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[Pages 29-42]

My Shtetl

A. Noach Nachamowitz

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

A.

How old is Rakishok? When did Jews begin to settle in Rakishok? – These questions did not interest anyone. It was said in the shtetl that the less that was written about we Jews, the better and healthier it was and there was fear that the writings could fall into the hands of gentiles who would use them against the Jews.

The older people of the shtetl placed value on oral descriptions, stories from their grandfathers, great grandfathers and great, great grandfathers and not on written documents.

There were two cemeteries in Rakishok: the new and the old cemeteries. The old cemetery lay between two chasms, valleys, overgrown with nettles and between large, many branched trees that hid the headstones on which there was no longer any writing nor sign of a letter. Winds and rains erased the names and families of the deceased people and also the dates of their deaths during the course of years.

Only the talk of the old men, who quoted the talk of their grandfathers and great grandfathers, who told them of how their great great grandfathers would visit the graves of their parents at the old cemetery serves to determine the age of the shtetl.

The age of the great shul [synagogue] was also not known in the shtetl. In this case, the woven stories and legends created through the years about the shul were of use. Grandfathers and great grandfathers would say that when they were children they studied with the rabbi in the great shul.

Ozer dalim was engraved with visible letters in the anteroom of the shul. From this gimatria, the age of the shul was determined to have reached 367 years.*

*[Translator's note: Each Hebrew letter has a numerical equivalent, its gimatria. The numerical value of the letters of the two words ozer dalim (which translate as “assists the needy”) was used to calculate the age of the synagogue.]

“Mesteles” is a village not far from Rakishok. Jews have not lived there for a very, very long time. However, there are signs of a Jewish cemetery, which was construed as testimony that Jews lived there before building in Rakishok began.

However, establishing the age of Rakishok is difficult on the basis of all the evidence because there can be “inaccuracies,” perhaps of a few hundred years.

In any case, it has been historically determined that Rakishok is one of the oldest communities in Lithuania.

Rakishok lies on a plain. The plain extends for miles wide. If there is any elevation here, it is in a small area and nearby lies a valley. The entire land of Lithuania that is not mountainous is gifted with flatness.

There were many low huts here in the shtetl, which were just a little elevated from ground level. The little house of Haim Yashe, the wagon driver, was like this; the windows and the roof appeared as if almost at ground level.

Arriving through Kameyer Street, the shtetl is seen from afar. The church with its high dome jutting out.

On the outskirts of the shtetl, peasants live in low and old little houses covered with straw and the stalls are under the same roof as the house. Near each house stand trees with very leafy branches and gardens and in the spring and summer they spread a fragrance over the entire road. The shtetl starts at the end of each village with a Jewish shop. This is the best evidence of a Jewish community. There are no gardens, no trees near the Jewish houses because Jews are not interested in planting and cultivating the soil of gulas [exile]. The Tefilat Geshem [prayer for rain] in praying was meant only for Eretz-Yisroel.

Although Rakishok was built without a plan, the houses in the main streets stood symmetrically in one straight line like a row of soldiers. The panorama in the side streets was different, where houses stood in disharmony, without any order.

The main streets were paved earlier. In order to pave the streets, an “order” was issued that every wagon that entered Rakishok must bring 10 paving stones. A barrier was erected at the entrance to the shtetl and no wagon was allowed to enter if there were no stones. With such a collective effort, Rakishok was paved.

The highway was not paved with asphalt and the wheels of a wagon raised a din that woke the street and the people in the houses, announcing that someone had arrived in the shtetl, which was very curious to know who the newcomer was, from where the visitor had come and to whom he was coming, improvising various hypotheses. If a peasant arrived, he first encountered the lame Reb Leyzer, or as he was called, Leyzer the Tsore [affliction or distress]. He would stop each peasant wagon and ask the peasant if he had something to sell, even though he had not been involved in commerce for a long time, not having any money to conduct business. However, he was a maven [expert] about everything. He also was popular among the market peasants, who would often ask about the lame Leyzer.

