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[Page 76]

Institutions

 

Public Institutions

by Mordechai Machtey

Translated by Ann Belinsky

In the past they would say “Steibtz is close to Szwernie”, but in the present century Steibtz arrived at its peak of development and turned the wheel on Szwernie, and with the construction of the railway from Moscow to Brisk the station was built in Steibtz. The transport connections with both the east and west also turned the small town into an administrative town with bustling commerce and enabled one to travel to Minsk and back within four hours.

 

Sto076.jpg
Founders of the First Bank

Sitting from Right: Zeev Feldman, Lipa Rozovsky, the Pharmacist Leib Munvez, Yoel Ginzburg, Yitzhak Sirkin, Yitzhak Shmuel Epstein
Standing from Right: Yitzhak Tzirulnik, Mordechai Mahrshak, Aharon Machtey, Alter Yossilevitz, David Neifeld, Avraham Chait, Leib Bruchansky

 

The commercial contacts with inhabitants of the larger and more developed cities also led to an improvement of the cultural situation of the population and created a recognizable status of intelligentsia, which over time left its mark on the life in the city.

Steibtz was known for its commerce in lumber with Germany, by sailing rafts down the Neiman which joined White Russia with the Baltic Sea via Germany. Steibtz exploited efficiently its geographic situation, that is to say, its proximity to the banks of the Neiman, so that the rafts could be linked together on it and continue their way to Germany. It also developed trade of grains and agricultural produce with Germany. Construction of the railroad was exceptionally efficient in development of the city.

The economic situation in general was satisfactory, although the verse “For there will never cease to be poor in the land”[1] did not skip over it.
But in contrast to the surrounding towns, Steibtz was in a better material situation and not for nothing was nicknamed “The Gluttonous Steibtz” (Stoibtzer kishkes).

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If her neighbors saw and ate meat on Sabbath evenings, the Steibtz menu included meat almost every single day.

Even so, a lack of returning capital was felt in the city. Its lack was filled in 1908 with the Cooperative Bank, or as it was officially called “The Loan and Savings Bank”. The founders of the bank were: Zeev Feldman, Lipa Rozovsky, Yoel Ginzburg, Yizhak Shmuel Epstein, Yitzhak Sirkin, Mordechai Mahrshak, Aharon Machtey, Leib Bruchansky, Alter Yossilevitz, the pharmacist Munvez, Avraham Chait, David Neifeld, Yitzhak Tzirulnik, Yosef Moltschadsky and Herzl Dvoretski.

This bank developed and grew in its extent until it was giving loans even up to 300 rubles, a very substantial amount in those days. Thanks to this, many townsfolk improved their economic situation.

Many of the great rabbis were also seated in Steibtz. They saw Steibtz as a springboard to a larger city. Thus the Rabbi R' Tuvia (Rabbi David Tavalah) was taken to a respectable residence in Minsk; Hamisharet Moshe - to Mezerich and Rabbi R' Meir Noach Levine –to Moscow and after the expulsion from Moscow, to Vilna.

Two cantors were also taken from Steibtz to large cities: The cantor, who received afterwards the nickname of R' Yisrael HaMinskai and the cantor Rabbi Meir Heinitz, who was received as a cantor in Lida and was called Meir Lieder[2] (Meir [the] Singer).

The spirit of the times at the beginning of the twentieth century became rooted also in Steibtz and political parties of all types and believers were founded and reached such proportions until there was almost no young man or young woman who did not belong to Poalei Tzion[3] from the Minsk school [of thought] or the Bund[4].

The two workers parties took over the street next to the Catholic church nicknamed the Bursa[5]. On its right hand side the Bundists gathered, while on the left side – Poalei Tzion. Every evening and every Sabbath, whoever went into this street saw clusters of people whispering together (members of one party) or arguing and trying to convince each other of the rightful ideas of their party.

The hunt for souls also sometimes brought fights and led to deterioration in the relationships. It got to the point when a person was blamed for “pulling in” a member of the opposing party, he did not walk by the “Bursa” or in any other street alone, but was accompanied by friends in order to prevent physical violence.

 

The Cultural Life

Schools

Until the beginning of the present century, education of the boys had always been purely in the cheder[6]. There the rabbi would “beat Torah” to the tots, assisted by the help of a leather strap, as was the custom in the previous centuries. According to the opinion of a Talmudist – “He who teaches his daughter Torah, teaches her obscenity (lewdness)”[7]. They almost did not care at all about educating the girls and all the period of her education - if the parents did indeed want her to learn to pray, and not to have the need of a reader who sat in the ezrat nashim[8] and read the prayers in front of the women who repeated them – continued until the girl obtained the knowledge of reading the Siddur or the Machzor. I remember the cheder for girls. The teacher was, I think, the wife of Yosef Neifeld (Yoshkeh Rania's son). Apart from this cheder there were 2 people, wonderful scribes, R' Zeev Sadnov (Valia der Schreiber), father of Moshe Sarnov, and Heykel Izgur (Haychel dam blechers[9]) who taught the girls to read and write not only Yiddish, but also the Russian alphabet, so that they would be able to write addresses on letters –and with that their education was over.

At the end of the previous[10] century, the first cracks were seen in the wall of tradition. Already in the eighties Zalman Ben Eliyahu Yona Ivinsky organized a Hebrew library, or as they called it – Beit Eked Sfarim, that was already not in existence in the days of my childhood. The rich people of the town and others sent their children to the Russian government school, to teach their children Russian and also “the holy tongue”.

For Russian there were two teachers. One – Yisrael Minker from nearby Szwernie and the other – Mr. Litvinsky from Turetz. Even though they were not authorized teachers or school graduates, they had enough knowledge to impart elementary teaching of the language.

Only a few had knowledge of the Hebrew language. My brother Aharon, may the Lord avenge his blood, came across the book “Moreh Halashon” by Lerner by chance and from this he had studied and knew it completely. Several years later, when Alter Yossilevitz came to Steibtz and became friends with my brother, who had left already the Mir Yeshiva, they studied together in the Bet Midrash, and studied philology together. This chance meeting between the two youths created a turning point in the education of the young generation in the city.

At the end of the nineties, when Alter had mastered the language, he left the Bet Midrash and moved over to teaching the language. The teaching method was that of translating according to the books of Y.H. Tabiov - Moreh Hayeladim and Eden Hayeladim. In 1907 Alter started a revolution in the field of education in the city, when he stopped giving private lessons and established the mixed school for boys and girls from the age of six to ten. Public opinion was supportive of this enterprise and after a short time there was already a place for a second school of the same type, which was established and directed until the First World War by Asher Axelrod, and a third, of Feitel the Teacher.

With the establishment of these schools the teaching of the melameds in the town came to an end, except for R' Avraham Chait, who was a sort of mix of a melamed and a teacher, and R' Dovid Epstein – the son-in-law of the dayan[11] R' Eliyahu Lipshitz, who taught at the Talmud-Torah religious school.

Most of the curriculum at the school was Hebrew and Holy Scriptures. After the pupils had learned to read, they began to be taught Sefer Ha'agadah by Bialik and Rabinitzky[12], but they studied the Prophets from the original. Four to 6 hours a week were devoted to secular studies. Of these, four hours were for learning to read and write the Russian language and one hour for fine handwriting (calligraphy). The lesson in calligraphy in Alter's school was given by Tamara Meyerovitz. Asher Axelrod, who had beautiful handwriting, taught it himself.

As mentioned above, these schools were intended only for children up to the age of ten. After this age, Alter Yossilevitz ran a special class at the hours of 5-6 in the evening. In this class they also learned legends from the book Sefer Ha'agadah of Bialik and Rabinitzki. There were many parents who wanted to continue to give modern education to their children and to provide them with knowledge in the format of the governmental schools, so that they could acquire

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free professions. Since only a few could send their children to advanced study outside the town, they tried to encourage the government to open a school. After many endeavors, the efforts were crowned with success and in the 1907/8 school year, the “town school” was opened (as that type of school was called, although it was governmental).

The school curriculum was for 4 high school classes, without Latin or Greek. Since the number of Christian pupils was tiny, the school opened its doors to Jews, with no restrictions. The youth exploited this rare opportunity – in Tzarist Russia – and began to swarm to this school, which opened new horizons to them and great opportunities to study free professions and leave the vicious circle of small commerce.

The school was very quickly filled to capacity - this was a boys' school. The problem remained for the girls, for whom all attempts with the government failed. A solution was found elsewhere. Ms. Katzenovitz from Minsk, who was looking for a location to set up a girls' school, came by chance to Steibtz. When she heard that there would be no shortage of girls, she established the girls' school in the framework of the high school programs, with 4 classes (in Tzarist Russia the level of studies in girls' schools was lower than that of boys schools. Graduates of these girls' schools wishing to receive a matriculation certificate had to pass an exam in a course from the boys' high school).

