(Excerpts from the long novel In Grandfather's Fields by Yitzkhok Metzker)
by Yitzhak Metzker
Translated by Yael Chaver
For that Shabbes, Old Ber brought in Reb Velvele, the village rabbi, from the neighboring town. Each time the village Jews had a celebration, he came to join the merriment. Old Ber always had the privilege of hosting Reb Velvele, just as his ancestors had been the hosts of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov when he visited Lanowice. The village Jews considered Reb Velvele, who visited them in times of sorrow and of joy, a godly man and a miracle worker. They devotedly guarded the amulets he left in their homes.
The Jews who gathered in the tavern that Shabbes morning kept peering into the road and waiting
for Old Ber to bring Reb Velvele and the bridegroom. One person recounted how, the previous winter, Reb Velvele had revived one of his sons who was at death's door with his eyes already glazing over. Another, from the neighboring village of Tatarshchina, who owned as much as forty acres of fields, swore that the rabbi stopped an outbreak of sickness among his livestock with one of his remedies.
Reb Velvele was never willing to accept a gift from the village Jews. However, they thought of him every time they went to town. They would bring a hen, a piece of cheese, a bag of barley, flour, beans, and potatoes.
Here comes the bridegroom!
Reb Velvele and Ber are leading him.
Alongside the bride, groom and Reb Velvele was Ber's oldest son, Avrom the alinik, who brought with him an unfamiliar young man. Even before the stranger with the young blond fuzz on his pale [and his], refined face crossed the tavern threshold, everyone knew he was a Russian. People knew he had come to Lanowice for several days, as Avrom alinik's wife was his distant relative.
The Jews of Lanowice and the surrounding villages had not had such a Shabbes or felt such festive joy for a long time. However, when they greeted Reb Velvele, they surrounded the young Russian and heard what he had experienced in Russian towns and villages where Jews had been robbed and killed; their hearts sank. Here, thank God, there is still a Kaiser, Old Ber tried to dispel the melancholy that had overtaken the Jews.
Esau remains Esau wherever he may be, and a Jew is always abandoned The young Russian's longish face became sad.
Good and bad are forever on the scales. On the other hand, the world is full of the Creator's compassion and one must have faith. Every time Reb Velvele visited the village Jews, he sought to console them and cheer them up. He spoke about their fathers and grandfathers, who were strong in their faith. In the villages they had acquired their own land, plowed and sowed, planted trees, traded and traveled, and raised pious, decent children among nonJewish neighbors.
After prayers, two tables were set up outdoors behind the tavern, in the shade of a spreading chestnut tree,
one for the men and the other for the women, and refreshments were brought out. Leib's mother, Nekhe the tavernkeepera large welldressed woman who was called the boor by all the villagers, Jews and nonJews alikewith her youngest daughter, fifteenyearold Royze [Roza?], briskly handed out, through a window, cakes, brandy, cherry liqueur, wine, sponge cake, poppy seed crackers, beans mashed up with cinnamon and sugar, whole peas, egg cookies and pancakes.
Lechayim, let there be an end to exile and let us hear good news, redemption and consolation, Reb Velvele who was barely visible among the massive village Jews raised a general toast. He made a special toast to Leib, wishing him to become a decent person, and that, along with the house he had inherited, he would also inherit the fine traits of his greatgrandfather and the blessings that Rabbi Yisra'el Baal Shem Tov used to confer upon the house during his frequent visits.
Lechayim! May the Jews who are scattered to the four corners of the world return as soon as possible to the land of our Patriarchs, Noteh the Russian stood up and joined the conversation.
It is indeed time for Messiah's shofar to sound our freedom, sighed Reb Velvele, stroking his beard with his small hand. Help us, sweet father in heaven, to live to see that moment, tall Moyshe sprang up from his chair and fluttered his hands like wings.
It was news to them that young folks were going to EretzYisro'el before the coming of the Messiah, to plow the earth and build homes.
Wherever there is a community of Jews, even at the back of beyond, there must be a place of worship, Reb Velvele interjected.
They'll start building right away and there'll be a small synagogue! said Leib with absolute conviction. Bigbellied Bunem and Noteh the Russian were left speechless.
There'll be a minyan every Shabbes, with a kiddush after prayers. I'll buy prayer books printed in letters as big as dumplings, prayers that will chant by themselves.
The Jews refilled their brandy glasses again and again, and started enthusiastically singing. Reb Velvele sang along with them and then taught them a religious text in plain language. Like the Baal Shem Tov who used to visit their greatgrandfathers long ago, he made them understand, through his allegories and tales, that they need not feel inferior because they were village folks. The Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were also villagers; they, too, plowed the soil and pastured cattle and sheep. Reb Velvele's words warmed them even more than the brandy or the rays of sunlight that reached them through the branches of the old chestnut tree. Their hardened faces grew soft, their eyes lit up, and their feet lifted up to dance. One by one, they rose from their seats, throwing arms over shoulders, sweeping into their midst first the rabbi, then the Russian. Singing, their beards pointing up to the clear sky, they started circling the table.
That night, when Shabbes was over, relatives from more distant villages arrived and a new festive meal began in Ber's home. Assisted by her granddaughter Royze [Roza?], grandmother Sarahleh warmed up roast meat, veal sweetbreads, stuffed kikmakhes, spleen, and derma. They cooked red borscht with floating circles of fat. The smells, along with the rough, happy voices, made their way out through the door and the windows.
Late at night, before the Jews scattered to return home, Reb Velvele joined them outdoors to bless the new moon.
There, where our synagogue will stand, we'll have the moon right before our eyes, Old Ber ran ahead energetically and led the Jews onto a mound in his garden, at the wayside. They gathered close together, stretching their heads up to the sky. The moon seemed to flood their faces with a greenish silver light, changing their looks.
The Nichlava flowed swiftly and silently, irrigating the gardens of Lanowice and flushing away many years. The mountains and valleys around Lanowice were the site of many battles and killings. More than once, the Nichlava's water ran red with human blood and thirsty animals turned away with a shudder, unwilling to drink. In any conflict, the Jews of the area were always some of the first casualties.