* * *

Poor and rich people lived in the shtetl. Rich and poor houses stood together, one leaning on the other. There stood Feywl Rosenkovitz's large, beautiful house with a glass enclosed veranda, next door a collapsed little house. Besl Zamet's modern house stood next to the houses of Bentshe the tinsmith's and of Yonten, the mechanical engineer, with his workshop, and other houses in which lived several families. Both summer and winter a hill of ash, heaps of broken pots and rags lay near the houses. Every morning, “impurities” were poured out there and after a rain there was terrible mud and the bad smell of a farm.

These unsanitary compounds were common in Rakishok. It was difficult to pass through these courtyards : from Itse the tailor, Khasrial the guard, Bentse Bakser, Yekl Feiwe's* and from Tsipa Leah's. A muddy alley that rarely dried up led to the synagogue and served the Jews who went to pray three times a day. Nevertheless, no effort to repair the road or, at least, to lay foot bridges was made.

*[Translator's note: this Yiddish usage indicates that Yekl is Feiwe's son and that Tsipa is Leah's daughter.]

The marketplace had the place of honor and was the most interesting part of the shtetl. Rows of shops extended around the market. The white shops were the property of the count. Two story brick buildings stretched in one line from the pump to the horse market. Nearby stood the brick house of Shteiman, the owner of a grocery shop, and the above mentioned houses of Besl Zamet and Feitl Rosenkovitz. There was a row of red shops, looking like twin houses, on the second side of the market. Next door was the state bank and then the house of Pesakh Ruch where the joint business of Khone Arsh and Pesakh Ruch was located. Opposite, on the other corner, were the jail, the post office, and the office of the police, which threw fear over the shtetl.

Monday was the market day in the shtetl. On the market day, everyone was very preoccupied; a gold coin, a minute. The movement around the peasant wagons was endless and each person wanted to outwit the other. There was great competition and everyone wanted to earn more because the majority of the Jews in the shtetl drew their livelihood for an entire week from this market day.

On a market day, there were no home bodies. Everyone was at the market. Fathers took their sons who were in kheder to help. The noise and the hurly burly of the wheels on the cobblestone streets was intense. The shouts of Ezrial Shapiro and of his partner, Notke Gordon, were particularly distinguished in this uproar. One shouted, “Hayom harath olam [Today is the Day of Judgment]” and the other corrected: “Hayom ymod haolem bamishpat [Today the world will be judged].”

Temporary, special booths would quickly be nailed together on the market day where various goods were sold. The artisans carried around their products to sell in their hands. Wagons stood with baked goods and with various items.

It was very noisy at the horse market. In addition to the curses of the horse traders, loud whinnies were heard from the horses. Fights often broke out. Mende Notke, or “Kozak*” as he was nicknamed, was the most competent at the horse market.

*[Translator's note: Kozak means Cossack and is Yiddish slang for a strong man.]

The livestock [market] was quieter. The butchers closed transactions without superfluous chatter. The seed and flax merchants considered themselves respectable.

The market only became quiet at night. The peasants departed. The booths were taken apart. When evening fell, the market was empty; only a drunk lay around here or there. The shutters were bolted and the evening prayers were said alone, quickly.

The mood in the shtetl was calm in the morning. Merchants and shopkeepers forgave each other as on the eve of Yom-Kippur. The ideal shtetl way of life continued again in its style and the shtetl again received its specific Jewish physiognomy and time was found for prayer with a minyon [10 men required for prayer], for reciting a chapter of Psalms and for learning a chapter of Mishnius [Mishnah – a compilation of writing elaborating on the Torah].

* * *

Rakishok always had two rabbis: Reb Betzalel and Reb Shmuel. Each was distinguished by his own supporters. Quarrels often developed between these sides. There were also two shoyketim [ritual slaughterers]: Reb Bertsik and Reb Beinish. Reb Bertsik was a Jew and a scholar, full of knowledge and knew the Talmud well. He taught gemara [rabbinical commentaries on the Mishnah] with arduous interpretation, avoiding hairsplitting. Reb Beinish was a quiet person, a man of stately appearance and an affable person to everyone. He was the mohel [ritual circumciser] for the shtetl and the area. His testament was that after his death, each one whom he has circumcised should light a candle. He had brought the people to the Covenant of Abraham Avinu [our father] for three entire generations.

