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[Pages 478-9 Yiddish]

How we learned

Translated by Alan Rems

I still carry memories of my first cheder, of the old rabbi. My father, blessed be his memory, used to tell us that he also studied as a child with the same REB ELIAHU the melamed. Therefore, it can be claimed that our joint rabbi was an aged distinguished scholar when we studied with him.

I remember that we learned in the evening by a common tallow candle, not a paraffin candle, which every boy would bring, a candle each week. On the hearth or the stove burned a little firebrand that was the chamber's lighting. Electricity was not yet a part of our world; one had not yet heard about light bulbs. A small lamp or a "koornik" was the lighting in middleclass homes. The rabbi, a poor melamed and an old man, did things the old-fashioned way. A firebrand to light the chamber and a small half candle to study with the children.

The rabbi's home was very old, of the same general age as the rabbi. Crooked, bent, the thatched roof was not far from reaching to the ground; you had to bend down to look out the little windows.

Thus studied not only the big Gemorra students, but also small four to five year-old little elementary level children, who learned Hebrew and a section of the Pentateuch. One was not satisfied with a half day, as now, but one learned day and night. So, one learned and indeed deeply learned, everyone after his manner, after his ability. Judaism remained in great part strongly rooted.

Generally, her Judaic observance and piety distinguished our shtetl Piesk. The houses of prayer were fully packed; people prayed; people studied before prayer services, after prayer services, at daybreak, between mincha and ma'ariv services. In the evening, (there met) various brotherhoods, study groups of Talmud, Mishnah, Ayen Yakov, Chayei Adam - the totality of Psalms in various forms, Shabbat at dawn the entire Book of Psalms, every day a daily Psalm, a Psalm book used by everyone according to his potential or diligence. In a word, the Psalm book to everyone was an article of primary use, whether in joy or in sorrow, may merciful God save us. During Elul, in the ten days of repentance, it goes without saying (that Psalm recitation was intense). One thinks that almost everyone in Piesk knew the Psalms by heart.


When the Tsadik [saintly] Reb Leib Ber, of blessed memory, became the rabbi of Chayei Adam, he greatly influenced Jewish observance among the general public and the craftsmen, in particular. He studied with the populace of Chayei Adam. In the course of time, they learned well. Some of them had knowledge to vie with great scholars in competitions on Halakhic laws of Shabbat, Pesach, etc. The point is, he did not teach the law dryly and coldly, but with fervor and exaltation. It was precious to the God-fearing assemblage. Reb Leib Ber, of blessed memory, was yet a God-fearing Tsadik. Elul, during the ten days of repentance between Rosh Hoshanah and Yom Kippur, was his main season, a small piece of law along with much fiery moralizing. His face flamed; and the impression of his speaking and instruction was terrific.

He was always in a contorted state, but his face lit up and gleamed. He always was immersed in Torah and had a great influence on his audience. There was a great difference between a craftsman from among Reb Leib Ber's students and an ordinary craftsman.

Piesk was entirely a saintly shtetl; all gave charity with a warm heart, with a Jewish feeling.

Author Unknown.
Written at Yeshiva of Rabbi Shabtai YIGEL in Ramat-Gan, Israel.

[Page 488]

Pesach Eve in Our Little Shtetl

Hinde BINKOVITZ-Wiener

Translated by Alan Rems

          Pesach preparations would begin immediately after Purim when we were finished with the tasty hamantashen. You then went to the megillah reading in shul and with hammers and grogers slew (by drowning out his name) wicked Haman. Then, began the [Passover] preparation ritual.

          Everyone, who was able, immediately bought wheat meal. Avrum SHEBACH, the miller, already was concerned that the meal ground in his mill should not become “chometzdick” (impure for Passover use). Everybody bought according to their ability and the size of their family.

         It was expensive to have the baking done at a private bakery; [therefore] the poorer Jews got together and, communally, baked at the place of whoever had a large oven. The work was divided according to each person's skill. There was a meal pourer and a water pourer. The water had to be kosher. The (gentile) water carrier, Muchashke, could not fetch the water; only a Jew could bring it.

         A female kneader performed the kneading and handed off to the women rollers and they – to the perforators. From the perforators, it went to the oven placer. When the matzoh was done, a female partner in the undertaking would lay it in a clean pillow case and suspend it from the ceiling of her home so the matzoh would not come in contact with “chometzdick” things. In this way, they would bake matzoh for everyone.

         When the matzoh ritual concluded, koshering of the home began. There were houses where from Pesach to Pesach there was extraordinary cleansing. Then began the working season of Frieda the whitewasher. From whitewashing the houses, her earnings were sufficient to live the entire year with her husband the kulak [Note: a landed peasant].

         Women carried out all the furniture into the street and koshered the home. When the home was cleansed of chometz, they koshered the oven and the entire kitchenware and dinnerware. Water was heated in a kettle; and stones were added. When the water boiled, they would put in the kitchenware and dinnerware.