The Baal Shem Tov was unlike those good Jews, preachers who only scolded the wornout village Jews. He lightened their hearts and explained, through allegories and stories, that closeness to God could also be achieved by simple, hardworking people whose hearts quiver with pleasure at the sight of a clear sky.
Generations later, Reb Velvele repeated the Baal Shem Tov's teachings and stories to the greatgrandchildren of the Lanowice tavernkeeper. He kept telling them that God was not only in heaven but everywhere and in everything he had created, in each and every stalk and grass blade. God in his compassion is everywhere
and wants to be worshiped with the heart more than with the mouth; he wants people to be intimate with him and follow his commandments not only out of fear and awe, but out of a love that comes from the heart.
The lions and bears seemed to absorb the Baal Shem Tov's teachings, and passed them down the generations to their children and grandchildren. They were therefore always cheerful and brave, and never considered themselves inferior to the town Jews.
The following Sunday, Riva left for town together with other village women, carrying milk products from Grandfather's two cows. She seemed to be blessed; she had two large voreks of cheese and two churns of butter she had made the previous night. Like an experienced housewife, she used a wooden spoon to divide the yellow butter into four quarters, covering each piece with green burdock leaves. As she left home she, as well as the pots of cheese and butter, were fragrant with early summer dew and the aromas of forests and fields.
When she arrived in town, a young man who did not know her was so overcome by her country freshness that, as he was handling some cheese and butter, his hand strayed towards her full breasts. Fine girl, young woman, would you have any eggs for sale?, he played the fool. I'll sell you something that will make you forget your name! she shouted at him. When he still didn't leave, she slapped him so hard that he saw stars.
In the summer dusk, the pauper man sitting on the earthen bench alongside the house was joined not only by Leib and his grandfather, but also by his father ChaimMoyshe the tavernkeeper; rich, fatbellied Bunem; and the town's grain merchant, Yellow Gedalya, who was a regular visitor when old Zamoyski was alive. Later, Reb Velvele also arrived with the gardens. On early summer evenings, Reb Velvele often showed up in the village, but after the theft in the yard, he visited Ber and his grandson Leib almost daily.
Help, sweet Father in heaven! How much longer will Exile last? said the frightened ChaimMoyshe [who] was very upset because of the blood libel incident. He rolled one cigarette after the other, constantly swaying as if in prayer.
Some good times we live in! If people invent stories just as they do in Russiathat we murder nonJewish children for Passover, it's the end of the world. The Polish pigs are raising their heads, said Yellow Gedalya.
I can't believe that our Kaiser would allow such a thing, Old Ber shrugged his shoulders.
When did Jews not have troubles? And when did Jews lack for enemies? Reb Velvele turned to Leib who was biting his lip nervously. But we must have faith and rely only on the Supreme King, on the Eternal One.
Yellow Gedalya then said slowly that the townspeople thought that it might be better to throw a bone to the two Polish dogs and let them choke on it.
Do you want us to
zherbrev a bag of silver coins and take it to the sons of bitches? You came to advise me to kiss their boots and admit that I'm a thief? You deserve a smack in the back for such advice. I'd rather be sentenced in criminal court to ten years, Leib jumped up as if he had gone mad.
Only with the truth. You'll see the bag of silver emerge from under the ground and the thief will be caught, Reb Velvele's quiet, compassionate words calmed the agitated mood.
Reb Velvele parted from Ber and Leib. He did not let himself be talked into spending the night in the village and left with the dark gardens.
Freshly washed and dressed in their finest clothes, the village Jews and Reb Velvele who had celebrated the holiday at the house of Old Berdedicated the small synagogue at Lanowice during the warm, bright days of Rosh Hashanah. They came out of the freshly whitewashed homes that were seductively fragrant with apple strudel, honey, and flowers, leaving behind courtyards full of heaps of grain and hay, moist sheaves of corn, hemp, and beans, as well as geese plucked clean of their down, kadaking hens, and crowing young roosters kept for the kappores ceremony.
Old Ber, in a fancy new caftan, cheerfully informed his nonJewish neighbors that they would no longer be traveling to town for trubki (Rosh HaShonah) and sudnei dein (Yom Kippur).
Riva also quietly said a tkhine for herself. As two years had passed since her wedding, and her womb remained locked,
she desperately begged God for children.
Compassionate father, may you make my wish come true as you did for Hannah of Ramah. Almighty Lord of the world, you have created humans with many limbs and, after all, each limb has a purpose.
|Zelig Kimmelman (Rokhl Oyerbakh's Uncle)
at the Small Synagogue of Lanowice
The village women, who could not read Hebrew and came to the synagogue without prayer books or tkhines, looked up at the ceiling and, in simple, homely language, addressed God on high. They felt much more at ease here than in the city synagogue, and beseeched God with all their hearts.
The voices from the synagogue were heard on the nearby road and the nonJewish passersby remained standing, astounded.
Just listen, listen, some of the women
took on a pious expression, ready to cross themselves.
They aren't Jewish women from town and it's as packed as a beehive in there. When they're all together, it's clear that they multiply.
They'll be multiplying even more now.
They'll turn our village into a town.
Those under the Czar's rule aren't allowed to hold their heads high. Over there, they don't seep into the villages, the nonJews told each other. But whenever a Jew appeared at the synagogue door, they wished him a good new year and politely and piously bowed their heads.
The synagogue also slowly changed the Jews of Lanowice. They seemed to grow more genteel, became more unified and lost their feelings of inferiority to the town Jews. Shabbes was no longer a sad time filled with the same old keen longing. On Shabbes and holidays, the Jews felt even less like their nonJewish neighbors; they spent less time with their domestic animals and gathered in the synagogue where they felt both at home and uplifted.
At Riva's first gathering for featherplucking [talike], Blumele was less than six months old. But Rive was already planning the bedding that would be prepared as part of Blumele's dowry. The gathering was on a Saturday night. The snow lay deep on the ground and there was a hard freeze that evening.
Shortly after the evening prayers, Leib hitched up the horses in the sleigh and went to the village to bring the women and girls from the remote corners of Lanowice and from Tatarshchina.