The Lubavitcher Hasidim, who were mainly artisans and small shop owners, belonged to Reb Shmuel's side. Kopl the shoemaker, Itse the tailor, the Ginzburg family were the rabbi's protectors and were ready to battle for the proper respect for their rabbi, who was also a crown rabbi (rabbi in the name of the regime).

On Reb Betzalel's side were Lipe's Sholem, Bentse's Hatse, the Rabinovitch family and the rabbi's own family, which had its own wealthy men.

* * *

There was an old synagogue in Rakishok. There were also houses of study and minyonim [groups of at least 10 men required for prayer]; prayers were only said in the synagogue on Shabbos during the summer. The synagogue was not heated during the winter and cast a fear. Even Yona, the shamas [synagogue official who takes care of day to day affairs] of the synagogue, was afraid to go inside. Before he would go in, he knocked three times with the keys, calling out: “Corpses, ghosts, go to your rest!”

A room was built on to the synagogue, where the board was kept on which the dead were carried. He, Yona the shamas, would collect donations for the funeral, calling out with a crying, heartbreaking melody: “Tzedakah tatzil memaveth [Charity will save you from death].” The melody alone spread a dread. He would also say that the women should go to the funeral separately from the men, calling out: “Women, move away, move away!”

I heard that years ago Reb Beinish was the shamas of the Great Synagogue and on Shabbos after havdalah [the ceremony at the close of the Sabbath] he would place two pails of water at the exit of the synagogue and would accompany the Jews leaving after prayers with wishes for a good week, a week of good earning. The two pails of water were to assure this.

Simple Jews prayed in the large Beis-Medrash: artisans, small shopkeepers, butchers, wagon drivers and ordinary Jews. For many years, the gabai was Leah's Bere, who took care of the bathhouse and was a butcher, who furnished meat to the government in Petersburg. He was active in religious-communal life, a person of authority and also one of those involved with the meat tax. He was a very hospitable man. Particularly on Shabbos and on holidays, he was the last one to leave the Beis-Medrash in order to take home with him emissaries, preachers and poor people who were left waiting for someone to be hospitable to them.

The rich owners prayed in the large shtibl, such as Reb Borukh, the railway man, Shaul Bertzik, the railway man, Nakhman's Zalman, Zalman Shimshon, Lipe Shwartzberg, Bentse Rabinovitch from Radute. They prayed later there and because of this it was said that, “Rich men liked to sleep.”

There was also a small shtibl where the worshippers were Hasidim. They used the familiar form of “you” and took a little whiskey at every opportunity. They celebrated Shimkhas Torah* with great ardor. The Lubavitcher Rebbe's yahrzeit [anniversary of a death] was fervently observed.

*[Translator's note: The holiday occurring in late September or early October during which the year-long cycle of the reading of the Torah is completed and begun again. The holiday is celebrated with great joy including a procession during which the Torah scrolls are carried around a synagogue.]

* * *

1905. Other winds blew. The most effervescent time in the shtetl was in that year. Parents were afraid of their children's entry into the movement.

The Lithuanian Socialist-Revolutionary, Shmeilsky, was located in Rakishok. He organized all of the secret meetings and the police feared him. He organized a revolt in Kamey [Kamai], where the police commissioner was forced to carry the red flag through the streets. He carried on extensive electioneering among the peasants, particularly during market days, when thousands of peasants would come together. He also organized the peasants to demolish the beer and [liquor] monopoly stores.

Shmeilsky called upon the Jewish population to take part in the revolutionary work, frightening them that the Jode Sistem [the Black Hundred] intended to stage a pogrom in the shtetl, and therefore, they needed to join the S.R. [Socialist Revolutionaries], in order to avoid the danger of a pogrom. The Jewish young people in large part joined the Party.

When a pogrom took place in Dusiat [Dusetos], not far from Rakishok, many Jews then joined the Socialist Revolutionary Party.

The Rakishok police, with the police commissioner at the head, wanted to arrest Shmeilsky, but they could not catch him. The revolutionary movement grew larger and stronger each year. Then a division of dragoons came to the shtetl which was billeted in Jewish houses because there were no barracks in Rakishok. These dragoons had the mission of liquidating the revolutionary movement in Rakishok and its surroundings.

