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Grayeve Dzshegtshares

Chapters from the book Dzshegtshares [tar sellers], translated from the Hebrew
[into Yiddish] by the author; published by Akhiever, Warsaw 1939

Translated by Yael Chaver, Ph.D

Edited by Tina Lunson

A Grayeve tar-sellers' song:

When the husband returns
Let there be no talk of money.
He'll happily go to Lik
To buy you a satin dress.
But if you nag him
He'll abuse you.
He'll find his woman in Prussia
And you'll be in big trouble…



A week or two before the High Holidays, the first tar-sellers, back from Germany, would appear in Grayeve. The wealthier ones came a bit earlier, the poorer ones later. But by the last few days before the holidays, all the owners and their young apprentices were already in the town. Although they were only a few dozen, they seemed to fill the town.

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The apprentices were in green outfits, like those worn by the Gentiles in the Grayeve region who worked for the Germans and the Masurians and the owners wore fuzzy green hats with feathers as a sign that they were “Germans.” They would wander around the market, sneak into the houses of study [bote-medroshim] and look down their noses at the provincial folks who stay close to the besmedresh stove and haven't seen the great world – Berlin, Leipzig, or Dessau.

But, wandering around Germany, they often regretted their own fate: what did they, as it were, actually see in Berlin or Dessau? What pleasure did they get out of the rich state of Prussia? They would straggle around the villages, collecting tiny sums of money, eat cooked food only on the Sabbath (and not even all of them, at that); sleep either in a barn or on their wagons and the Prussians treated them like gypsies. Poor things, what did they know of Prussia? But as soon as they sniffed the air in Grayeve, all these feelings vanished and they always boasted to the provincials about the fact that they had seen “the wide world.”

In the afternoon, between the afternoon and evening prayers, small groups of craftsmen, and even storekeepers, would gather around such a tar-seller, who would sit at ease on a stone in front of a building, and talk calmly and with dignity about Aleksander-Plaza and the Königlicher Palace and about the Kaiser himself, who goes for a walk in the streets of Berlin each morning; about the evening illumination of Berlin or Leipzig, which is, for example, seven times stronger than that of Grayeve during the daytime… Another one would sit in a different nook and talk about beautiful Dresden (which he had never seen) and about the cradle of Catherine the Great that stands in the palace at Zerbst-Anhalt. The truth was that, although he had spent his whole life in Zerbst and its environs, he had never dared to go inside the palace, which was open to the public on Sundays. He had only seen the palace from the outside, from the edge of its park. And, a cradle is just a cradle – isn't it the same as if he had seen it with his own eyes?

And Grayeve's curious Jews would stand, open-mouthed, and keep asking endless questions in the deepening twilight: is the cradle made of gold; does it simply stand on the floor? And the tar-seller would answer with whatever came to his mind. God forbid, he wasn't lying.

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He had seen the great palace with his own eyes and the rest could be deduced, just as though he had experienced it with his own senses…

And in the evenings, you sit on the threshold or on rocks in front of the house, at open doors and the tar-sellers recount all these wonders, while old and young listen. The old listen out of curiosity, yawn and enjoy it. The young are consumed by a strange longing that draws them, as if with ropes, over there, and many of them lie sleepless later that night. They think of what they heard that evening and envy the tar-seller who wanders from town to town, but sees the wide world… Everyone knows that the tar-sellers are uneducated: a storekeeper or a merchant would not make a match with them. But on holidays, when they recount the miracles and wonders in the big, beautiful world, their lowly lineage and their trade are forgotten and they are respected out of envy. That is the only poor compensation that a tar-seller has in this world, because even a holiday is not a joyful occasion for him. If he has even a bit of feeling – and many tar-sellers have that – from the minute he sets foot in his home, he anticipates the day after the holiday, isrekhag. One of them, who understood the meaning of the term, called that day “harness up the wagon” …

Reb [Mr.] Avrom-Khaym Eysov was one such person. He used to say that he had never felt the flavor of a true holiday since he became fully aware of life. He was an odd person: while wandering through the German villages, he would practically faint with longing for dear Grayeve, which was his only ray of light during his journeys. But the moment he set out on the way back, traveling from Dessau to Berlin and from Berlin to Kenigsberg [Kaliningrad], the nearer he came to his home, the sadder he became. Once he had crossed the border and taken a seat in the cart bound for Grayeve, he would become miserable to the point of weeping. Would he ever be so lucky as to travel through the forest and the sands feeling that he would never have to go back? If he were a prophet and knew how much longer he had to live; if he were able to marry off both his daughters without a dowry and his small fortune would be just enough to live on, he would stay at home once and for all.

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But Reb Avrom-Khaym was a clever Jew and thus knew that no one was wise enough to know what the next day would bring – would it be fire, or illness, or an actual war? For that reason one must, as the Russian peasants say, strike the iron while it's hot. As long as he can travel, a Jew who knows the meaning of the phrase “making a livelihood is as difficult for Jews as the rending of the Sea of Reeds” must never sit idle. Reb Avrom- Khaym knew himself well and knew that as long as his legs held out, he would start out on the way again the day after the holiday, and would always remain a slave to tar. That's why he was always gloomy when he came back home for a holiday.

