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Ch. Barkan
My Shtetl, Unghen

Poems

*
G.L. Gross Publishers, Philadelphia
1959

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H. Barkan

Mein Shtetl Unghen

Copyright, 1959
By
H. BARKAN
4804 N. Franklin Street
Philadelphia, 20, Pa.

MID-CITY PRESS, Inc. N. W. COR. 24th & LOCUST STS., PHILA. PA.

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Dedicated to my parents, the martyrs,
Yakov and Freida Barkan, z”l,
who were killed at the hands of
the murderers, 2 Tammuz 5702 (1941).

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Unghen

My dear shtetl Unghen, in Bessarabia.
You have been destroyed, my shtetl, destroyed by the Nazi world-killers.
I bear you in my heart, like a golden treasure–
With your dreams and ideals,
With your everyday uproar and arguments;
With the grace of your well-kept homes and dressed-up daughters,
As also with your squalid courtyards and deep puddles;
With your fineness and learning,
And with your ordinary, everyday people:
With your holidays and weekdays;
With your deep mentshlichkeit and broadheartedness,
And with your narrow-hearted stinginess…
With your virtues and faults,
But with grace everywhere, in everything,
You are tangled in my heart forever.
You, on whose earth I was born,
Where I spent my childhood and youth…
Trembling I take pen in hand To create your tombstone.

* * *

I stand as though by an open window, and I see you in the distance with my wide-open eyes. It seems like I am young again, and I see you as looked decades ago, before I left you. I see----- ------

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My Shtetl, Unghen

Poems

By

Ch. Barkan

 

Part One:

The Beginning

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1

A Tract of Earth

In the town of Unghen
There once was–
Short, but pompous,
Rich as Korach, and spoiled,
Big-boned, but disjointed
With a long, thick mustache,
With a big stomach and pointed beard,
And eyes flashing and angry–
A prince…Boznia was his name,
And he came from good stock.

Under the heavens high and blue
Lies a stretch of harsh ground.
Green fields are far away,
But the ground there is forlorn.
The wind blows through no rye.
Nought but emptiness, only fury
Not a bird, not a tree–
And not far thence, fine and quiet,
Flows the Pruth in shining splendor.
On the other side–a river
Lies rich in carp and other fish,
An abundance of fish,
And with “salmon” lacking scales, unkosher.
And with smooth shores–

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This belongs to the prince.
Three miles long, under the mountain,
It lies comfortably spread out.
And on the mount there blooms a world
Of villages and woods and fields.

* * *

The prince, innocently and righteously
Tells the Jews from the surrounding shtetls:
“Dear Jews, I will sell you my land,
So come and bargain and buy, and build a shtetl there.
There hunger and need will never hover.
All around are villages full of peasant farmers.
You'll enjoy the blessing of the river and the fields.
You'll live between the sun and the shady woods.
Come, dear Jews, to the ‘market’ in the Prince's courtyard,
And settle on the land that I will sell.”

* * *

The Jews call a gathering,
They dream of great plenty
And they grow warm and heated,
And they foresee a fruitful country…
Settled for long in the shtetls,
They were consumed by gloom
And poverty, while narrowness stifled them–
Yes, this was sent by God!
God would ordain such luck–
We foresee our first crops!…”

* * *

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In these surrounding towns people had wives and children,
And they had long been interwoven there,
They prayed, they were a community, they traded together–
How could they disappear from there so suddenly?
But the new thing beckons, even the hearts tremble:
How does one leave one's brothers and sisters?
They danced together at celebrations and weddings,
Were victims of pogroms, with their children shot;
Like their own skin they knew every path, every stone–
How could one leave behind one's own blood and bones?…

But those villages beckon, green and fertile,
To those who were worn out by struggling for a living.
They yearned for the blessing of fields and bloom
For grain and fruit raised by the farmers' labor.
The earth is blessed there, they judge rightly,
With the fullness of oats and barley and wheat.
For the few groschen that they had collected
They could leave behind the old–God would forgive them…
The earth is fruitful, and the sky is blue,
And they would build a settlement for a good time.

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2

In the Prince's Courtyard

Ten Jews came to the prince's grounds
To take advantage of this “gift, which was ordained.
They caressed their tidy beards into points,
They speculated, they dreamt, with flashing eyes:
That land flowing with milk and honey,
And the prince is wealthy and can afford it…
Nu, they stand there on the terrace, so wide,
And each one in the “courtyard” is alert and prepared.
“Ah, Prince, be well!”–they cry, trembling silently,
Their Jewish hearts in earnest prayer.

And now here comes a short man, a fat man,
The prince himself, and he strokes his beard.
His big stomach is somewhat hidden, in his mouth is a cigar.
And he blows out his cheeks as if he were the czar.

Nu, the trembling men remove their hats,
They hold their breaths and stare and trust entirely to God.
And sitting by the table is a charming young woman,
And she looks to the buyers so lovely, so kind,
And then the prince opens his mouth
And speaks to the Jews as if from a throne,

“Jews, buy this land and build there a town,
With homes and with streets and a shul and a bath;
And a market and all sorts of shops,
And plant there a tree, and also a garden.

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I won't even take a thread of a shoelace,
As Abraham said in your sacred book.
You can build on my ground and it won't cost you much,
You can pay for the ground in an annual installment…
I don't want to make it a permanent sale–
That is strictly forbidden in your holy Torah…”

The prince is still and stands stiff as a wall,
And Jewish eyes look on with fear.
The bright morning shines around them–
But the Jews look on silently, worried:
Those payments could increase without limit–
If unpaid, he could seize the homes for himself.
“You build a home and a granary, so much–
But danger looms, because the ground is not yours…”
But the prince will no longer allow them to doubt,
And he says aloud on that beautiful morning:

“You cannot be fooled by fields and gardens.
There is grain and fruit all over the place
And the farmer's market and the buzz of business.
Oh, oh, will your luck disappear?
You will live and get along without bags of gold;
You know my background, my noble clan,
You'll enjoy my kindness, and you'll live in freedom.
Go to that young girl and sign your name,
Then build a shtetl and prosper…”

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The first to move was Reb Shimele Weiss,
Like someone torn from a block of ice;
A short Jew, with a beard brown and wide,
And big bushy eyebrows.
He walked over boldly, with powerful steps,
Like a soldier who marches while singing a song.
Seeing Reb Shimele moving this way,
Gave the Jews the courage they needed.
In their hearts were mixed both hope and fear–
But the dream dominated, and they stood there in line.

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3

The Assembly

Beaming, the Jews return to their shtetl–
Such a wonder! Such luck!
They forget their worries, no more chagrin–
There are happiness and joy!
In shul on Shabbos they sing praises to God–
For his great favor!
And right after praying for their new settlement–
They drink a “l'chaim.”
Ah, that fertile place on the prince's grounds
Was ordained by God!

And such dreams have settled in their hearts,
Bright and fresh;
They sit around the table in shul
With heads held high.
An assembly of Jews…cramped and in sorrow
They have lived out their years;
Fresh sources of comfort and joy,
And fields of rye!
Those Jews sit, and together they talk
Of their new bit of land.

Their fine leader, Reb Naftali, speaks up,
He puffs out his lips, gives a little cough, and slowly says:
“So good fortune and plenty we will not lack there,
The first thing we build must be a market.

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With stores and stalls conducted by Jews,
And the village farmers will come there to trade,
With milk and cheese and grain and fruit in their baskets,
And trade those for shovels and tools,
And the Jews will deal honestly with them,
And blessings will rule over our homes and our streets.”