* * *

The leader of the firemen's brigade was Talacki, the Christian, who was one of the most distinguished Christian businessmen in the shtetl. He had an ironware and agricultural implements shop. He was personally acquainted with all of the Jews in the shtetl and helped organize the firemen's brigade that was made up almost entirely of Jews. In addition to the above-mentioned Talacki, Trevize, the Christian, and his son, joined the firemen.

The firemen's inventory consisted of a pump, iron axes, long hoses and rope, pails, brass hats and a brass trumpet, several two-wheeled wagons, on which the water was carried from the wells.

The firemen's brigade did not have its own horse and they took horses from the population. No one was permitted to refuse to give his horse. However, there were cases in which Jewish wagon drivers and village peasants ran away with their horses, not wanting to give them.

It happened very often that it took a long time until the firemen came to put out a fire. This caused much damage. During the last period, a command was issued that each house must have two ladders because of the frequent fires. Two pails of water had to be ready, no straw or hay was permitted to lie in the attic. The firemen had the duty to determine whether their “command” was being followed.

The firemen's brigade would have a gulyanye (a celebration [that is usually held outdoors]) once a year to which an orchestra would be brought from Dvinsk. Talacki then organized a march outside the shtetl. He himself rode in front on a horse. The other firemen would ride behind him.

In earlier years the gulyanyes would be organized in a grove near the train station. The grove would be illuminated with colored paper lanterns that hung from the branches of the trees. A wood pile was also ignited.

A special exercise was introduced for the firemen. A tall tree would be cleared of branches and coated with wax. A flat wooden platform was attached to the tree on which was placed a silver watch, a wurst sausage, a white roll and a bottle of 90 proof spirits. Whoever could climb to the top of the tree and bring it all down won everything as a prize for himself.

Although very few could climb that high, this was an original attraction.

The Rakishok firemen's brigade served the surrounding shtetlekh, such as Kamaja, Obeliai, Dusetos, Pandelys and Radute.

* * *

Radute is just one verst [.66 of a mile] from Rakishok and numbered just ten Jewish families. To this day I do not know why such a small cluster of Jews separated themselves from Rakishok and built a shtetl for themselves. There were so many empty places in Rakishok itself.

I also do not necessarily know why they chose to build Radute in such a place, which looks like a camel with two humps – hill up and hill down – and in the middle there was a valley that is as old as, perhaps, Methuselah, in which there was grey mud in summer and winter.

The road from Rakishok to Radute runs very close to the Lithuanian church and the house of the priest. It was a road of such sadness and created a fear, particularly when the church bells resounded into the surrounding void. At that time, there was a great dread among the Radute Jews who were passing by. That could be why none of the Radute Jews went alone, but collectively.

Radute had its own synagogue, a ritual slaughterer. It did not have its own rabbi, no contract to bake matzoh and also did not have a bathhouse. For these, they had to go to Rakishok.

Therefore Radute was a shtetl of wanderers. Radute Jews were seen the entire day until late at night continuously going from Radute to Rakishok and from Rakishok to Radute.

B.

Until the First World War, life proceeded as always, without substantial changes. Everything would pass by inheritance from generation to generation to generation, just as [being a] Kohan [priestly class] or a Levi [descendants of Aaron and the tribe of Levi] was a matter of inheritance. In this way the children inherited their customs, wealth, lineage and a good name from their parents and also their “spot” in the synagogue. The children followed their father's learning and life experience.

The rabbi was the spiritual leader of the shtetl. He not only gave answers to religious questions and judged lawsuits before a rabbinical court, but he also was the authority in the secular community. Rebelling against the rabbi was considered a terrible sin.

The entire shtetl was concentrated around the beis-hamedrash [synagogue]. That is where one prayed and recited Psalms. The children played mostly within the limits of the synagogue. In 1905, the revolutionaries held their first meetings in the women's section. When Rakishok revolutionary activists needed to shoot the informer, Shimke Dimant, they did it on Shimkhas Torah [holiday in the fall when the annual reading of the Torah is concluded and begun again] in the synagogue.