His wife was quite different. She was busy to the end of Simkhes-Toyre (and in the spring, to the end of Peysakh), running around from one store and butcher shop to another and wasn't concerned with the end of the holiday. She would stay home all year and take care of the girls, living a meager life and worried about every penny that she took out of her savings. But the moment her husband came home, she seemed to come alive. She opened her bundle of savings, which she had collected over the previous five months and poured money over butcher shops and fish stalls.

All year round she would buy calves' lungs and liver, or a foot and tripe, with which she and the two girls would make do the whole week: sometimes stewed lungs, sometimes with vinegar; sometimes a foot with potatoes; or cold and jellied foot, never varying the diet. But when her husband came home, she would proudly enter the butcher shop, push herself among the respectable ladies and say in a rich woman's tone, “I don't like lungs, would you happen to have a whole fresh liver? Give me a pound, and don't be stingy--I don't mind if there's another quarter pound. Do you have young calf's meat? No? Then give me a piece of this rib; ribs are wonderful in soup.”

The butcher laughed inwardly, but a person needs to make a living. He flattered her: “Maybe, dear lady, a foot?” It was clear that he meant to insult her, but he said it so seriously, lifting the animal's foot up to her nose, that she didn't understand it negatively: “A foot is fine,” she said, “even though I really don't need it, but sometimes a relative comes for a meal, or my husband brings someone and in that case I can prepare something to eat.” And so it went, on and on.

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She did this to annoy the ladies she would stand behind all year round, along with the dogs who waited for a bone. The same ritual would be repeated at the fish stall: “Be so kind as to show me the fish you're keeping for Anshel, the rich man; my stomach, and especially my husband's stomach, is no less aristocratic than his.”

To annoy all the other women, she would fill her apron with the best produce, gesturing and moving around. In order to irritate the women who were always haughtier, she would yell to her daughters from afar, to come out and take the fish indoors as they were a heavy load. The moment she went inside her house, she would call all the neighboring women and show them the large live fish that were available in the market that day, “and not expensive at all,” she would add several times.

While the mother was all agitated, the daughters were as quiet as frozen water, as though they had lost their tongues. During the year their mother would curse and constantly threaten them that she would tell their father everything. Now that their father had come, they felt as though a policeman was in the house. They knew that every time their father came home he would ask how they had behaved. The mere thought of that forced them to obey their mother. Ten times a day, she would send them to the store or the baker's, give them her and their father's shoes to shine, tell them to patch their father's shirts and old trousers that reeked of tar so badly that you could choke. In short, she couldn't let them be still for a moment. In the evenings they had to stay indoors and go to bed very early. They longed, especially on Saturdays and holidays, for the Green Hill where boys and girls would meet and have lively times, but they were afraid of their father. In actual fact, their father was not that strict, but he was religiously observant and believed the Green Hill – especially the walks to the spring – to be evil. Can you imagine worse torture for grown girls than having to stay indoors? To them, their father was a stranger, because they saw him only on holidays. If he was in a good mood he would pat one of them on the head. She would turn as red as a beet, as though a stranger had touched her.

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In their hearts, both girls wanted the holiday to end as soon as possible, but neither dared to say it to the other. For the first few days they accepted everything gladly – especially as their father would bring fabric for a dress or an apron – but after that they would count the days impatiently until he would leave, and both waited eagerly for the day he would go back to “Prussia.”

Simkhes-Toyre [Simchat Torah] was coming.

Along with all the other Jews of the town, Reb Avrom-Khaym went to the old besmedresh on Synagogue Street, paid for the right to say half of the prayer before the procession of the Torah scrolls began and gave the right to the young religious judge, as a mark of respect. He was given one of the first turns carrying a scroll in the procession, which annoyed the other tar-sellers, although they knew that he was more important than them. He would dance and yell out, “Rejoice in the joy of the Torah,” but his heart was far from joyous. At this time tomorrow he would be on the other side of the border, in Lik or perhaps in Korschen. “Rejoice” – he wanted to forget what the next day would bring, at least during the prayer. He looks at the other tar-sellers, at how they down their drinks one after the other until the drink seems to leak out of their eyes, but he was already thinking of the day after the holiday. How could he not think of the cart now, as he saw the cart-driver, whom he needed to tell to pick him up the next day? For as long as he could remember, Simkhes-Toyre was Tishebov for him… The kind-hearted Reb Avrom-Khaym, who envied no one, now envied the cart-drivers, the water-carriers, the old beadles. “Who's keeping you from becoming a cart-driver or a water-carrier?” The thought crossed his mind. And he answered himself, “Don't ask God questions.”

After prayers, the entire congregation was invited to the home of the synagogue's chief trustee for Shabes [Sabbath] lunch. The property owners who sat in the first two rows always went, and Avrom-Khaym also had a place in the second row. He had bought it from an aunt who had inherited it from her uncle, who had no sons. But he didn't go to the shabes lunch because his mood was bad. The time was going by quickly, he told himself painfully. As he left the synagogue, a large heap of withered leaves blew across his path, and their rustling sounded like a quiet moaning, in tune with his own feelings.

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When he entered his house, the fragrance of the roasted goose greeted him at the door. It reminded him of his childhood, when his father was alive. He thought to himself, “If my father were alive I would not have to wander in these lands.” As he opened the door he shouted “Good holiday, good year!” His wife knew this shout, which rang with stifled sorrow and always caused her to weep. She stayed in the kitchen for a long time until she was calmer, then came into the room and started serving the food. This was the only meal during which they didn't speak to each other. The girls brought and removed bowls. They ate calmly, as though their father wasn't preparing to leave for six months. But the mother changed as the evening went on. She seemed to shrink and her eyes were red, though no one saw her weeping. He, the father, just chewed his food. He didn't raise his head from the glazed bowl and thought only of one thing: this was his last meal at his own table.

