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[Page 91]

The “Cheder” of My Father,
My Teacher, Gershon Ze'ev Damesek,

May his Memory Be for a Blessing

by Shlomo Damesek

Translated by Rabbi Molly Karp

 

Introduction

With the end of the existence of the cheder of my father my teacher Reb Gershon Velvel Damesek in the year 1913, with his departure from Nesvizh for the United States, the period of great Gemara [Talmud] teachers in our village was concluded.

One can say that also at that time there concluded the period of the great “cheders” of Nesvizh. Indeed, there did remain several “cheders,” but their existence was wretched.

The school inherited the place of the cheder.

*

In the spiritual life of our people, we find that in the latter part of a specific cultural period and on the threshold of a new period, distinguished personalities appear that express the turning point of their time with their creativity.

So it is possible to say that the radiant sparks of the period of the great cheders in Nesvizh were consolidated in my father my teacher – the Teacher Reb Gershon Velvel – and in his cheder, which existed for more than 30 years – (from 5622 until 5673)[1] – and in them signs of the new period began to appear.

Indeed my father's “Cheder” carried, from outward appearances, the manner of the old cheder. It dwelt in the private home of the rabbi. In the middle of the room stood a table, which could be shortened or extended. The students sat around it on long benches. So that they would not sit hunched over, the benches had backrests on which to lean.

However, in the curriculum of Hebrew studies, which was conducted in my father's room, there were concealed seeds of the new period, a combination of the school and the small yeshiva.

Yet even in the last years of the existence of the cheder, there were, in the evening hours after the Hebrew lessons, lessons in the Russian language and its grammar, and the rest of general studies – which was taught by a special teacher. To appraise my father my teacher as a teacher, and the importance of his cheder, I will bring here chapters of the biography of my father, and of the history of his cheder.

 

A. In the Tents of Torah

1. Certificate of Teaching by Heart

My father was 7 years old, a student in the cheder of our relative Reb Shimon the Melamed, when the news came to Nesvizh that his father, who was a teacher in Pinsk, had died there.

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From then my father – the elder of the two orphan brothers – who, lacking anyone to approve or light the way – with his own power paved the course of his life. He chose to work in Torah.

After a few years of study in the little yeshiva of Reb Binyamin Falks in our town, he decided to go up to the exalted yeshiva in the village of Mir, that was located at a distance of only a few miles from Nesvizh.

In exchange for five pennies, one of the potters from Mir who sold his products in Nesvizh would transport Gershon Velvel back to the yeshiva in Mir.

When the orphan from Nesvizh presented himself before the head of the yeshiva, Reb Chaim Leib,[2] he hesitated at first to accept him, since the boy had not yet reached Bar Mitzvah age.[3] However, when he heard from the mouth of the boy that in Nesvizh he learned in the little yeshiva of Reb Binyamin Falks, who was in his youth his star pupil in the yeshiva in Mir, Reb Chaim Leib accepted him hospitably, after he tested him and learned his character.

Like most of the boys in the yeshiva, my father needed “daily meals.” The support that he received from the yeshiva was limited, and was not enough to match his few expenses – rent for a place to live, clothing, and management. Therefore, Reb Chaim Leib recommended to him a student in the yeshiva, the son of a wealthy family, who was greater than him in age, but lesser than him in knowledge. For the small wage that he received from him, the Nesvizher would review with him daily the lesson that they had learned in the yeshiva.

More than once, when the young “Rebbe” was teaching his student, the head of the yeshiva Reb Chaim Leib would stop near them to listen to his explanation and his review of the lesson with his student.

One day, after he had listened to the young teacher's way of teaching, the rabbi was talking with the supervisor. My father understood that the discussion was focused on him. My father asked the supervisor: “Did the head of the yeshiva speak about me?” The supervisor answered him: “Reb Chaim Leib said to me: “We are sure of you, that you will become a fitting instructor and a teacher of Torah in Israel.”

These things strengthened my father's spirit and encouraged him to study Torah and sustain it even in poverty and lack.

 

2. In the Village of Rubiezewicze

My father studied in the yeshiva of Mir for about 5 years. In addition to the vast essential knowledge in the Talmud that he acquired in this great yeshiva, he was greatly influenced by the method of teaching of his great teacher, the head of the yeshiva, Rebbe Chaim Leib Tiktinski, may the memory of the righteous be for a blessing. From him came to him, to the father who leaned towards the correct simple meaning, the precise explanation, and the ability to make the matter intelligible.

From the town of Mir, father moved to the town of Rubiezewicze; there he continued to learn diligently for a few more years.

The rabbi of the village set up the boy from Nesvizh to study Gemara a few hours a day with his son, who also became a faithful friend to him.

Over the course of his time in Rubiezewicze, father also studied ancient and modern Hebrew literature, and the history of Israel. He also immersed himself in the study of the Bible and its interpreters, until he acquired a deep understanding in the holy scriptures. His soul became finely attuned to the visions of the prophets.

 

B. My Father's First Cheder

After his marriage – at the age of 21 – my father opened a general store in the town of his birth, Nesvizh. That was because he did not want to turn the Torah into a spade to dig with.[4]

However, the fate appointed for him, it seemed to him, to my father, was in keeping with the words of his Rabbi, Reb Chaim Leib, that he would teach Torah to many.

The respected landlords of the village turned their eyes to the yeshiva student Reb Gershon Velvel, who had a reputation as perfect, and decided that he was the man who was fitting and proper to teach their sons Torah. They established and arranged for my father's first cheder, in which, at first, only six students learned. The new teacher did not go in the established way of the rest of the teachers that were in the village. Rather, he paved a new way to teach his students.

The teachers in those days in Nesvizh taught their students only Gemara. And, on Fridays, the students in their cheders would review the “weekly Portion” [of the Torah].

