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[Page 71]

Part Two:

Growth and Life

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14

A New Time

The days run, fly by, as do the years.
With good fortune Unghen grows.
The air there is fresh, the village is close,
And the sky, so blue, gives rain in its time.
The Jew rejoiced in the food that he had
And the Jewish enclave increased and it spread.
The years went by quickly,
And a church stood there as well.

The czar ordered a post office built in the town,
A custom house, too, several floors, lots of rooms.
And near to the town a train station was built,
And the train runs right by with its whistle and noise.
The shtetl lies near a Bessarabian town,
Near the sparkling Prut, right at its edge.
And over the Prut there's a gleaming white bridge–
A Romanian train crosses in and goes back.

That Romanian train is little and weak.
It goes on the rail with little power. It's plain.
Three passengers and two or three cars,
And it whistles and makes such a racket, God have mercy.
Rich passengers come there, coming from abroad.
Through Romania they go on their way to Russia.
The train makes a stop–it looks like a joke–
And in half an hour it comes to Iasi [a Romanian city].

But the Russian train–oh, that comes with a roar
On the other side–it sounds like a bear.
It comes in like a giant and makes a huge racket
As if it would eat up the Romanian line.
The locomotive and wagons, as sturdy as walls,
Come in with such noise that men stop up their ears.
It takes on passengers and drops baggage off–
To Perlitz, to Karnisze, and then to Kalaraasz.

And one who has merit and stands well with God
Goes off to Kishinev, that magical town.
One goes there for business, though one is still a Jew,
And one's always at work as he chases around;
But one still has a soul, he's not made of steel.
So he stays there on Shabbos and visits a shul.
Oh those sweet melodies that the chazan pours forth,
They stay in his mind as he goes out in the world…

And then when he to the shtetl returns
He brags of the chazan whose service he hears.
They say Nissi Belzer is surely quite good.
But a cantor like a Razumny has never been heard;
Such vocal agility, such sweetness, such tone–
To hear such a chazan is worth any sum
To listen, to marvel, and then to be amazed:
“Oh, the wonders that God in His goodness has made!”

And Christians live in our shtetl as well,
Though not by the Jews. They live by themselves.
They live at a distance, near the new post office.

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With churches, an iron porch, a garden.
They gather there from all over,
Though most are workers in the post or station.
One sees their wives in early mornings
As they bring their baskets into town.

They bring their produce to the Jewish merchant,
The cobbler, baker, tailor, smith.
They come with a smile, all nice and relaxed.
They behave in the way that is usual for them.
They laugh and enjoy and make little jokes:
“Oh Yankel, oh yes…you're a good little Jew…”
And they pat on their shoulders with happy intent:
“Yes, here and there a very fine Jew.”

The people, they laugh, but also they're hurt…
One feels in the town that he has a companion…
You eat there your bread, some water you drink,
But he is the master; he is the boss.
Sometimes a sigh escapes from your heart
After long generations of simmering hate.
But mute are the Jews, afraid and upset,
And thankful they have not been beaten to death.

But old is Yisrolik, he laughs at their hate–
For the power of God rules over the earth!
On earth there are sorrows and woe to be borne,
But soon will the soul in Heaven be bound.
Like that ancient Greek hero we see with his sword

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Who found his redemption in old Mother Earth–
Thus is the Jew a Godly creation:
He encounters a miracle and soon will be cured…

He sorrows and he builds, he falls and stands up.
He is down…and then he proudly climbs the mount.
Soon they built a grain storehouse in Unghen,
Which opened a bright world for businessmen.
People had long awaited this great salvation.
Now people can send their grain around the world.
Now freight cars stand in front
And travel to Odesa in long rows.

Now the merchant stands on watch, prepares himself,
And buys up sacks of grain from peasants there.
For a higher sum or somewhat less
They bring it to the loading dock and weigh the grain.
Then burly men come noisily, with cries,
And load the grain in wagons.
The rye and barley, corn and wheat
From Unghen flow in torrents.

And then the shtetl gets a manager
Who travels to Odesa, here and there.
He files the papers at the bank
And handles all the complications.
Then he returns to a mighty welcome
As if he'd disappeared for years and years.

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The merchants at the loading dock surround him
With bows and reverence and noise and cheers.

Then happily the manager goes home,
Where secretly he counts his millions.
He helps the community and they call him Tzadik,
And he–says not a word, makes no commotion.
His chin is shaved, he speaks in quiet tones.
He's grown quite fat and weighs three hundred pounds perhaps.
He walks at a slow pace–a worldly man!…an actor!…
In the shtetl people call him Chaim Pavellia.

People see what life is like in town
And travel often to Kishinev.
“A Jewish paper I have read,” says one,
And a merchant travels even to Odesa.
One has no fear of clenched fists
That threaten Jewish lives…
Life has a firm foundation with iron pillars.
By your blood, live” [Ezekiel 16:6]…and one never tires.

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15

Youth

New winds blew in from afar
And invaded the shtetl.
Once people sat quietly at home
And contemplated God and His high heavens.
And now–a devilish force noisily seethed
And took hold among the Jews;
With these magic words: “Let us live like other folk!”
They sought to change old ways of life.

“The people Israel live in exile, in a wasteland–”
So announce the fervent Zionists:
“In exile have we been harassed and plagued–
Wandering always, never in one place for long.
Barred from light, in darkness, shadows,
Driven out, beaten, burned, and roasted.
But Herzl now will free us from such shame.
He leads us right to Zion, our holy land.”

