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[Page 91]

The Street of My Childhood Years

by Sore Bar–Sholem (Givatayim)

Translated by Tina Lunson

When the high holidays were approaching and redemption seemed imminent, hope was kindled in the hearts of the few artisans in town, especially among the shoemakers. They had been in rags and tatters the whole summer, making do with little to eat, but at “redemption” time they could lift up their heads a little, orB, so they thought.

Among the shoemakers on Koze Street there were some wealthier ones, who had developed supply contracts and relationships in Vohlin and they shipped out boots for the population there. But their number was very few. Rather, the majority were poor people, paupers – skilled only in making repairs: re–stitching a boot leg, replacing a pair of soles, or making a patch. So, with the arrival of the rainy season their hearts were lifted. They could draw in some customers who would spend a few zlotys in the shop, how could they feel guilty?

Hershl Motsne's, or as we used to call him, “Motsni Grokh”, used to say about himself that he was stronger than peas, as he considered himself a lowly, downfallen little Jew. He was orphaned in his early years and reared by a step–mother. At 10 years he took a place at the shoemaker's bench, and hired himself out by the season, sometimes with meals and sometimes without, whatever he could find. And so he grew up, reached his majority, got married and started a family. But as at age seven, so at age seventy: In want and torment his wife was worn out, she struggled greatly, became sick and then died, and Hershele Montsne's was left alone with three tiny children.

When neighbors around him banged their heads to figure out how best to help him, and what to do with the children, he himself remained calm, full of hope. “If only the ‘redemption’ will come,” he would say, “everything will be all right. A person has to have trust.” There were gentiles who did not want to just give Hershele a sack of beets,

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since, although he was not such an important shoemaker, they loved to do trade with him. Thursdays when the weekly market was held in town, his shop was full. Hershele Motsne's apartment consisted of a small, wooden, falling–down room with a small window cut out, near which was his workbench. Near that was a small wooden settee, a caulked chimney, on the side a storage cabinet, and what else did one want – he used to ask, “Isn't this enough?” Christians, seeing his situation, would bring him a quarter bushel of potatoes, a little YENGELKES, sometimes a head of cabbage, and for peysakh even a bundle of straw. So year after year went by. The children grew bigger and began to think about a position. When a proprietress in town wanted an honest house maid, she knew she should turn to Hershel Motsnes.

And the years crept by– A winter after a winter, summer after summer, Hershel's daughters grew up, became older–and the townswomen could not rest. Match–makers scratched their heads: How to make a marriage match with nothing to offer? Hodes Pshedzshitski, who really had the “spirit” in her, was the doctor on Koze Street. Whether in winter or summer, by day or at night, someone who was upset would run to Hodes and pour out their bitter heart. When a woman went into childbirth, Hodes must be there. If cupping–glasses needed to be applied, something stuck in someone's throat, a compress to be made, shoulders needed liniment– Hodes did everything, and why not? For Hodes it was not difficult. She could do everything and she was generally ready to help, carrying her small, weak body from patient to patient. Never tired, never grudging.

Indeed, Hodes could not rest. She hurried from one to another, consulting with this one, with that one, and tried to talk with Khaye the match–maker but she pretended to be deaf. (What could she get from such a match?) So she decided to go over to Vengrove and take a pulse reading. That was no simple piece of work. But there is a God in heaven. And by way of pure chance, there a suitable match was made.

Considered and done. A visit was discussed and on one propitious Tuesday all we girls in the neighborhood received an “order” to present ourselves that evening, and did not dare to stretch our imagination that we might even like the look of the groom. The visit was carried out successfully. The bride was pleased, the terms of the contract were recorded,

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and it was agreed that in three months from now – a wedding. But how can one plan in so short a time?

Hodes was not the only one on the front lines. All the neighbors met one evening and worked out a precise plan for the wedding. Keyle, Avrom Itsik's, a respectable householder, had credit with Ester–Gitl Piekarska. She would take care of the “equipment”.

Rokhl, Yenkl Fayner's, a short, tenacious Jewish woman, also frequented the place, and had secret recipes from the pharmacist. She knew well how to celebrate with preserves. She would take care of that. Feyge the artist, who had golden hands, would heat her oven and bake the rolls, cookies, and no one needed to teach her how to make the big khale for the feast.

