala [supposedly to protect expectant women and the newborn from evil spirits] attached to the bed sheets which served as curtains for the confined. Traditional prayers by local schoolchildren for the newborn and the laying of amulets were of no use. It was as if the Lord in heaven had totally abandoned Jewish children!
Then a rumour started to circulate that Lilith (or as some called her, Queen Sheva, queen of the demons and spirits) had appeared in town and was suffocating the children at night. A special guard [amulet] was put in place to protect the confined especially on the night before the circumcision. It didn't help at all.
People started to say that Lilith had established herself in the old cemetery among those old headstones crowded together whose lettering had disappeared. This location was close to Israel the ritual slaughterer's house. At night when a man would pass by this spot, Lilith, in all her splendour, would reveal herself. She knew every man by his first name and called him, enticed him, used all her many charms to ensnare him and draw him to herself. The man would become frightened and quickly run away to recite a chapter of psalms.
One man told how one night, as he was walking past the cemetery, he suddenly heard a sweet sounding woman's voice calling him by name. He turned his head and saw a beautiful woman standing on the other side of the cemetery fence. She had black satin hair, parted in the middle. Two long, thick braids hung over her shoulders down to her knees. Her frock was undone and two white breasts shone forth. She approached him, stretched out her hands to him and said, Come to me, my beloved. He began to tremble as if in a fever and ran away.
Jews avoided going past the cemetery and were afraid to go out at night. Even the butchers, who went to the slaughterhouse at night, avoided this path. The epidemic raged and nothing could be done. There were no sinful Jews in Korev on whom blame could be cast. A story is told of this happening: Elye the butcher wanted to slaughter one of his animals and went to the slaughterhouse on a different path. By the time Elye was finished, it was late at night. Elye had had to wait for the rabbi's inspection [of a slaughtered animal for possible impurities]. He stuck his knives under his belt and went home alone. He had entirely forgotten about the earlier story of Lilith's appearance. Going by the cemetery, he heard the melodious voice of a woman calling him by name: Elye, my love, come to me, my beauty!
Elye looked and saw a beautiful woman leaning on the other side of the fence. He was entranced by her beauty. She very nearly ensnared him in her net. His brain started to work quickly. She reached out to him with her beautiful white hands and again called to him. She looked like a living person and not like a demon. She leaned toward him as if she wanted to caress his face. Elye stepped closer to her and she tried to throw her arms around his neck. At that moment Elye grabbed one of his knives and stabbed her in the chest. She cried out oy! and disappeared.
Elye dropped the knife in fear, looked all around and saw no one. He shivered from fright and a dread overcame him. He bent down, picked up his knife, again looked all around and saw no one. Lilith, Queen Sheva, was nowhere to be seen.
Elye continued his way home with knife in hand. He kept looking fearfully into the darkness but saw nothing. When he got home and lit a lamp he noticed for the first time, bloodstains on the knife.
Elye never again used that knife. From then on, Lilith disappeared from Korev. Children remained living and grew in number. May they increase!
Zelda was a large, plump, full-figured maiden. She had a head full of thick black hair, short and straight as if someone had sheared it in front. On both sides little pigtails dangled into which red ribbons had been woven and fastened with little bows.
Zelda had a fat, round face, like a bowl. Her eyelids were half closed, squinting, as if she was looking for something on the ground. Her bosom was high, raised up until it nearly reached her neck. She had fat hands and legs.
She went around barefoot with the broad gait of a marching soldier. As she took a step, her head shook and so did her pigtails. If she had put little bells in her pigtails she could have marched in a circus. She would often mutter to herself. This meant that she was talking to herself. She kept her head bent down, looked at no one.
Zelda used to carry water for her neighbours in two large wooden water cans. She got the water from a spring below Pilev road, across from the mill. The older boys would often lie in wait for her as she came down to the spring and when no one else was around, a boy would ask her: Zelda, what time is it? Zelda would quickly unbutton her blouse, undo her undershirt, take out a firm, white, round breast, put it in her hand, look at it as if looking at a clock and answer: twelve o'clock!