Like sparks that strike a forest, kindling flames
That roar and burn tree after tree,
In such a way the Jews began to feel more strength
And blessed their leader Herzl, who broke the chains of exile.
But faith was anchored in the Jewish people,
And God had long had roots in Jewish hearts.
The weary, ailing Jews thanked Herzl,
But–God should not let Herzl bring us shame.

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News of a messiah spread among the Jews,
Though some said Herzl came from foreign lands;
How could God send such a messenger,
One who formerly was not a faithful Jews?…
But people loved that man who sacrificed his life,
Who ventured out to deal with kings and ministers,
Whose spirit and nobility were everywhere apparent
As he raised heroic Zion's flag.

The younger folk no longer bow to faith
And mutiny against their elders' ways;
They look to Herzl with wide-open eyes,
And men and women go to “conferences” together
To argue heatedly about the Jews's poor fate,
About the congresses to come, and over funds;
About Max Nordau, about the Basle program, Zion;
They sing “Hatikvah” and “Bear your Banner to Zion.”

And now it's Erev Shabbos afternoon.
The girls prepare themselves, as though to be on guard.
They go on Fridays to accept the day of rest.
Zion's daughters hand out stamps for JNF [Jewish National Fund],
And all dressed up they go from house to house.
They go out with their dream-filled eyes,
But sadly, as they look around, they see
How exile has been drawn out for so long.

And now in town the socialists showed up:
“How long, how long will mankind serve as slaves?
The poor live in a hell, a wilderness

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They're robbed of labor, freedom, and of rights.
Ah, Karl Marx, that wise man…Workers of the world, unite!
See that the world is split between the rich and poor,
And your hard labor and your time are stolen from you.
In every country, proletarians, unite!”

In the woods they sing out songs of liberty,
The youth amid those fresh and shady trees.
Their love and loyalty they pledge to the red banner;
A speech, and then they sing “The Marseillaise.”
They speak of freedom, of the Duma, czar, and constitution,
And who should carry on the fiery banner.
They roar about the coming revolution
And throw the czar from off his lofty throne.

And at Chaim Stolyer's basement room
Built like a tunnel under the “Old” Shul,
Housemates and relatives seethe like a whirlpool.
They shout bitterly, they lament and threaten.
Elke, Chaikl's daughter, talks of rebellion:
She has made a blood-red pennant
That she will carry through the streets as one carries a Torah,
And if the police dare do anything to her…

And in the town resounds an echo from afar:
The new sun shines as well on Jews:
The laborer, the Jew, inhabits a new time
And makes himself a place in this new world.
They would abolish need and poverty among the Jews.

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The “Bund” would bring them freedom, peace, and luck;
The “Bund” fights for their freedom, equal rights, and peace,
And plays a role in struggles against the czar.

And Sheyke the tailor's son goes off to the big city
To attend a meeting of the Bund;
They give a lengthy Yiddish course
For Jewish laborers and socialists.
He heard a lengthy talk–akh, Yiddish culture!–
The praises of the Yiddish tongue were manifold;
That was quite a speech, to seek after the new,
And all took pride in hearing such a talk.

And Moyshe Malamud and Moyshe Teitelbaum
Revealed a new world to the town;
In America there flourished like a fruitful tree
The Yiddish writer Morris Rosenfeld.
Someone had sent them books from the New World.
Yehoash and Wintshevski, sacks full of books,
Which people lugged around the town–
Till Unghen opened up a local library.

Into the town arrived the daily newspaper, the “Friend.”
The library played a central role.
People there read another paper, “Today,”
And Yiddish words resounded joyfully.
Mendele Moycher Seforim chastised the rich, the wicked,
And Peretz taught them how to live on earth;

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And people laughed aloud at Sholem Aleichem's words,
And suddenly the exile seemed a bit less harsh.

The young rejoiced at this new life.
The voices of their fathers, grandparents, were dulled,
Though the older generations did not give up.
They persevered in faith, thanked God, and praised.
But younger people left the “Torah generation,” the old.
One aimed to be a Maskiil, to chase after the new;
It made one feel transgressive, as though one had to hide,
But one surrendered to that magic world so free.

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16

Summer

The grapes are full of juice,
And trees are laden down with fruit.
There is much to be thankful for,
For the heart has found what it sought.
The sun has painted the apples red,
Ripe cherries are hanging down, shiny and bright;
A light mist touches the plums,
And fat watermelons lie on the ground.

Summer lies over the fields,
Green and ripe,
While birds sing in the woods
Over the fullness and plenty.

The corn stalks rejoice in the field
Over their fullness,
While a light breeze plays over
The wheat and the rye.

The sun shoots down its rays.
It's summer.
The trunks of the trees are warm
In the sunny blaze.

The sun roasts
In its effulgence,

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But in the shadow of the trees
It is fresh and hearty.

The trees flourish
In the ground of Bessarabia:
Each tree has such leaves
In those breezes.

The sap and freshness
Fill the hills and gardens;
The smells and sweetness of fruits
Of all sorts.

One breathes in with pleasure
Those intoxicating aromas.
One smiles with joy and meekness
And with grateful glances.

The hardworking peasant goes by,
Stands still and declares:
“Oh Father, you give me more
Than I deserve.”