There were teachers that primarily taught only Tanakh,[5] and only one, well–known, Reb Nechemiah Lieberman*, who also taught his students grammar.

From the beginning of his way as a teacher, my father instituted an approach to and an order in studies whose purpose was to instill in his students a complete knowledge of Hebrew. The general plan of study: Gemara, Torah with Rashi's explanation, the study of other interpreters, the Prophets, the Writings, the Holy Tongue [Biblical Hebrew], and its grammar.

Over the course of years, he added a new field of learning to his curriculum, the history of Israel. In his teaching he emphasized not only quantity, but also excellence.

However, before I describe the approaches to learning in my father's cheder, I will relate an event that occurred at the beginning of its existence, which will testify to the relationship of the rest of the students to their new teacher, and to his plan for the learning in his cheder.

 

C. The Test

After only a few months of the existence of the new cheder, the students proved that they had excelled in their learning. The parents were very satisfied with the teacher and his approach to learning, and my father's “cheder” became famous in the city.

However, the teachers, and especially the teachers of Gemara, who were troubled by my father and his cheder, moved heaven and earth:

“There never was such a thing! It is not permitted for such a young one, who wastes his time with studies that our fathers did not know or recognize, to compete with us and to be considered a teacher of Gemara!”

“If he was teaching Tanakh, he could teach to his heart's desire. But he is not permitted to teach Gemara! He should stand for an examination and prove that he is fit for it.”

Father was sure of himself, that he was indeed as fit for the honor of being called a Gemara teacher as the other teachers in Nesvizh. But he agreed to remain quiet, and sought to prevent a fight; with this he wanted to reassure his students' parents that the grumbling among the teachers would be laid to rest, and he agreed to be tested. It was agreed between the parents and the Gemara teachers that on one Shabbat afternoon, they would meet at the home of Reb Leib Heller for the purpose of testing Father.

Reb Leib was considered by the wealthy householders of Nesvizh to be an honest man, and his only son Berel, of gifted ability, who was the apple of his eye, was one of the first students in my father's cheder.

On Shabbat the teachers gathered in the hall of Reb Leib. First, they tested Berel on a chapter of Gemara that he learned in the new cheder. The teachers chose the difficult sections of the chapter, and instructed Berel to read from the Gemara and explain the matters before them.

The youth excelled at explaining the sections that they chose. Afterwards he was asked various questions, and Berel was able to successfully answer all the questions and the responses to them, that the testers asked him.

Father explained to his student a section of Gemara, according to his power of explanation, at which he excelled.

The grumblers among the teachers rose in the middle of the test, and with grumbling on their lips they left the house. The level–headed and honest ones remained and listened attentively.

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At the end, one of the elders of the company of the teachers, Reb Moshe, rose, and, turning to the head of the household he said:

“Reb Leib, it is for you to honor all of those gathered, with a drink. You chose well! You found a proper Gemara teacher for your only son! And we bless our new member, Reb Velvel, with a blessing for success!”

And so Father, the new teacher, won the prize of the respect of the company of Gemara teachers in Nesvizh.

 

D. The Order of Learning in Father's Cheder

1. The Learning of Gemara

Father dedicated the morning hours, the time when the minds of the students were clearest and most easily able to absorb even difficult problems and passages, to learning Gemara. In the course of a week, the students had enough time to learn about 3 pages of Gemara, with full understanding and deep immersion in the passages.

The students especially learned with Father the three “Gates” [sections] of the Order “Damages,”[6] which were not entirely abstract or theoretical, and which had some contact with daily life.

Thanks to the proper approach to instruction, Father knew how to make the learning of Gemara interesting and intriguing, to bring it to the students' understanding and arouse in them a desire to delve into it.

First, he brought them to understand the plain meaning of it, with the help of Rashi's explanation of the problem.

After the students could recite the Gemara well, father attempted to have the students ponder each of the sections and “digest” them. By means of raising problems and questions that he posed to them, as if they themselves were judges, who were obligated to respond to the arguments of the litigants, Father brought his students to an intellectual effort and conclusions out of their own ability. This method considerably helped to clarify and illuminate problems that the study of the Gemara placed before them.

In the first half of the study day, Father would also teach his students the Five Books with Rashi's interpretation, and the most excellent students he would stimulate with the study of the Rashbam's commentary as well, and on occasion also the interpretation of Ibn Ezra.

At one o'clock there was a 1–hour break for lunch.

In the second half of the second day, until 6:00 in the evening, Father taught his students Prophets, Writings, and the Hebrew language and its grammar.

 

2. Study of the Tanakh

In his teaching of the Tanakh, Father was helped in his expertise with the commentaries of the great interpreters, popular among the people, Rashi, Ibn Ezra, the Ramban, the Radak, and likewise by his knowledge of the “interpretation” of [Moses]Mendelssohn and his friends, interpreters of the Tanakh. He was also helped by the interpretations of Joshua Steinberg, which were brought in his lexicon “Mishpat Ha'Urim.”

However, there mainly stood for him, for Father, in his learning of the Tanakh, the power of his study and understanding of the Prophets, his honest intellect, his knowledge of the Holy Tongue, and his special sense of deep inquiry into the content of the matter, and the connection between the verses.

His approach to the study of Tanakh as follows:

Prophetic passages were first translated by him into Yiddish, by placing emphasis on understanding the content of the verse, and not only in translating it literally, word for word.

After they reviewed the chapter, he would test the students on their understanding of the content in its original Hebrew, in the same way that he would test them on their knowledge of the Five Books. He would pose questions to them in Hebrew that they had to reply to in Hebrew, and after that to relate the content in the language of the prophet, or in their own words.