         Erev Pesach, the chometz would be sold to Muchashken the water carrier; and he, the Christian, earned nicely from this trade. I also remember the job of beet [preparation]. After the beets were left standing [in water] for three weeks, the water became scummy. The scum was removed; and a good borscht remained for Pesach to have with matzoh. [Note: The writer is describing the preparation of russel, a variety of borscht obtained through fermentation.]

         Wine was made from raisins and water. Honey was cooked with water; hops were added. This was allowed to sit. As dear Pesach arrived, there were resources to treat one's guest.

The Holiday

         The seamstresses worked day and night, as every girl and woman wanted to be renewed with a dress for holy Pesach. When Seder night arrived, the home was not recognizable. Every house appeared so pure and holy. The father of the family donned his kittel [a white linen robe worn on solemn occasions and used as a shroud after death]

[page 489]

and sat upon his regal leisure chair like a real king. His wife was the queen, and around them were their children. Wine was poured for everyone at the Seder without forgetting a cup for Elyohu-Hanovi [Elijah the Prophet].

         The youngest child asked the Four Questions; and the father had to answer. The door was opened for Elyohu-Hanovi to enter. The mother could hardly sit through the first Seder, so tired was she from the preparations.

         On Khalemoyed (the intermediate week-days of the holiday), girls and young men traveled as guests to other shtetls to get together with family and, in the meantime, to take advantage of the time to see about a match. Thus, the Jews lived for centuries, worried about livelihoods and were happy with their spiritual life without [the bounties of] wider civilization, without radio and television, without electrical devices – until the coming of Hitler, may his name be blotted out, killed everyone.

         The Jews who emigrated to other lands and continents have acclimated themselves to their environments. But, from time to time, they remember and yearn for those times.

[Page 492]

Yona the Psalm Reader

Chaim Shebach (Argentina)

Translated by Alan Rems

On Shabbas between the mincha and ma'ariv services, when the Sabbath was ending and the week approached, things are quiet and peaceful in the Moyer [shul], the only brick building in the shtetl. Each of the congregants is absorbed in concerns about his livelihood. Shabbas is ending; and the week is arriving with its worries and cares.

At the eastern wall, they talk about higher politics and commerce. One wants to take the pulse of how things stand in the world; how it goes with business, loans and exchange; a marital match; and, random worldly matters. Only during ma'ariv are the poor wretches fully aware of their luck. The shoemakers, tailors, and carpenters then cluster around Yona the Psalm Reader and repeat after him, word for word.

Yona, a little Jew with little eyes, with elf-locks (i.e. matted hair) and an ancient fully-grown beard of strange color, holds his little eyes shut and recites the psalms by heart. [Some psalms are named in Hebrew here].

His rapid delivery made it difficult to repeat after him. You could not catch even one word that came out of his mouth. Through the course of the years, he was hoarse from psalm reading. As it grows darker in the Moyer [shul], the sun set far in the west. The lengthening shadows descend from the high windows and swaddle the entire cavity. Yona sits down behind the bimah to recite the psalm chapters and begins in a monotone voice: [Here follows psalm passages in Hebrew].

He sees nobody around him. He does not care if anyone is repeating. He is absorbed in prayer with all his senses. Begging God for a full and good week for all the Jews whom God should not forsake, Yona knows that Jews must be very wretched and that all the repeaters are poor workmen, who barely make a living. Without Yona, who would read for them and pray to the Most High?

[Extended psalm phrase again]. He is so deeply immersed in the reading that when the shamas [sexton] Yoshke slaps the book-holder, (announcing) “Gentlemen, recite ma'ariv,” the psalm reader catches himself as though from a daze. He quickly finishes reading the last psalm passages: [Passage in Hebrew], spits three times and positions himself to daven ma'ariv.

[Pages 493-494]

Zamky the Meshugener

by Chaim Shebach (Argentina)

Translated by Alan Rems

Every shtetl had its own meshugener; and Piesk was no exception. However, as a small shtetl, we contented ourselves with a half-meshugener. That is, for six months in summer, his entire head was meshuga; and in the winter months, half his head was meshuga.

        This little person, under Godly punishment, had many defects–small, thin, with a pale face and a large head, twisted hands, and a hobbled foot.

        His entire craziness centered on a strong love of horses. If a Christian's wagon is parked in the market with the owner buying something in a shop, Zamky immediately is seated on the wagon taking a pleasure trip through the shtetl, and sometimes outside. Understand that blows for this piece of work were not lacking, but that did not matter. This was his “hobby;” and try to stop him.

        A little bit of his activity had the whole town talking. Living at our house was a German administrator, who hewed the woods around Piesk and also extracted resin from the trees for the German occupation. He had a “britchke” (i.e. a type of half-covered wagon) with a pair of horses that stood behind our house for his use.