In the afternoon he returned to the besmedresh and danced with the congregation, as though he were as drunk as the others. The men played games all afternoon and even after the evening prayer and he dreaded the moment when the games would stop and he would have to go back home. He especially liked the game of “cat and mouse:” the men stood in two rows and two smart yeshive students played the roles of cat and mouse. He enjoyed that game because it took a long time. When people got tired of it and wanted to leave, he told the beadle to go get some beer, and they started all over again. He wasn't the only tar-seller in the rows – apparently, the other tar-sellers also felt miserable.

When the fun was over, the tar-sellers walked along like mourners. “Who's chasing us? Why do we need to cross the border at dawn?” thought Avrom-Khaym.

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Other tar-sellers may have asked themselves the same question, but no one thought that it could be changed and arranged so that they could stay at home for another week. They were fearful of the competition, of lost clients. You would never know if a person told you he was going to visit a relative in Prussia, whether he was stealing across the border and snatching up your clients… A tar-seller is destined to be a wanderer.

When he came back home after the holiday fun that evening, Avrom-Khaym went straight to bed. His wife baked khale [challah, a twisted egg bread] and biscuits so he would have home-baked goods for a few weeks. Then she placed his patched trousers in a pillowcase, laid one bundle over the other by the door, and went to her bed. Both pretended to be asleep, but were not sleeping. She wept her heart out silently – in effect, she was an eternal aguna [an abandoned wife who is not divorced and therefore can't remarry] – while he sighed into his pillow, bothered by bad thoughts, thoughts about dying in a foreign country. Such thoughts exhausted him every year before leaving home. Nothing bad ever happened to him, but each time he would be sure that the thoughts were justified…

But the girls slept very well. They woke up when the cart-driver knocked at the window. When they opened their eyes they saw their mother rushing from the kitchen into the main room and back into the kitchen and their father tying the two bundles together.

“You can get up now!” their mother said, passing by the wooden sofa where they slept. Then, as if by command, they quickly got up. Their mother was saying, “So this is how you leave me with the two wild girls – I didn't want to say anything until now.” But he seemed not to hear what she was saying. When the bundles were on the cart, Avrom-Khaym picked up his tales [prayer shawl] and tfiln[2], asked his wife whether she had remembered to pack the Five Books of the Torah; shook hands with his wife and the girls, not saying a word – he was choked by tears – and quickly left the house and climbed onto the cart.

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“Go fast!” he told the driver. “Be well!” he shouted to his wife and daughters who stood at the door. Bogushe Street is long, but it was still dark and the cart soon disappeared. The girls went back indoors and the mother stood and listened to the noise the wheels made. When the noise stopped, she went indoors.

Snowflakes started falling from the sky. Wrapped in a dream, the cart crawled through the forest on the way to the border. Avrom-Khaym bundled up against the cold and sorrow and sadly thought about the good holiday days that had gone by and about the long, bitter winter that awaited him in the foreign country.

Zundl the Scholar

When God blessed Avrom-Khaym Eysov and he became rich, he decided to choose a yeshive [a Jewish school of high Talmudic learning] scholar as a son-in-law. Avrom-Khaym was a smart person who thought ahead. He would always joke about the life of a tar-seller and was considered an old jokester. But he never forgot the lesson of his life-in-exile. Before considering a tar-seller as a son-in-law, he decided to go to the yeshive of Lomzhe [Łomża] to pick a husband for his older daughter Tsirl. A storekeeper or a merchant, or even a well-off tailor, would not consider a match with a tar-seller. As for the blacksmiths, who were numerous in Grayeve, or even a good cobbler, Avrom-Hayim wouldn't consider them for a match.

One fine autumn day, between Rosheshone [Rosh Hashanah] and Yonkiper [Yom Kippur] he went to the Lomzhe yeshive and picked out a fine boy, Zundl the Studious, of Shtutzin [Szczuczyn], the closest town to Grayeve in the west, two miles away. Because he had to go back to Germany the day after the holiday, he did it all fast. The betrothal document was written the day before sukes [Sukkot], and the wedding took place during the week of sukes. Tsirl, who used to take walks on the “Green Hill” when her father was away, and would meet boys there as well, was very offended because she had been given a husband she knew nothing about. But when she saw him the first time under the khupe [wedding canopy], she was happy.

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She realized that her father was an experienced merchant and that he knew what to buy: he was big and handsome, more handsome than all the tailors' apprentices, cobblers and carpenters, and even more than the tar-sellers who used to come down from Prussia dressed in finery.

Because Avrom-Khaym was the first tar-seller who had bought a scholar for a son-in-law, his prestige rose among the rich men in town, among the members of the rabbinical court, and even with the rabbi. But the good-for-nothings of Steam-Bath Street were not impressed. When the guests left Avrom-Khaym's house with the bride on their way to the synagogue, those guys accompanied the bride with old and new songs that they composed specifically for tar-seller weddings and drowned out the fiddles. At the khupe, Avrom-Khaym stood embittered, because the rough guys stood around and made the guests laugh so much that the marriage ceremony couldn't be performed. If they were ignored, the rascals yelled so loudly across the synagogue courtyard that they grew hoarse. They were especially loud with the song, “A tar-seller has a new servant, worthless to him and his daughter” [hot a dzhegtshar a nayem meshores, far zikh un far der tokhter af kapores]. But Avrom-Khaym smiled; they weren't referring to him – he had taken a yeshive-student as a son-in-law, who would sit and study and do a bit of commerce, but wouldn't be a servant.