If a Jewish mother happened to come upon the scene, the boy would suffer a severe scolding. The woman would shout: you hooligan! Aren't you ashamed of yourself? Your father's a khosid, a Talmud scholar and has such a son?… Just wait until I meet your mother and tell her what a precious son she has! A shameless brat!
Crazy David was more than six feet tall and probably weighed not less than two hundred and fifty pounds. He had long arms and big feet. He was melancholic yet could become very elated by a triviality, sometimes by a trinket, sometimes by his own cleverness. He could ask someone: Can you count? But would soon himself answer: I can. One, two, three, four. Then he would begin to clap his big hands and laugh out loud. But when he became wild he became a tiger. Then it would be very difficult to approach him. Only one person, his father Joseph, could tame him. His father would only have to say: David, come here! David would quickly become quiet and obey like a child.
Joseph, his father, was a learned man, a teacher, a quiet, gentle man. He showed much love and patience for his son; he made sure that David was clean and was dressed in new clothes. Crazy David had great respect and love for his parents.
David's parents had a home at the intersection near Courtyard Street, across from the church. It was a two story house with a red porch in front. Higher up there was a small attic window with broken panes and in this attic David was king. From here he conducted his battles with Jews and Gentiles. David would sit in this attic with a supply of pebbles and wait for people to pass by so he could throw pebbles down on them. Whenever he hit someone he would hide his head, slap himself with his big hands and laugh in great ecstasy. He was the best stone thrower in Korev, a true champion…
The young urchins always looked for an opportunity to battle with David, to torment him, to see him bloodied. Each of them wanted to participate in this. To actually engage with David was too risky. His strength and the stones he always carried in his pockets were his ammunition. The town Gentiles were afraid of him. They fought with him more than a few times but only when there were a few of them together.
David suffered from epilepsy. He knew when an attack was about to happen and would then seek a spot where he could wedge himself in between something soft so as not to hurt himself too badly when the attack came. But if the attack happened in the street or in an empty space, he would fall like a log and be hurt. When falling, he would turn his head face up and foam at the mouth. His legs would writhe and his whole body would twist in spasms. This would last ten or fifteen minutes, then he would get up and not remember what had just happened.
It happened several times that a group of the young Jewish strongmen would organize themselves and gather sticks, pieces of iron and other weapons to battle with David. They tried to catch David in a corner where he would not be able to resist properly. Once, they were successful and were able to give him a real beating. David felt that a great injustice had been inflicted upon him and in protest threw away his cap and went around bareheaded, bloodied, threatening that he was going to convert.
His parents never complained about the Jewish urchins that used to torment their son. They accepted this with resignation as God's punishment.
One morning, Shmuel shammes went around knocking on the shutters with his wooden hammer. Because he knocked only twice instead of three times, everyone knew that someone had died. When people heard the two knocks, they started running to find out who had died and soon found out that crazy David was found drowned in the mikve [pool for ritual immersion and purification].
The khevre kedishe [voluntary burial society] washed his body in the pool in preparation for burial. Several extra men were required to carry David. He was heavier than usual, having lain in the ritual pool for twenty-four hours. His former enemies now became his carriers. From the mikve to the cemetery was quite a distance.
Many people said psalms for his soul. Those who had tormented and beaten David, now felt great remorse. Crazy David was now purified in heaven, liberated from all his troubles and suffering.
Lag b'Oymer in town
During the forty-nine days between the holidays of Passover and Shavuoth the town was noisy and full of excitement. The youth as well as the bes-medresh students were preparing to celebrate Lag b'Oymer.
The youth were busy fashioning weapons, getting ready for the Lag b'Oymer battle. They made bows and arrows to carry on their shoulders, wooden swords, knives, guns and pikes. The pikes were wrapped in silver paper so that they would look like they were made of sharp steel. A lot of effort and creativity went into this work so that the celebration would be better and more beautiful. Likewise, the bes-medresh students used all their talents to beautify and decorate the bes-medresh with animals, birds, flowers and crowns.
Shades of thin wood were made for the extra-bright hanging lamps and cut-out coloured papyrus paper was then glued onto the inside of these shades. A large carved crown was decorated in the same fashion with paper of every colour and looked truly genuine with its lions, deer, flowers, trees and grapevines. The lamp shades were made in the shape of large hats without visors, similar to the fur-edged hats worn by khasidik Jews on the Sabbath and holidays. They were raised up above the lamps, tied to the lamp chain, and cast shadows all around. The bright lamps displayed all the beautiful cut-out designs in many colours.