Mostly the students learned with Father the latter Prophets and the Writings, since they had learned the earlier Prophets in their previous cheders.

Father sought to implant in the hearts of his students not only the contents of the words of the Prophets, but also their spirit and their lofty characters. He revealed before them the poetry and the greatness that were revealed in the visions of the holy prophets, and the outpouring of the soul and the moral purity in the chapters of the Psalms.

Father's adult students felt the pain that penetrated the stinging words of the righteous prosecutor who is tortured in agony, Job.

By his approach to learning, the students were influenced by the deep words of wisdom in the Proverbs of Solomon.

The students who learned in Father's cheder knew the words of the book “Proverbs” almost by heart.

 

3. The Study of Hebrew and Its Grammar

When Father's cheder was founded in the year 1882, there were not yet appropriate textbooks for the teaching of spoken Hebrew to the students. Because of that, Father would himself compose stories and various articles by means of which he would teach them Hebrew.

Sometimes he would tell them some story or event in Yiddish, and it was up to the students to tell the content in Hebrew, orally and in writing. And sometimes he would tell them a story in Yiddish, line by line. The students, each one in turn, had to translate one sentence after another. And all the students would write it down in paper. Sometimes Father would suggest that the students would make the necessary corrections to each other's Hebrew translations, or suggest nicer or more appropriate expressions for the content of the sentence. If the students struggled with this, Father would correct the mistakes himself, and improve the language of the translation. After the students wrote the story in their notebooks, Father would collect the notebooks, and correct the mistakes in writing, and the next time explain the corrections to them.

When the book “The Playground” by Rosenfeld came out, Father immediately brought it into the cheder as a textbook. The students enjoyed the stories and poems in this entertaining book.

In the last years, Father would use the textbooks published by “The Light” (The Krinsky Publishing House of Warsaw) and the textbooks published by “Moriah” in Odessa.

For the teaching of grammar in the first years of the existence of his cheder, Father would use “Ma'archei L'shon Ever” by Joshua Steinberg. But when “The Instructor of the Language” by Chaim Tzvi Lerner was published, Father brought it into his cheder as a Hebrew language textbook.

The rules of grammar were learned by the students also with the help of exercises and “dissection” orally and in writing.

In the learning of Tanakh and language and especially during the time of review of the weekly Torah portion on Friday, Father was strict about following the general rules of grammar and on the correct expression.

In Father's cheder, chapters of Tanakh were absorbed by the students by heart, and they remained, kept in their memory, for many many days.

He planted in the hearts of the students love and a relation of respect and honor for the Hebrew language – the Holy Tongue.

 

4. The Entry of the Learning the History of Israel Into the Curriculum

Over the course of a number of years following the establishment of his cheder, Father also added the learning of the history of Israel into the curriculum.

When the book “Hebrew Sources,” a short version of the history of Israel, by Simon Dubnow, adapted by Aharon Leivoshitzky, came out, Father brought it into his cheder as a textbook to teach his students about the history of their nation.

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5. The Arrangement of a Small Library for the Students

In this way my father established a small library for his students. He also subscribed for them how great the pleasure and how great was the spiritual benefit that reading engenders in the reader, with the publication of the series “Tushiah” for students and young people, my father acquired the series of books “Flowers,” “Shoots,” and “First Fruits.” The books were collected into volumes of 2–3 stories together in each one.

In this way my father established a small library for his students. He also subscribed for them to the children's magazines “The Small World,” “Life and Nature,” “The Dawn,” and “Son of the Dawn.”

With the adult students, who would come to his house on the Sabbaths, Father would regularly read a few sections from “The Siren”; Father was included among the regular subscribers to this daily paper.

 

6. The Arrangement of Tests

From time to time, my father would invite a few of the parents of the students, who were known as knowledgeable and wise, or two or three of the best yeshiva students from among the leaders of the yeshiva of our city, to come and test his students.

Arrangement of tests like these served even more to arouse the desire for learning in the students.

 

7. Hebrew Games During Breaks

In the last years of the existence of his Cheder, Father would use the time of the breaks, which were given between the hours of classes, to amuse them with things that would help them in knowledge of the Hebrew language. Following his instruction, I would prepare for the students types of “Lotto” games by means of which the students would encounter the names of home and work implements of various kinds, the human limbs, furniture and the like, and also folk proverbs and common expressions. Besides these things with which the students would amuse themselves, they would play Hebrew word games, and build words out of two or three root letters.

Each one of the participants had to say a word that began with the last letter of the word that was mentioned in the previous game. For example, av, ben, ner, rak, ken, nes.[7]

In a manner similar to this, the students also entertained themselves with verses from the Tanakh. Every verse began with a letter that had concluded the previous verse.

Individuals and also groups of students could participate in these games. A group would lose when none of its members could find a word, or a verse, that began with the letter that had ended the previous one.

During the breaks the students would also sing songs of Zion that were sung by the people at that time: “There in the Place of Cedars,” “The Rose,” “Zion, Zion, City of Our God,” “Cooing Dove,” “Lift Up To Zion a Standard and a Flag.”[8]

 

8. The Outings to the Alba[9] River

In the intensely hot days of summer, after the lessons, at 6:00 in the evening, Father would sometimes go with his students to the Alba River to bathe there.

A student outing to the Alba with the Rebbe at the head, next to the fields of golden standing grain, and between rows of the giant trees of the Alba; bathing in the river, and the swimming exercises that the Rabbi taught them, the rest after the bathing and the games on cushions of grass in the shade of the birches and pines; and the trip back to the city at the time that the evening sky was enchanting with subtle streaks of color with the setting of the sun – caused pleasure and uncommon enjoyment that they kept in their hearts for very many days.