During the “Seven Blessings” Zundl the Studious gave a learned speech. Avrom-Khaym didn't understand a crumb of the scholarly reasoning, but his eyes were full of tears when the religious judge shook the bridegroom's hand. His wife, too, who watched the speech through the cracks of the kitchen door with all the neighboring women peering in behind her, was also so astonished that she started kissing all the women. It was a powerful expression of her excitement, especially if we remember that she hated the neighbors and wanted them to die of frustration when she carried home baskets full of good food during the holiday season…

This time Avrom-Khaym left home, the day after the holiday, in calm spirits. First, it was a huge load off his mind. Second, he was leaving a man at home and not just a braggart, but a very fine guy… His wife, on the other hand, suffered. For years, with no man in the house, she had been accustomed to make do with a lung and a foot all week. But now there was a son-in-law at home and that wouldn't work. When she got used to him, she wanted to start “economizing” a bit.

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But Tsirl wouldn't let her do it. Once, when Zundl was in the besmedresh, mother and daughter had such a fight that people came running when they heard the shouting. If the daughter hadn't been ashamed – she didn't want her husband to know about it –the fight would have gone on for a long time. The end of the game was that the daughter wrote her father a letter and Avrom-Khaym soon wrote his wife such a letter that she nearly fainted when it was read to her. After that she improved, but stinginess is, after all, a natural trait, a passion like other passions. She would occasionally try to overcome her passion, but was never able to.

The year that Zundl lived at Avrom-Khaym's house and was supported by him nearly drove her, the wife, crazy. She had not saved money for those five months and so couldn't show off at holiday time to the ladies at the butcher shop and the fish market. She lived with this for a whole year and almost burst from frustration.

When the year of support was over, the question of a livelihood for the young couple arose. Avrom-Khaym believed that Zundl wasn't suited to be a storekeeper and Zundl was of the same opinion. But what would he do with the hundred rubles of the dowry? He lent them to his father-in-law. As soon as Avrom-Khaym left for Germany, Zundl went to Shtutzin, his home town. He had many relatives there and hoped to find something. His Tsirl stayed with her mother, because they had gotten a room for five years, in Avrom-Khaym's two-room apartment. Zundl wanted to become a teacher in the Talmud-Torah, but he couldn't get in: the teachers with good connections had finalized everything at the beginning of the year. He wanted to open a kheyder [Jewish religious school], but when the other kheyder-teachers found out, that dream also vanished. What could he do? His uncle, with whom he was staying, told him, “The surest livelihood is through a craft. I will teach you tanning and you will be a tanner.” Zundl went pale. Why had he studied so hard in the yeshive? He had dreamed of being a rabbi and now he would become a tanner? His uncle understood that Zundl had doubts because tanning was not a very respectable occupation. He said, “Your father-in-law is a tar-seller,

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does that make him an unfit Jew? Shtutzin is fourteen viorts [one viorst = 1.06 kilometers] away from Grayeve. Who needs to know what your occupation is? You tell your wife that you're a kheyder-teacher…” The moment he heard that he could hide it from Grayeve, he agreed. He would come to his wife for one Shabes a month, bringing some money for her and for Moshe-Berl – the child who suddenly appeared – and on Sunday he would immediately leave again to practice his nasty trade.

At the beginning of nisn [Nissan, the 7th month of the Jewish calendar] Avrom-Khaym came home. His wife told him that Zundl had become a kheyder-teacher and was bringing Tsirl his wages. Avrom-Khaym was very pleased: over time, Zundl could become a real rabbi… During the last week before Peysach [Passover], when all the teachers had already left their khadorim and Zundl hadn't come, Avrom-Khaym wondered, especially as Zundl knew that his father-in-law was about to come back from far away and should be greeted. A man does everything for a livelihood, Avrom-Khaym thought, but what was a kheyder-teacher doing in Shtutzin on the eve of Peysach when his family was in Grayeve? And when his wife told him that she had dreamed that Zundl was ill, he thought no more but got into a cart and was in Shtutzin two hours later. He went to all the houses of study and the prayers groups, and didn't find him. Then he went to Zundl's uncle, the tanner. There, he saw Zundl eating in the kitchen. Seeing Zundl's clothes, and how pale he had suddenly become, Avrom-Khaym immediately understood what had happened. Zundl stood up and with bent head shook his hand. The uncle immediately appeared and said, as though answering a question, “What's the fuss? Is a tar-seller a human being and a tanner – an animal? If Zundl is a scholar, his trade won't take the pelt off him.” He came into the room and sat down at the table. Avrom-Khaym's heart was racing: he had chosen a yeshive student and gotten a tanner. In order to calm him, Zundl's uncle said, “And you, Avrom-Khaym, if you're a tar-seller, aren't you smart with many good qualities?” When the uncle saw that Avrom-Khaym was listening, he added, “And Rabbi Yohanan the shoemaker and Rabbi Yehoshua the blacksmith, didn't they revive the dead?” This was the argument that craftsmen always used, when they wondered why the rich folks, many of whom knew the Talmud, looked down on craftsmen… At that point, Zundl came to himself and calmly told his father-in-law how this came about.