The bes-medresh students would fasten together wooden hoops from barrels, hang them around the hanging lamps and decorate them with dripped-on tallow candles. The pulpit, the brass knobs and all the bookcases were also decorated with dripped-on candles. All the candles were lit for evening prayers.
Lag b'Oymer during the day was joyful. It was a day of parades, full of cheers and shouts from both sides of the fighting young soldiers. Each side had officers, generals and even emperors with crowns on their heads.
Some of the children-groups turned their hats upside down. The yellow bands on them signified a soldier's hat. Others glued on pieces of red or white paper to indicate their regiment. The emperors wore crowns made of a tree bark that was easy to peel from the tree. The generals wore paper sashes over their four-cornered tasseled undershirts [worn by Orthodox males].
The soldiers marched to the war which took place near the new cemetery. The purpose of the war was to capture the fortress from Turkey in order to free the land of Israel [Palestine] from Turkish rule… and then the Messiah would come.
The children played noisily like this until it was time for afternoon prayers. Then they marched home singing and readied themselves for the play that would take place in the bes-medresh that evening.
On Lag b'Oymer evening, the bes-medresh became transformed into a magic castle. The hundreds of burning candles on the hoops, the shades on the lamps which cast a dim light, the beautiful, colourful decorations on the lamps, the candles on the pulpit and the carved snakes captured the eye and one's breath. If someone came to the bes-medresh unaware, he would remain standing, stunned and speechless.
And when these young artists grew up, got married and left Korev, new young artists came along to take their place.
After evening prayers, groups with torches in their hands went out all over town. The children carried glasses of kerosene which was poured on the torches and set on fire. Then some young men filled their mouths with kerosene, took hold of a burning torch and blew the kerosene on the torch with such force that it flared high in the air.
Young and old, big and small, everyone partied and happily took part in the shimon ben yekhay [yoḥai] celebration [the great Jewish sage from the second century who is traditionally considered to be the author of the Zohar].
Everyone took pleasure in Lag b'Oymer.
During the 90's
At the end of the 1890's, Korev was a Torah source, had many learned men, important scholars, khasidim and khasidik study-houses. Each group of khasidim had its own melodies for study and prayer. A strange melody would seldom wander from one group to another unless a khosid brought it and it was adopted. It would however sometimes happen that a strange melody would be sung. This would happen when the beauty of a strange melody would be too tempting to pass up just because it was strange. For this reason, the bes-medresh students were able to sing all the khasidik melodies because each one did not consider himself as a khosid of a specific khasidik rebbe. Only after their wedding would they become khosids of their father-in-law's rebbe. They were at that time free boarders with their in-laws while they completed their studies and the father-in-law would pay for everything. When the father-in-law travelled to see his rebbe, he would take along his son-in-law.
Shmuel shammes would perform the havdole ceremony [at the close of the Sabbath to distinguish between its holiness and the profaneness of the following weekday] to satisfy the community. When the maker of the braided havdole candles said the blessing over the candles [thanking the Creator of firelight], tens of hands appeared near the candles to look at their nails in the candlelight. At the conclusion of the ceremony the brandy was poured onto the table and set on fire. Many hands would scrape the fire into their pockets in hope of success and prosperity in the new week.
There were many communal societies in town: the ritual burial society, the society that ensured that the sets of books that encoded the Jewish laws were available and protected, the society that provided carriers to take the dead to the cemetery, the society responsible for visiting the sick, the society responsible for marrying orphaned or poor girls, the society for encouraging psalm recitation.
The ritual burial society was the strongest, the most eminent. One could say it governed the town. The position of chief rabbi and the entire clergy were regulated by them. They had power. Perish the thought, at sukkes [sukkot], they delayed the decisions of arbitrators. They themselves elected the gabai of the synagogue. They were often very cruel to the heirs of the deceased, used to rip strips from them [make atrocious demands for money], especially so if the deceased had led a miserly life.