 

E. The Influence of the “Rebbe” and the Relationship of the Students to Their Teacher

As was mentioned above, Father's cheder in Nesvizh existed for over thirty years. During these years, in which he taught Torah to many in our village, he raised two generations of students. In the last years, my Father my Teacher used to teach Torah in his cheder to the children of his first students. The fathers and sons together called him “Rebbe.”

Father's Cheder was well–known in the entire surrounding area. From the nearby towns and villages, and the “Courtyards” of nobles, in which there dwelt Jews who were “mill tenants,” or who were tenants in cooking houses for hire, the parents, mostly literate and educated, would bring their sons to Nesvizh, so that they could learn in the cheder of Reb Gershon Velvel. A few of the students also lodged at the Rebbe's house.

The number of the students in Father's cheder was between twenty and twenty–five. He would not accept more than twenty–five students. The fee for the instructions was twenty–five rubles per time (a period of six months) – a high fee in those years.

Father did not return to the parents' houses “between times” to seek students for his cheder. It was considered a great honor for the parents for their child to be enrolled at the cheder of Reb Gershon Velvel, and a great honor for the student, a son of Nesvizh, to be counted among his students.

The influence of my Father my Teacher on his students was great. Even if as a teacher he demanded total devotion from them, and a serious and proper attitude to the studies, he related to them with love, and because of that, he drew their hearts to Torah. The students loved, honored, and cherished him.

In the formation of the relationship of respect and appreciation with which his students related to him, Father's spiritual virtues and good qualities stood him in good stead:

The deep knowledge in the field of education, that he taught to others; his devotion to the holy work of education and instruction; the great seriousness and responsibility, which were felt in all that he did; his common sense, his restraint and patience, which increased simultaneously with warm–heartedness.

His understanding of human weakness, along with his being endowed with a sophisticated sense of humor, also stood Father in good stead.

Father's majestic appearance and the brilliance of the wisdom that shone from his black eyes greatly contributed to the attitude of respect with which his students treated him.

 

F. The Years of Old Age

1. To Learn and to Teach – The Substance of the Life of My Father My Teacher

The prophecy of Reb Chaim Leib, the head of the Yeshiva at Mir, that Father would teach Torah to many – was fulfilled in him until his last day.

In the first years after his coming to New York, my father my teacher taught in the Yeshiva of Rabbi Jacob Joseph.

For twenty–six years, in which he lived in the neighborhood of Bensonhurst, which is in Brooklyn, he prayed in the synagogue Shaarey Tefilah[10], in which he taught a Gemara lesson on the Sabbaths. Every day for about twenty years, between mincha and maariv,[11] he taught his students, members of the synagogue, a chapter of “Jacob's Well” but not for the sake of a reward.

For the occasion of this learning my Father, may his memory be for a blessing, brought to light in his pamphlets most of his studies and interpretations of the legends of Chazal[12], which were collected in his book “By the Light of Legend,” which our family published in the year 1955.

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To teach and to learn – this was the substance of the life of my Father My Teacher, may his memory be for a blessing. In the Introduction to his book “By the Light of the Legend” I noted the following things:

All the days of my father, including the nights, were given to the Torah, to learn it and to teach it to his sons and his students, to the small and the great, to the young and the old together.

For upwards of sixty years my father taught Torah to many. In it he labored with great love, and for it he worked in the bad days as in the good, in years of poverty as in years of wealth. Even in the years of great old age, he was girded with an indescribable power of spirit, faced with great hardships and misfortunes, yet he never let go of the textbook in his hand.

 

2. One of the Elders of the Scholars

In the Introduction of the book of My Father, My Teacher, “By the Light of the Legend,” I noted this, too:

“Aged scholars… the older they get, the more their mind becomes composed, as it is said: ‘With aged men comes wisdom, and understanding in length of days.’[13]” My father was a wonderful editor for this article. Once he arrived at “the days of our years,”[14] he acted with vigor in the Torah; much to learn and much to innovate.

During the last fifteen years of his life he reviewed the Talmud four times. “May scholars study them and affirm them; let wrestlers with the Torah praise them…. ”

*

My father my teacher, may his memory be for a blessing, died with a good name, 92 years old, on the ninth day of Nisan, 1943.

And, even though in the month of Nisan we do not give eulogies, they brought the coffin of our Father our Teacher into Congregation Shaarey Tefilah, and there rabbis and great ones in the Torah who knew him, were familiar with him, and cherished him, spoke words praising the distinguished deceased.

Dr. Zvi Arieh Slonimski, may his memory be for a blessing, his significant student, spoke in the name of the many students that he raised up in Nesvizh. He praised the teachings methods of the “Rebbe,” and the love of Torah that he planted in the hearts of his students.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. The years are given according to the Hebrew calendar. 5622 corresponds to 1861–1862 and 5673 corresponds to 1912–1913. The opening date given here is erroneous, as it denotes that the cheder existed for over fifty years, rather than the thirty described. More likely the cheder began in 1882. See page 93. Return
  2. Tiktinski, in next section Return
  3. 13. Return
  4. Mishnah Avot 4 Return
  5. Hebrew acronym for the 3 portions of the Bible – 5 Books of Moses, Prophets, and Writings Return
  6. 3 Tractates of the Talmud Return
  7. Father, son, candle, only, nest, miracle. Return
  8. From Jeremiah 4:6 “Set up a signpost: To Zion” Return
  9. Alba is a man–made pond in a park of the same name Return
  10. Gates of Prayer Return
  11. Mincha is the afternoon worship service. Maariv is the evening worship service. Return
  12. Hebrew acronym referring to The Sages Return
  13. Mishnah Kinnim 3:6 Return
  14. Seventy; Psalm 90:10 “The span of our life is seventy years, or, given the strength, eighty years; but the best of them are trouble and sorrow. They pass by speedily, and we are in darkness.” Return


Chapters from the Book “There Too the Sun Shone”
Gadish Books, Tel Aviv, 1960

by Shlomo Damesek

Translated by Rabbi Molly Karp

 

The Castle (Yiddish: Der Schluss)

Isolated and separated from the village of Nesvizh, standing straight on a steep hill, the castle of the noblemen of the House of Radziwell, that was called by the Jews: Der Schluss.