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“I did it,” he concluded, “to be able to support my wife and child, and not depend on you, nomad that you are, for my living.” Avrom-Khaym softened, and tried to set his son-in-law's mind at rest. Nevertheless, he believed it would be better that no one in Grayeve, and even at home, knew the truth. The two of them decided to say that he had caught a cold and was staying in bed at his uncle's house.

When they got home, Avrom-Khaym immediately put him to bed and Tsirl cared for him like a mother. When there was no one in the room, Avrom-Khaym came in to see Zundl, patted him on the head, and they both laughed at the clever idea. Zundl got up the day before Peysakh and the next day he went to synagogue with his father-in-law, dressed in a black coat and a rabbinical hat. Avrom-Khaym took great pleasure in the way everyone looked on with envy.

When the holiday week was over, Avrom-Khaym went back to his tar wagon, and Zundl – to his uncle's tannery.

On a Friday in Tamuz [10th month of the Jewish calendar], an event took place that determined Zundl's fate for the rest of his life. Before he went home, he would go to the Shtutzin steam bath and steam himself thoroughly. That Friday, the father of the steam-bath's owner died suddenly, and the steam bath was not heated up. Zundl gave himself a good immersion in the ritual bath, but the cold water apparently didn't dispel the bad odor of the animal skins that clung to his body. On the way to Grayeve, he had to drop off a few skins in Popov; he emptied the sack and took it with him. When he came home, he first went into the barn and hid the empty sack in a corner, to take back to Shtutzin on Sunday. Tsirl actually saw him coming out of the barn, but was ashamed to ask him what he had done there. Sitting at the Friday-night table, a bad odor came from him. Being used to it, he himself was unaware. But Tsirl felt it strongly, and even had a perverse desire to breathe it in deeply. Something in the smell was familiar, but she couldn't recollect it. At night she nearly suffocated, and couldn't sleep a wink. While he was snoring, she moved closer to him and smelled his shirt and his neck.

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Finally, she remembered that she would smell the same stink passing by the tannery on her way to the baker's. She jumped out of bed, got dressed and went to the barn. When she found the sack and put it to her nose, she felt extremely nauseous. She went back into the house as pale as the whitewashed wall, and wouldn't let him near her the entire Shabes.

Sunday morning, after his farewells, he sneaked into the barn to take his sack. Tsirl followed him quietly, and when he was about to leave the barn, she stepped in. “What kind of sack is that?” she asked, annoyed. He stammered. “You are a stinking tanner and not a kheyder-teacher,” she let him have it very quietly so that no one outside would hear, God forbid, “I won't go on living with you!” and she ran out quickly. He stayed for a short while in the dark barn, holding the sack, confused and frightened. When he came to himself, he twisted it up and started towards the carts for Shtutzin, ashamed and pained.

The next month he washed himself properly in the steam bath and poured many ladles of hot water over his body. He climbed up to the highest bench and paid the attendant half a kopeck to give him a good thrashing with the broom. He refused to take any sack with him from Shtutzin, but when he got to Grayeve, Tsirl nevertheless wouldn't talk to him. She sat at the other side of the table during the meal and at night she lay at the edge of her bed in order to be as far away from him as possible. Neither could sleep, but they never spoke a word to each other. He wanted to ask her why she was angry at him, and remove any suspicions she might have. But he was afraid to say anything, in case his mother-in-law on the other side of the wooden wall could hear; that would be the end of him… The next day, when Tsirl was nursing the child in their room, he found a chance to talk with her. He came up to her, brought his sleeve to her nose and quietly said, “Sniff my sleeve. You must have been mistaken.” She turned her head away, and when he didn't give up, she stood up with the nursing child at her breast and went into the next room, where her mother and sisters were sitting. The poor man went back to Shtutzin the next day, without having made peace with Tsirl.

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The mother saw that something had happened between Tsirl and Zundl. When she couldn't get anything out of Tsirl, she left it alone. “They'll make it up,” she thought to herself, and remembered the folk saying, “Where two heads lie on the same cushion, a third person shouldn't intervene,” overcoming her curiosity… He wasn't able to make it up with his wife even on the Shabes before the start of the month of Elul [the month of the Jewish year, dedicated to spiritual preparation for the High Holy Days]. On the contrary, the moment she saw him she became enraged and slept on the chest that stood near the beds. To annoy her, he left for Shtutzin Saturday night. Later he often wondered what had annoyed her… The closer it got to Rosheshone, the calmer he became. His father-in-law would come and would make peace between them. He would slap her around and she would be with him again.

Avrom-Khaym came home a week before the holiday, five days before Zundl arrived. His wife immediately told him that something had happened between Zundl and Tsirl. But Tsirl told him nothing, as though it was her mother's secret. That evening, when Tsirl had gone to bed, Avrom-Khaym went in to her and asked her sharply what had happened. Even after the wedding, Avrom-Khaym was more like an uncle to Tsirl, “an uncle who would come from Prussia for the holiday.” Ashamed, she pulled her feather comforter over her eyes and said nothing. “If I whip you,” he threatened her, holding the end of his belt in his hand, “you'll have to answer me.” She burst out in tears, and lamenting as though over the destruction of the Temple, told him everything. “But you're a big fool,” he said more softly, and left the room. The next day he saw his chance and wanted to confront her with an argument. This time she didn't weep; she opened her eyes wide – Eysov's family were famous for their large eyes – and with a resolute voice declared, “I won't live with a stinking tanner, no matter what you do to me!” Avrom-Khaym, who loved his daughters and understood them, bowed his head and made no answer. To be sure, he, too, was not pleased with his son-in-law's work, and didn't think he would do that forever.