Then a second takes a deep breath, as if pulling a wagon,
And gets ready to have his say:
“I'm a plain carpenter, neither rich nor proud.
I plane the boards, make a window, a door.
But I think that far dearer than income or bread
It's incumbent upon us to maintain our faith.
We do need a market, we do need the funds,
But for our faith we would leap in a fire.
I don't have fine words or eloquent ways,
But, Jews, the first thing to build is a shul.”

“Both are correct, Reb Naftali and Ephraim–
These and these are the words of the living God”–
Thus says Zishe Robel in a voice loud and deep,
As he lays his round belly on the table.
“In the Torah there is no before or after–
We learn and do business, and God is our savior.
We can build them in tandem, a market and shul,
And we'll make a good living and still remain frum.
My friends, my friends, what a town that will be,
With fullness and peace, and with rain and sunshine.”

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And they all say together, as if in a choir,
“Things should only be as Reb Zishe has said.”
Another opines, “He speaks like a rabbi.
What Reb Zishe has said is certainly good.”
Then another pipes up, a gabbai from an old shul,
“Pssshh…Reb Zishe is with Torah imbued…”
And like trees full of leaves that blow in the wind
They chatter and move, each one like a child.
“Where there is Torah, there is strength”–says Ephraim the carpenter–
Now spread out the tablecloth and we'll give a l'chaim.”

They talk and they chatter and they cackle like geese,
And they say that in the shtetl no one disagrees;
Because we have one Father who supplies all our needs,
And he feeds both the soul and the body's demands.
They kiss like brothers, with joy and good cheer,
And the carpenter drinks, as if filling a barrel.
“Since Reb Zishele,” he cries, “says we should be frum,
That, for me, is worth a garlic skin.”
And thus ended this meeting of Jews,
And they all left in peace, both happy and full.

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4

Jews Build

The Jews descended en masse on the lot,
And Yakov established a camp out of tents.
The land was deserted, uprooted, and bleak,
All covered with brush and with thorns and wild grass.
But the people believed, and in Heaven was God,
So they pulled out the thorns and they laid a foundation.
They worked full of joy, with chatter and song,
And they raised up their eyes to Heaven with thanks:
“Our praise, our sweet Father, we must give to you,
So protect us forever, our bodies and souls.”

Like brothers they made an agreement:
Conflict, they said, is our greatest risk.
That must be avoided, and so anyone who fights
With another will find himself shunned.
Two shops side by side that sell the same things
Transgresses the law of our holy Torah.
We're building like Jews and living like brothers,
In union and joy, leaving conflict aside.
Each person here has his own place on earth.
He takes what God gives, and that is his due.

* * *

Echoing throughout the fields–
Are hammer blows,
And the racket resounds through the woods
As on a steppe.

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Hammer, saw and iron, stone–
And a song,
A new world–a pure dream
In every limb.
Heaven hears the praise and thanks--
The heart's song.

* * *

The prince has declared that the main road must be built
Before the market…So that the Jews cannot oppress the farmers
And drag them inside.
The market will be open outside the town,
In the empty field;
And after the market, the farmer can go
Where he pleases.
After the market, he can go to the stores in peace
And buy what he wants.

* * *

Pinye the Baker, a short little Jew, stands
On the dug-up ground,
With his visor pointing up,
And he smiles, pensive, in his long,
Narrow beard,
While his face is covered with sweat.
Reb Pinye is thin, but a good lively Jew.
He's thin and he's strong–
Six sons he has to care for.
Two work by the oven, and two are in school,
And two, kina hora,

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With wood and brick and lime–
Hey, my sons, with iron hands and
Wild bravery
We build a home for ourselves!
And Berka the merchant, a middle-sized man
Though broad boned,
He thinks and strokes his beard;
He walks around dreaming of boards
And metal and stones
With his son, but he can't find a spot.
Three non-Jews are building–they measure and hammer and hew and grease,
And he points out to his son:
“There is the room, and the kitchen and the shop and the walls and the doors–
A merchant has to know…
We'll build there tomorrow with my wife and children
In peace and plenty,
A Jew, too, can prosper…”

* * *

Outside it is spring, the sun shines like gold,
As if God wants to reward their weary souls…
And it shines and it warms, there's no lack of sun,
And comforting winds blow from the hills.
A little far off a tree stands with some shade–
Ah, how we longed to have trees!…
Fields and gardens take shape all around,
And the air seems so fresh as the work takes its shape.

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So work there, Jews; set your hands to it,
And we will have dew from Heaven.

And Moise the druggist, with his fine pedigree,
Examines the ground and he mutters.
With cheeks all aglow and his small pointy beard,
He shows both his chins, looks around, and then sighs:
“Workers…all day you sing and you kvell,
You jabber and play and give no thought to cost…
You use…six workers…a shame and disgrace…
Where is the justice for working men?”
And the workers just smile, and the sun gleams in gold,
And men ae also glad that God created such a one…

And Reb Shlomo Feldman walks with some pomp,
A prince of a Jew, with his lumber warehouse.
He thrusts out his full stomach,
And he walks like a king.
A Jew, a stalwart, with a sweet smile,
A head that's grown large but with very small feet.
Our children will increase.
He prowls around just like a cat,
And he snickers as he envisions his new palace…
But he's a good Jew, and he always gives alms,
Like wine that comes from a full barrel.

And the hammers come down and the saw make their noise,
Such hearty sounds

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And the Jews dream of dew and of rain
And familiar songs
Our children will increase
As they “are fruitful and multiply,”
And God will provide sustenance,
Plenty, and peace.
There will be generations of daughters and sons,
Until the end of days.

* * *

The springtime sun throws its beams on the earth
As if to learn what a Jewish heart wants.
The days radiate sun, spectacularly,
As if God wants to show his hand, his strength.
And thirty Jews are spread around,
United by fate and joy, or even sorrow.
And they all regard each other:
Is he building wisely? Will he be satisfied?
Their joy breaks out, and they call to each other
: “Reb Chaim, soon we'll rejoice in our homes.”

* * *

And the hammers bang, and the hands work;
They lay foundations and raise up walls,
Then gather together in a crowd,
Proud of their effort, proud of their work.
“Now, brothers, let's discuss something important.
We need a little shul, a minyan!”
So speaks Yisroel the bathhouse attendant,
Dried out by the steam and as light as a feather.

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His son took over the old bathhouse
And he wonders whether he should come here…

And there with steps fine and quick,
A shochet builds, having first been approved.
His beard is unkempt, he's thin and refined.
Reb Zeydl is young, boards with his father-in-law.
Such a Jew–so innocent, for him no silk or velvet.
He can be a shochet, a mohel, a teacher.
A virtuous scholar, with Jewish vision,
He hopes the Jews will all be kosher.
With five Jewish workers
He builds himself a home in Israel.

The sky is blue, the day is sunny,
And the Jews take the path to plenty.
Their souls are full of song and praise,
Like birds that have left their nest and their prey.
At the end of the day, as night settles in,
Their hearts overflow, and their tongues cease to way.
In the morning there will be a new community–
Quickly they say their evening prayers, Ha-ma'ariv aravim,
And they sleep that night near the prince's village–
“Oh Lord, let us enjoy the fat of the land!”