[The people of Rakishok] followed well-worn traditional paths. The young observed the fundamentals of the earlier generation.

Just as in Sholem Aleichem's Kasrilevke*, in Rakishok they also remained within the narrow limits of the shtetl.

*[Translator's note: Writer Sholem Alecheim's imaginary shtetl, in which many of his stories take place.]

The years of the First World War brought the first great changes. Suddenly Jews were driven out of their generation's long residence. One prikaz [order] from Czar Nicholai's uncle created total chaos.

The Jews wandered away from their long-time homes. They ran chaotically from the shtetlekh to the farther Russian provinces, running into other elements, with new environments and customs. The social differences that existed earlier in the shtetl disappeared during this wandering. The rich men of the shtetl became the same as the poorest in social basics. Avraham Itse Meller, the generation's well known Rakishok rich man, wandered in poverty during the evacuation to Russia and he also needed to go to YEKAPO (Committee to Assist Homeless Jews) to ask for support.

During the evacuation, the shtetl craftsmen began to look for new economic positions. Each began at the beginning. Rakishok shoemakers, not having brought along their cobbler's forms, began to trade and became successful merchants. Many poor men from Rakishok and poor people became important traders in their new places of residence and the well-to-do became poor. The entire social face changed.

The Russian revolution broke out in 1917. New slogans resounded in the Russian state, such as: “down with the Czar,” “down with the oligarchic despotic regime” and “let the revolution live!”

The homeless Jews in Russia welcomed the new order and with great Hasidic bliss they became active in the revolutionary movement that overthrew the Czarist regime and gave them full equal rights and freedom.

The Jews returned to the Lithuanian shtetlekh with modern ideas and they brought new ideals to those Jews who had remained living under the German occupation. Each troop transport brought back Jews with a new storm of ideas.

Life changed in every sector. A category of rising wealthy men emerged, who displayed self-confidence compared to the pre-war rich who became impoverished during the war. The newly wealthy, such as Merkel, Kiwke Zamet became the people of authority in the synagogue and bought up the juicy aliyehs [more coveted roles] during the reading of the Torah, although internally they still felt a gulf between them and the former rich men in the shtetl such as Sholem Milner, etc.

The clothing and the way of life changed and also the communal and cultural conditions in Rakishok. Little by little, the pre-war kind of life disappeared. The clothing became more modern both for women and for men. Girls and women no longer were ashamed to go out in Hasidic Rakishok with low-neck clothing and they danced at weddings, but not quadrilles or traditional wedding dances. Chaim the klezmer [musician] with his bandura [plucked stringed instrument] no longer played at weddings and Yashe the badkhin [traditional wedding jester] was also not invited to them.

Parties arose. The quarrels among the rabbis, ritual slaughterers and clergymen were minor as compared with the heated polemical discussions that were carried on with strong zealotry among the party members. Even children were drawn into party politics.

The general Zionist organizations were created as well as the S.Z. [Social Zionist] party that legally carried out their activities. Jewish youth joined the Zionist parties. The Cultural League was founded; the Lekakh brothers gave fiery speeches about the new era and the social achievements of the Russian revolution. The club of the Cultural League was overflowing with those gathered to hear Khatz and Beinish Kresh, who reported often, propagandizing the idea of freeing all of humanity. Therefore, they stressed that Palestine belongs to the Arab people, who have been there for 2,000 years.

Agudah [Orthodox political party] arose. One of the founders was Avraham, the rabbi, who gave sermons in the synagogue in this style: “Let we fathers be in the synagogue; then our children will be around the synagogue; and if we will be around the synagogue, our children will be lehavdl [conjunction used to make a separation, usually between sacred and profane] in prayer.” This talk gave rise to creating the Agudah whose purpose was also to fight the newly arising parties.

A new modern school system was created. Clubs and Yavne schools [with a stress on both secular and religious education] and a Jewish folks [people's] school of the “Cultural League” opened. The clubs also partly changed. There was more reading and writing and Hebrew books. The young boys in the religious schools were no longer taught until late in the evening. The tinsmith no longer made lanterns for the young boys in the religious schools.