That peasant brings blessing, grain, fruit, greens
To the Jews in the town.
Jewish eyes beam as they dream of their gains;
They'll have enough to live.
In the market they taste the pears, so fresh and juicy, the plums,
So many, such a mass.
The odors of apples and grapes make their mouths water
And tickle their noses.

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And the colors transform the puddles in the streets, in the roads,
That shine like cloudy windows.
Those “inkwells,” the black, filthy water from rain, the sun
Has transformed, and now they twinkle.
Now when children walk the dusty streets at night,
They feel coolness in their bones.
They frolic and talk about people and justice, they dream and think
And lay foundations for the future.

And in the morning, when the sun goes behind the mountain top,
Its warmth lingers on;
And the merchants lament: “Ah, today will be a scorcher.
But there's nothing we can do.”
But one stands and serves the customers, one rushes and weighs and measures,
While the body drips from the heat.
And one is glad about the income and thankful for the food he eats,
And one wipes away the sweat.
And one rushes one's children from home to learn God's Torah in cheder,
But the children go wherever.
It's summer, the street is dry, one can run or play,
And the rabbi is up early.

One leaves the cheder early, one is free and happy; all is good;
Peace reigns in the streets.
And soon groups will form and people will walk to the Prut

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And enter the flowing water.
And little boys, as though born in the water, will stretch out
And throw their hands up high.
From afar one sees only heads and sidecurls in the water,
And they swim around like little ships.

The sun is in the sky and sends down its fiery beams
As though from a flaming pot;
And merchants stand around and look out
Into the empty street.
On market days the peasants come, no matter how hot it is,
And shop in the stores.
On such days one will not go on the road
But eat and drink whatever is at hand.

Late at night one goes, all tired, to the Prut for a bath;
One goes through the fields as if for Tashlich;
One goes slowly, one who has been weighed down all day with worries;
One leaves behind courtyards and streets.
Women and girls go, too, to bathe in the gleaming waters–
Each one goes.
One crosses the hill and undresses and gets right into the river,
Laughing with happiness.
And sometimes it happens–oy, the devil in the heart–that one looks to the side,
Over there, downstream
On the shore, in the distance, where the women and girls go in,

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Up and down to the cliff.
And from a distance one sees the women's shirts blown by the wind
And one tries to get closer,
And one swims with the tide, and one hides sinfully in the river,
To stifle the glow…

So do the young…The older generation abides by its faith,
Though sometimes one errs;
At home and outside, Torah and morality are pure and august,
And the customs of Israel are proper.
And while Jews rush to the water and submerge,
They have to go say minchah.
Their income is never enough…one sins…but one must go happily to shul
To serve the Lord with gladness.

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17

Two Generations

Two generations stand in serious opposition,
And both strenuously defend their beliefs.
The older one draws from the well of fathers and grandfathers
And feels their strength and sweetness, a taste of Eden.
But the younger abandons the Torah and diminishes it
And rejoices in the new, for the world around it is attractive.
They break down the fences and dig up the foundations
And turn aside from that treasure, from the old commandment.

Strong winds blow in from all sides
Bringing rumors to the town of golden times.
People fight by secret means, as if on the wings of birds,
Books that attack the czar with tooth and nail.
And when Max Roitman comes, wearing his jacket,
He brings forbidden books from Kishinev in an innocent package
And people come and take them
Without fear of the czar and of Siberia.

No Torah, no shul…too small is Jacob's tent…
Only Russian and education and–“How beautiful is the world!”
But God's punishment strikes Shimon Makareshter,
A fine Jew, who came to town from a village.
His daughter spent years studying in the city
And returned with a sharp tongue that is always active.
She became a dentist, a doctor…she dresses in white,
And–“Father, one should rip up the outdated Torah…”

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And she teaches the young: “Those old lights are flickering.
Open your eyes and learn the new ways!”
She quietly distributes books on sex education
And literature and essays about masters and slaves.
Curiosity arises, the heart's hunger to know.
Boys of fifteen or sixteen, who have just begun to wear tefillin,
And Polya Semyonovna speaks with the young people
And gives them Kropotkin to read and Marx and Tolstoy.

Curiosity pushes further, that hunger and glow.
So in the evening they visit Moyshe Khanszi.
From this thin, broken man with a hunched back
These thirsty young people seek knowledge, advice,
And God gave that man a sea of control
So that he could speak for hours agreeably but firmly.
He spoke of worlds, of wonders; he wove dreams.
And he spoke of the pains and woes he had lived through.

And those young people sat there captivated and astounded.
Their souls rose to the highest levels
And they looked with sparkling eyes to the heights.
“Ah, the lower world is full of shadows and smoke!”
And they saw him, their beloved Khanszi, in his suffering
As the police threw him in the Nicholas Fortress.
There he was broken and tortured for years,
But he hoped for and searched for freedom above all.

And Moise Khanszi spoke for long, as always,
Though he lacked strength, with a weak voice, till two in the morning.
His body is worn out, but his spirit never tires,

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And from his heart flows a stream that ever seethes.
In the years in prison, passed within four narrow walls,
He examined the Earth and all its parts.
And he never forgot a particle, a drop,
And the young people swallow it all up.