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His wife sent both daughters on errands, one to the baker to roll out matze [matzah] with onions and the other to the market – that was the only way she could get them out of the house when their father was at home. She heard the whole story from her husband. For a time, she was angry at her son-in-law and then at her daughter. “Does she think you're Rothschild? True, it's a nasty line of work, but if you divorce from him, you have to pay back the hundred rubles.” “My wife is a smart woman,” thought Avrom-Khaym, because at that very moment he was also thinking about the hundred rubles he had invested in the business, which were making him a fine profit.

The next day, he sent his wife and younger daughter away and stayed at home alone with Tsirl. He played with Moshe-Berl, who lay in his cradle and laughed out loud when Avrom-Khaym touched his neck. Then he called Tsirl and asked her to make him a glass of tea. When she brought him the tea, he asked her, “And if I had gotten you a tar-seller husband, would you have been happy?” “Of course,” she replied, “after all, you are a tar-seller, and even your workers don't smell and they're dressed in fine clothes.” “Suppose I take Zundl with me?” he asked quietly. She was silent for a time and then answered, “Then I would have a husband. As it is, he is neither a scholar nor a tanner.” He clapped her lovingly on the shoulder.

Avrom-Khaym's spirits lifted. That solution had many good features. First, he wouldn't have to return the hundred rubles; second, he needed two apprentices or one partner and one apprentice. In that case, it would be better for his apprentice Hatskel to travel with his son-in-law Zundl, who was family, after all, and an honest man besides. Third, on Saturday evenings and during the long winter days when nothing was happening, his son-in-law would study the Torah, Rashi and commentaries with him. Fourth, Tsirl and Zundl would have a peaceful life… He waited for Zundl impatiently, but was not worried, because he knew that Zundl would agree to everything he said. He told Tsirl that he had decided to take her husband with him, and she sobbed for joy.

On the way to Grayeve, Zundl rehearsed what he would tell his father-in-law. He would interject verses from the Bible and allegories from the Talmud and Midrash and the old man would teach his daughter how women should behave…

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When he came home, his wife greeted him very amicably, to his great astonishment. And he, the scholar and kindly man, forgot in an instant all the trouble she had caused him for months, and was happy. That very same evening, as they walked back from the synagogue, the father-in-law told the son-in-law: “I know everything. I have decided to take you with me.” Zundl was stunned and remained silent. Only one thought went through his mind: would he end up a tar-seller? And Avrom-Khaym explained: “A tar-seller is a merchant, whereas a tanner is no more than a chopper, a skin-flayer. You'll be a merchant and instead of spending your life as a small tanner and a manual laborer dependent on others, you'll be a decent tar-seller, because you're a scholar. You'll be independent, my partner and my heir; after all, I have no other son.” “You're both smart and kind,” Zuyndl stammered his thanks, bowing his head in shame.

So as to totally uproot tanning from Zundl, Avrom-Khaym sniffed his clothes energetically and said, “You must have gone to the steam-bath, yet you still smell of carcasses. Soot, blubber, and tar are clean and have a healthy odor.” “That's true,” Zundl added, though he had never smelled those substances.

When they got home, they sat down at the table. “Sit next to him,” Avrom-Khaym ordered Tsirl, in a fatherly manner. “Let him first go to the steam-bath,” Tsirl whined, sitting down next to Zundl, and blushed.

That was the end of the quiet “tragedy” in Avrom-Khaym's house.

The day after the holiday both left Grayeve and started for Prussia. All of Grayeve was in an uproar: a yeshive student had become a tar-seller. “The old man led the young guy astray,” the yeshive students said. One of the rich residents said, “Instead of raising himself to the level of his son-in-law, he pulled the son-in-law down to his own level.” “He'll teach a bit of Torah to uneducated Jews. Avrom-Khaym is a good Jew and knows what he's doing,” the religious judge took his side.

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The tar-sellers, who travelled to Prostken together and would scatter from there throughout Germany, were thunderstruck by the news. “Now that he has a scholar with him, Avrom-Khaym will monopolize all the towns,” they worriedly told each other. Avrom-Khaym strolled around among them head held high, proud of his son-in-law, like a Jew who carries a Torah scroll with him on his travels…


Green-Hill Love

At a time when places to stroll were unknown in Shtutzin, Stavisk and other nearby towns, Grayeve already had two such places, where young men and women could meet. One place was the Shtutzin road, for the rich folks. The other was the Green Hill, for poorer folks. When the train station was built, that became a strolling place for all classes.