The inclines of Castle Hill were greened by ancient groves. At the foot of the hill, on the eastern side, teemed the waters of the river of the suburb “Neishtadt.” Most of the Jewish residents of the village used to bathe in this river on summer days, and would go there for Tashlich[1] on Rosh Hashanah.

On the western side, the waters of the concealed lake lapped at the base of Castle Hill in the closed area of the castle. This lake, which was dug by enslaved peasants for the landlord a few generations previously, was placed as a clear mirror in a framework of leafy oaks and various flowering shrubs. Its shores were encircled by carved stone posts that were connected by iron chains. This lake served as a place for bathing, swimming and boating for the noblemen and their guests, who were invited to the castle for family meals and amusements. Radiantly white, brilliant with the polished copper of its roof, and gleaming with the panes of its many windows, the castle's tower appeared prominently from a distance. With pride, the pedigree of the noblemen cast a shadow of legends on the events of their time and on the deeds of the greatness of generations of senior princes.

The reverberation of these legends reached as far as the Jewish residents of the village, and became discussions and rumors that spread among them from generation to generation.

Added to them were shocking stories about acts of cruelty, malicious plots, and the wild behavior of the dukes, who drove like madmen and abused the Jews of the village, its dues collectors, its community leaders, and its heroes, as if they were their enslaved peasants.

These legends that developed in the mouths of the Jews of Nesvizh, and were told from father to son, whether they indicated the great outdoor distance between the castle courtyard and the area of the village residents, pulled fine threads of connection between them.

 

nes095.jpg
The main entrance to Radziwell Castle, through the gate on the permanent bridge.
In the Middle Ages a moat around the palace served to defend it from invaders.
Photograph: M Fayans

 

Funny Sayings in the Mouths of the Jews of Nesvizh

As in every city and town there circulated in our village too, funny sayings and parables that were created in it and that were common in the mouths of the Jewish residents.

It is possible that over the course of time they left the area and passed to other villages as well.

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a. And Your Sign – A White Horse

In this saying in our village, they used to distinguish an insignificant, unreliable sign, in honor of an event that took place:

One time there came to our village a groom of distinguished lineage from Minsk, on the evening of the Passover festival, to the home of his future father–in–law, a wealthy contractor and the owner of the fanciest hotel in the city, to spend the days of the festival with him. At that time there stood next to the big hotel a white horse bridled to a fine carriage… the groom noticed it.

The second time the groom came to his bride for the festival of Shavuot… and lo and behold it happened that a different white horse was bridled to a simple wagon that stood next to the wooden house that was adjacent to the great hotel. The groom entered that house. He walked about from room to room as if he was looking for someone. The mistress of the house asked:

“Tell me please, young man, who are you looking for?”

He answered:
“Why do you ask me this? It is my bride, Hinda, that I am looking for!”

The mistress of the house understood that he was looking for the daughter of her neighbor, the rich man, so she said to him:
“You have made a mistake, my dear young man. Hinda your bride is in the other house, in the great hotel, and you must go there.”

The groom replied to her in astonishment:
“But how! Isn't the white horse standing next to this house!”

 

b. At the Same Price – If Only It Would Be Size Thirteen!

They used to use this saying in our city in order to indicate pursuit of a “find”[2] even if the buyer would obtain a dubious outcome from it, or that he would even sustain a loss.

 

The Source of the Saying

After the wedding of that same groom of distinguished lineage with his mate, mentioned above, they opened a store for undergarments, shoes and boots, and the inexperienced shopkeeper travelled to Minsk to buy merchandise. He came to a wholesale store to buy boots.

The wholesaler showed him a number of boots of different sizes. When the buyer asked for a price, the vendor replied to him that men's boots ranged from size seven to size thirteen – the biggest size – were all the same price. The buyer thought for a few minutes, and then got up and ordered about three hundred pairs of boots in size thirteen.

When he brought the merchandise home, his wife saw that all the boots were size thirteen. Her eyes darkened, and she cried out in astonishment: “and what will we sell to the buyers that are looking for boots in smaller sizes? And where will we find so many buyers whose feet are like Og the King of Bashan,[3] who need size thirteen boots?!”

Her husband replied and said: “Why should you worry and be upset? Haven't I brought a great ‘find,’ and didn't my wisdom put me in good stead to buy such a find? Since the wholesaler from Minsk said to me that boots from size seven to size thirteen were all the same price – I decided immediately and I said to him – ‘For the same price! If only they would be size thirteen!’”

 

c. Hinda, They are Shooting!

When they wished to indicate a coward in our city, one who sees danger where there isn't any, they would say this to him.

 

The Source of the Saying:

It happened with that same couple, that they went for an excursion outside of the city. They heard the sound of shooting from afar. The husband began to run, screaming: “Hinda, they are shooting!” His beloved called out, saying: “Why are you fleeing and screaming? It's the shooting of a hunter, shooting a bird in the nearby forest.”

The husband, trembling with fear, replied: “And how do I know if the hunter is shooting at me, or at a bird?”

 

d. Michael, Hurry and Insure the House for Liability!

They used to use this saying in Nesvizh when someone decided to do something that was overdue.

 

The Source of the Saying:

The small shack, in which Michael (the umbrella repair–man) lived, was his lot for all his toil.