This school too filled up to its capacity and Ms. Katzenovitz began to search for a larger apartment for more classes. For some reason unknown to me (it was said to be a family reason), this school was closed after two years.
Establishing these schools created a lot of opportunities for Russian language teachers and these came to Steibtz in sufficient quantity and all were employed. Many from this generation continued their studies and sat for the extraneous examinations and afterwards went to the universities and thus a modest level of people with free professions was created, including: Berel and Zelig Ivianski, Katia Rubashov, Dvorah the daughter of R' Nachum Baruch Rozovski, the daughters of R' Yoel Ginzburg – Roltseh, Soltche and Regina. Alta Machtey and Duba Kushnir – women dentists, David son of Natan Akun and Nissan Dorski – assistant pharmacists and Yechzkel Sirkin – a doctor.

A new wind of interest of studies in Hebrew swept through suddenly in 1910. And the girls of the town from the stratum of intelligentsia, wished to study both Hebrew and Bible. Apart from the teachers that were in Steibtz, two came from outside of it – Mordechai Rozovski (uncle of Tzvi Stolovitzki) from Uzda and Dominitz from nearby Yeremitcha. For about two years this atmosphere continued and then disappeared as it had come and the teachers remained without work and were forced to leave the town.

As a result of the Hebrew studies, interest remained in “The History of the Kingdom of Israel”[13]. Study circles were organized called Bnot Tzion, Shoafot Tziona, Tzion veshifta and Agudat Bney Tzion headed by Maharshak. There were also about twenty girls who gathered together every Saturday night and I would read them chapters from this book. The “living spirit” of this circle was Tzipporah Mintz (Bernstein), who took care of hosting every week. This circle was active until 1912 and then stopped because I left the town and a new speaker was not found.

 

The Yiddish School 1921-1922

At the end of the storm of the war and with the return of life to normal channels, it was already possible to deal with spiritual matters. The most important worry was the problem of education for which, because of changes in the government and all the upheavals connected to it, there was almost no concern for education. Alter Yossilevitz was in Minsk, Asher Axelrod moved to commerce and from the melamdim, only R' Avraham Chait remained. It was R' Avraham's daughter, Freidel Khayat, may her memory be blessed, who established the boys and girls school and the teaching language was Yiddish. But after a short time in 1921, Freidel left Steibtz and emigrated to the United States. And thus I, Haim Dvoretzki, Menachem Kushnir and several others met and consulted on how to remedy the situation. We decided to open a school of the CISZO[14] method, whose the heads of this organization were Bundists, with participation of the Leftist-Poalei-Tzion, although my heart was not reconciled with the program to remove the Hebrew language from the beginning classes and start only in the third grade. But there was no choice, I toyed around with the hope that the education would be non-political and I saw the participation of the Leftist-Poalei-Tzion in the center of the organization as a guarantee. As a member of Poalei Tzion in Russia, to which the Leftist-Poalei-Tzion in Warsaw was affiliated, I contacted the latter and received encouragement to set up the school. The home of the Izgur brothers, which during the rule of the Tzar was taken over by the post office, was empty and was used as the school location.

I did not imagine that setting up the school was to be used as a trick of the Bund to take control over the young generation. In order to camouflage this aspiration, they suggested that I be chairman of the Board of the school.

After a short time I became convinced that all three teachers that were sent by the center were Bundists, who tried in all ways to arouse sympathy to the Bund. I came to this conclusion, and even before the end of the school year I resigned from my role as chairman. At the end of the school year the school was closed.

 

Hebrew School

When Alter Yossilevitz returned in the summer of 1922 from Minsk, he immediately started to establish a Hebrew school where he was encouraged by the Zionists and with their help and supported by a side which he had not believed possible: by Rabbi Lieberman. Rabbi Lieberman understood that re-establishing the Zionist school would destroy the hope of the Bund to revive sometime in the future the Yiddish-Bund school. He was sure that by his support of Alter, the latter would find himself under his influence in all matters relating to the curriculum of the school studies and its character. The first difficulties which were involved in setting up the school were in the main, the location. The town was still not built from its ruins and a private home for the school, as there was before the war, was not available even among the charred remnants of the houses. To our luck, at the time of Alter's return, a building of the Talmud Torah which was being used by the Chassidic shtibel was vacated. The building was founded by R' Mendel Lipshitz from Swerznie – who became an inhabitant of Steibtz in his old age. Thus

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the building returned to its rightful designation. There was a fear of opposition by Rabbi Lieberman, but the latter, as said, supported Alter in his first steps.

In summer of 1923 the school opened. Rabbi Lieberman quickly found out that his hope to bring Alter under his influence was a false hope, although with no choice, he agreed that the school would be a mixed boys and girls school. The rabbi specifically demanded that there would be a religious character to the school and that the religious studies would be studied from the source and not via stories from the Bible and that every day the children would pray before beginning the studies etc. Since Alter had his own opinions about education, he did not go in the direction that Rabbi Lieberman desired. Then the latter began with war on the school Understandably, Alter with the support of all the Zionists returned war equally, and thus the disagreement flared up and turned into a disagreement with the Rabbinate with all the negative connotations.

In the first years the school existed in the situation of a nonregistered company, but with the establishment of Polish rule, the need arose to be recognized by the authorities (with regards to the law of obligatory education that applied to all children from the age of 7). The arrangement that was usual during the time of the Tzars, whereby every man who paid for the Melamed certificate could enter to the pupils and “beat” Torah into them, was cancelled. The authorities demanded that the school teachers be authorized teachers, and Alter, although he was an outstanding pedagogue, did not have the credentials and thus it was impossible for him to administrate the school as he had done the previous year. Alter turned to the Tarbut union in Warsaw, the latter registered the school in its name and with this it was possible to continue. Not only that, but also the supervision of the school was no longer under the control of the Polish government. And this was very important because its official headmaster was an authorized teacher, in general a graduate of the Tarbut seminary from Vilna, or of the courses for teachers in Grodno - he was also the only teacher who taught Polish, geography, Polish history and naturally the teacher for the rest of the secular subjects. Alter was the official teacher of religion (the real teacher for religion was Meir Yosef Schwartz, who organized the holy religious studies and for a long time was illegal, for the governmental inspector could come at any hour and if he found a situation like this, he could negate the school's license. For this reason Meir Yosef taught in the ezrat nashim of the New Synagogue).

In the school there was a “preparatory class” and 4 more classes. Once, an attempt had been made to open Grades 5 and 6, but because of the low number of pupils, up to 4 or 5 in each class, the attempt had failed. It is hard to explain the reason for this. One of them was with no doubt the high tuition fee, for the school did not enjoy governmental or social support, although in the lower classes concessions were given to families of low income, but this was impossible for the higher classes, on the other hand. People of high income prepared their children for the gymnasia and our school remained at the limit of four classes. Despite the few years that the children would remain in the school, the teachers managed to instill in their hearts a feeling of national sentiment. The graduates, with no difference between their courses of study, constituted the resource for the Zionist parties and to their affiliated youth organizations. The majority went to HaShomer Hatza'ir which developed ramified educational and cultural activities and a few went to Poalei Tzion, the Social Zionists[15] and to Betar[16].

In order to strengthen the knowledge of the pupils in Hebrew, it was necessary to renew the library which had been burnt down in the 1915 fire. It was reopened by the efforts of Yossilevitz and Schwarz, at the beginning for the pupils of the school and afterwards also its graduates and to all who wanted to read a Hebrew book. The school library did not enjoy any support except for a subsidy of 100 gold pieces – approximately 20 dollars per year – that the city council allocated it.

The youth who were educated in the school did not disappoint the spirit of its teachers. None of them joined a non-Zionist party and its fruits would have surely increased from year to year, if the “woodcutter” had not arisen and hewed down the tree with its branches. The pupils with their teachers were annihilated by the Nazis. Very few were saved – most of them are now rooted in our country[17].

 

The Chorev School

The Tarbut School was like a thorn in flesh to Rabbi Lieberman. When he saw that he would have no influence on the school curriculum and separation of boys and girls would come to no avail, he started to build a parallel school which would suit his views. Since the Tarbut school did not have any public support, it could only accept a few pupils from lack of funding. Although in this matter Yossilevitz and Schwarz did everything possible, there were many that the school could not accept. This helped Rav Lieberman and he began to build the school or as he called it, Talmud-Torah, that would accept all pupils from the beginning, with no distinction of their parents' economic situation.

Of all the teachers of this school, which afterwards became a branch of the Chorev schools of Agudat Yisrael, R' Yehuda Kapuschevsky - may the Lord avenge his blood – (father of the Rabbi Levin from Netanya) was especially outstanding as an experienced teacher and very knowledgeable in Hebrew. He taught Prophets, Hebrew, Grammar and Gemara. The teacher for the Pentateuch and cantillation notes was Alter Kuznitzov - may the Lord avenge his blood, and the teacher Tania Wolfson taught Polish, Polish history and arithmetic.

 

The Ultra-Orthodox School for girls, Beis-Yaacov

The Beis Yaacov school was also founded here in 1935 by Rav Lieberman. Esther Berman, a talented teacher, graduate of the Beis Yaacov Seminary in Krakow, was brought from Grodno to set up the school. At first the school was in a rented apartment with only a beginners' class at first, but over time they moved to a building of their own in Yurzdikke Street and more classes were opened gradually. This school instilled education and a religious way of life to its pupils.