They say that the Green Hill became famous since Velvl Bok buried his oldest son there. It started by visiting family graves; boys and girls would accidentally meet there and then take walks on Shabes and holidays. That would be the meeting point. Many love affairs in Grayeve were played out there. One person would come down the hill happy and another would be downcast. Girls looked at the Green Hill longingly and mothers – fearfully. The mothers certainly did not want their daughters to slink up to the Green Hill, but the daughters couldn't stay away. It might be a lucky place, at least once. How can a mother refuse her child? The fathers were stricter in this matter. They were worried about a sad end to these “walks.” Often, an old father would stroll along the cemetery fence, constantly glancing upwards, towards the Green Hill… Incidentally, a very nasty incident had already happened, but that was on the Shtutzin road, where the fancy folks strolled. Every girl of the working-class families experienced the same course of events over a short time: first, she would accidentally walk to the Green Hill with her girlfriends on Shabes. Afterwards her mother would hit her and warn her never to set foot on the cursed hill; after that, the father would hit her and moralize.

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The end was that she would be the winner and go there even on weekdays. What's the point of a boring life in a shtetl if a girl can't get some distance from the eyes of her parents and neighbors, and get closer to the eyes of the boys, who are full of such love and longing?

When Elkanah came back from Prussia and appeared on the Green Hill for the first time – it was the Shabes-shuva [Sabbath before Yom Kippur] – all the girls watched him. He had left Grayeve as a wild boy, the leader of a gang of rascals, and had come back like a thunderbolt, a rich guy, a real count. Though he was Hertzke's apprentice, he looked like a boss, more impressive than all the other tar-sellers and many of Grayeve's rich kids. He climbed the Green Hill with his uncle Fayvl's son, and asked him who every passing girl was. They finally stopped at Bok's grave. Under the tree that grew out of the grave there sat three girls, one of whom was the daughter of Mendl the baker. When they were still far away, he had heard a pleasant, delicate voice singing:

You fool, why are you annoyed,
Why the long face?
Do you want to know your history?
Come, I'll tell you.

[Translator's note: This folk song rhymes in Yiddish]

When he came close, she didn't stop singing; she glanced at him and went on singing.

He looked down at her blonde hair and white throat, and stopped as though glued to the spot. He was deep in thought and because his thoughts were strange, he didn't dare speak to her. He left along with his cousin, and didn't say a word about his feelings. As he stepped aside, the girl again began to sing. His pace slowed… The voice was carried to him like a golden thread and his heart was agitated. He passed by the girls again, walking stiffly, but something seemed to press on his shoulders, bowing him lower.

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He had gone to the Green Hill proud and easy-spirited, and now was coming back down beaten, heavy-hearted.

His uncle, the tailor, started seeking matches for him. “A guy like you,” he said, “would suit even the Rabbi's daughter.” But Elkanah's response was that no one in Prussia made matches. Each person sought out his own match.

On the holiday, after the meal, Elkanah sprayed his clothes with eau-de-cologne – at that time, only the richest girls were familiar with it – and left for the Green Hill. What can one say? One heart feels the other. Zelda, the daughter of Mendl the baker, had put on her finest dress that day, her mother's golden chain around her neck, and left with her girlfriend for the Green Hill. When the two saw each other, they both blushed. He had always fantasized about such a girl: fat, blonde, and fair. She, for her part, dreamed about a tall, handsome and rich guy – he didn't really need to be rich, but had to appear rich. That holiday afternoon, he was able to stay near her. At first he spoke briefly with her friends. Later, his cousin stayed with the two other girls and he went on ahead before them, with Zelda,

The next day, he came to visit her at home. He was daring to do something that no guy dared to do at that time. As he came in, a fragrance of perfume entered the house. This intoxicated Mendl the baker, and completely confused his wife. Both of them were very happy.

“A guy like that has to be rich,” said Khaye quietly to her husband, when they both happened to go into the next room. When he left, the parents asked him to come again. Khaya told her daughter happily, “Why do we need matchmakers? God will be the matchmaker. Keep him at your side, using your brains, and don't say a word to your girlfriends…”

Elkanah would come in the morning, during the day, and at night – he was completely out of his senses. Zelda, for her part, like a sick hen, stopped eating and drinking or talking – she thought only of the handsome Elkanah. Bath-house Street was seething like the bath-house furnace: some said that he wasn't suited to her. Others said that she wasn't right for him.

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No one was willing to see how happy they were…

Four days went by, and Elkanah felt as though it had been four months. His uncle kept admonishing him: “Mendl is rich; all the non-Jews buy his bread. Don't let them fool you into marrying her without a dowry.” Elkanah considered this and thought that his uncle was right. One marries only once in a lifetime; why shouldn't he receive a dowry? The fifth day, when he was in the back room with Zelda, unaware that her father was in the next room and separated only by a wooden wall, he started off very simply: “Zelda, do you love me?” She turned red as a beet. Who asks such questions before the wedding? When he asked her again, she answered, embarrassed, “You're a low-life…that's not a nice thing to ask.” Elkanah laughed. “People of the world have a better idea of what a low-life is.” She turned even redder. “Your father will give us two hundred rubles and we'll be married,” he said quickly. Her heart beat fast, as though she was committing a crime, and she said quietly, “Where would Father get money?” “From the fortune he placed around your mother's neck,” Elkanah smiled. Zelda looked down in embarrassment, wrapped herself in her warm shawl, and said, “All my life, my father has worked hard at night. If he's managed to save a few pennies, he needs them for his old age, after all.” Mendl, who was standing glued to the wall in the next room, was very pleased and moved at his daughter's wise words. His eyes filled with tears. “If so, we can't get married,” said Elkanah, and struck the table with his hand. Zelda was silent. Elkanah was certain that Zelda loved him, but that her father wouldn't give over his pennies. He became angry with himself. He stood up, like someone who had been shot, and said, “So what do you say, Zelda?” When she didn't answer, he shouted angrily, “When your father dies an unnatural death, we can get married.” Zelda turned as white as chalk. She stood up and wanted to say something, but her father suddenly came into

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the room. He, too, was as white as though he had just emerged from a sack of flour. He stood opposite Elkanah, barely reaching his chest, and yelled, “Get out, you rascal!” Elkanah took fright, and vanished.