In those same years there were already many homeowners in Nesvizh who insured their houses with liability insurance, for fear of fires that would frequently break out in the small villages during the summer days.

The agent of the insurance company “Salamander,”[4] who came to our city for a few weeks, spoke also to the heart of Michael, to insure his house from fire.

Michael, even though it was difficult for him to spend the few rubles that it cost to insure his house, the words of the agent got in his ear, but his wife unequivocally objected to this extra expense.

And now, a fire broke out on the street. The house of Michael's neighbor was entirely consumed by fire. Even the roof of Michael's house caught fire.

That same hour Michael's wife burst into an urgent scream at her husband:
“Michael! Hurry up and insure the house for liability!”

 

e. Moshe–Berel'e, Soup Drinker

With this saying In Nesvizh they indicated a man, who used the opportunity of an invitation to a simcha[5] or to a Seudat Mitzvah[6] and fills his gullet with delicacies, like: “grab and eat! grab and drink!”[7]

 

The Source of the Saying:

Since from the repair of umbrellas the available income was primarily in the rainy season, Michael, mentioned above, and the members of his household lived under great duress. In order to earn something extra, Michael served also as a prayer–leader in the “Kalte” [Cold] Synagogue.[8] In his role as “sacred vessel,”[9] he would therefore attend weddings, circumcisions, and other joyous occasions and meals that were held in the houses of the worshippers of the Kalte synagogue.

Michael would always bring his eldest son, Moshe Berel'e, who was lean and pale–faced.

At wedding feasts, they would usually serve “golden soup” of chicken, a desirable dish that the members of Michael's household never saw, except in a dream. Michael would then serve to his son plate after plate of the soup, and he would hurry him loudly: “Moshe–Berel'e, drink some soup!”

 

E. Isn't This Also Part of Our Domain!

The reference is to the question of the “Simple”[10] child, who is not knowledgeable in the ways of the world, and who sometimes, when they sought to point out the great amount of possessions of one of the rich men, or the opposite, the poverty of one of the beggars of the village…

This question–saying – is ascribed to Avraham'l[11] Chaya–Leah's,[12] a teacher of Gemara, whose wife was a homemaker, who brought in most of their income. Avraham'l always sat in the study house and engaged in learning Gemara between him and himself [alone]. Or with two or three of his students, and never went outside the boundaries of the village. Once it happened that some of the yeshiva students of the study house took Avraham'l for an outing

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towards Neishtadt, outside of the village. On their way they debated matters of the Torah, and went a distance of three–four parasangs[13] and arrived near the village of Katznovitz.

When they stopped their debating and Avraham'l lifted his eyes and saw the broad green fields, and the flocks of sheep that were grazing in the pasture, he asked his companions, “Is this also in our domain?” [Repeated in Yiddish] That is to say, “Is all of this still within the borders of the Russian Czar?” because he thought we had crossed the border and entered a new country.

 

F. Even a Potato Dwells in the Dust

In our village, they intended this to say that there was no intention to desecrate the dead, if they mentioned the name of a wicked person, who dwelt in the dust, for reproach.

The first, from whose mouth this saying was first heard, and it became a parable in our village, was Yusha the amputee. Yusha was one of the “kidnapped,” who had been a slave in the army of Nicholas I for twenty–five years, and in the Russian–Turkish war he lost both of his legs. They made him wooden legs, which were bound tightly to his knees with leather straps, and he would walk on them, while leaning on his stick. All the days of his life, Yusha received supplies from the royal treasury.

Yusha the amputee had a sharp mind, and was a conversationalist, and when once he heard them say: “don't mention the offensive deeds of so–and–so, he already dwells in the dust,” he jumped and said: “even a potato dwells in the dust, nevertheless – if it is tasty. Golden and mealy – they praise it; and if it is watery and rotten – they tell of its disgrace.

 

G. Cream and Sour Milk

In the days when Reb Yosef son of Reb Soloveitchik dwelt in Nesvizh, his son Chaim (who was afterwards the Gaon of Brisk), learned in the cheder with one of the children, Yusha, the son of Chaim–Meir.

One day Yusha's mother boasted in front of Chaim's mother: “The Rebbe hits your son Chaim, but to my son Yusha'le, he never raises his hand.”

Chaim's mother immediately answered her: “Let a blessing come to the Rebbe, and may his hand be steady until a hundred and twenty!”[14] He knows, the Rebbe, that when we beat cream, butter comes from it. But sour milk, no matter how much you beat it, remains sour milk.”

 

Michaelishok

“Michaelishok” – that is the name of the street and the neighborhood in Nesvizh, the city of my birth, which is in White Russia; there stood our house, in which I was born and grew up. In one of the alleys that branched off from this street, a narrow ditch ran through the width of Michaelishok Street and divided it in two. Above the ditch there was a small rickety bridge. The two parts of the street were named for the bridge: Michaelishok Before the Bridge, and Michaelishok After the Bridge.

There did not stand, for the street, the merit of Michael, one of the saints of the Catholic church for whom the street was named, and not the merit of a few of the residents of the street who were themselves learned Jews and that were related to learned families.

When they paved the main streets with stone blocks, the lords of the city did not pay attention to Michaelishok Street. Most of those who lived on the street were among the poor of the people, among them wretched laborers, and who were they that anyone should pay attention to them? And so the street remained a swampy mess until the days of my youth.

In the rainy season and when the snow was melting, the swamp swelled more and more, covering and concealing the wooden walkways that were on the side of the street. Then they were “sinking in mud up to their necks.” The wheels of the farmer wagons would turn heavily, when their axles would be immersed in mud and making loud screeching and shrieking noises.