Khaye, Hersh Ber's, a tall Jewish woman with two good eyes, would buy decorations and cover the walls and whitewash the ceiling. Blume the baker would set up the tables, and when she prepared a table a king could dine there. Beds – we already knew who would give those, and a table and chairs would come soon. A featherbed and a pillow were already available. Sheets and table linens, Khaye–Sore would take care of. Khaye Toyve would sew the quilt cover, and even make monograms. The swallows had promised the kitchen utensils (you must not tell the husband everything) and the only thing missing was the “gift for the speaker”.

Avrom Itsik Zshizshnik has the biggest apartment on Koze Street. We take out the beds and the bookshelves and the room is huge. In the corner we put an upholstered chair, two tall vase tables at the sides, and above that hung two landscapes on the walls and put a green plush quilt in the middle: the chair for the bride is ready; screwed in a 100–watt bulb – how bright, how beautiful, how gay – a mekhaye! Tables and chairs were set up in the other room. There were two containers of soda water in the kitchen, and Itshele Getsh stood guard from the morning to prevent the boys from snatching it.

The bride, pale (she has not eaten anything today) is in the second room and makes the last preparations. Malke Bikhovski will soon dress her in all her splendor. And Itke the wig–maker will put up her hair. The smell of the gefilte fish fills the whole street. And the golden broth is ready, even the croutons. Everything is ready, as by a king's order. The crowd begins to hastily prepare. At six in the evening Meyshe Khaym comes with the musicians to play a piece. We must not forget to shine light on the floor so that it will be easy to dance.

Everything is prepared – right and ready. The guests from Vengrove are

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coming now. People from here are showing up too.

The children, washed and combed and all dressed up, can hardly wait. The fathers in–law, from near and far, have not worked all day, going to the mikve in the morning, then dressing up: one in a silk coat as for shabes, all sitting with the groom beside Hersh–Ber. Across from them – the mothers in–law. Their wigs shine down from their heads, their dresses are something to see. It is evening. The long–awaited hour arrives. Meyshe Khaym and the musicians arrive and we hear “Oy, oy, groom and bride, mazl tov!” The girls lead the bride in and seat her on the chair. The interest is great, the joy has no limit. Meyshe Khaym goes into his role: song after song, the room fills with guests, not an inch of space to spare.

 

sok094.jpg
Itshele “Getsh”

 

Girls are dancing in twos and threes. Polkas, waltzes, others. Meyshe Khaym looks it over: Avrom Itsik tells him to play, throws himself into a dance for one. The joy is without end. After a while the wedding canopy comes, and behind the canopy we hear the bride sobbing: she is crying for her orphan years and for her blossoming happiness. We hear the sound of a breaking plate: mazl–tov! mazl–tov! . May it be with mazl!

Meyshe Khaym melts with pride, falls into an ecstasy and plays without pausing. The crowd sits down to eat. And what a feast! “How

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did they make such a wedding?” the guests ask one another. “This would be suitable for Count Pototski!”

Meyshe–Khaym plays a mitsve dance, the entire crowd stands in one place, hand in hand in a circle “kith and kind” together, even lame Feyge is not abandoned. Hershele Montsnes, slightly tipsy, dances by himself in the middle of the room. The wedding jester holds the crowd. Torah and witticisms spill from his mouth and the crowd sighs with delight.

There is a call for the gifts: from the groom's side, from the bride's side. Cups and flatware and other utensils fall to the floor. The musicians get tired, and the girls are resting. The children begin to get sleepy. Mothers hurry to put them down to sleep. The Vengrove guests set out for home. Tomorrow everyone has to get up and go to work.

It grows less crowded in the room, and quieter; after a while there remain only our own weary wives. Hershl Motsnes sits on the side, tired, he opens his eyes and says, “Thank God for this – the point is trust!”


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“Koze” Street

by Perets Granatshteyn (Columbia)

Translated by Tina Lunson

“Take off your shoes for the place
where you stand is a holy place.”
Shmos/Exodus
A large part of the town's poor population lived on “Koze Lane”. In almost every little wooden house one could find five families of a couple of dozen souls. The “proprietors” of those old, hunchbacked huts used boards to fence off narrow little alcoves like cages for chickens and stuff more tenants into them.

The “pani”, the main proprietors of that street were:

Shmuel Yankl, a shoemaker who could not make a pair of shoes; a Jew with red, bloodshot, sickly eyes, the scholar among the tenants, who also led prayers in the shul, read from the Torah at the shoemakers' shul and could also exorcise an evil-eye if, God forbid, any one of the craftsmen was cursed.

Kalman Ber, a tailor of hand-crafted peasant trousers; fat, pompous, with a choking voice – when he talked, it seemed as though potatoes were pouring from a sack.