It's bearable here. We in Tatarshchina
have snow covering the windows.
The snow is even deeper in other villages.
It's as warm as the inside of a bladder in your house because the outer walls are covered with straw and not corn stalks, everyone announced.
Everything you see is as white as feathers. They shimmer at your eyes.
Like the fresh snow. Looking at the feathers, you can tell whether the housewife is an expert or not, said the women, peering into all corners of the tidy house. Riva brought out a glazed pot of pickled herring, several halfchallahs left over from Shabbes, slices of potatoflour pancakes, a small cake made with cornmeal and honey, flat wheat and poppy cakes, warmedup noodle kugel, a few bowls of cool brine and pickled cucumbers that filled the whole house with the aroma of dill. Only then was the samovar heated up. The women drank tea with preserves and the men added a few spoonfuls of arak from the flask that Nekhe had brought from the tavern.
A pauper who had celebrated Shabbes at Leib's had been sleeping on the stove and woke up around midnight, along with the hens.
Oy, dear Abraham, our dear father Abraham, was also completely encircled by nonJews! And the first king of our holy land was a village man who plowed the soil. And the second king of the land of milk and honey was a shepherd, and what a shepherd!
continued the pauper steadily, his quiet voice seeming to cast a spell.
The pauper also chanted a poem about the time when the Messiah would come and all Jews would move back to the land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. There, they would plow their own soil and herd their sheep and cattle.
When it started to grow dark, Reb Velvele came with the gardens. Ber came as far as the meadow to greet him, and they said the afternoon and evening prayers together. Ber prayed with great devotion, seeming to count each word as if he had a premonition that this would be the last time he prayed. When he chanted the Aleinu, Reb Velvele touched his shoulder, saying that such prayer assured a reward in heaven.
You know, it's an absolute pleasure to pray with you at twilight in summer among the living trees. When I pray with devotion it seems to me that I'm praying in community, Reb Velvele took Ber by the sleeve and they walked slowly into the house for supper.
At night, the entire household sat on the earthen bench adjoining the house and, as usual, Reb Velvele told stories of the Baal Shem Tov and saintly men of long ago. That evening, he kept talking about Paradise and concluded that right next to the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob on their fine golden stools, there were seated the simple, honest village Jews who, in life had herded sheep and cattle.
At dawn when the angel twitched the first rooster's wings, making it crow, Ber left his bed.
He felt like eating green cucumbers and young garlic for breakfast, and
set out for the vegetable beds in the garden. Suddenly, he felt drawn to the hayfields.
About half an hour later, a shepherd came riding out of the valley and told Leib that old Ber had fallen near the swamps, face down. Leib, who was just about to harness the horses to go to the fields, immediately jumped into the cart and hurried to the valley. He found Grandfather there but he was already dead.
He fled from the Angel of Death all the way to the valley but the Angel of Death chased him and caught him there, Jews and nonJews told each other the news and came running to see if it was really true.
The village nonJews also praised their old neighbor, Berko, who had healed their sick animals for many years and was always willing to do them favors. When Old Ber was buried, the nonJews stood at the gate, smoking their pipes and cigarettes, tuttutting in sympathy, and speaking well of their neighbor.
And Leib is also like that, others agreed.
When one of these dies, four others spring up.
Do you mean the Jews? They really are like horseradish. You pull out one root and four new ones sprout. Some of their young wives are pregnant. They'll soon be smashed [?], some of the younger nonJews muttered among themselves.
Leib considered the new shoykhet Reb Elye, and couldn't believe that he was brave enough to hold a khalef.
You'll be happy here, Reb Velvele told the shoykhet when he brought him into Leib's yard for the first time. Hens, ducks, and geese were roaming around. You can't imagine what good people they are! Each time I visit, I don't want to leave.
Women and girls started to bring up fowls with tied feet, deferring respectively to the shoykhet. Leib dug a pit in the ground behind the stable, covered it with a layer of ashes and, feeling sorry for the shoykhet, stood to one side to watch him work.
Riva rocked her oldest boy, who was named after her father, in a hanging cradle and sang to him, Yankele will love studying Torah and will lovingly serve the Creator. But when Yankl grew older, the freedom of the outdoors attracted him more than the schoolroom. He devoted more time to the nonJewish ditties
that he learned from the boys in the valley than to the prayer book or the Torah.
What can you do with such a guy? He won't learn a scrap of Hebrew and he'll never be able to say Kaddish, Leib regularly poured out his heart to Reb Velvele who continued to visit after Ber's death.
I see that he won't be a scholar but he'll be able to pray. There is not a single Jew in the world who can't pray, Reb Velvele consoled Leib. Reb Velvele often hung a new amulet sewn into a piece of fabric around the boy's neck. But Yankl lost the amulets, one by one, while swimming with the nonJewish boys, diving, and climbing trees.
Leib felt lost for a time after Reb Velvele's death. He walked around in silence, became even more devoted to prayers even more, and occasionally recited a few chapters of Psalms.
General Notes and Footnotes
These notes were added by the YiddishtoEnglish translator unless otherwise noted.
This fictitious figure is quite different from the one we, as children of Jezerziany, know: different in character, entire way of life, scholarship and leadership, and even in appearance. The author presents Reb Velvele as a wonderful reflection or transmigration of the father of popular Hasidism while preserving the original characteristics and essential principles. The most salient of these were serving God in the field and the forest, finding pathways to the unlearned, and creating bonds of brotherhood with the Jews who lived among nonJews on farms and in peasant villages, in order to strengthen these lonely Jews against the danger of assimilation and being cut off from the main Jewish community. The novel covers three or four generations of idyllic existence yet at its end it hints at the impending catastrophe.
In Grandfather's Fields appeared in New York in 1953 (published by Matones which is connected to the popular SholemAleichem institute) and is soon to be published in Israel in a Hebrew translation by Shimshon Meltzer.