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5

The Market

Houses stand on the main road in two new rows
And gracefully reflect the sun,
While tunes and melodies
Rise up from Jewish skin and bones.
But now they have to think about their livelihoods
To nourish “God's flock.”
So as the buildings grew, they knew
The peasants would have to feel at home.
They spoke to the prince about this,
And so the morning came…
* * *
Not far from the shops for fruit and for bread,
From the druggist whose powders are weighed by the ounce,
From the dairy and dry goods, from meal and from iron,
There lies a field that is empty and waste,
Where every Thursday a fair takes place,
A busy market, full of commotion.
The farmers come with a horse or an ox,
And they bring their grain and their wool and their flax.
And they bring the plenty of the fertile earth–
Yes, mazel and blessing is there for the Jews.
The peasants arrive from their small villages,
Moldovans making a lot of noise.

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By the side, in long rows on the ground,
Sit peasant women, kerchiefed and freckled, and selling eggs.
And peasants on wagons, with whatever one seeks,
Cry out to the heavens: “Come, people, buy fruit!”
And the Jews look around and they smile and they kvell,
And spread out their goods in their new market stalls.

Everything is for sale there, oxen and steeds,
Whatever one wants, every heart's desire.
Corn and cream and drink and kasha,
From a needle or pins to a leather pouch…
The women cry out, and the hens squawk,
And pigs make a ruckus as loud as they can.
And the merchants, the new ones, shout out their goods–
A chaos, a tempest of people and beasts.
With the sun on their heads and with laughter and jests–
Thanks be to God for that market today!

And the people push and they shove,
As God's bounty surrounds them.
Full sacks of potatoes and onions are there,
And peppers and beets all over the place.
There's a barrel, and pieces of herring laid out,
And opposite that there is pork bright and fat.
And there on a wagon with an old peasant man
Are plums all bedecked with the dew.
And tied up eat their oats and their straw
Like Abraham's camels at Bethuel the Goy.

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And there stands a guy with some flat loaves of bread,
And Vulf the merchant goes after him;
The peasant haggles gallantly
Like a hen that squawks and then lays an egg.
And the slaps resound until one could plotz,
But the buyer hears not as he scratches his neck…
The Jew has a shop there and is helped by his wife–
“Oy a living, a living!”–he needs it for life.
And the market hums and strains every nerve:
“You will eat your bread by the sweat of your brow.”

One walks among wagons, oxen, and steeds,
And one steps in the horse dung on the filthy ground.
By a shed full of jewelry a mirror is held.
A Moldavian woman looks in it with pride.
She sticks out her lips and offers a grimace.

She buys there some beads, like the wife of a lord:
“Your Vasily will fall in love when he sees.
My lady,” beams the merchant, as his eyes burn so bright–
“Your husband won't know you, so pretty you look…”

The heavens are bright as the day lingers on,
And a beautiful spring sun shines down on the world,
While refreshing breezes blow in from the field
And the people buzz and enjoy and take pride in their work.

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And a new kind of sweetness fills everyone's bones:
How fine it is to live in this world!
This market has everything, whatever one wants–
Such plenty and blessing in Bessarabia!
The souls are so happy in these fine men,
For this is the first fair in the shtetl Unghen.

In a wide shed, a high one,
Lie piles of pants, jackets, and vests.
A plump peasant tries something on,
His body grown as wide as a wall.
Over the pants he put pantaloons
And looks sheepishly at his little wife.
“Hey, there's room for more flesh to grow into!”
The wife hears this chatter and then she agrees:
“Oh yes, such an outfit…Now thanks be to God.”

A voice in a deep bass rings out far and wide,
And three baskets all stand there a-wriggling with fish
Carp mixed together with all kinds of fish.
And Petya the Tall, who lives on the banks
With a scale in his hand, standing there all prepared,
Is besieged by his clients, though it's chokingly hot–
“Hey fish, fresh fish!” and he wipes off the sweat

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And the carp and the pike, the finest of fish
That the Jewish wives buy for a fine Shabbos dish.

* * *

Now the daylight grows dim, though some sunbeams remain,
And it seems like the sun just never will set,
Like in Joshua's day, when the sun didn't move–
Oy a wonder from Heaven, a great miracle!
The people bring home their goods from the fair
, And they dream, on the road, of more bountiful days.
And a prayer rises up from their hearts full of praise:
“We are but dust and our value is small…
But we thank you, dear God, for the wine and the grain–
Now a shtetl is born that will bring us good luck.”

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6

Jews Talk about a Prayer House

When God provided their first success,
Those Jews extolled and praised his worth.
They could not quell their beating hearts
Until they donned their tallis and tefillin,
And not just in a “minyan,” where God's light shines dim
But in a beautiful shul with a big crowd of Jews.
They would not be silent, ashamed, or embarrassed,
But on Shabbos they'd pray with a fine baal-tefilah.
As their hearts sing their praises, they remain true to their God,
And they'll hear a fine chazzan sing traditional prayers.

Since the river is there, they are happy and full,
But first, of course, they have to meet.
And so in a room they all take a seat.
The shochet stands up, a man so pure,
And he speaks the language of the wise.
He quotes aloud the words of the Mishnah
In flowery terms:

“Dear Jews, whether young or old–
‘Man was formed in the image of God.’

That's why human beings, especially Jews,
Never tire of praising his sacred name.
But without a beis-medresh, it's simply too hard
For us to tread on God's good earth.

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The highest degree of reaching for God
Is to busy oneself in the Torah so dear.
It's good for the soul to sing praises of God,
To have a fine shul and walk on God's paths.
So each one should pledge as much as he can,
And we'll build a beis-medresh with the help of our God.”

Then Reb Zeydl exclaimed, “My masters, my masters”–
And he searches his mind for an appropriate verse.
“Let's build an observant Jewish shtetl!
You remember the words of our Talmud's Reb Yose:
‘If you offered me even a whole sea of gold,
I would only live where the Torah is studied…’
Where we eat our bread, we must make an offering,
A sacred tradition of our good Jewish folk.
‘And you shall live by your food’–the meaning is this:
Where man eats his bread, he honors his Lord…
So then each one should give just as much as he can,
And we'll have a fine shul in the town of Unghen.”
And thus does the shochet conclude his good case.
He ceases to speak and sits down in his place.

Then Reb Shlomo stands up, the merchant in wood,
With his face deeply flushed and a cloudy outlook.
When the shochet had finished and ended his words,
Reb Shlomo blew up, flames shot from his eyes:
“A shochet–a pauper–thinks he should go first.
A skinny old soul. What does he know?

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He talks as though he runs the town…”
They all sit still, not expressing their views,
While thus spoke Reb Shlomo to those gathered Jews:

“Dear Jews, the Torah is a valuable thing,
But to build a shul will cost quite a bit.
If the shochet himself had not shown so much nerve,
A rich man should speak first. That would be right.
The Lord of the World has given me blessings.
I'm wealthy, respected, a prominent Jew.
With God in my heart and a sense of what's right–
Beg pardon, dear Shochet, but I pledge a great deal.”
With a big fat smile and a withering look,
The rich man turns and retakes his seat.

The trusting hearts of our eternal folk,
Those brilliant and kosher and pure souls…
A donor has given a very fine pledge
For prayers and for studying the sacred texts.
And each face beams and shows its joy:
“Ah, full of grace is such a man!–
We're not like those others who fight and do nought–
A Jew even sinful is always a Jew…--
God should protect us at home and at work,
And our luck should hold out forever and ever.”