Hilel-with-the-tripe, as he was called on the street, a Jew who had never eaten a good piece of meat; he only bought the cheapest tripe from the butcher shops and so earned his nickname.

So the “carp's heads” of the king of the paupers' army lived in our town. Each house had an oven, in which there stood an iron tripod, on which all the women cooked. Wood was supplied by the proprietress. Fights often broke out, and scenes. Ester Malke, Shmuel Yankl's wife – a Jewess with a drawn, sour face – kept close watch with her small, beady eyes that her neighbors did not use an extra splinter of wood. There was much mayhem when anyone tried to cook a pot of beans for shabes dinner.

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“Look here! I did not rent you an alcove so you could cook beans! You are burning up all the wood I have. If you want to cook beans you have to pay additional rent!” shouted Ester Malke in a scrapping voice.

“Ester Malkeshi, I won't cook them any more. What should I do? I don't have anything else to put in the broth for shabes. I don't have a penny in the house. My husband hasn't come home from the countryside. I only have a few beans from last week that a gentile gave me for fixing a pair of boots,” the woman pleaded, as though to a thief.

The people on the street worked hard all week, as hard as the Jews in Egypt, all for the one day shabes. Each dawn, before the sun was up, each went off to his work. Wagon drivers hitched up their wagons; village-goers went out to the villages; shoemakers, tailors sat down at their workbenches. Laboring, toiling, they went the whole week like a horse in harness. Just one day shined out to their eyes and gave them delight, happiness, along their dismal way. On all their missions in the forests and villages, among angry dogs, the approaching Shabes Queen illumined like a thousand suns. The village-goers did not eat the whole week; they had it in mind to bring home a little flour, kasha, a chicken; often a fish, in order to create comfort for the wife and children on shabes.

And the women prepared themselves. During the week they ate hardly any cooked food, without fats. If there was bread, enough potatoes, that was good. They did not desire more. But the shabes should not be shamed. Excited, busy, the women ran around to the food stores and the butcher shops. The butchers knew the paupers as daring customers. [Shopkeepers] insulted more than one women when she came in the Friday rush to buy a piece of meat. The butcher, Ruven Pentsik, a rascal Jew, strict, from whom all the town proprietresses buy, when he sees a woman from Koze Lane on a Friday, says with an angry glance,

“Woman, what do you want?”

“You don't know? A piece of meat.”

Ruven quickly grabs a side of calf and begins to cut off some ribs.
“Mr. Ruven, pardon me, I mean no offense, can you give me
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a little piece of lamb; there is some mutton hanging over there. Add a little piece so I can put it in with the potatoes for the tsholent.”

“That is not for you!” answers Ruven Pentsik angrily.

“What, my money isn't money?” answered the Jewess in horror.

“Look here! Is it because of you I bought a fat ram from the Ripker count? Don't you live somewhere else? I have my regular customers who buy meat all week long. The lamb is for them. I'll be damned if I have to look out for the paupers from Koze Street who come to the butcher once a week on Friday!”

After hearing Ruven Pentsik's abusive language, the woman would go home humiliated.

Shabes footsteps begin to fill the street. From every house wafts the smell of shabes dishes. Children sit around the foundations with bowls of tsimes, little ones with it smeared on their lips, eating with great appetite white bread with cooked black berries. Mothers, in a big hurry, wash children's heads. Toiling boots now shine with black shoe polish.

Hershl Ander, a Jew with a nose like a twisted potato, a disheveled and unbuttoned peasant shirt from which one can see a chest full of black hair like an unsheared sheep pelt, grabs up the whole pot of turnips with his calloused hands and carries it from the chimney to the hardened sand in the middle of the courtyard. He tries to crush it with a huge wooden cooking-spoon and with his twisted, rotted mouth calls out to the neighbors, “Do you hear? Do you near? The turnips taste heavenly, better than meat. I bought them from a Yablone farmer. I bought two bushels of them. There's only one problem, they have to cook for a long time.”

Shimen Oks the butcher, a Jew as big as a bear, with a blood-red neck, is standing nearby shining his big cowhide boots with fish oil, and answers in his basso voice,

“Mr. Hershl, take that pot of turnips to Meyshe Yirsoel's, he brought a motor from Warsaw, you can crush it there.”

“That motor is quiet today. A screw broke…” Hershl Ander answers merrily.

