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Childhood in Exile by Shmarya Levin

By Mark Heckman

Related to: Volhynia (Province)Book Reviews

Author: Levin, Shmarya. Publishing information: New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc., 1929. Reprinted: New York: Arno Press Inc., 1975. ISBN 0-405-06724-0; 277 pages.

Shmarya Levin was a well-known author and Zionist leader. In a series of three autobiographical books, Childhood in Exile, Youth in Revolt, and The Arena, he traced his life from his childhood in Russia to his emigration to America, and to his eventual settlement in Eretz Israel. In this book, the first in the trilogy, Levin describes his life as a cheder boy in the 1870s.

Although his childhood was spent in the town of Swislowitz, near Babrusk in what is now Belarus (possibly the modern town of Swisloch?), those of us whose families came from Volhynia will nevertheless find this book of interest. For one thing, life for the Jews of Swislowitz, a small town in a heavily forested region, was probably not much different from the life of Jews in Volhynia. The economy of Swislowitz, furthermore, was closely tied to that of Ukraine. Finally, there are not many books that describe Jewish village life in this period with the kind of immediacy that Levin's first-hand account does.

The chief focus of the book is Levin's experiences with a number of different teachers as he advanced from learning his alef-bet to studying Talmud. His early teachers used "traditional" methods -- primarily frequent beatings -- to help their students retain what they were taught, but the teacher who Levin remembers most fondly was his teacher at the cheder mesukam, or, "new and improved cheder," who used much more enlightened teaching techniques. Because cheder students spent 10 to 12 hour days at the cheder, it is understandable why his memories of school occupy the greater part of the book.

Throughout the book, however, Levin interweaves with his school experiences his observations and memories of customs, holidays, memorable characters from the town, the passing of the seasons, poverty, and relations between the Jews, non-Jews, and the Russian government. Relations between Jews and non-Jews, in Levin's memory, were generally good. Pogroms, he says, were unheard of until after the end of the Russo-Turkish war in 1877-1878, when Russia was prevented by Great Britain from conquering Constantinople. The British Prime Minister at that time was Disraeli. "After all her victories Russia emerged from the war almost empty-handed. Her Byzantine dream remained as far from realization as in the pre-war years. The chief responsibility for this rested with one man -- the Jew Disraeli; and within three or four years the wave of pogroms passed over Russia!"

I especially liked Levin's description of how the town celebrated Purim, including the reading of the Scroll of Esther and the production of the Purim play. Levin's prose was both detailed and poetic, as he brought the town to life in my mind's eye. I obtained this book from the library at the University of California at Davis, call number DS 151 L44 A33 1975. -- Mark Heckman (May 1998)

  • Last Modified: 06-08-2012
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