* * *

New states and the Lithuanian Republic arose on the ruins of the Czarist order. The Lithuanian people became independent and began to lead a national life, although the majority of Lithuanians were peasants and the intelligentsia was a very small segment.

The Jewish population would surely have been able to take over the leadership of the Lithuanian government because it lived in the cities and had a very large intelligentsia.

At first, the Lithuanian government actually drew many prominent Jews to nation building. At the peace conference that took place in Moscow, Lithuania chose Dr. Rozenboim, may he rest in peace, to represent the Lithuanian delegation. At that time, there was a curious incident – Dr. Yafa, representative of the Russian delegation, asked Rozenboim the location of the Lithuanian-Polish border. He [Rozenboim] answered that where – in pronunciation – a “sh” changed to an “s,” this was Lithuania.”

The development of the Lithuanian state took place with amazing speed. The young Lithuanians ran from the villages to the city to take government positions.

A boom – in all areas – also took place among the Jews in Lithuania. There was a Jewish national council and Jewish ministry on Kestutis Street in Kovno. Dr. Rozenboim was elected as the chairman of the national council and Dr. Soloveitchik as the minister of Jewish affairs.

Jewish kehilus [organized communities] were created in Lithuania. Elections to the kehlilus took place. Heated election campaigns occurred in every Jewish shtetl and also in Rakishok. The majority of women, who were religious and God-fearing, voted for Agudah. Every Jew was taxed to pay the Jewish community tax. Jews carried on a quarrel with the state.

Folks [people's] banks opened that gave credit to those who needed to repair their houses destroyed during the war and to the handworkers who needed to repair their workshops and also to small merchants.

The shtetl took on a different appearance. There was electricity in Rakishok and the gas lamps disappeared.

But this economic boom did not extinguish for a second the national awakening of the Jews. The Zionist movement in Lithuania grew stronger and also in Rakishok. Hilel Idelson was like Mendele's “worker” in the Takse.* He carried out Zionist education work and asked for contributions on behalf of Zionist investments. The one doing the most Zionist work, Shifra Laufer, was tireless in her Zionist work, stressing at every opportunity that im ain ani li mi li [Rambam: If I am not for myself then who will be for me?]. Zionism was spread farther in the shtetl and even the Skopishker [rebbe] gave in and also bought a shekel [shekels were bought as a way of contributing to the Zionist movement].

*[Translator's note: A reference to a character in Takse [Tax], a work by Mendele Mokher Sforim.]

The majority of shtetl youth became thoroughly seized by Zionist thought. Rich children left their homes and enrolled in haHalutz [an organization that trained young Jews in preparation for settlement in Eretz-Yisroel] and went on Hakhshara [Hebrew word meaning preparation – often an agricultural training center] work. Jewish daughters and sons with thin, tall figures and fine chiseled faces [hinting at unfitness for work] joined the kibbutzim [collective group] and then emigrated to Eretz-Yisroel.

Rakishok sent the first party of halutzim [members of haHalutz] during the beginning of the Fourth Aliyah [fourth wave of immigration to Eretz-Yisroel between 1924 and 1928]. The shtetl accompanied the halutzim with national songs.

* * *

The Russian revolution and the Balfour Declaration brought great spiritual changes. The old basis for Jewish life also began to break apart in the Lithuanian shtetlekh. New desires and ideals began to sprout that dominated both the individual and the community.

The idea of a return to Zion was particularly widespread among the Lithuanian Jews who gave substantial contributions to Keren Ha-yesod [Foundation Fund – organization supporting the World Zionist Organization's work in Eretz-Yisroel], Keren Kayemet [Jewish National Fund] and to other Zionist funds. Women also founded a Keren Hazahov [Gold Fund], giving jewelry in support of Eretz-Yisroel.

The Jews in Lithuania in the service of a republican order faced many anti-Semitic issues that no doubt strengthened Zionism in the Jewish neighborhoods as well as led to their having no connection to the Lithuanian land. It can also be that the folk [community] institutions that sensed the cruel fate of the coming days of destruction also influenced the national consciousness and the Zionist ideals completely dominated the Jewish community in Lithuania.

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