 

The Library

As mentioned, there were already the beginnings of a library in the eighties, but it was already not in existence in the nineties. Alter renewed this enterprise, whose beginning was very distressing. It had several dozens of books, mainly children's books in Hebrew, like “All the Legends of Israel” by Levner[18] etc. In the adults library there were books of Mapu[19], Smolenskin[20] and Yehuda Leib Gordon[21]. Slowly the circle of readers increased and with them

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the library grew and was enlarged from a drawer of books in a cupboard, which, at the beginning of the present[22] century, rose to a whole wall. A Yiddish department was added which included the well-known authors of the time: Dinezon[23], Spector[24], Shom'er[25], Sholom Aleichem[26], Mendeli[27] and Peretz[28]. With the opening of the schools and Russian was fixed as the language of teaching, a Russian department was also opened. It gradually increased to very large quantities, until in amount it overtook the department of Hebrew and Yiddish. Actually these were two separate libraries, with separate librarians and managers as according to the rules of Tzarist Russia, a library, and even a bookshop, needed a special license and this was not given to every request, but depended on a check of its political correctness. Thus the library existed as a bookshop on the name of the pharmacist Leib Munvez, and after he left the town – on the name of Mordechai Maharshak. The two libraries had to exist under one roof. Since the room in the house of Sarah Shmuelovitz was already too small to hold all the books, they were moved to the home of Shmuel Tunik, who had a large room with a special entrance. There, the library was burnt down in 1915 in the greatest fire that Steibtz (experienced in fires), had known.

The library existed from readers' subscriptions and also from the organized balls that were held every year, as all those involved in the library did so not for getting a reward[29]. The library was registered as a bookshop. The license for the ball was given on the name of the fire brigade, which according to the agreement received 25% of the gross income.

Thanks to the endless dedication of all those connected to the library, the number of books reached more than three thousand – a rare case for a small town.

Translator's Footnotes

  1. Deuteronomy XV: 11. Return
  2. Possibly the nickname was given as Meir the Cantor sang beautiful songs. Return
  3. Poalei Tzion - Workers Youth Movement. Return
  4. Bund – a secular Jewish socialist party in the Russian Empire. Return
  5. Bursa – stock exchange. Return
  6. Cheder – elementary school. Return
  7. Rabbi Eliezer says, “He who teaches his daughter Torah, teaches her obscenity (lewdness)”áGemara, Tractate “Sota” 21, page b. Return
  8. Ezrat nashim – area allocated to women in the synagogue. Return
  9. Haychel dem blechers (Yiddish) – Haychel the tin worker's son. Return
  10. The 19th century. Return
  11. Dayan – a religious judge. Return
  12. An anthology of classical rabbinic literature. It was compiled by Bialik HN and YH Rawnitzky (Rabinitsky), The Book of Legends. Originally published in Hebrew in 1903. English translations in 1960 and 1992. Return
  13. Geschichte der Juden, History of the Jews, by the historian Zvi Gretz, is a monumental work containing 11 volumes and documenting the history of the people of Israel. Return
  14. CISZO – acronym of the Yiddish phrase for "Central Jewish School Organization in the Polish Republic" - a Jewish school network of Yiddish socialist activists in Poland between the two world wars. Return
  15. Zionist-Socialist Workers Party, often referred to simply as Zionist-Socialists or S.S. by their Russian initials, was a Jewish socialist territorialist political party in the Russian Empire and Poland from 1904 to 1917, when it merged with the Jewish Socialist Workers Party. Return
  16. The Betar Movement is a Revisionist Zionist youth movement founded in 1923 in Riga, Latvia, by Vladimir (Ze'ev) Jabotinsky. Return
  17. Israel. Return
  18. Israel Binyamin Levner (1862-1916), a teacher and writer. Return
  19. Abraham Mapu (1808– 1867) was a Lithuanian novelist. Return
  20. Peretz (Peter) Smolenskin ř(1842–1885) was a Russian-born Zionist and Hebrew writer. Return
  21. Judah Leib Gordon, also known as Leon Gordon (1830-1892), was among the most important Hebrew poets of the Jewish Enlightenment. Return
  22. 20th century. Return
  23. Jacob Dinezon (1851-1919) was one of the most successful Yiddish writers of the late 1800s. Return
  24. Mordechai Spectorá(1858–1925), Yiddish novelist and editor. Return
  25. Nahum Me´r Schaikewitz, (1849-1905) also known by his pseudonym Shom'er was a Yiddish novelist and playwright. Return
  26. Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich, better known under his pen name Sholem Aleichem (1859 –1916), was a leading Yiddish author and playwright. Return
  27. Mendele Mocher Sforim (1836- 1917), was the pen name of Sholem Yankev Abramovich. He was a Jewish author and one of the founders of modern Yiddish and Hebrew literature. Return
  28. Isaac Leib Peretz (1852 –1915), best known as I. L. Peretz, was a Yiddish language author and playwright from Poland. Return
  29. "Be not like servants who serve their master for the sake of receiving a reward, instead, be like servants who serve their master for the sake of NOT receiving a reward."á(Mishnah: Ethics of the Fathers. I. 3). Return


From All My Teachers[1]

by Zalman Shazar

Translated by Harvey Spitzer

 

A. From the Vestibule to the Salon[2]

I wrote “from all my teachers” not only so as not to change the full verse in the Psalm beginning “ Praiseworthy are they that are upright on the way”[3], but rather because I have no hope of relating everything that is fitting to tell about all the teachers in my town in my youth– about their personalities, their positions, their ways of teaching and their attributes; and if I succeed in putting on paper only something of the lives of my teachers, and not only of the lives of the most important ones among them, then I will have done a true act of kindness with these dear ones of our town, on whose shoulders was placed the burden of bequeathing the Torah from generation to generation, those who were alive and those no longer alive, neither they nor others like them. And may this recollection be some kind of expression of gratitude and appreciation which my heart expresses to them, for despite all the pain in their lives and their hardships, they succeeded in transmitting to me and to my contemporaries the main keys to the eternal treasures of our people.

And since my town of Steibtz was not inferior to the rest of the towns in the Minsk district and its surroundings, and its characteristics were similar to those of the other towns in White Russia – perhaps there will be, in the bundle of these memories of the first years of my schooling there, also some kind of contribution for the understanding of education and instruction in all these places in those days.

According to their position, the teachers in the town constituted a stratum by themselves, a kind of middle economic level between the judges and ritual slaughterers on one hand, who were counted among the religious ministrants who were financially supported by the public, and between the storekeepers and craftsmen, on the other hand, for whom making a living was the cause of perpetual worry and whose poverty was considerable. And although the teachers were the poorest among the town's residents and their livelihood was gained with great difficulty, people related to them with respect, and a thread of nobility was stretched over their poverty. And even the most well–known teachers who, during the Intermediate Days of Passover and Tabernacles succeeded in adding complete “status” in their full classroom of pupils – children of influential people in the town for the next “term”, were not able to provide for the expenses of the household from the salary they earned from tuition alone. Were it not for their wives, nearly always “women of valor” who would earn money “on the side” and bring in no less than the total income of the teacher himself, who was the official provider of the house, the expenses of the household would not have been met.

The teachers themselves were distinguished from one another according to the level of their teaching and the stage of their pupils. Many were teachers of small children in whose classrooms the pupils began to learn “Hebrew”. These were the less permanent teachers and the poorest. More well–known were the shvarbe teachers (that is, “twenty–four” holy books of the Bible), which comprised the second phase of instruction. Still fewer and more outstanding were the teachers of Gemara[4], whether they taught Gemara and Bible together alternately or whether they specialized in teaching Gemara alone including Tosafot[5]. They saw themselves as preparing pupils for the upper–level yeshivot located in the small town of Mir, which was close by or in Maltsh and Slobodka, which were far away.

And just as the teachers differed according to their ranks, so were they distinguished from one another according to the synagogues in which they prayed. Although the system of “streams” was unknown in our town, it was conventional that a person who prayed in the large study hall would send his children to a misnagid[6] teacher, who prayed, as he did, in the large study hall, and a person in the new study hall chose to send his children to a “keeper of the faith” in the new study hall. And how much more so that a person who prayed in a shtibel[7] would be very careful to send his children to the Chassidic teacher, who prayed in the shtibel of all places, and only the poorest people in the town who needed a Talmud Torah[8] were forced to make do with whatever the public would entitle them to.

In addition, there were also schreibers[9] in our town and more recently there were lehrers[10], who were not accustomed to teaching in classrooms but instead would visit the home of boy or girl pupils and give “hours” until the Zionist, Alter Yosselevitz came and founded a Tarbut school[11] and continued to be called moreh[12] even after he set up well arranged and organized classes.

There was no connection between melamdim[13] and morim, who were educated, familiar with languages, experts in grammar, teachers of Hebrew and who were suspected by the rabbi of leaning towards Zionism and of not being serious. The melamdim, on the other hand, were considered by the rabbi to be the bearers of pure Judaism, loyal guests in his home and guardians of tradition.