On the following days, Zelda didn't leave the house, and Elkanah roamed around the Green Hill, in the market and through the streets as though he had lost his senses. He had confided everything to his cousin, and begged him to go and make peace for him with Mendl the baker. But his cousin was afraid even to go near Mendl's house… Bath-house Street immediately knew that something had happened between Zelda and Elkanah. Many people took pleasure in murmuring that Mendl had caught Elkanah and Zelda hugging on the wooden sofa…

Elkanah, who had come to town before the holidays ruddy and happy, left the town after the holidays pale and mournful. Reb Hertzke said that he looked ready for a coffin. Oy-oy, if only he had kept his mouth shut for a minute, he would certainly have been married today! Zelda was ashamed to show her face outside. Everyone had already envied her; she had been so close to happiness. If she hadn't annoyed him, he wouldn't have stumbled. Today, the day after the holiday, she would have been standing, in white, under the khupe … Until today, they were both hoping that things would work out somehow. “Now Mendl, may his name be erased, will marry off his daughter,” thought Elkanah. “He won't come to town again for years and will forget about me as though I were dead,” thought Zelda and complained to him silently.

But if God is running matters from above, people down below have no chance of spoiling things. Elkanah didn't forget Zelda even for a minute and waited very impatiently the whole winter, until Peysakh. All the gentile girls, whom he used to toy with, were now unattractive. Zelda suffered in silence. She was too embarrassed to talk about it with her girlfriends, let alone with her mother. Her mother – and mothers, after all, see everything – saw what was happening in her Zeldale's heart. Similar things were happening to her. When she was alone with her husband, she would try to calm him and say that even an angel might stumble over a word, let alone a tar-seller. Mendl also loved

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his daughter and sympathized with her, but she couldn't give in. Man and wife often argued about the issue, arguments that always ended with Mendl's refusing to eat all day.

When the Peysakh vacation came around, Elkanah wanted to go to Grayeve with Hertzke. When he got there, he asked his cousin fearfully whether Zelda was engaged yet. When he heard that she was still free, his heart lifted. He suddenly became the most pious of men and told himself, “It's ordained in heaven, she's waiting for me.” His heart overflowed with love and longing, and he decided to go to her home and make peace with her father. It was Friday. The next day, Saturday, as soon as he reached the Green Hill with his cousin, Zelda's face shone out at him… He hadn't expected it and she didn't know that he had arrived the previous day. Both became as white as chalk. She passed him. “Zelda,” he called her in a trembling voice. She couldn't control herself and turned her head towards him. Her girlfriend stopped first and she stopped as well. His cousin told the other girl, “Let's walk on our own,” and Zelda was immediately alone with Elkanah…

The next day they met again on the Green Hill. She told him that she had talked with her father and that he could come to their home on the first day of Peysakh. He came to Zelda's home, bringing a silk kerchief for her mother (he had bought it in Prussia to give Zelda if she was still free) and a nice tobacco container for her father. “Forgive me, Reb Mendl,” he murmured, unable to look the older man in the eye, “I didn't know what I was saying.”

Mendl pretended to completely forgive Elkanah, but he secretly bore a grudge and wanted to hurt him. Elkanah was sure they would be married the day after the holiday and Zelda would finally be his. But Mendl had a different idea: “If I arrange a hasty marriage people will immediately talk and give her a bad reputation,” he said. Elkanah was embarrassed to keep talking about it and remained silent.

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He did tell Zelda that her father was being unjust, but she shrugged her shoulders and answered, shamefacedly, “We can't interfere; after all, it's up to the parent.”

The betrothal document was drawn up in the evening at the end of the holiday. Mendl wanted to set the wedding for the week of Sukes, when Elkanah would be back from Prussia. Elkanah was stunned. “May you be struck dumb, you old hound,” he thought to himself. He finally mustered up his courage and said, “Torn isn't far from Grayeve, and I'll make a special trip for Shvues [Shavuot].” And so it was all decided.

Anyone but a Tar-seller

A favorite song of the Grayeve tar-sellers

If God gave you a daughter,
Don't give her to a tar-seller;
He's a nomad all his life
And she – as lonely as a stone.
Tar-seller, give her a cobbler husband,
He'll make you strong shoes;
Or a tailor – a true noble,
He'll sew you a jacket.
But don't get involved
With a rich man;
He must be out of his mind
To want your sweet daughter…
If you have no choice, a rich man will also do,
Just not a tar-seller, three times no!
He'll be in Prussia, far from her,
She'll be in Grayeve, lonely as a stone.


  1. Isrekhag: Half holiday. Hebraic, literally: “bind the festival sacrifice.” Return
  2. tfiln: phylacteries (small boxes) filled with scripture that are strapped to the left arm and forehead for morning prayers. Return


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