We would like to thank both the writer and the translator, who have given us permission to publish excerpts from the novel as we see fit. However, on repeated reading of the Yiddish original, with the rich, colorful strata of Yiddish that the author mined, we were overwhelmed by the effect of the manyhued language that our ancestors spoke in town and country. Its riches and variety constantly revive the experiences of our youth with great power. There is no doubt that Shimshon Meltzer, as a master of Hebrew style (born in our neighboring town of Tluste) will produce the finest of translations. However, we feel it best to offer those sections in which Reb Velvele is active according to the writer's imagination in their original language, along with the lions and bears who followed him and whom he consoled and inspired with courage to counter the envy and hatred of the Gentile masses among which they lived, afraid for their lives.
Yitzkhok Metzker describes the natural environs of our town and brings to life the unsophisticated Jews of the villages, upright in their simplicity and strength and other physical and spiritual qualities, as one of the great masters of storytelling.
[Translator's note to the editor's note] The Yiddish original title is followed by an asterisk, which refers to the editor's footnote. Return
by M.A. Tenenblatt
Translated by Meir Bulman
1. The Mysterious Duality of His life
Not many in our town remembered the name Aron Blumenfeld. As a young man, he was one of the most studious men in our study house. He was also one of Moshe Schulbaum's most prominent students. He secretly wrote Talmud criticism and HebrewAramaic linguistics before being smuggled out of Galicia and Austria because of an event in his 21st year. Who among our generation in Israel heard of the young scholar from Jezierzany
who transformed himself in Romania and became a central figure of Romanian literature as a poet, playwright, linguist and essayist? He fought for Jewish equal rights while he lived and, from beyond the grave, fought to liberate Romanian peasants from the burden and enslavement of the landowners.
I admit that in Jezierzany itself I, too, never heard of him. However, when I left for Bukovina as a young man, I met maskilim from Jezierzany (especially Benni Avramchi Nisans
and Yehuda Cohen) and first heard of the man from our town who resided abroad.
At the time, newspapers in Bukovina published antiSemitic protests of a play entitled Manasse and its writer, Ronetti Roman, incited university students
[who] shouted and said he was a Galician Jew masquerading as a Romanian and his only aim was to confuse Romanian youth and distract them from their national aspirations.
During that conversation, I was told that the antiSemitic controversy which caused the cancellation of a wonderful play was because a native of our own, Aron Blumenfeld, who ascended to great heights in Romanian literature. According to rumor, Aron changed more than his name. I was also told that Zionists and other Jews objected to some dialogue in the play yet all were united in Roman's struggle against the riotous Romanian youth who demanded to send him back to the cheder in Galicia and disregarded his valuable contribution to Romanian literature. I then heard of the tragedy that befell Roman when he first reported for military examination and the twists and turns of that young scholar who strayed off of the righteous path. I was met with silence when I inquired about the reasons for Roman's exile and details of its consequences.
It seemed to me that I was not told everything and I thought that the grownups hesitated to share with me sensitive details because of my young age. However, when I returned to Jezierzany, I found that most of the responders [people I questioned] could not recall the matter and those who knew it in detail evaded answering or offered hints in a manner as if whispering a secret to a child to confuse him. I sensed embarrassment accompanied by some blushing in the responders. I could not find the reason for the embarrassment, whether they were ashamed of his role abroad or whether they regretted a past injustice toward him.
I had that veil over my eyes until the end of the fall of 1908. After Ronetti Roman died in Iași, every newspaper from Vienna and Chernivtsi contained many details that members of my town and my nation had ignored, knowingly or unknowingly, [about] the dual life led by that praised poet and scholar and the crisis that had faced the man caught between Judaism and the outside world, a crisis which was unresolved [even] until the day he died.
Perhaps one day, a research psychologist will attempt to delve into the duality in the soul of that wonderous artist who was praised by the greats of Romanian literature and linguistics, even many decades after he died.
Last year was Roman's 110th birthday and this year marks 50 years since his death. I seriously doubted whether we should devote an essay to a man so inflicted with duality, even if imposed on himboth in life and creation and even though he was raised, educated, and acquired a good reputation in our town. I aimed to make do simply by mentioning Roman in my essay about his teacher, Moshe Schulbaum. Suddenly, as I read Chaim Robinson's essay about the JewishRomanian writer A. L. Zissu, I encountered some new details about Roman's character.
Robinson, a poet and Hebrew critic of Romanian origin who lives in Israel, praised Ronetti Roman, saying, Among the intellectual Jewish creators in that period of Romanian literature, he was the only one who emphasized the Jewish viewpoint, i.e. in his play Manasse, while other writers such as Gaster, Tiktin and others turned to studying general Romanian culture, and other poets, researchers and journalists defected from the Jewish community. (Culture and Literature, Haaretz, October 1957.)
I further recalled [the following.] (1) For six full years, Roman contributed to Hebrew periodicals; he began while in Jezierzany and continued to do so in Romania. As a student at the university in Leipzig, Roman published thorough research in Hamagid on the Talmud in a unique, pleasant Hebrew style for over two years. (2) Moreover, Roman's pseudonym for Hebrew writing was Moses Roman; the first name was inspired by his teacher Moshe Schulbaum and the last name by his new Romanian name. (3) Furthermore, David Yeshaya Silberbusch is an honest writer and, in his memoirs, he crowned Roman as a Knower of Torah after various meetings between the two in Bucharest and Iași alongside Hebrew scholars and writers. Such a description not only justifies dedicating an essay to Roman but demands it.
Jewish Jezierzany sinned towards one of its best sons when one or two community leaders caused him, inadvertently or otherwise, to be uprooted from his town and homeland to wander abroad without identification or citizenship documents. If the maskilim of Roman's town had not given him a birth certificate of a Romanian gentile, Ronetti Roman would have been subject to arrest and extradition to Austria where he would have been sentenced to death or life in prison. Central and Western Europe were in the midst of war and Aron Blumenfeld was bright and experienced in many trials and tribulations, and he knew what his fate would be as a military defector. That is one of the main reasons I see it as a mitzvah to atone for Jezierzany's sin towards Roman by mentioning his
name alongside the Holocaust victims from our town. According to Roman's wish expressed in his will, he was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Iași. The Church and Romanian authorities had to abandon their requests for Roman's body.