They bestow blessings unceasing on Reb Shlomo's head.
He's made an impression, that man of great wealth.
And then flares up from deepest faith,
From their bodies and their souls

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And from joy and exaltation
A pure spirit of donation.
For their house of prayer those Jews combine
A spirit of strength and holiness,
In order to preserve their heritage.
The vows increase.
Each promises more than he can afford,
And soon they hea
r That beautiful melody:
“Oy praise–oy praise our God.”

They stroke their beards,
Those Jews, and say:
“The Jews are the finest of everyone.”

While the stars and moon
Shine down in peace
Through open windows.

* * *

But all's not settled for that small kehillah–
Utensils for the beis-hamedresh?
A reader's stand, a table, a lamp, menorah,
Ark, and Sefer Torah;
A bench and shtenders, ner tamid,
A cloth with flowered embroidery;
A sink for washing hands
Before one murmurs prayers.

[Page 33]

Their holy souls thirst for heights,
They long to sing, they long to praise;
Then from their hearts and from their souls
They softly start to pledge.
“We will offer; we will give” to build a shul,
To find a bit of rest,
A comfort in a time of need,
A place to dream of their redemption.

Someone donates the Holy Ark,
Where hover both God's light and glory;
And someone announces a new stack of books,
A beautiful gift from an uncle;
And someone then pledges a table, a stand,
For praying and praising the Lord;
And someone then donates, for learning God's Torah,
A table devoted to those who learn Talmud.

The ways of the Earth are dark and they're hard,
So it's easy for man to overlook God,
But thanks be to God, we have here a shul,
A real, a firm foundation.
So we'll build here a shul, it's a sacred command,
With luck and good fortune and joy;
It's the gate of our Lord–a tower for God–
We'll build a home for our prayers.

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7

The Shtetl Grows

The settlement grew both in length and in breadth,
And everything was nicer, more spread out.
Bitter fate would not afflict these exiled folk,
These Jews who sought abundance and to dwell with other Jews.
There was a main street full of stores where blessing reigned,
Soon joined by side streets for the laborers.
The people built their houses, small and poor, and lacking room for children,
But in their larger courtyards planted trees.

Thick filthy mud, deepened by the rains.
Yossel the tailor built a home–a courtyard, a little garden,
Sewed up furs and clothes for farmers and for Jews.
Nearby did Berl the cobbler build his house.
On dismal days he thought nostalgically,
Till someone threw aside his work, burst through the door, and said,
“My brother Berl, come here. Let's have a talk!”

What would you like, my friend? What think you of this rain?”
And looking with weak eyes at all the open doors,
“And you, my brother Yossel? Will you take your jacket off?”

[Page 35]

Before them lies the narrow street, a muddy dividing line.
Farmers come from villages, and then a neighbor comes,
So wife and children are cared for, and all trust in God.
The tailor sews, the shoemaker puts pegs in shoes–
“L'chaim, brother!” one shouts, as he takes a bite of kichel.

Not far from there on Yossel's side he sits and shines and hisses:
Feivel the smith, that is, so tall and strong in his forge.
Someone enters and he holds his hammer, then begins to grumble–
The farmer moves, then trembles, then contorts in fear…
But gentle Feivel at his anvil gives advice:
“Don't swallow all those pegs, my Berl. Are you too thin…?”
The cobbler laughs: “Ah Feivele…a good joke, you are right…”
And Feivel's hearty laughter fills the street.

Such fortunate people. The blacksmith fashions horseshoes
And sings to God his forefathers' melody.

[Page 36]

He holds the horses' foot while nearby stands a farmer from Wallachia.
The blacksmith sings, “Happy is the man who walks not”
[in the counsel of the wicked”–Ps. 1:1].
Feivel's an observant Jew. His voice is gruff, but beautiful his soul:
“No bread today? Tomorrow God will probably provide…”
And–“Yossel, have you prayed today? Do not forget your God!”
Then to his anvil he returns, and to the wagon wheel before him.

Thus house and yard, the shtetl grows and Jews increase in number.
There's so much hammering one hardly hears the smith.
And near the tailor is a field enclosed, a field of straw for horses,
Which simple Shmerke opened up, a thriving enterprise–
A Jew whose head is all clogged up, he cannot say his prayers,
Although he comes from priestly stock, whose echo permeates his heart,
So often he lifts up his hands and says, “May God bless you!”

So there stands Shmerke's lovely home, all proud and finely made,
While nearby there's the poorer home of teacher Itzi-Ber.

[Page 37]

While mixed together are the sounds of loud machines
And voices of the children, who buzz like bees.
“Oy, children,” says their happy teacher, stroking at this beard–
“Oh, children, you should be so glad that you were born as Jews.”
And then one hears the melody of alef-beis and Torah
And righteous little eyes look up with fear and apprehension.

A young man still is Itzi-Ber, and proud of his vocation.
He brings into this new locale the gift of Ten Commandments.
“The world depends upon the Torah”–he curls a dangling sidelock–
And he will teach the generations, one after another.
“Ah thanks to you, my father dear, for giving me this fate,
For the letters that you taught me, my divine destiny.”
He kisses his dear siddur, showing awe, so self-assured,
While children's eyes observe him with a sense of wonderment.

And there, at the end of that pleasant street,
A bit further on lies a nice open field.
Nearby they've built a little road,
As the shtetl gets bigger and bigger.
And Shloyme the water carrier builds a home there–
A full round head he has, with ruddy cheeks;
On his strong shoulders, broad and hard,
He carries through the town his water pails.

[Page 38]

Life's good for him, the water bearer, with his burden.
He works so hard and lives contented;
His little joke: “God gives us bread
And I give water to the Jews.”
And there before him–a courtyard broad and open,
Where children's voices sound throughout the day,
And deep within, his little horse stands
As if he wanted to hide in his park…

Near his courtyard sits another forge,
Where a Gentile smith sets iron noisily;
Because the prince has ordered thus:
Farmers and horses there are all around…
And there a wagoner has built a home,
A tall one, broad and well-constructed:
“Hey, Shloyme! If that smith should bother us, if so–
I'll wave him off like smoke!...”

And Moyshe-Lieb the wagoner dreams of loads
Of crates, of grain, and sacks–sacks of flour,
As though it were his fate to do so well
And have his fancy wagon loaded down.
He looks around at the fine Jewish home
s And then looks to heaven from whence comes his strength.
“Oh God, who sustains both man and beast,
Give food for my wife and our children so dear.

[Page 39]

And then all at once, the street comes to an end.
There's the land for the market, the edge of the town;
Rough ground, no grass, an empty world.
But one hopes there for plenty, for the favor of Heaven.
From the home of the waterman, far down the street,
The noise of construction can always be heard.
Generations increase, and there soon comes a time
When the life of the Jews boils like water in a pot.

* * *

So grows the town and its valuable fair,
And the main street–it grows as if by a spell.
And they build ever higher on the side of the hill
Until the town consists of three streets.
The main street is alive with color and grace,
With signs and the sounds of merchants at work;
The two smaller streets–with magical grace
Of labor and tumult and song.

And Israel is a holy folk, sacred is its soul.
Yearning for a higher world,
And so they built a shul–“How goodly are your tents!”–
“How beautiful your dwellings!”
The basis of the world, the spirit, is sacred,
While the soul longs for holiness;
And Israel the bather builds a bath [a mikveh]
As dictated by their ancestors…

[Page 40]

8

Income

There lies the town, enjoying God's blue skies,
Old and young, the poppas, mommas, children,
Working hard and building more new homes,
Enjoying blessed peace and quiet.
But children with their hungry mouths need to be fed,
And hard the constant struggle to get food:
Some days those folk forget their great God
Because their hearts fear dreadful poverty.