When the last golden rays of sun settle on the tumble-down shingled roofs

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and the sun makes a fiery decline into the endless edge of the sky, Queen Shabes arrives from her long journey and spreads her holiday veil out over the little street. As ceremonial as ships arriving lights begin to burn behind the pure white curtains at the Jewish windows. Like folded eagles' wings the tired and weary women's hands are raised over the shabes candles: “borekh ata, borekh shmoy” -- blessed are You, blessed is your Name.

First with a prayer book in his hand and to come to the front, near the wooden gate, is Mele Kuk, a Jew like an oak, with a head of shining grey hair, dressed in a long alpaca robe. The amber tongues of the sunset glance off his long boots. He often takes the lead at the shoemakers' minyen. Mele stands patiently near Shmuel Yankl's archway, where the minyen is held. He waits for the other prayers. When the workers have filled the alcove, he takes his place as the prayer leader and murmurs in his chirping voice like a broken flute,

“Lekhu n'ranu…” “O come let us sing unto the Lord, the rock of our salvation.”
The street dims with a holy stillness. Echoes of shouting carry from afar. Across from the minyen sits the Christian neighbor Krovatski with his head of wild hair, with his shaggy dog near him. He is threshing his morning's cutting with a dull scythe. The ringing of the scythe accompanies the voices that drift from the minyen – glean, glean, glean and “Lekho doydi l'kras kale…” pour out together in honor of the holy shabes.

After reciting sholem aleykhem and making kidush the great-grandchildren of the Biblical Yonatan the sandal-maker sit down to the shabes meal as if for a peysakh seyder. They sing zmiros. They pass on their own melodies. They do not bring home melodies from the Hasidic prayer-houses; the marches that the Kotsk, Ger and Aleksander Hasidim sing are foreign to them. Without religious ecstasy, without gesticulation, with a simple, wholesome, natural style. With the same melody that they drew on the whole week for the regular songs. And all the working motifs that the community sang in the workshops reveal themselves again in a refined, elevated continuation at the white-clothed tables, around which sit the princes of need on “Koze Lane”.

And Shmuel Yankl does not hurry with his Friday evening repast. After each dish he peers into the lesson of the week and explains to his wife Ester Malke the age-old Jewish stories of our forefathers and murmurs the zmiros along to the march tune of the town's fire brigade.

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After finishing the barely soup his wife sits next to him and goes over her usual complaints and reproaches.

“Shmuel Yankl, how will it all end? It's already more than three years that the group hasn't paid any rent for the minyen. We should be able to take back the alcove where the ark and Torah are so we can rent it out. With that money we can buy wood and potatoes for the winter. What do we get from their praying here? There are rich people in town with big buildings, that could give a place for them to pray. We are just poor people, we do not begrudge a spoonful of hot food.”
Shmuel Yankev opened his two red eyes wide and slapped his hand over the khumesh open in front of him on the table:
“You're always here with your stupid talk! A person is supposed to have such big eyes. You think we should just let this old crumbling building sink into the ground? We are already old people. We have wearied ourselves our whole lives, worked hard, bitterly, never having quite enough to eat, so that we might enjoy the world to come. You think that the Master of the Universe doesn't know that we have given a place free of charge, where all the craftsmen can pray in a minyen? He sees everything and He knows. Every thing is recorded up there. Here in this world we are already doomed, we are already close to the grave.”
Ester Malke turned her narrow head, patiently opened her dry, tight little lips and answered:
“The fact that we've commissioned a seyfer Torah is nothing? Show me one rich person who has their own seyfer Torah. It took us more than ten years of scraping up coin after coin until we finished that scroll. For that alone we should get the world to come!”
Shmuel Yankl took much pleasure in his wife's remarks. With his face beaming, he turned to her:
“Tell me, do you remember the celebration the night it was completed?”

“Do you think I don't remember?”

“You know Ester Malke I can see it all exactly as if it were happening right now. It was a beautiful summer evening. Thousands of Jews and their wives and children were with us in the street. Remember that huge lantern with the colored words 'joy and rejoicing, joy in Torah' that Avremele Mikhl Shtempers had cut out? The man walking on stilts in front of the scroll? All the Jews were dancing in a circle holding hands as though Messiah had come. And Meyshe Khaym the musician with his fiddle – he kept