If a detractor would claim, And if a soul sin, should it not atone?, I would reply that the sin of one man does not match the sins of a community and we are not permitted to exclude from our nation a soul which was cleansed by 40 years of suffering in Romania.
In fact, as confirmed by a primary source, Aron Blumenfeld was [involuntarily] enlisted in the army not because community and municipal representatives to the enlistment committee acted negligently but due to their desire to be rid of him because of his desertion of [lack of adherence to] religious code. Aron had left the study house and joined the maskilim who began storming the fortresses of Hassidism and fundamentalism in our town. After some members of the community expressed anger about their leaders' conduct, the [maskilim] leaders smuggled him [away] from the military through Bukovina to the Romanian border (instead of sending him to a free country, like America, where he would have been out of reach of the Austrian Empire). Other smugglers transferred him through the Gura Humorului mountains to Moldavia where they left him with little cash and no documents. Some of our ancestors sinned twice but are no longer here. The last generation of Jezierzany must atone for their ancestors' sins even if the ancestors sinned while guarding against secularism and fencebreaking [boundarybreaking?].
2. Oral and Written Sources of Roman's Jewish Identity and Origin in Our Town
Ronetti Roman could not publicly confess his origins. He lived and worked in Romania thanks to a birth certificate of a deceased Romanian six years younger than Aron, whose name was left unstricken in records so that Galician refugee Aron Blumenfeld could take his place. Thus, Blumenfeld became a true and honest Romanian citizen and conformed to the strict Romanian laws against foreigners and Jews.
Community activists and educated folks in Roman, Romania respected and liked the learned Galician refugee who artfully taught Bible and Talmud to their sons.
Residents of Roman included themselves in Aron's plight and his fate, which demanded that he sleep and reside in various spots to avoid the foreignerpersecuting police. The community searched for solutions and fundraised until they acquired the young decedent's [Ronetti Roman] papers which became a lifeline for the young scholar [Aron Blumenfeld] from Jezierzany.
Using the certificate bearing his new name, Roman quickly completed secondary education exams. With those documents and a Romanian passport, he was sent to Leipzig where he graduated from university and doctoral studies, and returned to Romania as the young Dr. Ronetti Roman. With that name, Roman achieved recognition among Romanian high society members who increasingly sought his inclusion as a Romanian national. He was hired by the education ministry and was paid handsomely so he could continue his literary and linguistic work worryfree. Aron was able to hide his Jewish roots only for a short time as he sought to connect with Jewish scholars and secretly gathered with Hebrew writers with whom he corresponded and exchanged opinions and manuscripts. He read Hebrew books in secret. On Shabbat and Jewish holidays, he danced Hassidic dances and sang of Zion with his Jewish friends. Yet, when he mingled in Romanian society, he was the Romanian whose reputation preceded him in the halls of literature and science of the ruling class. In that position, he noticed the heavy shackles his benefactors had placed on his Jewish soul which was being stifled by the secretive nature of his new name. Had he returned to his original name, he would have incriminated
himself and been immediately arrested. His secondary education diploma, university degree, and doctoral degree would be taken along with his Romanian citizenship, and he would have been subjected to unimaginable suffering in Romania or any other country to which he would have been deported. Additionally, some of his relatives, including entire families, had relocated to Romania with his help and guidance, and he was responsible for them.
Matters progressed so that eventually not only the Jews but also all Romanian Gentiles knew of Roman's previously secretive Judaism. It was understood that any official revelation of Roman's ethnicity would cause a public and cultural scandal even outside of Romania, in addition to severe legal consequences. Therefore, the factions reached an implicit agreement of sorts that there was no solution to the problem and silence was the best policy towards the great person and wonderful writer. Roman progressed and grew every year as a writer and as a linguist, including editing the academic Romanian dictionary (and composing most of it).Thus, his public standing was fortified to an extent that no government contemplated harming him. The opposite was true: every government served as a shield against antiSemitic groups that opposed him. The police handled, to the best of their abilities, the incited students' protests against him. Reputable lawyers of statureincluding former or future ministers like Costa Fora [?]stood by Ronetti Roman and sued anyone who defamed Roman.
The general lexicographers mentioned only the Roman poet and linguist with few words about antiSemitic protests against Roman and his play Manasse, and few hints of Roman's Jewish origins. The Jewish lexicographers also omitted many substantial details of Roman's history and his work. The Berlin Jewish Lexicon (German) did not mention him and the same is true of Reisin's Writers Index (Yiddish). The JewishRussian Encyclopedia (Rossiyskaya Evreiskaya Entsiclopediya, Saint Petersburg, 1910) excludes his birth place and highlights
Roman's open struggle against antiSemitism in Romania because that was an especially painful subject in Russia. A relatively extensive article is dedicated to him in the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia (New York, 1939) but oddly states that His Galician place of birth or his original Jewish name were never identified. From that we learnednot for the first timethat not only in Germany but also in Russia and America, folks dismissed Galician writers and did not read their works. Although JewishRomanian historian S. Podoliano shed light on the rest of the mystery, his book was not translated and the various Jewish encyclopedias nearly overlooked the book entirely.
Gershom Bader published in America a series of articles later collected in the Hebrew book Medina veHakhameha [The state and its Sages]. Thus, it is strange that the editors of the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia did not see Bader's essays and book although he was considered among Jewish writers [to be] a living encyclopedia of Haskalaperiod literature.
The American Encyclopedia is mistaken and misleading by citing 1853 as Roman's birth year. The same mistake was repeated by historian S. Podoliano. That was the year that the original Ronetti Roman, not Aron Blumenfeld, was born.
Reuben Asher Braudes had dubbed Roman as Aron haCohen [priest] of Romanian writers. Braudes met with Roman several times in Iași and even once presented him with the question, Why won't you extract yourself from the Romanian quicksand? Ronetti replied in a somewhat angry manner, Why do you put salt on my wounds? You all escape Russian and Romania to Austria and Germany but where can I run? Those two countries are offlimits for Aron Blumenfeld. You are my witness that I live amongst my people; do not shed my blood!