Such grace and such love light up his face.
He sees from afar the wonders, the pictures.
The world is open, and he manages to get inside.
He conjures up America; he describes coal miners;
He pictures the steppes or huge, wild Australia,
The beautiful Alps, Swiss and Italian.
Often he denies the miracle of Tanach
And suddenly begins to sing a melody by Bach.

Now he turns sad: “Comrades, ah Russia's fate.”
And his eyes burn with fire: “The people's will!”
“Ah, the heroes, the brave, who responded to the gang
And killed the tyrant, Czar Alexander…”
And then from his heart comes a sigh of pity and sorrow:
“Oy, what then happened to that fine party!…”
In a moment he is seized by a prophetic spirit:
“Ah, even so the fine Russian people will yet be free.”

Those young people also show love and honor for Yiddish,
The language of Mendele, of Sholem Aleichem and Peretz,
Winshevski and Rosenfeld–around them, noise and clamor.
Younger ones, too: Reizin and Nomberg and Asch.
Yes, teach the people and the Yiddish word will be exalted,
And literature will beautify Jewish life…

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And the druggist's wife, the educated “princess”–
In the library she is an “activist.”

Maria is educated and of aristocratic stock.
Her gait and her voice bear witness: she is a real lady.
She speaks only Russian, and she keeps the library's records.
She adores the people and will help to educate the masses,
But people fight for Yiddish with faith, fire, and might,
Led by two Moyshes: Teitelbaum and Malamud.
But never mind…such an “aristocrat” is a novelty,
She has her place there and people speak to her only in Yiddish.

And ah, the Zionists! They don't sleep…they don't even nap.
They stir up a blaze in town, they light up the sky!
Enough already, oh Jews, of suffering scourges and sorrows.
We should no longer suffer…after two thousand years of exile!…
Ah, Herzl, his strength, his magic, his taking the stage–
We shall go to Zion with joy and celebration!
We shall come together. The land and the people are dear.
They stir things up, they seethe, they debate, as if they were on fire.

And the “lovers of Hebrew” also boil and seethe
That the whole world of Jews should go to Zion.
We must now apply ourselves to learning the holy tongue
Of our holy fathers and of the Tanach.
We don't need Russia and we will not be European.
And we will rid ourselves of ”jargon” [Yiddish]–we will speak only Hebrew.
Herzl will soon win the land and end the exile,
And we must know Hebrew from aleph to tav.

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And the fathers stand and look bewildered and agape
At how their sons scorn their world, like birds.
The mothers have caressed and tended to their daughters–
But people grow up and go their own way.
The grandfathers admonish: “We wish only well.
But don't, God forbid, get involved with the world. You'll only be sorry…”
And the grandmothers look on, troubled and pained:
“Ach, another generation, and time goes so quickly…”

And people will not see the world in perspective,
But they will go into the light, into the street,
And one does not hesitate to spin sweet dreams,
And one craves America, to find good luck;
Or one would travel to Zion, the land of our fathers,
Without waiting for Messiah or the God of Israel.
They take off their Jewish clothing. It's a new time.
And they change their Jewish faces to look like everyone else.

And oh, Jewish fortune is already decided.
The fine citizens shorten their beards.
They don't consider Torah and are not so observant,
Without sidecurls, eating with uncovered heads, like Gentiles.
They don't go to shul, where for generations they got their strength.
Scorn has fallen on Jewish heads.
What now should those dangerous young “fools” say?
Heresy has poured over the town and will drown it.

So fathers say to children, as did the grandfathers:
“Torah is our business, as the life of the people testifies.

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For a thousand years we have waited for that day to begin:
Messiah…the world will be redeemed and scourges will end…
But now only wars and hatred and wicked people sinning.
And more than ever wrath is directed to the Jews.
Who has preached about peace more than us?
And who has responded? Where has a door been opened?…”

In Jewish letters we have written with faith:
“Human beings are sacred and their souls should be exalted.
God created man in His diving image,
Made him to rule over the earth and blessed him.
But from childhood his heart turns to evil
And might triumphs over right.
The sea of hate and murder has no end–
Torah is the fence, the only way…”

“But people do not adopt the way of Torah.
The evildoer, the devil in one's heart, does not leave.
Remember how we have been attacked for the gift of the Torah…
The devil requires wars, rifles, and axes…
That's how it is and how it will be.
We suffer because of the wicked, from persecutions and tortures.
It's not worth talking about the Temples with their splendor and finery.
Take care of your treasures that protect you.”

“And don't call it slavery, a life narrow and grey.
Heaven is wide and free, bright and blue.
The sun shines always. It is a Garden of Eden.
There you have freedom, holidays, and constant joy.

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Why do you speak of “a new world” and “the future” and “a bright tomorrow”–
Do you know that there will be an end to darkness, to troubles?…
When the world will be proud of bearing the truth
Of our eternal treasures, then will dawn begin…”

But the young folk have little respect for the past.
They dream sweet dreams, with this excuse:
“Truly, the earth drinks from the sea of bitterness,
But redemption will come through work and blood and sweat.”
The youth are divided: Some dream of the old,
Of their own lives in their own land of Israel.
Others feel otherwise and respond fervently:
“When the whole world is redeemed, the Jew will also be fortunate…”

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18

Jews

The world remains the world and Jews remain Jews.
One sorrows and one heals and one is content.
One celebrates a holiday, a wedding, a bris.
The Jews increase. It's now a fine community.
They dream of higher things and stay together.
They were offered a pure life.
Because man has a soul, life has value,
And Unghen takes its place upon the earth.