And if there were differences in orientation between the pupils of melamdim and those of morim, there were likewise differences of sex and age between the pupils of the melamdim and between the pupils of the schreibers. The melamdim taught elementary school age children, while the schreibers taught girls of the age of adolescence, especially

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when they reached the age of getting married and needed to write letters to their fiancÚs.

Remembered for praise was Valia (Velvel) the Schreiber, an elderly man with a black beard which old age had sprinkled with grey before his time. He was an expert in teaching domestic help who were about to find a match. And also remembered was the Anfiher – “leader”, who would write for them wonderfully lovely round letters of the alphabet at the top of the sheet of paper. The girl pupils had to copy them dozens of times until they could write them fluently. This is what they wrote in Yiddish: “To my very beloved Broitigas, farewell” or “to my very honorable father–in–law, Good–bye”. And before they reached that point, they were given a lesson in writing letters of the alphabet by another “leader”, who used a beginner's book for writing in Yiddish and Hebrew which was arranged according to the “forward and backward alphabet”, first according to the direct order and afterwards according to the backward order in Hebrew– T–Sh– R–K, etc. For example, Tishrok tzefas nimlach yetchaz v'hadag ba – “On a Table Fit for Kings” – where the letters “On the Table Fit for Kings” – were for stylistic effect and for completing the line so that it wouldn't remain empty.

Right after lunch, when the ladies of the house were resting after the meal, Velvel would come into the kitchen and impart his lesson to the maid or to two or three maids who would get together for an hour. And late at night, the maid would sit by the long sheet of paper and copy the lovely rows, which were getting warm from the light of the kerosene lamp and we children, “the educated ones”, would help her in this aim and would help her overcome the obstacles of the wonderful writing.

Half writer (Schreiber) and half teacher (Lehrer) was the teacher Herzl Dvoski, who was the first to introduce me to the secrets of the alphabet and, if you wish, was my first rebbi.

That is to say, he was not a real rabbi, who teaches in a classroom. However, even if the institution of the kindergarten did not yet exist and no one in our town was aware of the need for one, my parents understood that they had to educate me in Torah before it was time for me to enter the cheder[14], and this duty was assigned to Herzl.

Herzl was one of the best teachers, an intellectual who longed to study, but his life was darkened and he remained an invalid. He was a cripple with a delicate soul and gentle temperament and was among the most outstanding of the “respected poor people” in our neighborhood.

His father was a fundraiser for the nearby Mir Yeshiva, Reb Yehoshua Dvoretski, son of Rabbi Mazhtil. All year long, Reb Yehoshua would go around the small towns of the district and collect money for the benefit of the yeshiva and would come home to our town for the holidays. And since our town didn't belong to his area of activity, because another fundraiser of the Mir Yeshiva, Rabbi Yaakov Meir Halavan, was a permanent resident here, he (Reb Yehoshua) was not accustomed to asking for money in our town, but everyone in the town enjoyed the tunes he would bring back from his travels, and for many years we were accustomed to singing “Rejoice and be happy on Simchat Torah!” with Reb Yehoshua Dvoretski's melody. He himself, this Reb Yehoshua, who was a superlative scholar, very affable and sociable, had great plans. He yearned to build a house of his own and, opposite the bathhouse at the corner, was the start of a big house which he began to build for his extended family. However, he put off building the next part of the house from year to year on account of his perpetual poverty. And “for the time being”, his large family crowded into two temporary shacks: one for himself with his three grown daughters and his aged mother, Rabbi Mazhtil's elderly wife, and one for his son, Herzl, who also had already married and was the father of five children, all of whom were supported by Reb Yehoshua.

And how well I remember the tragedy that cast fright on the entire town and which, in my youth, I absorbed in my memory in all its horror. Reb Yehoshua succeeded in marrying off his oldest daughter, the first of his daughters, all of whom had already reached maturity and, in addition, he brought into the family a scholarly son–in–law from among the select yeshiva students, a promising intellectual. They celebrated their wedding with much preparation in the shack, whose roof they had not yet managed to cover due to lack of money, and the wedding itself was bound up with many worries and expenses which they couldn't cover. And Reb Yehoshua arrived home for the wedding from his travels on the day of the chuppa[15] together with his son–in–law's parents from out of town and with the administrators of the yeshiva, and at the very time he led his daughter to the chuppa, his heart could not stop its sufferings and broke within him and he died. They went to ask the rabbi of the town what to do according to the law. The rabbi ruled that the wedding should not be cancelled. They celebrated the nuptial festivities without music instruments and with wailing, and right after the marriage ceremony they left for the funeral and for the delivery of eulogies. And there was great mourning in the whole town.

And when Reb Yehoshua died on the day of his daughter's wedding, his elderly mother, the wife of Rabbi Mazhtil, was still alive and dependent on her widowed daughter. This rabbi's wife was a very old lady, tiny and shriveled and completely wrapped in her shabbis[16] and strange knottings. She was famous in the town as being familiar with incantations and as someone who could express an oath against an “evil eye”, capable of healing tooth–aches with an utterance and preparing a watery solution for eye pains.

And the young son–in–law whom Reb Yehoshua brought for his daughter from among the finest yeshiva students was a luckless fellow whose name was also Yehoshua like that of his father–in–law. He quickly came down with tuberculosis, and everyone in our town would tell dreadful stories – that the young scholar, “Yehoshua, Reb Yehoshua's son–in–law”, was “coughing up blood” and that there was no hope for his life.

And Herzl had a wife whose name was Hinde Esther, whose lungs were perforated and who was of no use for earning a livelihood, and besides she was always in an advanced stage of pregnancy and was always busy nursing. In the very year Reb Yehoshua died, Herzl was already the father of five children – a twelve year old daughter and four sons from the age of ten and downward, and among them were some known to be sickly and in need of medicine. And the shack was still very temporary and the stove was smoking. And these two large families, one consisting of Reb Yehoshua's widow, his elderly mother and three daughters and his ailing son–in–law, and Herzl's family of seven persons, were left without a single breadwinner except for this Herzl, an invalid confined to his chair, whose whole livelihood was based on stuffing tobacco into rings of papyrus paper and he would sell cigarettes to smokers in the small town.

Herzl left for several months to visit his brother, Mendel Dvoretski, who lived in Grodno and was engaged in the lumber business, and he (Herzl) brought back an artificial leg made of iron and wood, the first artificial leg that was seen in our town. The work of making and selling cigarettes was divided among the girls of the house. And he “wore” his artificial leg and began going around to the homes of important people “to give lessons” to their small children before they started going to cheder.

And this Herzl was my first teacher.

I remember very well the way he taught the alphabet. And this is how he taught (in Yiddish) – with a heartfelt melody and with an illustrative explanation: “Above a bucket and

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below a bucket and in the middle a yoke for carrying the buckets and “this is … (the letter) aleph[17] (A)”. Years later when |I read “Safiach” by Chaim Nachman Bialik[18], I found out for the first time that his order of teaching was very popular and I, in my innocence, thought that it was entirely the fruit of creation of my teacher Herzl's imagination. I was very fond of him and especially liked the long recess he would leave for “it is…” – to give me sufficient time to guess the hoped–for aleph and not, God forbid, to fail.

That is to say, despite his many troubles and economic distress, my first teacher had a smiling face, pleasant temperament and gentle disposition, and within the jubilation of the life of a wretchedly poor person and the appearance of a hungry artist, I was brought for the first time into the “vestibule” of Torah, from which the way led to the “salon” of the cheder.

And I was then four and a half years old.

 

B. Rabbi Chaim Itched

And really in the cheder– the first of my chiders, ruled the rabbi, Reb Chaim Itched (Borsuk).

He was a short man, thin and nimble, agile in numerous skills and fond of children. I was five years old when I entered his cheder, which was inside his house at the top of Minsk Street at the end of the yard of the town “elder”, Shlomo Rozovski. Beyond the yard, stood out the famous mountain to which housewives of the small town would come on the eve of Sabbath to collect yellow sand, clean and sparkling, with which to honor their floors in honor of the Sabbath. Between the house and the mountain was another fruit garden which the rebbi himself and his wife and children would care for in their free time.

The chederin which we learned also served as a dining room for the rebbi and his household and also as a kitchen because a big oven filled the first half of the room, and the rebbi's wife would stand beside it for hours before lunch. She was tall and thin and always sickly, with a shovel or pitchfork in her hand and she would bake bread and cook the meals and would take out of the oven and put in the pots blackened from soot and place them on the range next to the blazing oven. From her position next to the oven, she would carefully listen to the melodies of her husband, the rebbi, and to the singing of the twenty pupils seated at the two long tables at the end of the room. We sat across from one another at the two tables, about ten children at each table, and the rebbi, wearing a long, very light cloak, with both hands clasped behind his back, would walk between both tables and the breadth of the whole room back and forth with a shiny whip in his sash, and both corners of his cloak would move to the rhythm of his walking and would accompany, with their movements, the singing of his reading the prayers in a joyous voice: “Bless–ed is He– Who spoke and– the world –came into– being.” And all of us would look into our prayer books in front of us and would repeat after him out loud and in a chorus, syllable after syllable, and the syllables which were unintelligible were strung together (rhymed) to the children's refrain which was purified and precious and which was sung so nicely in a wonderful song, sung and repeated until we learned it all by heart: Bless–ed is He– Who spoke – and – …

That's how we began to learn “Hebrew”.