In Bader's aforementioned book (Vol. 1 pp. 144), he placed Ronetti's article under the letter B as Blumenfeld, Aron. Bader wrote,
Born in Jezierzany in 1847 and died in Iași on January 20, 1908. One of many Romanian poets who escaped Galicia in their youth to rid themselves of Austrian military enlistment. While he worked as a teacher in Roman, the town notables saw that he was acquiring Romanian at amazing speed. Thus, they sent him to study in a Leipzig university. To cleanse him from the shame of his homecountry, he was provided a Romanian birth certificate bearing the name Ronetti Roman.
With all due respect, Bader inaccurately described details of the escape and excluded the mistaken enlistment and the smuggling against Aron's will. Bader sinned unforgivably by stating that Ronetti Roman had converted to Christianity. Bader did not personally know BlumenfeldRoman and did not visit Romania in those days, and thus it is strange that Bader depicted Roman as a convert. Roman's existence in Romania depended on the birth certificate, baptism, etc. of a young Romanian Christian so how could a holder of such documents convert? Aron's great master, Moshe Schulbaum, mourned Aron's fate because he predicted great things for Aron and called him a pupil and a friend. Schulbaum joked, In Galicia, Aron had to be circumcised but in Romania, he was lucky and was ‘born baptized.’ I heard that joke from Gershom Bader himself in New York in the spring of 1951 and used it as additional evidence that Aron had been a victim of libel by being called a convert. Bader admitted to me that he erred in his understanding and regretted not having understood the depth of the joke at the time. Bader promised to correct his grave error at the earliest opportunity, the publication of the second volume of Medina VeHahameha. I do not know whether Bader corrected his error elsewhere but volume 2 never appeared and Bader passed away. It is possible that Bader did not know that Ronetti died as a Jew and was buried
in a Jewish cemetery. It was known throughout the world that the Romanian church attempted to undermine Ronetti's last will, failed, and retreated.
Now we will read D.Y. Silberbusch's story in Excerpts from my Diary (pp. 187191 Figures and Events, Vaa'd Yovel haShmonim, Tel Aviv, 1936)
… ‘the cryptoJew’ sent a message to say that he will come today to the Melaveh Malka meal, Hashmal whispered to Rokach. Rokach replied in a whisper, Indeed, soon we will be joined by the Romanian whose origin is in Poland. He is Aron Blumenfeld and is called Ronetti Roman. Very well, we will happily greet the great Romanian poet. He will read his poem Radu and we will read the poem Romania by Ze'ev Ehrenkranz. Hashmal looked at Rokach as if begging him to be cautious but Rokach did not heed the look and paid no mind to the warning; some knew Ronetti Roman's secret and Ronetti himself had tired of hiding [it].
Very few knew the cryptoJew's secret; in Jezierzany, Galicia a rare event occurred in 1868. Following a signal from a community leader and representative to the military examination board, the military doctor had found a young man named Aron Blumenfeld to be healthy and fit for military service. The community representative then became nervous that, because of him, a Torah scholar was trapped in the military.
The representative gave Blumenfeld the tools to escape and Blumenfeld escaped to Romania which in those days was a blessed land of refuge. Blumenfeld arrived in Roman, Moldavi, where he made a living teaching Jewish boys Bible and Talmud. In his spare time, Blumenfeld trained in his favorite sciences.
Blumenfeld's strength was in linguistics. He was able to acquire a foreign language, including its nuances, in a short while. He was not satisfied by proficiency and was uneasy until he was wellversed in all the secrets and the depths of the language. Blumenfeld explored the Romanian language and learned that its rules had not yet sufficiently developed and its literature was still lacking. He then thanked his strong language skills for they provided him a field in which he could define himself. The poverty of the language awakened in him the desire to redeem the language, to enrich its idioms and to bring about its ripeness.
In Roman [Romania], he lacked the intellectual tools for his linguistic works: books by wise linguists. Blumenfeld's passion necessitated his relocation to a place of wisdom. Blumenfeld found the Jewish Dr. Geller who was a most passionate advocate of enlightenment in that generation. Dr. Geller saw as his holy mission to rescue young souls from the darkness of religious zealousness by giving them the option to enroll in a proper school and tailor their studies to individual talents. Dr. Geller learned of Blumenfeld's great qualities and, with the help of his fellow enlightenment advocates, gave Blumenfeld enough money to travel to Leipzig, Germany where he would study sciences at university. Because young Blumenfeld was a deserter who feared evil would befall him if he passed through Austria, his supporters provided him a passport that bore the name Ronetti Roman, a native of one of Piatra's satellite villages.
Young Blumenfeld was not hasty in his travel to Leipzig. His journey from Roman to the border in Wallachia lasted many months. Blumenfeld wandered in a farmer's wagon or on foot from village to village. Wherever he arrived, he stayed a few days,
spent time with the locals and listened to their accents, tunes, and the sayings they had inherited from their ancestors.
Some years later, a poem named Radu was published in Bucharest. The poem loudly burst forth like a heavy stream of water which erupts from a stone. The poem expressed the sentiments of the Romanian people as they mourned their land falling into foreign hands. The poem was written by some previously unknown man named Ronetti Roman.
The Romanian press was abuzz. Everyone sang the praises of the new poet, a native of a village near Piatra and an alum of the Leipzig University. Thus, Roman was appointed as a clerk in the education ministry. The Leipzig alum found refuge and a place to hide, and nobody inquired about Roman's origin.
The first to learn Roman's secret was Akiva Hashmal. Hashmal secretly delivered Hebrew books and papers to Roman. Hashmal became Roman's confidant and friend. Hashmal gave Roman the nickname cryptoJew because, whenever Ronetti Roman's old desire to be in Jewish company overcame him, he would sneak out of his home and go to Hashmal's home or the Bucharest ballroom where he mingled with the guests.
Truthfully, when Ronetti Roman first joined our company, we felt an unexplained discomfort. Even Rokach's voice was hidden, as if some switch was placed on his tongue; [it was] as if some distant stranger joined a friendly gathering and the friends' familiar conversation spontaneously ceased.