But the Jews retain their ancient faith and trust–
For centuries sustained by miracles!–
They earn a living from their neighbors, from the farmers,
And bits of wealth they draw out of the ground.
But they need a lot, a lot–the needs of people multiply!–
So things are bad: one sins against his brother.
Oh, hard the struggle…They sing, “Who is like your people”–
And for the yoke of life they have no strength…

The Jew, however, looks around and takes a breath,
Relying on Heaven, as did his ancestors;
And then the government, to reach each person,
Built a post staffed by officers of highest rank,
And all these officers and all their staff
Had homes and wives and children there,
And funds flowed to the shtetl and the homes
And Jewish homeowners all blessed that post.

[Page 41]

And then the government gave further help,
For there Romania lay across the way;
A bridge they built to cross the river Prut in peace;
From shore to shore it crossed the river there.

And though the waves did froth and foam,
People crossed in safety on the bridge;
The body, the sinful body, can't give much,
But it takes what it wants, even what is forbidden.
People rush to satisfy the Satan.
It's roomy there, but people feel bound in.
It's good that God has given Jews commandments
And blessed them with this burden.

The Jew seeks a living and prays and hopes in God…
So Reb Shmuel in the early morning runs,
He hastens, hurries, to a nearby hill
To find a wagon full of fruit or grain.
A wagon soon approaches: “What have you there, my friend?”
--“A wagon full of apples and a keg of cottage cheese.”
Shmuel is the first to wait upon that hill
And buys those items for a pot of lentils…

And Sheika the tailor spends early morning at his machine
Before the day begins to shine outside;

[Page 42]

Bent over like a hunchback by his lamp
He sews because the farmer comes today to get his coat.
He moves his hands while unrest takes his heart.
And all the while he glances at the door
Lest this new day, may God Forbid, should bring bad news.
He hopes, instead, for paying customers.

Berl the baker cheerfully prepares for market.
In early-morning gray he stands prepared;
He takes a single step outside
And stands upset, confused, preoccupied.
Along the road his breads and bagels, cakes and rolls.
“Dear God, I loaded up my wagon carefully.
Give me the kind of day I had in mind.”

The grain merchant Zeydl has a cart
Loaded up with wheat and corn.
This Jew has hired too many Gentiles,
And he runs wild with worry.
Zeydl sees the sun high in the sky
While his income lies in the cart.
He rushes out breath and pleads:
“Petra, stand still, I beg!…Wait a sec…”

And Shloyme Weiss, that wholesome Jew, stands in his shop.
He has sold to a Gentile businessman,
A boor who stands there scratching at his head
And looks with curiosity at the goods.

[Page 43]

He measures the wide pantaloons against his physique
And looks like a confused animal;
“These pants, Solly, hang like a sack”–
He pulls them off in anger and disappears…

And Moyshe the clockmaker sits by the window
Holding an errant spring,
While near him stands the mailman
Looking out of sorts and mad.
He's furious, this government official,
And thinks the Jew has cheated him.
“Come back tomorrow”–he's like a maddened steed,
And Moyshe looks with sorrow at this important man.

And Mendel the fish man stands among the peasantry
And weighs the leftovers at market's end.
These odds and ends of fish fill up his coffers,
And his wife Genendel works by his side.
But at his other side a scoundrel glares at him,
His eyes maliciously a-glow:
A newcomer to town
Who's full of hatred for the Jews.

In the early morning light the drayman
Dodl comes out with his horses:
“Oh God, it's true that I am strong,
But wife and children I can feed only by a miracle.

[Page 44]

Today one has enough to eat,
With butter, milk, and bread at night,
But tomorrow is another day, alas,
As if I never in my life have prayed.”

And so the Jews, as if in water to their necks, survive,
And stumbling blocks lie in their way.
Oh, gentle Father, who gives food to all,
The yoke of exile never ends…
Thank goodness that the holy day of Shabbos comes,
And we are sanctified by holy days.
The ordinary days are full of filth and woe,
And making do is like the splitting of the sea…

[Page 45]

9

Inheritance

The Jewish homes are humble, not so high,
But the Torah glows inside and gives off smoke.
Bodies broken with fear and trepidation–
But the spirit is of steel and has been ever so.
They are made of iron, of rods and bars,
And from the Torah they draw great strength.
For a while the peasants are forgotten, and the rules–
As the Jews knock on the gate of Heaven.
And then they seek a bit of food–
Oy, “Your people Israel require sustenance…”

But for Jews money is not the end,
They will not get drunk on earthly treasures.
Eternal beauty they seek, light and holiness
In their ancient heirlooms.
On earth they built a fortress,
Strong, magnificent, whose value is eternal;
This fortress binds earth and heaven.
The Jew dwells in this tabernacle and never disappears…

When the Jew says, “Our God is one,”
There his heritage lies deep within him.
And where a new settlement of Jews grows,
There Israel extends its weary body.
He comes and establishes his fortress,
And it lights up his eternal path…
And thus without end, with heart and soul,
In this very manner stands our shtetl Unghen.

[Page 46]

Though the Jew in the street must be servile and base,
Like a king he is proud, with his Torah so pure.
Outside must he hurry and carry his yoke,
But from childhood on he hears the rabbi's voice:
“Oh little children, is not Ephraim my treasured son?
The holy Torah comes from Heaven!”
And he points his finger upward with awe,
And the children see the Torah in Heaven.

“Children, the Jews's burden is dreadful,
In exile among Gentiles for a thousand years.
Our blessed God has thus afflicted us,
And we can only wait and hope.
I know neither the year nor the month–”
Then the holy spirit rests on the rabbi–
“But we will hear the shofar of our righteous Messiah
And redemption will come to us quickly in our days.”

And the rabbi is aflame with sacred thoughts,
Avram-Lieb, the teacher of Unghen.
And he describes how the Jews, with families in tow,
Will gather together, ready to go.
And Messiah the King will be in front
And lead the Jews out of exile
To our holy land, our ancient capital,
And he will lead them with joy, with dance and song.

And the rabbi sanctifies that school,
Gives the children's game a Jewish face;
And the little children “stroke their beards”
And wait for “our teacher Moshe's steeds”…

[Page 47]

They bring home the rabbi's words,
And their homes drink in that Jewish joy;
Holiness enters those homes
And erases the street's contagion and pain.

And by his Gemara sits the shochet R. Zeydl,
Young and fresh, skinny, genteel.
He rocks, and he wipes his high forehead.
His love for the Torah devours him.
He looks at the tractate and sees its beauty:
“The priest is dressed in flax and wool.
And vines and grain and fruits of all kinds,
Each has its value, its measure, and its place…”

“Oh Master of the World, I thirst for Your word.
Every Monday and Thursday I fast.
I am nought but your servant, your aide”–
Then he shuts the Gemara, takes up Midrash Rabbah.
“And He created…on Friday the man…what else?
The man should not be smaller on earth…
And the woman should be righteous and not sin.
She comes from a modest source, from the side…”

This shochet has such joy, whether sharpening his knife
Or deciding an issue over milk and meat.
He enjoys the decisions and curls his sidelock:
“Oy, the Choshen Mishpat! Oy, the Yoreh Deah!” [religious texts]
How much Torah and wisdom and simple sense
There is in that great and beautiful Sanctuary!”
; He is like a rabbi in the town
For this “holy flock,” these “sacred sheep.”