Apparently, the shiny whip was only there for an ornament and served as a kind of tuning fork for the whole choir, but woe to the boy who looked up at the ceiling or at the window facing the mountain and would forget to keep his finger on his prayer book and take his mind off the group singing; the whip would immediately jab with amazing briskness right on the back of the finger that moved away automatically, and the child was removed from his dreaming with a galloping jump. And the rebbi, as if he were only chasing a fly off the table, wouldn't stop his singing instruction and only the tearful voice of the child who was caught misbehaving reminded the whole class what had happened there before our eyes and what might happen to any one of us if we were distracted for a second from our study or singing.

The learning of “Hebrew” was the subject matter of one of the tables, the one for the beginners, which was next to the windows. However, at that very time itself, the second class was seated at the second table and was reviewing a chapter of Chumash[19], which the rebbi had taught them several hours earlier. The class would repeat the chapter aloud and in a chorus, verse by verse, and the rabbi, who meanwhile was conducting the choir at the table for the younger children, would sense immediately, with special alertness, if one of the pupils at the Chumash table was falling behind in his study or was not translating the words accurately. The whip would immediately jump out of the rebbi's sash and he would lash the finger of the boy who failed and returned him, crying bitterly, to his learning.

And if, before lunch, the class of little children was seated at the first table learning how to read, and the second class was seated at the parallel table “reviewing” their learning of Chumash, the order would change in the afternoon hours, and both parallel choirs would sing two different melodies simultaneously. The happy rebbi would walk between both tables like an experienced commander leading both battles at the same time with his hands joined together behind his back, the whip in his sash and the ends of his light cloak moving like two wings of doves according to the accents of the rhythm of the joyful song.

The relations between both classes, the class of the older children, which was the Chumash class and that of the beginners, which was the “Hebrew” class, were not the finest, and the somewhat older children (the whole difference between them was only one year of learning) mistreated the smaller ones, who were weaker and less protected. And if, in class, the respect for the rebbi still restrained the bad inclinations of the tyrants, outside, however, when the children went home together after school, the “strong ones” would make fun of the “small ones”, mock them, hit them with murderous blows and rejoice over their weeping. Only in the winter months, when the nights grew very dark and the dim light of the lanterns which the children held in their hands would further deepen the terror of the darkness in the street, their shared fear would make peace, so to say, between the rivals, and like a flock of bleating sheep, which wolves were lying in wait for, the children in both classes of the cheder would forget their quarrels and crowd together into one small flock, making their way between terrible dangers, bonded in their weakness and united in their dread of “demons”.

From this account of these terrors of childhood, I recall one incident in particular, the horror of which I could not get over for years.

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It was in the winter “term”. Because of the remoteness of the rebbi's house, it was decided to rent a room closer to the pupils' homes. The rebbi rented a cheder in the home of the woman, Rashe, on a street leading to the bathhouse, opposite the old cemetery which was in the synagogue yard. The rebbi happened to have a yahrzeit[20] or a happy occasion on the same day the cheder moved and was absent from the cheder all afternoon, and the pupils in the class of older children were learning the Torah portion of the sacrifices. They decided to play “And you shall bring a sacrifice” and since I was the smallest in the class of small children, it was determined that I should be the sacrifice, and all my opposition was to no avail. My classmates were afraid to protect me, and the “stronger” boys surrounded me and tied me to the bench. One of the “violent” boys in the older class was the High Priest, who wrapped himself in a tablecloth which he had removed from the table and uttered some blessing with devoutness and with a trill, and the children in the class lifted me up, my hands and feet bound to the bench, and singing “Charity saves one from death” took me out to the worn down and low gravestones in the old cemetery, where no one ever set a foot. They left me there with my hands and feet bound and my mouth gagged, and then returned to the cheder in a festive procession. I shall never forget the terror that befell me in my solitude among the dead and the anger that burned within me from the cruelty of my rivals and the cowardliness of my friends and mainly from the strange shadows among the ancient tombstones that struck me with fear. The “blessings” of the violent priest also frightened me, and it seemed like an eternity until the rebbi came running in panic, followed by all my classmates – and rescued me.

 

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Reb Chaim Itche Borsuk

 

The rebbi got angry in vain and punished the class of older pupils. The inciters and priests were whipped one by one. The whip celebrated its victories all day long, but the dread of that hour did not leave me for a long time, and also my connection to the rebbi, my redeemer– the pain of whose soul and the sincerity of whose sorrow I saw– grew from then on.

In general, the rebbi, Reb Chaim Itche, was unique – good hearted and of gentle temperament and stood out for years from among all my teachers in our town. First of all, because of his love of Zion. It seems to me that in my childhood, he was the only one of my teachers who, despite the prohibition of the town rabbi, dared to lend a hand to the Zionists. The name Mizrachi[21] was not yet known in Steibtz, but he was a Mizrachi person even before the coming of Mizrachi to our small town. Here is the story of the Zionist preacher who came to sell shares of the Colonial Bank. The preacher spoke in the new synagogue and aroused the enthusiasm of his listeners, calling upon them to volunteer financially, but the community, which was not yet accustomed to offering free–will donations, didn't hurry to accede to his request. The rebbi, Reb Chaim Itche, went up to the pulpit and took out from his breast–pocket his “onion”, the yellow watch which was his sole possession and according to which he conducted the entire order of instruction. He placed it on the table and called upon the influential synagogue members to take out their watches as well and to purchase “stocks”, and this incident became the subject of much conversation. And he was fond of us pupils mainly on account of his second treasured possession: he was a skilled craftsman who could do anything with his pocket–knife. When we got to Chumash and were learning with him the first chapters of the weekly Torah portion and a verse with Rashi[22], he would tell us by heart the story of the events of the remaining chapters in order to maintain a connection with the next portion, which we didn't have enough time to learn the following week either, except for the first few chapters. In the course of the story, he would attach handicrafts to explain details of the Torah portions. He especially excelled in two permanent subjects which the second rebbi, our Bible teacher, Reb Yaakov Meir “of the yellow beard”, dealt with afterwards and improved – in the Torah portion of the High Priest's breast–plate and in the portion of the building of the Tabernacle. The priest's breast–plate and vest were cut out of paper. The pupils would bring from their homes, with hectic preparation and enthusiastic festivity, large clean sheets of paper and pencils with two colors– red and blue at both ends– and he, the rebbi, would spread himself out along the entire length of the sheets of paper, the ends of which were glued together like one wide curtain extending on the table, and with his scissors, he would cut out– like a tailor's work of art– the wide undergarment of the vest and the thin shoulder–straps interwoven above the shoulders and the square–shaped breast–plate on the priest's chest, all of which was one piece of leather (cloth) sufficient to cover the whole pattern. And then he would sharpen both ends of the pencils very nicely, close his right eye a little, extend the tip of his tongue from the left corner of his mouth for better concentration and, putting his mind to his task with much intelligence and meticulousness, he would divide the breast–plate into twelve equal squares, corresponding to the number of the Tribes of Israel and fill them all in with great splendor with the colors of the pencils as if he were drawing all twelve special stones mentioned in that portion of the Bible. And woe to the child who mixed up the topaz stone with the agate stone and the onyx stone with an alabaster! We worked on this masterpiece for two weeks. He the rebbi, with his pencils, and all of us standing closely around him like his servants, and when he finished all his work, and the folded vest, which was cut out very nicely with the gloriously shining breast–plate, was all finished in its splendor– we felt as though our rebbi had the appearance of the High Priest performing his service in the Temple.

And more complex and more prolonged was the work of the building of the Tabernacle. Here we had to gather all the building material including potatoes, which the rebbi's pocket–knife cut miraculously to cut, measure and sharpen the boards, bolts and the sockets according to all the precise measurements indicated in the Torah portion, Terumah[23] in their length and breadth according to the exact scale which was measured according to the grooves

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in the rebbi's wife's knife. And the sockets were covered with silver paper and the boards with gold paper which the son of Reb Shmuel Yehoshua the storekeeper, would bring to the rebbi as presents from his parents. And all of us were called upon to pilfer from our home colorful pieces of cloth, wool and velvet and silk for making the curtains and tachash[24] skins and fine linen, everything as detailed in the Chumash.

This work of art, the progress of which we all followed with endless pleasure and great enthusiasm, went on for weeks and we saw ourselves as partners in a work of magic which had no measure.