Once, during a meal after drinking warm beet juice, some warmth settled in the hearts of those in attendance. Ronetti Roman started a conversation about Karl Gutzkow's play, Uriel Acosta. As usual, Rokach found words of rebuke because he was displeased by nonJews who choose to write a play about Jews. Rokach was eager to support his conclusion and presented, as evidence, works by various writers, most of whom he had invented as he spoke.
Ronetti Roman remained silent and overcame his emerging smile so as not to offend the speaker. Ronetti quickly changed the subject; he presented his plans to write Manasse which he had thought of days before and humbly said he would be happy to listen to our comments.
Ronetti Roman addressed Solomon Schechter as if seeking the solution from him alone. Perhaps Schechter bit off more than he could chew. While speaking about the content of the play, its substance and quality, Ronetti expressed his thoughts on Jews and Judaism, the old order and the new stirring within the Jewish people. Moreover, Ronetti expanded on his views of the Jewish people and his vision for its future. Ronetti Roman carefully and excitedly listened to every word Solomon Schechter said. The solid logic
that guided Schechter in forming his outlook and vison presented to Ronetti a new world and awakened new thoughts in Ronetti. Roman found it difficult to agree with all that Schechter believed. Recognizing Jewish national aspirations was difficult for him. Roman required a mild toningdown and summary so he could respond to Schechter.
However, at that point the suitable time for a fitting answer had passed because levity had overtaken the party. After drinking the first glass of wine, Rokach began singing an Arabic tune, shrouded with some sense of Eastern laziness, in a hoarse voice which passed to his throat through his nose, and all those attending appeared as if a cloud of sleep had descended upon them. Ronetti Roman sought to expel the dark cloud the Arabic tune had induced; he started singing the Yiddish song, The Rebbe is Traveling on the Sea, a playful song about Hasidism by Velvel Zbarjer. Melody overtook the party and all sang in unison. Hashmal also sang in his thick voice and his wife joined him in the pleasant song.
Silberbusch had more to say than [only recounting] his meetings with Ronetti Roman and it is a shame that he was unable to publish, in Israel, the rest of his memories and experiences with various writers and personalities, especially RomanBlumenfeld. Many things that Silberbusch told me over the years were distorted or forgotten. I recall one thing: Ronetti Roman's declaration to Silberbusch that in Roman's will he would reveal his full faith and devotion to his People and that the Glory of Israel does not deceive.
The Prudot collection (Tarbut Publishers, Kishinev, 1934) was intended by its editors, Yaakov Kutcher and Zalman Rosenthal, to be a home to the memory of JewishRomanian writers across generations. Prudot devoted a substantial essay to Ronetti Roman.
Although the essay's author, Yaakov Sternberg, was not wellversed in Ronetti's Galician past or even Ronetti's first days in Romania, Sternberg was able to detail many of Ronetti's events in Romania. In the essay, Sternberg called Ronetti the Great Moses and Brother Moses according to Ronetti's pseudonym used in Hamagid. Sternberg further elevated Roman to The great playwright of Romanian literature, and, playwright of Godly gifts who could have and should have become our second Peretz but, because of his abnormal lifeturns, became Ronetti Roman. Sternberg relied on the greats of Romanian literature who admired Manasse and were grateful to its author, although To this day, many Romanians see Manasse as resting on antiChristian principles whereas Jews see it as opposed to Judaism, yet, Some have stretched the comparisons to Shakespearean greatness.
How strange and mysterious are the turns of the Hebrew soul, the author wrote of Ronetti Roman's changes in mindset. Sternberg further wrote, The pondering is double torment when it is obvious the road to Hebrew greatness was paved, as he left us as he stood on the doorstep of our literature… He began his writing career as a young man in our Hamagid… and Hebrew was flesh of his flesh and he was wellversed in the language's nuances.
About Ronetti Roman's wonderful poem Radu and as if the poem alone was the bridge from Moshe Roman to Ronetti Roman, Sternberg wrote that it attracted the attention of authoritative men, including highranking Romanian statesmen like Petre Carp.
At times, Sternberg contradicted himself such as when he claimed that the great poet naively believedlike his sympathetic heroine Leahthat he could bridge the worlds and even unite them with his love and the power of his poetry, while on the same page Sternberg reported typical details about a sharp response by Ronetti Roman to a hasty comment by Carol I, the elderly Romanian King. The King had invited Roman to the royal palace as a guest for a meal to grant Roman an award of excellence. The king commented
that Jews' deeds are motivated by profit interests, to which Ronetti Roman swiftly replied like one of his heroes in Manasse, For twothousand years, the Jews have lost any ‘profit interests’ in being Jews yet they are loyal to their People and remain Jewish.
3. Roman's Hidden Estate and Rumors of its Contents
After Ronetti Roman's death, many rumors spread about his final days and a manuscript in his belongings that was secretly archived by the Romanian government. Others told of a Hebrew manuscript or manuscripts that were incomplete. The pamphlet Double Standard was addressed to the Romanian people in opposition of antiJewish propaganda and antiSemitic policy. The pamphlet argued that the Romanian people were suffering due to antiSemitism just as much as the persecuted Jews. The pamphlet was published in 1893 as a response to the students who were protesting Manasse and the play's Jewish author. It was known among Jewish and Zionist camps that Ronetti received many old and new Hebrew books in his office at the Romanian Language Academy. Furthermore, Ronetti read every issue of Hashiloah and admired Ahad Ha'am. Attempts were made to bring him closer to Zionism in the Herzl period. A member of Ronetti's homenation of Galicia, Karpel Lippe who in those days was the leading Zionist activist in Romania, met with Roman several times and results were rumored. Some folks said that Roman admired Herzl and Nurdau although Roman was indifferent towards the implementation of Zionism. Some said that Roman did not believe the Jewish people possessed the strength necessary to implement such a historical mission while others said he fully rejected Zionism and viewed the Diaspora as a Godgiven gift to Israel.