The coming–and–going fastidious ones were greatly troubled. These would hold the hems of their garments in their hands, walking carefully on tiptoe. However, by the time they had extracted one foot, the second had already sunk into the muddy sludge. More than one stumbled and fell out of an excess of caution, to the joy of the young brats of Michaelishok, who would escort the fallen with cries of “Mud!” and be filled with laughter over their fate.

The unspoiled, men and women both, would wear boots and plod in the mud with self–confidence. And, because they were not fastidious, they earned a ring of mud on the hems of their cloaks and dresses, earning the honored title: “Shlumper.”[15]

This swamp caused in its day the building of Michaelishok synagogue. I read this in the ledger of the synagogue, which was kept in the house of my uncle, Mr. Chaim Eliezer Kahana Shapira, may his memory be for a blessing:

“And we saw fit to found the synagogue since, in the rainy season, Michaelishok Street was disrupted by mud, and it was difficult to traverse it, and the residents were prevented from going to the synagogues in the city, and from communal prayer.”

However, if the Michaelishok neighborhood was ugly and muddy in the rainy season, it was pleasant in the months of spring, summer and winter, especially the part of the street that was beyond the bridge, which was a kind of suburb, and in which our house also stood, the second of three suburbs of “Neishtadt” and “Kazimir,” which were like small villages within themselves. Here there was not the same density as in “Michaelishok Before the Bridge,” where one house touched the next and one door stood over the next, and each woman knew what was being cooked in the stewpot of her neighbor.

Half of the long street that was beyond the bridge served as a passageway out of the city limits, to the fields and the forests.

Gardens large and small were found next to each house. For a few of the residents, their livelihood was dependent on fields of watermelon and squash. However, many of the rest of the homeowners that were supported by artisanry or professional occupations also found produced much income from the produce of their gardens.

From the time that the winds of spring began to blow, attending to the garden began. Whether fertilizing or plowing, the Jews were in need of the farmers that were designated from the adjacent town, the sowing and the work in the plot went on all the days of summer, done mostly by the women and children, and a few them by the hands of men in the early morning hours, or the hours towards evening.

There were those who had a sense for beauty among the resident of Michaelishok, who planted various flowers next to their houses, especially poppy flowers, with their red–white colors.

*

In the neighborhood of Michaelishok, there was plenty to sustain the eye and the imagination. On the eastern side it stretched towards Mordechai's (the son of Eliyah Herzl) big broad field, awash in various greens. Forward, climbing up the hill, was the house of Mordechai Leizer the Tailor, with his own vegetable garden around its edges.

In the early days of my childhood there was at the foot of this hill a small pond. In the summer the women of Nesvizh would go there to wash their linens, and the children would bathe there and have fun in the water. In the winter days they would go there to skate on the ice. Nevertheless, Mordecai Leizer would hoe on the hill and throw his ashes into the pond. From month to month and from year to year this pond would come and go, until it dried up entirely, was surrounded by a fence, and became part of the garden.

Further east could be seen the trees of the garden of the seminary, which was also called “The Nuns' Garden.”

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With morning, after the dawn spread purple above the tree–tops, the sun broke through gaps between the branches, saying “Good morning!” It would disappear for a few minutes and then reappear and reveal itself in the canopy of the tree–tops, shining in its full glory, marching with its great power in royal stateliness.

Also, on the south side cultivated fields were revealed to me. No fence divided between one garden and the next; a narrow strip, planted with grass, indicated the boundaries. Nothing disturbed the observing eye. A sea of green sprawled, and beyond it golden and red fields of crops. Trees were also seen at a distance, along with the moving course of the “Alba” estate along its forests, lakes and fields, that enchanted with a multitude of reflections and a bounty of colors. In a broad line it was carried from the south.

On the western side there were again cultivated fields, orchards, and farther on, there sprawled for its full length the cemetery, which is the “House of Life” or “The Holy Place,” with its graves, tombs, gravestones, shrubs and trees.

And how pleasant was the land of the gardens and the meadows in the days of winter!

Such a fine white territory, bright and radiant, the eye did not see in all the neighborhoods of the city. Here the blanket of snow remained in the season for weeks and months, crusted over by a fine bluish–white frost.

Giant snowmen, igloos and tunnels, ramparts and forts, were created and erected by the children of Michaelishok, with joy and pleasure.

Sometimes at night, when Shabbat had ended, when a funeral and burial of the dead had taken place in the cemetery, or when they would light candles in the mausoleum of Rebbe Meirka the Righteous, the black of night, the shadows of those accompanying the dead for burial, the candles flickering in the lanterns, would blend into the white of the snow and become a kind of mystery that together enchanted and gripped the heart.

 

The First Phonograph in the Village

Ben–Tzion the Bookbinder, whose house was in one of the alleys of Michaelishok, was the first Jew in our city to acquire a phonograph and allowed his fellow Jews to hear the sound of music by means of this instrument.

From where did Ben–Tzion the Bookbinder get a phonograph, and how did he acquire it?

Ben–Tzion loved cantorial music. When he was still a youth, he served as a singer for a cantor. And even if he had not been fortunate to serve as a cantor himself and he earned his living by bookbinding, he was counted as one of the prayer–leaders and was known as an aficionado of cantors all his life. He was considered in our town as one of the experts, who was well–versed in the rules of playing music.

When it happened that a Cantor came to our village and prayed, the congregation felt obligated to ask the opinion of Ben–Tzion: What did he think of this “vessel”[16]? And he was like the final decisor, after whom no one could ponder further.

In his role as an aficionado, Ben–Tzion designated his parlor as a place where the cantors and prayer–leaders would be housed when they passed through the village. Ben–Tzion would not take any fee from them. He was satisfied with the simple pleasure of hearing their music when they rehearsed with the singers.

And behold, the Holy One Blessed Be ordered for Ben–Tzion a fitting find, in which there was elegance, and enjoyment for himself and for the people, since their souls desire such music.