And our rebbi also was outstanding in the fact that he raised his sons to be craftsmen. One son was a noted metalworker. The second son was a watchmaker, and there was some hidden connection between the rebbi's love for the Land of Israel and his love of work. I don't recall that it was discussed and I certainly didn't understand the connection, but the fact spoke for itself. Perhaps it's not just by chance that his grandchildren were among the first from our town to go to live in the Land of Israel. Surely they are Noach Borsuk (Noach, Yoshke–Chaim Itche's son), who was one of the first workers at the Tel Aviv port, and Chana Chuldait (translation of the name Borsuk) was the directress of work at Potter's large citrus grove in Gedera. And his grandson, the son of his second son, whose name was also Noach, was one of the first founders of Gordonia[25] and those loyal to it in Steibtz, until the last days of the existence of our small town.

 

C. Reb Yaakov Meir with the Yellow Beard

When I finished learning in the cheder of Reb Chaim Itche, my first teacher, three “terms” after entering his class, the ways were open for me to study with several Bible and “beginning Gemara” teachers who were well–known in our town. I could turn to Shmaril the Teacher, to whom most of the members of the large synagogue used to send their children, or it was possible to send me to Avrahomel the Teacher, who was also our close neighbor, a calm and refined person with a pleasant face, but both he and Shmaril were counted among the misnagdim and those who prayed in the Chassidic shtibel were no longer in the habit of sending their children to them.

 

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Reb Yaakov Meir Tzurlik

 

My father chose to send me to Reb Yaakov Meir's cheder because he was one of the worshipers in our shtibel and known as a teacher of action, an expert on Ibn Ezra[26] and accustomed to his work as an educator.

Reb Yaakov Meir was a teacher, son of a teacher, Reb Moshe Lib The Old One who, when he reached old age, decided to close his cheder and go to live in the Land of Israel, which became a great event in our town, and he was the first person who moved to the Land of Israel that I had ever seen in my life. Reb Moshe Lib was short,

 

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Reb Moshe Lib Tzurlik

 

with a white beard that wasn't particularly long, wore clean clothes and walked about easily. It was said that when his wife refused to move with him to the Land of Israel, he divorced her according to Jewish law and emigrated by himself. I was six years old when this event occurred and I still remember the people on our street going to him one by one for a blessing upon his departure. Early in the morning after the prayer service, when Reb Moshe Lib kissed the mezuzza of the large synagogue and, with his prayer shawl and phylacteries under his arm and wearing his new coat, he went out to the wagon which was waiting to take him to the railroad station and the congregation stood up as if stunned by the magnitude of the sublimity of his action. It was as if this old man was raised up in our eyes to some higher and marvelous world which fills every inner part of the soul, even though the soul is unable to describe either its reason or its form, something like the way the Lord took Enoch (Chanoch) away from this world in the sight of all the people[27].

Dozens of years later, I once happened to be at the “Hotel America” in Tel Aviv and behold! , on the door, across from me, a picture was displayed of Reb Moshe Lib, father of my rabbi Reb Yaakov Meir, and I remembered him in my youth before he went to live in the Land of Israel. It turns out that Reb Moshe Lib's older son managed to emigrate to America before his father went to live in the Land of Israel and that it was he who sent his father the fare to travel to the Land of Israel. Reb Moshe Lib had a photo taken before his journey in order to obtain an exit document, and he sent one picture to his son in the USA. Many years later, when the daughter of the same son was widowed from her husband, she took her family and went to live in the Land of Israel, where her grandfather had gone to live, and when she came to Tel Aviv, she opened a hotel for tourists and immigrants from America and she named the hotel after the country of her birth. She enlarged the small picture of her father's father and hung it in the hotel lounge. This is now Hotel Fish on Lilienblum Street in Tel Aviv.

I remember that Reb Moshe Lib's elderly divorced wife, who had no desire to follow him to the far–off Holy Land, got married again to a distant relative of ours, to the elderly Reb Yona, who was a loyal agent in my uncle's forest, and I remember that the quiet wedding, without any musicians and without any dancing,

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took place in our house and I still recall the deep sorrow that descended upon all of us at the silent wedding of the elderly lady who refused to go to live in the Holy Land with her old husband, and chose instead to follow this old man who lived in a village among non–Jews.

In any case, this Reb Yaakov Meir, second son of Reb Moshe Lib, who inherited the cheder from his father and became a teacher, was like a member of our household, Every evening, between the afternoon and evening service, he would come to our house and mother would give him tea with milk. And mother would relate in his ears and in the ears of the people who would come with him chapters from the many German and Russian books she read in the evenings and she would spice her conversation with stories of tales from her town Mir and from stories of the “blacks”, from which she issued. Mother would not tire of telling stories, nor would those ears become sated from listening to them. And I, the little boy, whenever I happened to be at the table, would cup my ears like a receiver.

And under Reb Yaakov Meir's strong hand, I got the taste of the cheder in all its severity and seriousness, its pleasures and burdens, for five consecutive “terms” about ten hours a day, winter and summer, morning and evening.

Like all the teachers of our small town, this rebbi was also exceedingly poor. He was the father of five children and irascible by nature. The tuition he received from twelve pupils was never enough to support his large family. His industrious and clever wife, her name was Esther Rivka, was compelled to be a helpmate for him in matters of earning a livelihood as well. She would buy chickens at the market for housewives in the town, prepare goose skins for them for the winter and would serve as a go–between for arranging girls from the surrounding villages to work for them as maids and, on account of her numerous businesses, she would often hand over the housework and care of the children to her husband, the rebbi, who was tormented all day long by twenty naughty pupils and they in turn were tormented under his hand.

We studied Gemara with Reb Yaakov Meir before noon and Prophets and Writings[28] before evening. We studied Bible according to a special order. At the beginning, we learned the Book of Proverbs. I remember that during that first winter when I studied with him, that I learned the whole Book of Proverbs by heart. We had a kind of favorite game which we played in the shtibel during the evening hours between the afternoon and evening services. The game was called “Verses”, that is to say, one boy would recite half of a verse and the second boy had to add the second part. That same winter– and I was about 8 years old – I often devoted myself to putting together a “literary composition” and for many years, Father, of blessed memory, kept my journal which I made out of long sheets of paper, and the journal had 22 pages corresponding to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. I entered all my favorite sayings from Proverbs into this notebook, arranging them in alphabetical order according to the first letter with which the saying begins. This involved a special skill in estimating how much space had to be left between the lines so that additional sayings could be entered without disturbing the order of the alphabet.

And after Proverbs we learned Jeremiah and then Isaiah and later the Twelve Minor Prophets followed by Psalms, each book a “term”, all five “terms”. The rebbi would also use Ibn Ezra's commentary for his explanation, but we pupils were only allowed to consider Rashi's interpretation. We were also permitted to look into Metzudot[29], but only in the later “terms”. All the lucid hours before noon were devoted to the study of Gemara. We began with: “If one places a jug on public ground[30]” and we studied this chapter all winter. Afterwards we learned “Two people grab a prayer shawl[31]”, and then “If one drives his sheep into a sheep pen” and after that “ If one bought gold and silver coins together, gold coins give right to the silver”, first one chapter a “term” and later other chapters, first without Rashi and later with Rashi. Afterwards the rebbi began to expose us to the mysteries of the Tosefot when every “if you say” and every “you must say” seemed like a surprising discovery to us. And when we finished five “terms” with Reb Yaakov Meir, and we entered Bunia the Gemara Teacher's class, we had already learned to like the “give and take” in the Gemara much more than the Mishna and the hair–splitting in the Tosafot still much more than the Gemara itself.

The pupils would change every “term”, one leaving and one coming, but there was a perpetual nucleus, among which were my friends Mottel, son of Reb Eliya the Ritual Slaughterer, Eliyahu, son of Azriel the Butcher and others who remained all five “terms” and constituted a kind of unit by itself. We still hadn't learned secular subjects during the five “terms”. Only one hour a day, between one and two o'clock before lunch, we would learn simple writing in Hebrew according to Niv Sifatayim[32]. That was the only concession to the “spirit of the times”.

In the first “term”, during which we learned Proverbs, the study of Bible was a kind of game, but when we started with Jeremiah and later Isaiah, all my attention was concentrated on these books. When the rebbi would explain a chapter of these prophets, the heavens opened before me. When I learned chapters from Jeremiah, Zionism already filled the secret places of my soul and I couldn't understand how it was possible for the rebbi and the rest of the religious elementary school teachers, who were surely admirers of Jeremiah the Prophet, as were the rebbi and I, to be opposed to the Zionism of our day! And when we got to Isaiah, to the verse, “Let me sing of my beloved[33], I myself became an admonisher at the gate and on Sabbath afternoons, I would wrap myself in a sheet as in a prayer shawl, and stack up the dining room chairs one atop the other and preached my words before all the members of our household who were seated at the table, like a sermonizer whose chapters of prophesy are fluent on his lips and fill the whole cavity of his heart.