        One fine morning, Reb Zalman (i.e. Zamky) removed the shtetl's wash that was hanging on all the fences and spread it out over the entire length of Bruckirtyn Hof to muffle the beating of horse hoofs. He led the two horses from their stalls, hitched them to the britchke, and embarked on an excursion. Self-centeredly, he entered Shul Hof and rode on to the dam. There, he unhitched the horses, letting them go on a spree with fresh grass still covered with early morning dew and with cooling water from the river. He seated himself on one of the stones of the dam, smoked his pipe, and contemplated the surrounding panorama.

        The rays of the early morning sun were mirrored in the dam's waterfall, emitting thousands of colors. Many fishermen already had arrived to remove the fish from the nets that they had set overnight. On the opposite side of the river, shepherds already had brought their herds of cows to pasture. Also, the peasants rounded up their horses that they had brought to the pasture and were returning them to their daily work. And Reb Zalman, sitting upon the stone, contemplated his surroundings, enchanted by the holiness of nature and took pleasure from God's world. Nothing more beautiful could be conceived and indulged.

        Meanwhile, the following developed. The administrator arose. Not finding his horses with the britchke, he let out a howl, summoned the mayor, and ordered that the loss be recovered in twenty-four hours. If not, he would punish the entire shtetl. How could such a mere mortal evaluate a human soul with such small and limited perception as possessed by the hapless Zamky? In short, noise and tumult filled the shtetl; there could not have been greater tsouris. Kith and kin departed seeking Zamky with the horses.

        They looked in the field, in the wood, and on the muddy banks of the Zelebianka River. – No trace of him.

        In early evening, the distant beating of hoofs heading toward the house was heard. It was Reb Zalman, himself, who rode with an uproar into the yard and stopped near the house just as the greatest nobleman would arrive. He unhitched the horses, led them into the stalls and, beneath thunderous yelling and blows, took himself home. And thus, poor Zamky paid with blood and pain for a day's pleasure in accordance with his meshuganer head.

[Pages 508 - 509]

The Gravedigger of The Little Shtetl

Chaim Shebach (Argentina)

Translated by Alan Rems

My little shtetl Piesk. Small and primitive without paved streets, electricity, theaters, or museums. People live in a shtetl far from a highway and rail station – far from news of the world and tumult of the big city – surrounded by the Zelbianka River, whose crystal waters kiss its banks overgrown on both sides with a mantle of green grass.

Field and wood, small low houses with shingled and straw roofs, with small windows looking onto the street. On weekdays, intense activity [occurs] around the houses of prayer. On Sabbath days, the youth congregated around the balconies and entrances of the houses or else walked in the surrounding woods that ringed the little shtetl on all sides.

Except for a few wealthy, the little shtetl lived in gray poverty, barely able to sustain the soul. A little greens and fruit and a few potatoes bought from the Christians of the surrounding villages.

The children play in the sand in torn garments and misshapen little shoes, just like the older youngsters in their old worn garments. Even the girls are in light, cheap calico dresses. Still, it was a glorious, pretty, and happy shtetl. Everybody had a nickname that remained with them over many generations. That was their proper means of address, since there were few streets and not yet any house numbers.

The shtetl's [ritual] bath stood empty all week by the Zelbianka River, except Erev Shabbas when it was heated by Lazer-Itshe, the gravedigger. This was his concession for many years. It was a modern Turkish bath with all the [necessary] facilities. Stones were heated in a corner. Water was poured on them so steam would rise to the ceiling. There were also steps. Each step had its own degree of heat – the higher, the more intense.

Also, the women had their own comfortable mikveh with an attendant, who gave advice to the young women right after marriage.

Reb Itshe, a tall and thin Jew with a shaggy beard and good and warm eyes, had insufficient means of support from the bath attendant and gravedigger concessions. He was also the shamus [sexton] in one of the five Houses of Prayer.

I always picture him as he went with a long stick to measure the dead. In summer, his occupation was tolerable but, in winter, digging a grave in the hard, frozen earth was bitterly difficult for him. But, what doesn't a Jew do to earn a living?

Lazer-Itshe had weak knowledge of the little letters [in the prayer book] and didn't know when you should and when you shouldn't slap the bimah [to signal that audible prayer should start and stop]. Buddies would signal to him to give a slap in the middle of [the silent recitation of] Shemoneh Esrei or in the middle of the [Torah] reading, thus holding him up to ridicule.

Here, from such a shtetl that lived more from spirituality than materiality, here from the Valley of Tears, were created colonies in Argentina, North America, and Israel. When I was in Israel at the home of Yehuda BOROVSKY, I met Pieskers whom I scarcely recognized or remembered after forty years. I heard the voice of Piesk.

In Chana DICHTER, who teaches little children in Israel about the children of Piesk who perished at cruel hands, I saw our Piesk teacher. She told me that every school in Israel must bear a name after a perished shtetl, so the children would know their descent and from where their parents fled. I, then, understood the words of our prophet, who pointed out the Valley of Tears and said: “I will give flesh to these dry bones; and I will blow into them a spirit. They will stand up resurrected and will go into the land of our ancestors.”

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