They always had money to spend. They were always celebrating holidays, had feasts and went on sprees. At every funeral there had to be whisky and for no good reason, a holiday was celebrated that day.
The biggest celebration of all was simkhes toyre [simkhat torah, a holiday following sukkot, celebrating the completion of the year's reading cycle of the Torah]. On that day people drank, feasted, got drunk all day and partied until late at night. Then, with song and dance they led the rabbi into the synagogue for the hakofes [the circular procession with the Torah scrolls around the reading platform].
Second in importance was the society responsible for marrying orphaned or poor girls. They performed a needed service. They would collect money each week and especially at celebrations, for poor orphaned girls to help them get married. They would disguise themselves at each of these marriages, sometimes riding horses, and would lead the bride and groom to the wedding canopy with great fanfare. Similar pageantry was seen at the conclusion of the reading of the Torah.
Each society had its own prayer and study house. A few used to meet in the anterooms of the synagogue and some students studied with these people every Sabbath before afternoon prayers. Some studied Ethics of the Fathers, others the mishnah [collection of post-biblical laws and rabbinical discussions of the 2nd century], others the eyn yankev [title of a popular 16th century book of Bible stories], others the Pentateuch. The society for psalm saying did so collectively on the Sabbath.
The Jews of Korev had a good way of life in those days, a full life. Disregarding the difficult economic conditions and other problems, they still had a sky over their heads and a ground under their feet. They had confidence, faith and hope of better times in both worlds.
It often happened that our erudite, I mean the learned, would sometimes sin with their knowledge, would take too much pride in their learning, were too arrogant and conceited, which would cause resentment and pain in the ordinary person. Some of the learned looked down on the workers and were vain. It happened more than once that such a learned man would shout at an ordinary man: ignoramus, boor, block-head, have respect! And most of the time the ordinary man would remain quiet out of respect for the learned man…
In 1904-5 new winds started to blow in Korev. Book peddlers arrived with various disreputable story-books. These books were quickly bought up on the tailors' and shoemakers' streets. Girls and boys eagerly took to reading and gathered together to listen to a girl read out loud while they cracked pumpkin seeds. Many tears were spilled while listening to the suffering endured by the princes and princesses. This is how we started to read [Yiddish]. We read Blostein's novels, then the older boys started reading Dineson, Linetsky, Spector's House Friend, Hermolin, Zeyfert and later, Sholem Aleichem, Peretz and Sholem Asch.
In 1906, socialist literature such as translations of Paul Lamfarg and Karl Kutsky's Der Erfurter Program [the program of Erfurt, a city in central Germany] started to arrive. One book that created an upheaval in the minds of some of the bes-medresh students, was Bernstein's popular astronomy which had drawings of the earth spinning and revolving around the sun. This upset the whole foundation of the old Torah and the old understandings. Many started looking for answers to various questions and this drew them to reading still more. Yiddish books on chemistry and physics started to arrive.
The moyre nevukhim [Guide for the Perplexed, name of a well known philosophical treatise by the preeminent medieval philosopher, scholar and doctor, Maimonides] was read under their Talmuds by students fearful of being caught. I once witnessed a scene when Shmuel Avrom brought a book to the synagogue with a cry of alarm, it's burning in town! The book was burned in the bes-medresh near the lectern. The pages were ripped out and thrown in the fire. I think this was the book called bris khadoshe [new evangelical testament].
The second successful book was Winter Evenings by Khaye Zeldes. I have just now learned from D. Naymark, that the author was M. Litvak, the bundist. This book had the effect of making the youth start to think. A large part of the workers became class-conscious and started to participate in the labour movement. They quarreled over the socialist programs of the various parties: S.D., Bund, P.P.S., and did not learn socialism on a fundamental basis. Just the same, they bickered and analyzed in great detail. A few workers bought revolvers. Number seven, with bullets and without bullets, and Brownings numbers 12 and 32 [shotguns?].
At this time rumours started to circulate that special disciplinary expeditions organized by the government were travelling from town to town inciting pogroms. A self-defence force was organized in Korev made up of workers, butchers and strongmen. They joined forces with the Poles. Weapons of all sorts were acquired or made, revolvers, brass knuckles, iron bars, sticks, old rods, shovels and hammers.