The rebbi himself was not among the most pleasant of teachers to his pupils and he didn't refrain from administering beatings. Although we had already finished with flogging with a strap, which was very customary on the part of teachers of small children just beginning school, actual beatings came in their place with fury and especially on the weekends, when we had to repeat in the rebbi's ears the chapters which he had taught us at the beginning of the week. On those days the rebbi would get angry and furious and at every difficult word whose meaning we distorted or at every complex verse whose explanation we forgot, he would deal a blow to the child with his fist as if he were beating an adult. I especially remember one form of beating in which the Reb Yaacov Meir excelled and of which I had a deathly fear. When the rebbi got angry, he was accustomed to grabbing a child who failed by the arm and he would twist it with all his might and beat on the elbow of the deformed arm with the table board until all his wrath dissipated. All the children at the table would break into wails at the sight of the agony of the child who was crying out. The rebbi didn't leave him alone until both of them grew tired and very pale.

But, on the other hand, at the beginning of the week, when he would introduce us to a chapter which we had not yet learned and would exaggerate with his explanations of the chapter of prophecy in an effort to explain to us the sweetness of the poetic style and the exultation in the thought and outlook on Israel and its God, we would forget the rebbi's mean tricks and would drink up the prophet's poetic style with intoxicated excitement.

Between the afternoon and evening services when we would meet with the rest of the pupils of our age, pupils from other cheders, we would compare our rebbi's explanations with those of Shmarel the Teacher or of Avrahomel the Teacher,

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and it seemed to us that our rebbi clarified everything more wonderfully than all the other teachers in the town –

Than all of them except for one:

There was one teacher in our small town that I loved secretly, but I didn't dare reveal to myself that I was eager to study with him. This was Itche Tanchum's son.

He wasn't a teacher but rather a maggid[34] by nature and according to his mission. On Sabbath evenings, he would speak in the craftsmen's study hall which was in Yorzdika (Street), and in the months between “terms”, he would wander through the small towns and preach in the synagogues and was received very well by the listeners. And he was well–known in our town by the name Der Steibtzer Maggid – The Steibtz Preacher. But during the days of the “term”, he would teach Torah to his pupils, the majority of whom were residents of Yorzdika. Those who lived at the “market” and the synagogue complex didn't forget the grave sin that came upon him: he wasn't among those who hated strong drink and neither was he particularly pious in his opinions. All the observant Jews in our town disassociated themselves from him and only the hearts of the all the craftsmen were captivated by him and by his sermons and they were faithful to him in all circumstances.

I had a cousin and his name was Peretz. He came to our small town from the town of Shirvint[35] near Vilna to stay as a guest at the home of his uncle – he is my uncle, chairman of the Zionist Association in our town. Peretz was a diligent and sharp boy two years older than me. My uncle was well–off and educated from his youth and fear of the rabbi did not bother him and the reverence for my grandfather didn't prove burdensome to him. My uncle decided to send Peretz, his guest, to learn Torah in Itche Tanchum's son's cheder.

When we used to meet during the year in the afternoon in our yard and Peretz would compete with me in explaining the meaning of verses and pass on before me the wealth of his explanations and his rebbi's melodies, I would lay down all my arms and my soul bereft was led astray by his explanations, in which there were both interpretation and song, and within the wonderful melody and emphasis, all the difficult verses would be explained by themselves and etched in my memory forever:

Woe to me! Alas and alack!
I would never believe it,
That a city that was once filled with law,
In which there was righteousness
And now murderers.
Woe to me! Alas and alack!
[36]

And the “Woe to me!!” would be stretched out very much and break one's heart and there would be no need of additional explanation, for the amazement and calamity would be revealed to everyone and the soul would refuse to be comforted.

And at the climax of the passion and pampering trill of his voice, little Peretz would get to his singing of the rebbi's explanation of the “Song of Songs”, which would win my affection from afar:

My dove,
In the clefts of the rocks,
In the hidden places of the terraces
Show me your face!
And let me hear your voice!

And there was no need at all for further explanation and no need at all for a clarification of the words, for there was no end to the yearning in the song and to the claim which has no hope of being satisfied. We thirstily drank up the sweetness of the inexplicable desires.

But grandfather forbid me to learn with him (Itche Tanchum's son) and father obeyed grandfather's order, for they said: His strictness in matters of piety is not complete – and so I didn't merit it to be close to him.

Much later, when I became friendly with a yeshiva student who was about to “become sour”[37], he told me that once, after Reb Itche Tanchum's son's sermon, he took a long walk with him and he (the student) recounted the bitterness of his heart to him, how hard it was for a young person of our generation to be careful in carrying out all the commandments, and that he struggled very much in doing so. Reb Itche Tanchum's son answered him as was his wont with a parable.

This is a story of a child who was playing a game of horses with his friend. He was the horse and his friend was the coachman. His friend tied him to a tree and went to bring him fodder. An hour went by, then two hours and his friend didn't return. The boy–horse was standing in the rain tied to the tree weeping bitterly. His uncle passed by and asked:

Yankele, why are you crying?

Yankele, in tears, answered him: Why shouldn't I be crying? Dovid, my coachman, tied me to a tree and promised to bring me fodder and hasn't returned, and I'm cold and hungry.

His uncle said: Foolish Yankele, just untie the knot and go home and you'll be warm and have something to eat.

But– wept Yankele– If I untie the knot, “I won't be a horse anymore”.

And he who understands will understand – I felt goosebumps in my flesh hearing these slanderous words, and I began to understand the secret of my prudent grandfather's fears and to make peace with him in my heart.

But the study of the Prophets filled only the second half of the day of the cheder – with the first half – the half devoted to the study of Gemara increasing and occupying the whole morning. And when we already began to taste the sharp–witted taste of the Tosafot, and the study of Gemara became the main thing both in the eyes of the rebbi, who taught Gemara all week, and in the eyes of my father, who tested me on the Sabbath days, I inevitably had to move on to another teacher who only taught Gemara. And when the five “terms' were over, we – I, Mottel and the whole core of boys who were with us – were handed over to Bonia the Gemara Teacher.

 

D. Reb Bunia the Gemara Teacher

Bunia, too, was a worshipper in the shtibel. He used to pray in the corner of the second row of benches opposite the eastern bench and his prayer stand was close to the window. In the beginning, he wasn't among those of whom I was particularly fond in the shtibel. He was irascible and an expert cougher. When his cough was most annoying, he would turn all red and the worshippers would hold their breath and lower their voices –worried lest the cough would destroy him– and I would watch from afar in great fear, wondering when his suffocating cough would stop and the threatening redness would be removed from his face. He was a follower of the Koidanov sect, devout and ill. He breathed heavily and was a great scholar. It was said that if it weren't for his bad temper, which came upon him on account of his cough, he could certainly have been a judge in our town.

[Page 87]

Now he had to be satisfied with a teaching “position” and the “position” – was small. We were 8 boys in his cheder, and all of our learning was devoted to Gemara. We learned Tractate Ketubot[38] and the learning lasted an entire day. For the learning of Hebrew writing a teacher from outside would come for an hour because our rebbi didn't tend to such things. Only on one day, and that was Friday, he would stop teaching Gemara and go over the weekly Torah portion with the cantillation and that day of all days was the terrible day of calamity in the cheder, and I was the worst of all the pupils on that very day. By no means could I grasp the correct trill of the various cantillation accents. I hated his grating and screaming voice and I had a fear of every pezer and shalshelet[39], during the production of which, he would be seized by a suffocating cough, and his face would turn red and swollen like a beet. Since, due to my fright, I didn't succeed at all in carrying out his instructions with regard to the exact chanting of the melody and since he, due to his piety, had a deathly fear that I might, God forbid, spoil the precise utterance of the trill, he would repeat and make an effort to correct me and beat me. And the same cough would immediately return and attack him for a longer time and afflict him even more, and it was hard to withstand his agony and our agony. For me it was a day of “beating on the grave”[40], a day which I dreaded – this learning of the cantillation of the Torah.

But two good people in the rebbi's house somewhat lessened the panic involved in learning and brought out small hearts closer to the cheder of the enraged rebbi. One person was the rebbi's poor and proper wife who took pity on all of us. And the other was the sickly daughter who was suspected of suffering from consumption and who served her father with pleasantness and tenderness, and we all showed kindness to her.

The rebbi, too, was exceedingly poor although the tuition he charged was higher and the few parents would pay him generously at the beginning of the “term”, and he had sons in America whose pictures were hanging on the wall and, on the eve of every holiday, they would remember their parents with a nice present and an impressive check with lots of illustrations which was brought to the rich notable of the town and which was exchanged for the country's rubles. And here, for the first time, we heard about the wonders of the rate of exchange, which would rise and fall. The rebbi, who took his time reciting the morning prayers and put on two pairs of phylacteries and then studied traditional laws for the sake of the deceased of our small stibel, while wrapped in his tallit long after the prayers had finished, would always be late coming to the cheder. And we, the children, would cooperate with the rebbi's wife in preparing the mechiya (sustenance) for the rebbi. He was missing several teeth and it was hard for him to chew. His wife would prepare a kettle of hot water for him. She would pour the boiling water into a deep, tin bowl and sweeten it with sugar candy, and we would cut up stale challa and bread which we put into the boiling water and this is what the rebbi ate every morning on his return from the stibel before we sailed into the topic of “the married woman”. The rebbi's wife called this miche and we children understood the connection between this erroneous word which she used and between the mechiya in the Torah, and we derived much pleasure from our linguistic discovery.