[Page 48]

And ever in the shul sits the diminutive sexton,
In summer, in winter, in Shevat and in Tammuz,
To treasure the Torah, to understand and grasp it–
One must always study it: “Ah, our rabbis teach!”
The Creator leads him on an easy path:
To sing the melody of the holy books.
Such a flame, such yearning burns within him–
How does such a small body contain such fire?

And now in the shul there is a “Mishnah fellowship.”
The sexton elucidates devotedly.
The Jew!…After earning his living, he runs through the mud.
He sins and thinks not of God;
But deep in his heart whispers a quiet prayer,
And often God's light burns even in the street.
At night…one runs from the filth and “cries out”
In the shul–“Wash yourself; cleanse yourself” [Isaiah 1:16].

The Jews see the sexton and are grateful,
And they praise their sages for their deep insights;
They regard his words and their eyes gleam.
And they are transported to the land of Judah…
“Ah, how sacred is the land that has such a heritage,
That such a treasure belongs to the poor Jew.
“For mine is the silver” [Haggai 2:8]…Man alone knows nothing.
There is tithing and gleanings and sheaves and corners
[Terms related to agricultural laws having to do with caring for the poor].

And when Shabbos comes
And people can rest their weary bones,
Their worn out bodies suddenly are seized

[Page 49]

By a light, by another soul.
And faith, belief, flares up,
And one rises to a higher world.
One's every limb, every step sings out
With praise for Heaven, with a song to God.

“Come, let us sing for joy” [Ps. 95:1], let us sing to God,
To His power and splendor, to His love and mercy,
Because He created the fields and the corn,
Living creatures, the animals, the birds, and the snakes;
The human being and the demon, the righteous and the wicked,
The sky and the depths, the sea and the dry land:
The leaves that rustle and the bees that buzz,
The desert, the wastes, and the many-hued flowers.

He created the hills with their paths,
And He created the clouds, the rain;
He created thunder and lightning
And trees and desert to serve man,
The cliff and the island, storms and snow;
The earth He gave to man and it is holy,
And–“All Israel has a share…”
[in the World to Come: Mishna Sanhedrin 10:1].

In the morning the fine Jew stands blessed
With his “Lion's Roar” [a book by Aryeh Leib Ginzburg], which is never exhausted.
He stands fast and prays to God,
And seven times sings out the word Echad, One.
He shakes the world and storms the Heavens:
I cannot praise you enough, my God.

[Page 50]

My words amount to nothing, not a drop, not an echo–
Oy, my Father, there is no God but you!

And he storms and cries out and shakes so much,
He creates a tumult, a noise in the shul.
With his tallis over his head, over his eyes,
He prepares for Kedusha as if in a fever.
What can earthly voices add
When the Seraphim in Heaven praise His name.
And “Na-aritz'cha” he says…as though in flames,
And brings Heaven and earth together…
And the voice of the cantor, Reb Dovid, warbles
And fills the world with awe for His honor;
And his heart flutters like a young bird
Who sees an eagle before him.
And fearful and strong his soul sings out:
“You are my consolation in all my ways.”
“Oy, I sing Your praises”…he sings and he beams–
It is the sacred Shabbos throughout the world!…

Thus with pride lives the Jewish community
With a God and a Torah and a beloved synagogue.
Yes, the Jews's exile is difficult,
And the world is often a vale of tears,
But one lives like royalty on this sinful earth--
We have a rich heritage, we have worth in Heaven.
We live here below, but we look up high,
And we dwell on the earth with great strength.

[Page 51]

10

Teachers

Itzi-Ber the teacher and his wife Ettel
Were among the first to live in the town.
They filled the children
With awe of heaven and fervent belief.
Children of four and five
They taught with devotion and they rejoiced.
The yoke of Torah is easy to bear,
And the children learn; they recite and recite.

Modest is Itzi-Ber the teacher,
And quiet and honorable, a gentle man;
But there is noise and uproar in the small cheder,
As the children crawl over the tables and benches.
“Say aleph”–he tells a child melodiously
While a boy climbs on his head.
Then the rabbi begins to weave a tale,
And soon the children are floating in the heavens…

The children love their teacher without limits–
He opens for them the door to beautiful dreams.
They see how Abraham broke the idols,
They would punish Nimrod, but God is their salvation.
They see how Abraham in his time
Made a feast for three strangers.
The see images of God's power,
The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.

[Page 52]

The school is narrow, but the world is wide,
And the rabbi has wings as he talks and he beams.
And suddenly the children sit like mourners,
For Joseph has been sold to the Ishmaelites.
But in a moment their eyes shine brightly,
For righteous Joseph is second to the king.
Itzi-Ber the teacher becomes silent
And takes the children from heaven to earth.

Days pass, fly by, go by,
And another teacher arrives in town.
R. Nissl, an angry little man,
Blond, with a wispy beard, a Mar Bar R. Ashi [a Talmudic sage],
He taught the children Chumash with Rashi…
When the children knew a bit of Hebrew,
They moved from Itzi-Ber to Reb Nissl.

He liked to dress up, looking like a prince,
No stains on his clothes but everything perfectly clean.
His cheeks were red as oranges,
And his shoes were fancy and shone like mirrors.
He would recite, “Va'yomer–and he said,”
In a tone that warned a blow was coming,
And the frightened children would repeat
And look like lambs with trembling limbs.

He would call on a child to recite
And stand behind the child

[Page 53]

“Let us hear: ‘Va'yomer–and he said,’”
And near the child he would hover to torment.
The poor boy tried to respond quickly,
But at the verse's end he would be whispering.
Then he received a smack from the rabbi's hand
That turned his face as red as fire.

“In the Torah there is a rule–‘No mercy in judgment’”–
The rabbi thinks this means a slap.
“One must know a verse precisely, or a law,
As you make a blessing over fruit.
If you don't learn, you scamps, you mortify me–
So–a slap will pound it into you.”
And the boys watch him, flustered with fear:
“Complex are the ways of Torah!…”

In the town, economic conditions improve
And people can think of other things.
They sought to bring in someone more learned,
So they imported a teacher of Gemara,
A tall, sensible, large man
With long sidecurls, a charming, refined man.
His teaching is so earnest, with such wonderful melodies,
As if it could set his house aflame.

“Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa,
You will know them, children, these great sages of the Talmud!
Where do the Gentiles have such sages
As Hillel, for example, such a pure one?

[Page 54]

And–when in his purity Rabbi Yochanan ‘bared his arm,’
A room filled with light and beauty [a story in the Talmud, Berochot 5b].
And Rabbi Yochanan's wisdom? His strength, his manner
Were such that giving his hand to a sick man brought a cure.”

And Rabbi Shaye was as inspired in song and praise
As the king who wrote Psalms was with his golden lyre.
And one heard outside in the fresh early morning:
“An innocuous ox”–an ox that gored someone…”
And the Jews sway and rock back and forth,
And they beam as they did so long ago on Sinai.
O, laws established in the Land of Israel.
They split the mountains, they are sharper than steel.!”

And thus the Torah of Moses and Akiva
Is implanted in the hearts of children with love.
Their tender hearts absorb it all
And carry those treasures into the future.
And everyone takes pride in the teachers,
Because the coming generation is so learned.
If Jewish children are so greedy for Torah,
Then the Jewish people will live forever…”

[Page 55]

11

A Bathhouse

Earlier the Gentiles had built a bath,
Petya, Vasily, Cyprian, and Vanya,
A little room where they could wash their bodies,
Then go to the inn or home to their wives.
As the settlement grew, so did Jewish life,
Both together, like a bright dream.
So the Jews built a bath for the Jews,
A sizable bathhouse they built.