The shtetl shows itself in many hues:
The rich and the poor, the wise and the fools,
The happy and the bitter, the weak and the strong,
The low, the high, the meek, and the miserly.
But all are fine…for instance–
The shtetl loves him: Abrasha the cobbler.
No one would part with him.
The town rejoices and thrives on his wisdom.

Abrasha is a clever man, well-disposed.
He sits at his work and hums a tune.
He sits smiling in his old workshop,
And his eyes light up…there's no flat surface…
He wears an apron, a shirt unbuttoned, no jacket,
And he comfortably pounds peg after peg.
Often he strokes his shaved beard–
Now and then he laughs at the foolish world…

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And to Abrasha's joy, relatives and friends
Gather around for his wisdom and sayings.
On those days when people are troubled,
They come to Abrasha for consolation.
When a young man fails to resolve his doubts,
He comes to Abrasha's simple home.
Then his gloom disappears, he sits and enjoys,
While Abrasha pounds pegs and laughs at the world.

And the town's intellectuals sit there as well,
And students, too, come to have their shoes fixed;
They never grow tired of hearing his voice
And their faces light up when they hear what he says:
“Just how, do you think, is our world like a fancy dress ball?
--You have a good time, and you don't see the trash.
You sing and you laugh and you don't see the nonsense,
And you don't allow sorrow to enter your heart.”

But just think about it when you are at rest.
Are there not other people as wise as you are?…
People can change things for good and for bad---
So what have they done? Just what has transpired?
A person is simply an elevated beast.
I can cite many proverbs and give you much proof.
People just like to spin dreams…
The main thing's to live. All the time you must live.

Surely much good exists in the world,
For otherwise life would not be worth living.

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No matter how the pillars of the Earth stand,
That which is strong and vile will rule.
The infernal powers are wild and strong,
And what belongs to man is never enough.
So try to be temperate, not blessed and not curst,
And bring peace and goodness into the world.

And if you have a small bit of joy--
A word, a smile, an encouraging speech,
Present it modestly and with your whole heart,
Without looking for glory or financial reward.
Each man is a world, a unique entity,
So be proud of yourself when you help someone out;
That makes you like God and you shine in His light:
“You bring warmth and light into the world.”

Abrasha takes turns between talking and work;
When he's done…people sit as if in a daze;
“Some people give sermons at the front of the shul–
But this cobbler speaks golden words that make sense…”
What has he sown?…Without making a move,
People dig through his words and begin to debate.
But Abrasha the wise now sits there in silence.
He smiles and hums a tune under his breath.

The cobbler also can play funny tricks,
As Idl the tailor so well illustrates:
At night Idl's family sits by the table.
They eat their bread and a bit of fried fish.
Abrasha arrives and makes lots of noise:

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“Why sit you in silence when outside it's dark!”
Then he grabs his head and runs outside…
People abandon their food and flee from the house,
While Abrasha stands in the street, as he laughs:
“I'm not telling a lie…it's dark 'cause it's night…”

His little son Sasha–a pinch on his cheek–
For him he makes new pants and a coat.
With fifteen pockets these garments he made,
And the cobbler speaks to his son and he laughs:
“If anyone asks how many pockets you have,
Tell him that for a kopeck you'll say.
Then you can count out your pockets to him,
And then give the money to someone in need.”

Abrasha enjoys a few days before Shabbos
To leave his shop, with its boots and its tools,
And he goes as on Purim, from one house to the next.
Nu, throw me a groschen while I stand here outside!”
He scrunches his face, but his eyes remain open.
His cheeks turn all ruddy, as red as fine cherries;
He thinks of the joy that will come when he brings
This gift to the table of Dvorah the widow.

And Shaye the tailor with his hairy face
Lives with his children, his sons and his daughters.
He sits at his table with chalk and tape measure--
A fur coat for a farmer he has to complete.
In the grey early morn he's already at work,
Sometimes at the table, then at this sewing machine.

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And now he's a bit of a boss
As he's helped by his daughter Chaya-Sarah.

Shaye has made for himself a nice custom
By opening his home in the evening to neighbors
Rochel, his wife, offers places to sit,
Some chairs and a bench and a few little stools.
The people who come there like to discuss
Their God or their business or food or whatever…
But soon it gets quiet as Shaye presides
And begins to recount a very fine tale.

The tailor has had a longstanding custom
Of buying books from the traveling salesman.
The stories of Shomer? They cause him to shudder–
But blessed be the hand that has written them down.
And other books, too–there are more than enough.
A whole world is there. One can learn quite a bit…
He reads in a fever, gets carried away,
And he tells all those tales to his friends in the night.

A tale of a man who on Rosh Hashanah
Flees from his wife, a poor agunah…
He meets death at a creek, in a mill,
And his soul enters into a crocodile's body.
Some men who come to the river are stunned
When the crocodile speaks and laments and he cries.
Then his poor wife arrives, recognizes his voice,
And knows that her husband has been so transformed.