Once, an alarm was raised that Russian forces were coming from Markushov. A whole host of Jews and Gentiles, with weapons in hand, gathered on the Lubliner highway ready to meet the pogrom makers. Meanwhile, many women and their children ran away crying in little wagons to Konskivolye.
You had to picture the scene, as Korev's Jewish strongmen marched with weapons in their hands. Tall, strong and proud Jews, they marched slowly, determined and certain that they would drive the pogrom makers away, all the way back to Mount Ararat where the black pepper grows [an expression signifying a great distance].
It turned out to be a false alarm.
Jews had united with Gentiles, believing fully that a new world was about to arrive; a world of truth and justice, a world of brotherliness, freedom and equality. They had confidence in humanity. Unfortunately, it was a big lie.
Returning from Warsaw
When I left Warsaw for Korev in 1907, the labour movement had a much different character than before. The pulse of the socialist movement was now beating. Workers had assumed a prominent role. Things were stirring, there were secret meetings and proclamations were seen.
No major changes were felt in the Korev bes-medresh. Some had not changed and remained aloof, neither here nor there. Many others had moved away, had married, become khasidim, religious teachers or merchants. The few maskilim [those who promoted Jewish enlightenment and modernization in opposition to the hermetic khasidim] from before, now seemed to have retreated and remained quiet.
At the end of 1908, after a strike of the ribbon and tape makers where I worked, I left Konskivolye. The strike had lasted several months and was not successful. This happened after I and another striker conferred secretly behind a tree at the Pulaver Institute with a tall, thin Pole, a member of the P.P.S. and a representative of the Central Socialist Committee. Later, the two of us delegates were fired. To this day, I don't know how such a thing could have happened!
In 1911 I came to Korev from Nikolayev because of conscription [all young able-bodied Jewish men were subject to at least four years of military service]. I was by then a stranger in Korev. Those I used to know had left and all my friends were married. My clothing was not for Korev. I looked like a bizarre creature to them, like an elephant that danced on bottles. In town there was not one sign of a labour movement, no newspaper, no one with whom I could establish a contact. My relatives avoided me: how could Fishl soyfer's son be wearing a cap [non-Jewish] and long hair?!
At the administrative office they told me that I had to report for military service in 1912. I left town.
In 1912, when I returned to report for service, I found Korev shrouded in the same black veil that existed at the end of the 90's. I wandered around for more than three months. I didn't read a newspaper or a book. I would once in a while visit with Avrom Naftoli's and would sometimes converse with Hershke the blind, whose eyes had been burned by a Gentile woman because he wouldn't marry her.
In my own family I was forgotten, considered a leper; they did not want to recognize me, except for my aunt Miriam Dina, a maiden. If not for her, I would have died from loneliness.
Before New Year, I decided to run away from Korev, without money, to Canada. I was freed from military service. I had a blue ticket. Without a penny in my pockets, I started to prepare myself for my voyage.
On the evening before my departure, my aunt Rivka came to visit my grandmother, Shmuel shammes's wife, and me. She looked at me and shook her head as if she was sorry for me. I, too, was sorry for myself. Once, as a child, I became very sick and swollen up, I nearly died. I caused my parents a lot of pain and suffering, and now I'm staying in the same house behind the bes-medresh, sleeping in the same little room, but have no one, am all alone, have to depart for distant horizons, without money, without friends, not even having anyone to say goodbye to. One aunt came, but not to see me, she just happened to come by.
Tears started to stream from my eyes, ran down my cheeks and under my stiff collar. I was able to control myself a little later and said to my aunt: aunt, I'm leaving tomorrow. We may never see each other again! I want you to say goodbye to me as an aunt would to a nephew, I want to embrace and kiss you.
My aunt started to cry loudly and said to me: Yakov Hersh, I loved your mother very much, may she rest in peace. She was my sister. So, let us now say goodbye. You are the only one that I see, the other children have all moved far away.
We fell into each other's arms, kissed and both of us wept.
This was the first time that my aunt had ever embraced me. I'm not sure she realized what she was doing. This is how I left Korev in the year 1913.
|Yakov Hersh Zilbershtayn and his aunt Miriam Dina, Shmuel shammes's daughter (in 1912)|
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