I recall very well the clever conversation of the rebbi's charming wife on an intense winter day when she hired a small farmer from a nearby village to chop a “cart–load of wood” for heating, bought in the market. The farmer worked in the yard all morning long in the biting cold and then went into the house to warm up and to have a meal from the bundle which he brought from the village. The farmer was sitting on the floor and opened the bundle set before him in which there was a kind of wide and dry salted fish called taran, whose odor alone increased our thirst within us, and then something fatty, white and pickled burst forth from the bundle, something which the eye of a Jewish boy had never seen in his life and which the farmer, out of clever provocation and malicious winking of the eye, called sala, that is to say, pig or pork. We sinned just by looking at it and we were intent on running away, but the rebbi's wife stopped us and blocked our way to the door and sweetly said: “Little children, May you merit to live a long life! You mustn't say: Pork is foul and I have no desire for it. On the contrary, little children, it would be better to say: Pork is delicious, but the Holy One Blessed be He commanded us not to eat it, and therefore may you merit to live a long life in this world and may you be deserving of a fine reward in the “World to Come!”

The tall and thin rabbi's wife stands before me in her wide apron, blocking our way of escape like an animal, while pleasantly preaching a lesson on conquering one's bad inclinations, in the presence of the little gentile wood chopper who was sitting on the floor, defiling himself with tainted fat (meat) unfit for sacrifice and in the ears of the frightened children seized with horror and physical nausea.

And the second person in the rabbi's house who connected us to him and to his cheder was Bracha, their second oldest daughter who suffered from consumption. She had a delicate complexion and was a little tall for her age and she had a refined soul and great yearning. When she began to cough, she would run away to hide in the closed–off room and her alarmed mother would run after her and we all hurried to bring a glass of cold water from the corridor and a piece of sugar from the closet and a small bottle of the drops which the rebbi's wife would sprinkle on the sugar as we counted and hastened to bring the dear girl the desired remedy, and our hearts were wrapped in prayer – that God should have pity on the tender and delicate girl and quickly send her a cure. And after she sucked on the piece of sugar, we were all careful to say all at once “Be well, Bracha! Be well!”, and we believed in perfect faith that what the medicine wouldn't do, our blessing, pronounced in faith and bursting from each of our hearts, could do.

For our wishing to help this Bracha, we all got our retribution (punishment) because of our friendly and exemplary solidarity.

On that same day, the day when one of the rich members of the shtibel served the congregation a meal in his house on the occasion of performing a mitzvah (good deed) the rebbi put on his long Sabbbath coat right after eating his mechiya and left for the rich man's home. Bracha went to her friend's house and promised to be back by noon. However, she stayed at her friend's house longer than she was supposed to and when she got home, she saw, to her amazement, that she was an hour late because the big clock in the room pointed to one o'clock. Out of fear, she decided to fix the clock. She put a chair on the table, climbed up and tried to move the hand of the clock back one hour. However, as she opened the window of the clock and touched the hand, the hand fell off the face of the clock and the clock stopped working.

All the while there was spirit in us, we hurried to repair the clock and rescue Bracha, who turned as pale as a ghost. However, we were all at a loss. It was the fate of Layzer, son of the Yeshuvnik[41] to be the one to help. He was living at his sister's, who was friendly with the tenant of Kanafei the Watchmaker. And it was therefore taken for granted that he certainly knew a lot about fixing clocks. They stood a chair on the table and Layzer got up on the chair and we all crowded around him to help, and he carefully opened the “doors” of the clock and began to tend to the pendulum and lo and behold – Boom!: the heavy pendulum fell and shattered the bottom of the clock, which was already very old and corroded. At that very moment, as we stood there in horror, the door opened

[Page 88]

and the rebbi, wrapped in his Sabbath cloak, entered and found us all in the midst of our sin and panic.

In vain Bracha cried and begged us not to think it was our fault, but rather that she herself had caused this accident and that we only intended to save her from her distress. We all swore unanimously that Bracha was not guilty at all. Layzer tried to put the blame on himself and we showed our great solidarity and didn't relate any of the details of the incident – nothing at all. And the end of the matter was very bad: we were all whipped, one by one, with the irate rebbi's leather strap, to the sound of poor Bracha's embittered wailings. She had isolated herself in her closed–off room and was sobbing.

We spent an entire year in Rebbi Bunia's cheder and in comparison to our academic achievements in our previous cheders, this year was not fruitful. Even the Book of Ezekiel, which we studied at the last and most tiring hour of the day, did not win over our hearts. My good father saw our torments and began to seek a new teacher suited for the task but didn't find anyone he was looking for among the Gemara teachers in our small town. Although Reb Yehosha the Judge was a “man of action” and a well–known scholar, it was said that he was too strict and wrathful, and besides he was a misnagid and my grandfather's opinions did not please him. A miracle occurred with the arrival of the Parush[42] from Koidanov, who had taught for several years at the home of the Chassidic rabbi there. However, when his pupil, Reb Yosef, came to replace his deceased father as the town rabbi, he (the Parush) left Koidanov and purchased a seat in the shtibel of our small town. And he– Reb Yaakov Dovid Levitan, whose son, Reb Elyakum Getzel Levitan, had then become famous in cities all over Russia as a preacher from the city of Bialystok and later in Brisk in Lithuania, and was the head of the “fanatics” in the war against Zionism and revised education– was an eminent scholar and a great and diligent student who studied assiduously all day and throughout the long evening in our shtibel. However, he had to support his wife, whom he had left in Zaslov. My father, of blessed memory, arranged a small position for him with three pupils, including myself and my friend, Mottel.

Our learning of Gemara, Rashi's commentary and Tosafot was ignited with renewed enthusiasm with our marvelous teacher. In less than three “terms” I knew all 157 pages of Tractate Sabbath by heart and we went thoroughly into Tractate Chulin[43]. However, I have already told about our learning with this rebbi and our conflict with him in another place.[44]

But this rebbi was not at all characteristic of the other teachers of young children in our small town and even we, his pupils, had already stopped seeing ourselves as cheder children.

Translator's Footnotes

  1. “From all my teachers I grew wise” – Psalms 119:99. Return
  2. Ethics of the Fathers 4:16. Return
  3. Psalms 119:1. Return
  4. Gemara – discussion and elucidation of the Mishna– compilation of the Oral Law. Return
  5. Tosafot – Discussions of points mentioned in the Gemara by French and German rabbis of the 11th and 12th centuries. Return
  6. Misnagid – opponent of Chassidism. Return
  7. Shtibel – small synagogue, often in a house, a shtub. Return
  8. Talmud Torah – elementary school for teaching Torah. Return
  9. Schreiber – writer. Return
  10. Lehrer – teacher. Return
  11. Tarbut School – in which many subjects were taught in Hebrew. Return
  12. Moreh – Teacher. Plural = morim. Return
  13. Melamdim – elementary school religious teachers. Return
  14. Cheder (Hebrew) – religious Jewish elementary school for boys. Return
  15. Chuppah – marriage canopy. Return
  16. Shabbis – hair covering worn by observant Jewish women. Return
  17. Aleph – The first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Return
  18. Chaim Nachman Bialik – Hebrew and Yiddish poet, 1873–1934. Return
  19. Chumash – Five Books of Moses. Return
  20. Yahrzeit – anniversary of a death. Return
  21. Mizrachi – religious Zionist movement. Return
  22. Rashi – Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchak, commentator par excellence on the Bible and Talmud, France, 1040– 1105. Return
  23. Terumah – Exodus 25. Return
  24. Tachash – an unknown seal–like mammal. Return
  25. Gordonia – Zionist youth movement. Return
  26. Ibn Ezra – Spanish Jew. 1080–1164, author of a famous commentary on the Five Books of Moses. Return
  27. Genesis, 5:24. Return
  28. Writings – Book of Esther, Ruth, etc. Return
  29. Rashi and Metzudot –two popular interpretations of the Bible. Return
  30. Tractate Bava Kama, Chapter 3. Return
  31. Tractate Baba Metzia, Chapter 1. Return
  32. Niv Sfatayim – “Expression of the Lips”: Hebrew–Yiddish conversation guide. Return
  33. Isaiah 5:1. Return
  34. Maggid – preacher, expositor of Scripture. Return
  35. Širvintos, Lithuania: 55░03' N, 24░57' E. Return
  36. Jeremiah: Lamentations. Translation from Yiddish. Return
  37. Probably slang for “to leave the fold, become an unbeliever”. Return
  38. Ketubot – Marriage contracts. Return
  39. pezer and shalshelet – cantillation signs. Return
  40. Punishment after death – beating of the dead by evil spirits. Return
  41. Yeshuvnik – a Jew who lives in a rural, Christian setting. Return
  42. Parush – a man who leaves his family to study at a yeshiva. Return
  43. Chulin – Profane matters: the slaughter of animals for non–sacrificial use. Return
  44. See “The Parush from Koidanov” (in Hebrew), Morning Stars, “Davar” Publishing Company and “Am Oved” Publishing Company (5th edition, 5712/ 1951, pages 39–52). Return

 

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