[Page 100]

A story about a young man, nice and elegant,
Who desperately loved a beautiful Jewish girl.
But she rejected him, turned him away,
Because there was a beggar whom she loved…
They married, but after days and years
The beggar died and she remained a widow;
The other man, now a millionaire, returned to her,
Took care of her and brought her to America…

And tailor Shaye beamed at such a life
And wiped the sweat from off his brow.
The evening hours ticked away,
But the story never reached its end.
He threw his heart into it, used his hands.
So sad it was it seemed the walls did cry,
And each face in the room displayed its pain:
“Nu, good night to all my friends and neighbors.
I'll do some more tomorrow. Enough now for tonight.”
And satisfied, the men stand up, two women,
And Shaye's nephew, the writer of these lines.

A Jew can fashion beautiful worlds,
And Jews can also curse.
The deaf man Hersh-Leib has a food store

[Page 101]

With herring and flour, with sugar and rice.
He also has a second “business,”
A second shop under the same roof.
At dawn people come with their problems,
And in the early morning their curses resound.

The deaf man Hersh-Leib has laughing eyes.
He quietly plays the fool, and his eyes tear up.
As he comes to the curses and “V'zos h-brachah” [the last reading in the Torah]
His wife offers help, for she knows the job,…
He begins: “You boor! You scoundrel!”
And he follows it up with a crack.
Then in runs his wife Etta with a scream, a fright,
And gives the neighbor the real goods…

One hears, too, such cries from the Jews
Who have been purified, sacred cries
Raised from the depths of purified hearts
That rise up to the Throne of Glory.
Now in Unghen is Hershel Zirl's
A fine prayer leader, in one eye blind.
Such a soul–it rises to Heaven:
“Oh, Jews, He does not sleep…Our God does not drift off!…”

Always he pleads sincerely for cures,
And always he prays for salvation.
And ah, it's hard for him to live on Earth,
For men do not uphold the image of God…
On Yom Kippur at the cantor's invocation
He says the first three words and falls to the ground.

[Page 102]

He lies almost unconscious, saying nought,
His only sounds are those of woe and tears.

The Creator of the World has blessed the town.
Even the simplest men have great souls.
But always there is light and praise and “Blessed are you”–
As if He were my simple father.

My father–a wise man, but a simple Jew
From among those whom this writer has praised so much:
“Blessed be those callused hands,
The forehead from which poured such sweat.”

My father–early in the blue dawn,
The world so quiet, clear, and pure,
Already outside the town with his cares.
He went out with his weary bones.

A thin, poor man, his beard trimmed,
Burdened with many children,
Far off in the dark he sees a horse,
So he runs toward the peasant.

“Good morning, Vasily! What have you there? Apples?”
From the path he smells the fields of Bessarabia.
A moment in the cart, a wisecrack, a word–
And the peasant cheers up, laughs, beams.

“Oy, Yankele…ha ha…such a Jews…”
He slaps his hands, and the hills echo;
Sold! And he brings back–fruit or maybe grain-
And Yakov praises God on the muddy road.

[Page 103]

As the day dawns, the sun goes higher.
“Buy fish, dear customers,” says Yakov.
He follows the decree of “by the sweat of your brow.”
“Oy, different kinds of carp! Fresh, cheap!…”

“Nu, Freyda, my wife, take a couple of bowls.”
The quiet housewife takes them for fruit.
Now men toss off their weekday yoke,
For holy Shabbos fills the air.

My father's day…and on weeknights,
He sits on the stoop tired, worn out:
“Son, let's see what we earned today,
What has God intended for us?”

But then comes the sacred Friday evening
With peace and joy like a wonder, a dream:
The Jewish heart sings a song to God:
“Peace be with you, angels of peace!”

And Heyke and Chaim and Feyge and Pearl–
Their voices, so sweet, resound;
Beloved mother, and Mendel and Asher,
Shabbtai, Leibl–how beautifully they sing!
My father's voice rings out…and Mendel's alto,
From his thin body–and golden tones.

[Page 104]

Soon he will be singing with a chazan in Kishinev.
He won't be in Unghen…

And Yankel sings beautifully with trills
And rapturously his notes rise.
Our quiet woman of valor can't hear for joy;
Her husband is a king sitting on his throne.

Thus lives a simple Jew in his town,
And if sometimes he has a bit extra,
He keeps in his heart a note
Of goodness and pity for the poor.

Idl the tailor got a load of wood
In the bitter winter, he knows not whence;
“Thanks to you, Lord of Mercy!” He's warm and happy,
And Idl seeks his unknown benefactor…

And Shaye the cobbler, thin and sallow,
His home is bare and need cries out.
One day–“Oy, a whole sack of flour!”
Reb Yankl sent this to make bread.

A simple Jew lived on the Earth,
But he had a great soul, that man; “Ah, Freyda, in shul I heard Rabbi Fishman,
May his name forever be blessed!…”

He says the blessings after food so beautifully
And ends with a hearty, “Bless Your people with peace.”
He stays for a moment with his hands on the table
And says, “Thank to You, Master of the Universe.

[Page 105]

And later Elia Adles runs in
And says forthrightly,
“Reb Yankl, the rabbi sent me here
To seek advice on a difficult question.”

May my father live forever in my song.
Yes, with the holy ones above he belongs.
Oh, sweet Father, you holy Jew,
From afar I kiss your grave, your earth…

And my mother–kosher, sweet, and righteous–
My mother, killed in the hour of her greatest trouble.
I can only read about her on scraps of paper.
She was killed by those murderers, may their names be blotted out,
But in her letters she lives and speaks to me.