Either way, it is difficult to conclude that an alert and sensitive personality like BlumenfeldRoman passed over that period without recording his impressions. It is unlikely that, despite being so distraught by the dispossession and enslavement of Romanian peasants, to the point he dedicated a (posthumously published) book to the issue, the bitter fate of his people did not shake his core in the 18 years that followed the release of his thoughts in Manasse. Where did the large Hebrew library he owned, which included Jewish wisdom in many languages, disappear to? Was it also archived at the command of the Romanian government? If the archiving is accepted as fact, it can only be applicable to the possessive, nationalist Romanian government. Why would the subsequent communist regime do the same? Were the communists sympathetic to the previous regime? Or did the archived Roman estate include manuscripts that would dispel the legends formed around Roman or perhaps even strengthen the Jewish chauvinists or the Zionists they so hated? Either way, the silence of the communist regime regarding Ronetti's estate is suspicious. Rumors have it that the National Archive in Jerusalem received several of Roman's manuscripts but it is difficult to assess their content and whether they are privately or publicly owned.
4. Roman's Work and its Place in Romanian Literature
Roman's place in the intellectual pantheon of Romania is secure because of the great national poem Radu which is present in every Romanian literature anthology and is known by every educated Romanian. The poem expressed the striving for freedom and a unified greater Romania guided by the old LatinItalian spirit. A consensus exists among critics and historians
of Romanian literatureincluding the great historian Nicolae Iorgathat Ragu sufficed to secure Roman's place in the Romanian anthologies. The great critic Titu Maiorescu also expressed admiration of Roman and Ragu. Mihai Eminescu and Ion Luca Caragiale, the greatest [authors] of Romanian literature of the time, befriended Ronetti Roman and together they were the powerful trio of Romania. Jezierzany and Galician Jewry were not fortunate enough for one of its greatest sons, in talent and knowledge, to devote his pen to his nation and literature. I have read some of his beautiful works published in Hamagid and other periodicals between 1868 and 1874 before he was discovered as a Romanian poet. It was impossible to not be impressed by the depth of his knowledge and his scientific critical approach. Our lexicographers were correct when they cited his works from 1868 1874 as evidence of the through Talmudic education he obtained at home (see the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. 9 pp. 194). His exile from home contributed to his sin of grazing in strangers' fields and contributing all of his power to foreigners. The autobiographic collection of Dr. Avraham Sharon at the Hebrew University contains manuscripts by Ronetti Roman. Dr. Sharon could not recall whether the manuscripts included Hebrew ones and ,meanwhile, the righteous man passed away.
The world was introduced to Ronetti Roman through the play Manasse. The greatest Romanian historian, Nicolae Iorga, who was far from being a Jewlover, noted in his book, The History of Romanian Literature in the 18th Century, Manasse was greeted not only with recognition but enthusiasm. The play is modeled on Shakespeare's dramas. The main roles are Manasse, a Jew instilled with a deep biblical tradition, and Zelig Shore, an agent who is a wise, clever and cynical funnyman. The theme of the play, which the national Romanian historian avoided mentioning, is
the problem of intermarriage and the protagonist who struggles with his daughter who intends to marry a Gentile. Intermarriage was an affliction in many Jewish homes in the second Haskala generation, not only in Western Europe but also in Eastern Europe. The problem did not bypass even the families of Ahad Ha'am, Simon Dubnow, Mendele Mocher Sforim, Mordechai BenHillel HaCohen and others like them. Ronetti Roman did not invent the issue and did not express a positive view of intermarriage. Years later, Max Nurdau chose a similar theme for his play, Dr. Cohen, which depicted an event the author had experienced. Ronetti Roman fulfilled the ideal of the pure Jewish family in his life. Manasse was produced for many years on many Jewish stages and our Jewish brethren would have banished a play had they seen it as propaganda encouraging intermarriage and conversion.
Ronetti Roman never preached assimilation or intermarriage with Gentiles. He himself was thrown into the lion's den of the gentile world and survived as he married his Jewish lover. His two sons, who died recently, also had not alienated themselves from their people. The notion that one of Ronetti's sons converted to Christianity is baseless. The fact that the son served in the Romanian military in the rank of Major during Nazi occupation is not evidence of conversion at all because, at that time, there were several Jews who were highranking Romanian officers.
In the Romanian Old Kingdom known as Regat, the rules regarding Jews were different. The decree against Jews serving in the military was enacted in Bukovina, Transylvania, and Serbia, and included Jews from those states who lived in Regat.
The reason for discrimination is unclear but is a fact and not the only illogical practice of the Nazis and their contemporaries.
I am not serving as a defense advocate for Ronetti Roman just as I am not pretending that I am providing a complete picture of his life, spirit and work. Providing a full picture is a job for critics, and literary and linguistic experts. We are interested in the Jewish perspective and the human, intellectual, and moral aspects of Ronetti Roman whom everyone admits was a great man.
Undoubtedly, Roman's strong personality and his resistance to all attempts and temptations that threatened to detach him from the Jewish people was the product of his upbringing and education in our town. He, who was educated and raised in the moral and intellectual spirt of Jezierzany in those days, absorbed many noble Jewish values. Even anger, injustice, and deprivation by individual sinnerseven if they led the communitycould not unhinge Ronetti Roman. He stood strong in a foreign land against the tides of assimilation within and the sweet temptations which surrounded him from the outside, and he did not budge in the face of the strong winds. Our small town could take pride in its son who traveled far, grew, succeeded and produced great work, all the while staying loyal to Jewish tradition in the face of adversity. Romanian Jewry is proud of him to this day.
Ronetti quickly embraced Silberbusch when Silberbusch conveyed regards to Roman from the great master Moshe Schulbaum in Kolomia and from [people in] Jezierzany who Silberbusch knew well from his many visits with local scholars.
Jezierzany is in ruins and can no longer repay the living or the dead. Aron Blumenfeld is hereby repaid in this book as it returns him to his origins on the fiftieth anniversary of his death.
General Notes and Footnotes
These notes were added by the original writer unless otherwise noted.
In addition to his Double Standard pamphlet about the Jewish problem, Ronetti participated in the Jewish yearbook Anuar Pentru Israeliti. Return
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