When they roast themselves, they feel exalted,
And “from above” they will be called “a holy people”:
This people has six hundred thirteen commandments, may there be no evil eye,
And so they must be clean, holy, and pure.
The earth is sordid, enchained in sin,
And man walks in a swamp, as if blind,
And sinks in impurity, a whole sea of it,
And sees neither the swamp nor its poison.

But Jews live with Torah, with order,
They have a purpose; they are God's people;
They have a soul with their earthly body
That longs for heaven and what is above.
The soul struggles in the body, with its ills,
But the spirit is fine: “Don't look at the jug” [but at what it contains”]!
But the body must be cared for, clean,
For the spirit needs a suitable dwelling.

[Page 56]

The Jews enter the bath with a special feeling.
It's a pleasure, that bath, though that is not its goal.
The bath is beloved, considered a mansion,
Though one does not go there on Sunday or Monday.
People want to abandon the ordinary days
And their jobs, to encounter the holy Shabbos.
So in their hearts is the thought, like a ray of sun,
“In the image of God was man formed.”

So they go to the bath…and there
They steam away weariness and weekday pain.
When they sit on the benches and undress,
And then cover up from shame;
When they uncover their heads, they shiver:
How does one stand under Heaven with a head uncovered?
They walk awkwardly into the steam
Like strangers, as if for the first time.

They sit for a moment just thoughtful and still,
As if, you'll excuse me, in a house of prayer.
And with a scoop of water they seem as devout
As in a shul when wrapped in their tallises;
They are suffused with the heat and enjoying it so.
It stirs them, as the wind stirs the corn in a field.
It stirs them, like the wind in the field,
And they look at the bench across from them.

Two old Jews sit there together
With skin so ruddy that it looks aflame.

[Page 57]

One says: “Reb Zadok, will you do it yourself?
You have a brush that you can use to beat me.”
The other responds: “On the opposite bench it's now so hot.
One whips in the bathhouse, but not so in Hell.”
So they clamber with brushes and stroke their beards,
And they whip each other and speak of the world.

“Hey, steam! More steam!”–the cries ring out–
“It's like Siberia here, it's so cold;
Pour that water on the hot rocks.
We're shivering here and our bones are frozen.”
That's Feyvel the blacksmith, who's finally warmed up
And lies there above in the heat and makes all that noise.
As the smith whips himself, the bath is never hot enough.
He needs a desert where he can burn and roast.

And the shochet, who is young and still dry,
Comes into the bath as if on wooden feet…
The nicest section, to which he heads,
Is the mikveh, where he immediately dunks himself.
He fulfills his sacred obligation to God
And feels as if he has just awakened from a dream:
He stares with his eyes and hums a tune–
He seems to have arisen from the depths of the sea.

Back on the stairs Reb Zeydl goes carefully,
Mindful of his dignity, of his role.
And from his wet, curly sidelocks
The water drips like a string of pearls.

[Page 58]

In the bath there is a hum, which gets louder and louder,
And with the help of a bucket he soaps and he washes;
And he regards with pleasure how everyone prepares–
As the song says: “Come, my beloved, to greet the bride.”

And Reb Shloymele Feldman, the town's leading man,
Every Friday brings with him a new shirt to the bath.
He sees on the boards a tattered old shirt
And feels a tad guilty, a little ashamed.
He throws that old rag into a sack
And lays down the new one in secret right there.
At dressing time someone rejoices and says in surprise:
“It seems that our God has requited my pain…”

At the top of the benches stands Dodl the wagoner.
An important function he has in the bath:
He gives others a hand, and sometimes up there
He jumps up and throws buckets of water in the oven.
“Wagoners are so clean”–he says as a joke–
“That we go to the bath only to sweat.”
“Oy, Jews,, sweat!”–he cries out–
“Sweat quickly. It's almost time for Shabbos.”

Then people begin to hurry in a bit of a panic,
But the uproar is calmed by the sound of a song.
The people rush: “Oy, it's late, Reb Chaim!”
And all in the bath feel the fear of God.
But gradually the chaos dies down
As people envision the shul and their homes…

[Page 59]

The last ones still there feel themselves in a bind:
“Oy, soon will the cantor the service begin.”

Then he will be raised up, this plagued son of man,
When he puts on his hat and dresses himself.
He frees himself from all earthly cares.
In the bath he has cleaned and renewed himself,
So that when he comes home and gets dressed up,
He'll sing in the Shabbos with all of his might…
Free from the yoke of the week, of the ugly,
He welcomes in Shabbos, with all of its sweetness…

The Jews walk the path from the bath to their homes
Like the sheep from the water in Solomon's Song.
They feel all refreshed, in comfort and ease,
And they speak of the sacred, of prayers, and of song.
They feel no oppression, they're free of their yokes,
For God's in His Heaven with all recompense.
They walk full of bliss in the pure evening air,
In the light of this Shabbos, relieved of their cares.

[Page 60]

12

Tzedakah

“To the poor among you who live in your land
Don't close your hearts but open your hand.
When your unfortunate brother knocks on your door,
Remember that your brother must live with you.”
With God such a covenant was long ago sealed
And confirmed in the Torah for people to hear:
For Jews it's a lesson: One must help one's fellow–
Remember, remember…and God will bless you.

* * *

You'll have success
In the market, at home.
You'll have good fortune and blessing–
For God gives a reward…

But once in a winter–
In blizzard and snow,
No one arrived
But the winds that did blow.

But “the poor will ever be there”
Is an old saying;
And the town has many in need.

[Page 61]

And the need is great,
And no farmers arrive.
In the house of the tailor
Are sadness and tears.

At the cobbler's it's bad:
No one orders boots.
There's nothing but tears
In that poor dwelling place.

Ah winter–destructive,
The wind tears the roofs,
And the sobs of the children
Get louder and louder.

One sees not a horse
And one sees not a wagon,
And the smith's eight children
Can only complain.

Just frost and just cold,
Blizzard and snow.
The world is just full
Of the winds as they blow.

That difficult winter so afflicted
The modest women;
They have known the Jewish laws
About the poor.

[Page 62]

Those children of our father Abraham
Are merciful–
And there is no end to the snow and the winds
That whip the face.

Breyne, that thin old woman, is wrapped up
In jackets and cloth
And runs to Gitl her neighbor
Early, like a whirlwind:
“Oy, what can we do about the city's poor,
It's such a pity!
Oy, dear Gitl, tzedakah means more to God
Than sacrifices…”

Says Gitl: “When a person drinks from a river,
Say “I lift up my eyes to the mountains” [Psalms 121:1];
What does man know? Today he is wealthy
And tomorrow poor.
A Jew has to help another as much as he can,
Whenever he can;
So says the Torah: “If your brother is poor…
Uphold him” [Leviticus 25:35].

Says Breyne: “I read in the book ‘Nofes Tzofim’
About Father Abraham;
He had four doors to his tent
That stood open
And if he saw a wanderer by his tent
He would cook a meal for him,

[Page 63]

And make room for him and feed him,
The tired man.”

Says Gitl: “Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Nasi, that great man,
Invited guests:
‘Only scholars should come to me
To eat and drink.’
A simple man arrived, and Rabbi Yehuda, that great man,
Shamed him:
But afterwards his heart was torn,
And he lamented, full of regret.”