One time a certain “Fritz,”[17] who lived on a ranch outside of the city, brought for him books for binding. When Ben–Tzion returned the bound books to their owner's house, he chanced upon this instrument that they were playing at that same time. He heard then melodies that transfixed the heart, emerging out of a great horn attached to a square case. He stood there wondering for a full hour, and could not move from the spot, overcome with amazement and excitement.

This “Fritz” saw his amazement, explained to him the secret of the music box, whose name was “phonograph,” and the operation of the contact of the needle on the spinning record, and the production of the sound by this contact. This “Fritz” told him that he was prepared to sell him the instrument for half–off, since he was about to leave the city and transfer his residence to a big city. The Fritz further told him that the agent Barzov, who travelled to Minsk, the county seat, twice a month, would bring him the recordings. He added, there are “our” recordings and “your” recordings. Ben–Tzion did not hesitate even a minute. He negotiated a price with the “Fritz,” and the phonograph became his precious acquisition.

From then there began in the town a phonograph series. That same day, when Ben–Tzion entered the synagogue, he hurried to tell the wondrous event to his friends and acquaintances. He invited them to come to his house when Shabbat was over, to see the music box, one of the wonders of the world, and to enjoy the playing and singing.

When Shabbat was over, Ben–Tzion's vestibule was filled end to end with visitors. Ben–Tzion himself stood like a conqueror on the music box, and did not allow anyone to touch his treasure, a decree lest they break it.

The assembled waited impatiently, with uncommon curiosity. Wide–eyed, they looked at the record, that just now Ben–Tzion had brought from the house of the agent. He explained to them that on this round black record, there were notes and symbols, and that the record was for the “instrument” exactly like musical notes were for the Cantor.

With great concentration, like in the moment that one recites “For the sake of Unification,”[18] Ben Zion placed the needle onto its track and turned the handle of the machine. After a few seconds all the congregation heard the “Slichah”[19] prayer “We Are More Than Every Nation” by Cantor David Roitman.

When the first words were heard unequivocally emerging from the horns, all the listeners bellowed with excitement, and cries burst out of their mouths: This player sounds like it is really alive!! And Ben–Tzion, whose face shone, asked them humorously not to stop in the middle.

There was no end to the praises and acclaims that spread about this wonderful, innovative, excellent device. Ben–Tzion was made to therefore play and replay the record on the machine and to delight the listeners whose ears could not get enough of the playing.

When the sound of the phonograph was heard in the street, curious people from all the nearby houses would immediately gather. They surrounded and encircled Ben–Tzion's house; many hung from the windows and ledges to see the invention and to enjoy the sweetness of the melody.

The next day word went out in all the city, and from all its ends many streamed to Ben–Tzion's house to see the marvel.

Indeed, Ben–Tzion was greatly troubled that day. He had to frequently stop his work, to show the music–box to those who came, and to explain to them the workings of the machine. However, he did all this with a unique kind of great satisfaction. He invited the persons of rank to his house when Shabbat had ended to hear the music.

From that same night it became a regular practice by Ben–Tzion to play before those invited, and those not invited at the end of every Shabbat. Those that merited, the vestibule absorbed them. Those that did not, stood by the windows of Ben–Tzion's house, and enjoyed it no less than those gathered inside his house.

Bit by bit the records accumulated. Ben–Tzion guarded them like the apple of his eye. He didn't only acquire recordings of cantorial pieces, but also folk songs and wedding ditties.

The songs and melodies that were heard in Ben–Tzion's house gained a reputation among the townspeople, especially among the young and those on the margins, and were sung by all.

A few years went by and in the city two more music boxes were added: in the house of the pharmacist Goldberg, whose house was on Vilner Street, the hiking street, and in the Weigent Bakery, a German who specialized in the baking of French bread–loaves.

Also, from these houses were heard songs and melodies, waltzes and other dance songs. However, these songs did not have the same charm or compelling power as those heard on the phonograph of Ben–Tzion, the bookbinder.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Customary Jewish atonement ritual performed during the High Holy Days Return
  2. A bargain. Return
  3. “His iron bed is still in Rabbah of the Ammonites, nine cubits long and four cubits wide, measured by a man's forearm” (Deuteronomy 3:11). A cubit is about 1.5 feet, so Og's bed was about 13.5 feet long and 6 feet wide. In other words, he was a giant. Return
  4. A fire–proof salamander mentioned in mythology as well as in the Talmud – see Hullin 127a Return
  5. Joyous event. Return
  6. “Commanded meal;” a festive meal that follows the fulfillment of a mitzvah, i.e., bar mitzvah, wedding, brit milah. Return
  7. From the Talmud: “The Gemara cites additional instructions issued by Shmuel: Shmuel said to Rav Yehuda, his beloved student: Keen scholar, grab and eat, grab and drink, as the world from which we are departing is like a wedding feast, whose joy is only temporary, and one who does not take pleasure in it now will not be able to do so in the future.” Eruvin 54a:4 Return
  8. Unheated, and therefore used only in the summer. Return
  9. This term generally refers to those who lead the congregation in Jewish ritual. Return
  10. Of the Passover Seder. Return
  11. The “L” suffix indicates a diminutive. Return
  12. Belonging to (usually son of). Return
  13. Ancient measurement approx.. 3 to 3–1/2 miles Return
  14. This is a traditional Jewish blessing that wishes for long life for the recipient, who should live until 120 years, the age at which Moses died, according to the Torah. Return
  15. Slob, loser: Return
  16. The Cantor Return
  17. A Polish nobleman. Return
  18. declaration of intent prior to performing many mitzvot or reciting certain prayers Return
  19. Prayer of repentance Return

 

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