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changing the march tune a little, as if the fiddle were talking. When he played a freylikhs and Shebsel the drummer and his son clashed the cymbals it seemed as if the Jews were leaving Egypt and Miriam the prophetess was leading with drumming and dance. When the convert slipped his fiddle under his shaved chin and like a wizard began to bow a sad, a weeping tune, I envisioned the Jews being driven into Exile, with our mother Rokhl going after us, weeping for her children who were being driven from their land.”
Shmuel Yankev remained quiet for a while, then went over to the bench where there was a leaking wooden bucket of water. He wet his tough, heavy hands, recited the blessing, and took off the old ribbed kapote that he had worn at his wedding and every shabes since. So, in his white shirtsleeves, he went out into the courtyard and sat down on a large stone. All the neighbors were already sitting along the foundations. Kalman Ber, the tailor, was sitting barefoot in a wide pair of cloth pants that were firmly tied around his fat, swollen belly with a strip of fabric. He panted after eating, sounding like a irritated goose and spoke with a muffled voice:
“Today I was in the village Nieviedos. I leased Toib Tushinski's orchard there. The trees have all come through this year; they are all loaded with apples and pears. May God help and there won't be any storms, I will be able to use the money that I earn to repair the roof of the house. It's not possible to live there any more. The ceiling and the floor are ruined from the rain that drips in.”
The town clown, the mender Hershele Motzne, who had been sitting on a stone all this while eating boiled peas, interrupted his story:
“Did you hear, Jews, what happened this week? I was walking near the old bes-medresh and there was a Jew with a wagon of rags and old iron, calling 'I buy scrap and old things' [altvarg]. I asked him, 'Do you want some scrap, Mr. Jew? Come with me to my house and I'll sell you my scrap.' The Jew did not understand my joke, and was starting to move his wagon. 'Come inside, uncle!' 'Where do you have this merchandise?' he asked. I pointed to my Alter, standing there by a basket of laundry. 'Here's my old stuff,' I said. The Jew slammed the door shut and went angrily away.
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“Pauper!” cried his wife, her face like a frozen apple. “A person should tell jokes his whole life and play games. You have nothing in your mind! The holidays are coming , we don't have a penny in the house. We need to pepare wood for the winter, we need to buy two carts of potatoes, later there will be a price hike and that doesn't bother him a bit. Always laughing at everyone. Have you ever seen such a happy pauper?”

“Be quiet, you cow! Have you talked enough? We will praise God have enough potatoes, we will have our own. I'll dig them up at night. I'll dig you out, you'll dig me out, and the little ones who sleep together in one bed will dig out too. Don't worry, we won't lack for potatoes…”

The neighbors cackled with laughter. Alter Meyer Nosn's, a petite little Jew with a grey goat's beard, appeared from another courtyard. The bedbugs did not allow him to sleep, so he took his straw mattress outdoors and lay there with his face to the heavens.

The outdoors smelled of freshly-cut hay. A delightfully sweet aroma of clover wafted from the nearby gentile barns. From the dark blue sky, stars looked down the length of the lane. From time to time a star fell and left behind a long silver trail. Alter Meyer Nosn's wife, as tall and thin as a spade, with a quiet whispering voice, pleaded with her husband: “Alter, go inside the house. Stars are falling from the sky, why are you lying asleep in the middle of the street?”

“I don't feel well. I want to take a nap outdoors. Go get me a drink of fresh water from Khane the Reb's well. I don't feel so well since I ate.”

“I've told you already, you shouldn't eat so many beans, they are already stopping you up. You don't listen, so you don't feel well.”

“What else could I have? The lovely fish and meat were bought up by the rich folks. Next shabes, please God, you can run there early and buy a fat chicken…”

“Don't mock me! Go into the house and lie down in bed.” his wife answered.

The older folks would like to keep sitting and lying outdoors, if not for the couples beginning to stroll by.

Friday nights in the later hours the lane became

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romance alley, the garden of love. All the young people from the nice families, women whose men were in America – all those who could not show their illicit lovers in the bright light of the town center, came with their “unkosher merchandise” among these melancholy, sleepy little houses. Secrets lie hidden there to this day, of the most lovely experiences of true and even of cheating love. More than one woman or man in all the Jewish communities of the world may dive into a memory of that lane where they kissed, in love with one of theirs or a stranger… Men and women, in the best, happiest years of their youth. More than one probably retains an old unhealed wound in his painful heart.

With pounding hearts the pairs caressed on the benches near the houses. The lane was sleeping in nighttime stillness. From Shmuel Yankev's courtyard there still floated a soft, thin, sweet melody. Yekheskel Kramarzsh, the prayer-leader at the Aleksander shtibl was ending his zmiros and blissfully cooed like a longing dove:

“The Temple will be rebuilt; the City of Zion will be restored and there we will sing a new song and journey up.”
With the quiet echo of his last heartfelt tenor the sinking flames in the windows of the street of the poor went out.

 

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