“My son, I don't know if I will live to see you again.
But when I write to you I feel as if I am near you.
I know how difficult it would be for you to bring us to you,
So I come to you with tears on paper…”

Your grey eyes, my beloved, righteous mother,
Weeping saw me in their depth.
Now I read your words, so artless and fine,
And I see your image as if it were pasted in your letter.

Eight children you reared as a quiet mother,
And they flew off like birds around the world.
Now I read your letter aloud in a prayerful voice.
We could not give you what you merited.

[Page 106]

Ah, I can never repay you sufficiently,
But you remain alive. You stand near me.
They seem to be there in a fog, they disappear in smoke–
You lead my father as the door opens silently…

There were teachers, too, in the town, maskilim–
“Ah, those who are observant should say Psalms!”
People read in the papers prose or poetry.
People read “The Times” or “The Siren.”
They read Tchernikowsky or oy-oy-oy Bialik–
His poem “In the City of Slaughter” is both sweet and bitter…
Such beauty and such skill flow from him:
“Please, hangman, my hero!”–such a lament, such purity…

Then on one beautiful Friday, Bialik came
To the shtetl as he went through Romania.
Everyone was there to greet him
At the station, full of joy.
As he went through the street, “Hooray, hooray!
Bialik!…The writer of divine grace!…”
Not for this author a run-down room.
They take him to the home of Reb Mattia Hermanski.

Reb Matiia is a maskil and a leading citizen
Who has open hands and an open door.
He's a scholar and a Zionist,
Easygoing and smart, and he speaks well.
On Friday night everyone comes alive.
Everyone comes to greet the poet Bialik.
Reb Mattia stands by, smiling and happy.
He says a few words and then presents his guest.

[Page 107]

Those people swore by heaven and earth
That they had never heard such wisdom.
They sat as if enchanted, thirsting to hear
As pearl after pearl came from his mouth.
He spoke of Torah, of Jews, of community.
We all wished to hear more.
And Mattia then exclaimed: “Fortunate am I
That Bialik has crossed my threshold.”

Then there was Sholem Ozrut, a clever man,
Someone who had to rise in the world.
For many years he was a poor cobbler,
And then he became a grain merchant.
In the village he bought grain from the peasants,
Then held it in a warehouse for a while.
When the price went up,
He sold it for a good profit.

There was Yankel the fruitman, his good friend.
They visited each other at home.
Sholem looked sweetly at Yankel,
Then fell at his feet.
Sholem came to Yankel to pass the time.
They played at dominos like educated men.
Sholem played while tapping his foot,
As was his custom. It was just for enjoyment.

“So,” says Sholem, looking at his pieces.
“You want to get at me.
You think you've got hold of a fool–

[Page 108]

But now you'll learn who Sholem really is.”
He thinks, then picks up one of his pieces,
Expecting to put Yankel to shame,
When suddenly–Yankel makes a move,
Lays down a piece and saves the game…

They play game after game, again and again,
Friendly, eagerly, like two loving brothers.
Then teasingly he says, “Oy, Yankel, you play
About as well as I could write a set of tefillin.”
“Ah, just wait,” says Yankel,” and you'll lose again.
Soon I'll make a move and you'll be stuck…”
Sholem makes a move: “There, Yankel, all done…
Don't count your chickens before they're hatched…Gey shlofn…”

Mr. Yechiel Neiman is an educated man.
He speaks and understands Russian.
He also knows Yiddish, which does not make him happy:
Why not? Because most Jews know it.
To speak Russian is an honor, a good fortune–
Ah the language of Pushkin. Ah, Russian!
He once studied in a Russian school.

He's so proud of his Russian that he beams with pride.
“You can be a Jew and you can be a Gentile–
But where in the world is there a Tolstoy!
You talk about Mendele Moykher Seforim–
What is he compared to Gogol and Chekhov?”

[Page 109]

One can speak of Yiddish and love the people–
And still use truth and logic and sense!
I have respect for Jews,” says Neiman,
“But do you want to compare Gorki to Peretz?”

Neiman rejected the faith of generations.
He was secular and loose, a great apikoros,
But he was happy, very clever,
And he loved spending time with Fishman the rabbi…
He always sought solutions for the world's problems,
And he trusted the wise words of the rabbi.
The rabbi dispensed wisdom, both Jewish and worldly.
Neiman listened to him and smiled and took pride…

Even wiser than Yechiel and playing a large role
In the town was Zelig, the unassuming carpenter.
He was short in stature and bent over,
But his two smiling eyes showed how clever he was.
He spoke like a rabbi on all sorts of things,
And he flew into a temper when not understood.
He once spent some time in America
And always recounted what he had seen there.

If a man lacks success, luck just wasn't his fate,
And his life on the Earth would have little worth.

America…a golden dream flown away
Because his Sarah-Beila had trachoma.
He had worked in America for a number of years
And sent home money and passage on a ship.
She came on the ship with her child at her side,
But because of trachoma she was barred from the land.