Says Breyne: “‘Tzene U-rena’ has it right:
Whether food or money–
When your poor brother has it hard,
Give him whatever he lacks.
God will repay you for your good deed;
It is nothing but a loan;
It is an honor to help the poor debtor
And give him pleasure…”

Says Gitl: “My father, peace be with him, said
Regarding tzedakah:
“Jews, take on as much as you can
And make a place for yourselves…
You cannot know, man, what tomorrow will bring,
When you take for yourself.
The prudent ‘Giver’ will see your pain,
And you will be embarrassed.”

[Page 64]

And says Breyne, “Ha ha, you digress…
When should we go?

“Let me just throw on my coat, my dear,
And we'll go right away…”
And these two righteous women go out
With a red kerchief,
And the wind whips their old faces with a roar
And with bitter storming.

The shtetl lies there all covered with snow,
Up to the windows.
The windows are caked with frost like clay
And people freeze in their homes.
It's cold for Reb Nissl and for Itzi-Ber–
They have abandoned the school;
It's freezing for the Gemara teacher,
Who has shut his books.

These women do not forsake the town–
Which would be a sin, a shame;
Then men from the holy congregation
Come out together.
In the morning a young man walks out with pride,
With a loud call:
“Reb Naftali is giving out wood for the poor.
Whoever needs should come and take!”

God's throne is made of justice and mercy,
And the people do not forget–
Thus did Abraham tell his guests:

[Page 65]

“What you eat is not mine.”
Again that young man, Chaya-Liebe's son Yisroel,
Walks out with his booming voice:
“Zusia Robel is giving out potatoes and onions.
Whoever needs should come and take!”

Thus do these blessed people live,
Strong in their feelings for others;
They do not allow the poor to fall,
As they provide tzedakah for all.
They suffer from edicts, expulsions, and plagues,
And heavy their burden–
But soon comes Messiah and the days will begin
When they are freed from their exile…

[Page 66]

13

A Dayan in the Shtetl
[A dayan is a religious decisor.]

“A shochet's a shochet, the town needs a dayan–
The Jews in the town never stopped arguing.
For judgments on prayers on tzedakah, and food–
We are all tangled up and in danger of forgetting.”
And then early one beautiful morning
People awoke to their usual problems,
But news spread like a rolling wheel
Through the whole town.

Reb Baruchl the Dayan was coming to town.
He left his town looking for something better.
He left his sons, shut his door,
Left sadly thanks to his mean daughters-in-law.
Oh, since his dear wife had died,
He, poor man, had become a wanderer
From son to son without finding a place.
The sons did not welcome him, and they said not a word…

But God is our father, so this is what passed:
Reb Baruchl had a daughter in Unghen.
When her father wrote about his bad fortune,
She answered her father immediately:
“My dear father, I understand.
Leave your sons and their wives.
My husband's a fine man, and I would like
For you to come here. You'll want for nothing.”

[Page 67]

“You won't have to lower your head or hide your face.
Pack up and leave those scoundrels;
One should honor and care for a father.
Come to my home and forget about them.
Leave those sons and their wives who bark at you.
Pack up your books, your tallis and tefillin,
And come to live with me In Unghen.
We will love you, care for you, brighten your life.”

And so, with praise for Providence,
The father-in-law came to live with Reb Shloyme.
In the shtetl there was joy over such a man of such virtue,
A righteous man, a scholar, who could decide issues.
A home with such treasures–what else could he need?
The town would give him a ruble each week…
And the community gathered a full bucket of pride:
A kosher bucket with a kosher ladle.

*****

A great man in town–the Jews have a dayan.

[Page 68]

Who holds the scale of justice and peace.
With his learning and righteousness he spreads light
And with his upright heart he reaches toward Heaven.
His long white beard and large eyes shine bright.
They bring greetings from Sages, from Moses himself.
Righteously, with his finger by his forehead, he delivers judgment
As if he stood by the Holy Ark in a sacred place.

“What does the Jewess say?” But he does not look at Leah,
Just turns the pages of his “Yoreh De'ah.”
“Every labor that Torah forbids us on Shabbos
Is also forbidden on holidays and mars their holy nature.
The only exception in Torah is for preparing our food,
As it says: 'That which you eat' so that you can make a blessing.
So one may cook, but not do other things–
She should give tzedakah and God will forgive.”

The woman gone–he soars to the high realms
And sees the early and late commentators.
“Oh God, I lack so much wisdom.
How can a man bear such bright light…”
And he sings out praises, that true man,
While his face and his beard glow like fire.

Ah, those six hundred thirteen commandments, no evil eye…that move men…
A people full of mitzvos cr…” And then there's a knock at the door.

“Shalom aleichem, sir…”How can I help?”
--“Rabbi, I come because I am troubled.
I'm a wagoner, a simple man,
A good Jew, and I love the Torah.
In the evening, after eating, I say Psalms without end.

[Page 69]

But shortly after my meal, I'm conquered by sleep.
I once heard a rabbi say, someone not you,
That one must study the Torah by day and by night.

The old dayan thought for a moment about Torah:
“Yes sir, one must study by day and by night.
When one is tired and eats, then must one sleep.
And it is as if one would flee from the Holy Torah.
On the contrary…at night…one must suffer for Torah.
'The night was created for sleep' [Talmud Eruvin 65a]–they say
“The night was created for study'–That strengthens you, sir–
One tastes it little by little so that one is not too sleepy.”

The soul thirsts and the people are observant,
And the Holy Torah shows them the path;
The earth is not random, empty, a desert without rain–
People come to the dayan for judgments, with questions to pose,
And they come to ask questions and some to confess,
Because they hold on to their faith through joy and suffering.
Another who comes is the straw collector Shmerke the peasant,
Who, as if facing a prince, takes off his hat.

Then he put the hat on and he says to the judge:
“Oy, Rabbi, I'll tell you the truth, I'm like a simple Gentile…
I've been an orphan since I was nine, mocked and shamed,
And since I was ten my uncle used me like horse.
Still, I'm a Kohen, a priest, and I want to give the priestly blessing,
But I do not know a word of Hebrew.
What good are my wife and children, my straw and horses
When that gnaws at me, when I curse my days on earth?”

[Page 70]

“To bless the people,” says the dayan, is quite a thing,
As it is written, “Thus will you bless the people of Israel' [Numbers 6:23].
A Kohen who does not do the blessing is a problem,
Is a disgrace to the people. It's a sin of omission.
But you are a Kohen–a good man–and I see your pain.
I will teach you Hebrew in a short time.
Come to me once a week, wash your hands,
And I will teach you the whole procedure.

And Reb Baruchl the dayan studies by night and by day,
Leads the Jews in the right path, in the correct ways.
He never steps away from those golden letters–
And with every step he encounters God.
And his soul blazes, he is enveloped in flames,
And he binds together heaven and earth.
Oh, oh–those letters so dear, lead him over
The highest mountains and the deepest seas.

For this elder the earth is many hued, like a rainbow,
And he wonders at creation with his bright eyes.
He raises his tallis over his head,
And the Torah shines beautifully in his face.
Whether he is consoling or chastising,
His mouth gives forth pearls.
And the shtetl is fortunate to have such a learned man.
They worry only that he is old, and someday will have to be replaced.

And Reb Baruchl the dayan praises God for what has been,
And venerable and fine is the name of Unghen.

(End of Part One)

 

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