[Page 110]

He therefore could not remain in that land–
Although he'd had an important job there.
That man got to travel around in the world,
And now Zelig Greenberg became very smart…
People speak of his knowledge in town quite a bit,
But there's gossip as well: He's not good at his work…
Carpenters say this, supposedly friends–
Perhaps it's their envy that makes them inflamed…

The two brothers Shichman, Moyshe and Idl,
They talk to him often, sometimes with a curse:
“You idler, you know that we're carpenters, too,
With potfuls of troubles, though money is short.
Every morning at dawn, while the sky is still grey,
We begin to worry about earning a wage.
Windows and doors we stack up outside
For peasants to buy to fix up their homes.
But you sit on your rear or lie in your bed,
And you set out your goods when it's already late…”

Says Zelig: “Oy, children, you talk like such fools.
I worry for you and for other like folk.
But I will be proper, behave as is right–
Do you think that I want to argue with friends?
But, children, you know not from need.
I much prefer crusts and a dry piece of bread,
And so I lie down and my belly is fine–
So I rest and don't eat and save money in bed…”
The carpenters give an uproarious laugh:
“Oy, Zelig–such wisdom! You really are wise…”

[Page 111]

And Zelig advises the Jews of the town
At every assembly, his mind is so sharp.
“Thus says Zelig Greenberg”–it pleases the town–
“About giving alms and consoling the ill.”
He goes with a friend to give charity
And cheers up his fellows with this sacred task.
And people don't think about difficult times,
But the needy praise Zelig for all his good deeds.

And Yossel the baker is Zelig's wife's brother.
He's also no fool and gives good advice:
“Since Moyshe the elder is sick near to death,
Saying Psalms for his health will not help him at all.”
On the edge of an alley he lives by the shul–
And his heart, poor fellow, is heretical.
In the morning he opens the bakery's door
And goes into the street for a nice morning stroll.

His “good brothers” come often to visit his house,
While Elke, his daughter, sings good Jewish songs.
“Oy, Elkele Valdman, you've such a sweet voice,
You ought to be singing in St. Petersburg.”
With hands on her bosom laughs Yossel's wife Chaika,
In a loose-fitting jacket and a shirt made of flannel.
And Yankel gives Chaika a pinch, a caress,
And throws her with laughter down onto the bed.
And they break out in laughter–it's like beating a drum–
Yossel and Zelig and dear little Chaikl.

[Page 112]

On Shabbos at night, how they have a good time!
People come to Chaikl's basement room.
They're young. They sing and they dance a bit–
And oh, how the women move their feet!
They dance. They do tricks. They spin as if they have wheels–
Chaikl and Yossel the bath attendant pulls at his beard.
And Zelig and Yankel stay silent and watch,
But sometimes they show they're adept at the dance.
They dance forward and backward
While couples clap hands and they beam with good cheer.

In the shtetl, Jews whisper together in secret
That Reb Yankel Feldsman is like Rothschild in town.
Children dream about seeing his face,
But often he's absent for days and for years.
He'll go abroad sometimes for up to a month,
Odesa he'll visit or sometimes see Kiev.
He's short and he's stout and he wears a long coat.
He strolls like a prince and wears a fine hat.
“Be respectful, dear Jews, for this fine gentleman!”
The curious watch him from windows and doors.

A storehouse for wood he has out of town,
This richest Jew in our whole little town.
But truly one has to sing praises to him
And quietly say a soft prayer for his soul
The people of Unghen have love for this man,
And they show him the honor he clearly deserves.

[Page 113]

A merchant he is, but his home is well known
As a bastion of aid for all those who need help.
It's mercy that rules in the home of this prince.
If one is in trouble, knock on his back door.

The sick and the old and those who have need
Are everywhere seen at all times of the day.
“It will not cease”---plague rushes through Unghen,
And there's not enough help for all who have need.
Then two women come in of an evening to him:
“Madam, what can we do? There's trouble and pain…
Breyne the widow has lain sick two whole weeks.
At least we should try to supply her with food.
God only knows how long she'll be sick…
Gelman the doctor should try to help out.”

And later with sorrow comes Yankel Barkan
And lays out his case:
“Oh listen, my lady, it's good that you're rich.
Do you think that you have just a bit you can spare?
Twenty-five would be good, a minuscule loan,
For Sheyka the tailor is lacking all funds.
He has not the strength to come to your door.
He came to ask Yankel the beggar–and me.”
The dear lady smiles and takes out her purse
And gives him the money as quick as she can.

There are some who eat honey and some who eat garlic.
The former include Chaim-Ber Robel.
He built for himself a house on the hill.

[Page 114]

The beggars, he says, are a pain in the neck…
He walks down the hill (with that belly he lugs),
And he stands at the stock exchange in his sloppy coat:
“Do you know who I am? Do you know Chaim-Ber Robel?”
And he stares with his fat face and sharp little “beak”…
He lights a cigar and blows out the smoke:
“I'm the wealthiest grain merchant.”

His “woman of valor,” the fine, gentle lady.
She keeps a wet nurse for her little child.
She has, too, a Gentile servant, this princess.
She speaks to him from a distance, through a partition.
“In the morning, chop wood, then rest for a time;
Bring water–then rest again, that would be good.
Then go shopping and uh-bring it here,
And then take off for the rest of the day…”

Yes, I reckon he's quite a Jew in the town,
But the town also has some fine common folk.
There's a quiet man who lacks glory and flare–
That's Zeydl the wagoner, known as Muddy Zeydle.
He stands by the station and watches the doors.
He drives a wagon and waits there for passengers.
“Giddy-up,” and his muddy horse gets ready
And parades the visitors into town.
The horse goes not too far from the station
And stop!–there is Chaim-Leiib's hotel-restaurant.

Muddy Zeydl's complains of his father,
And harbors some envy of more learned folk.

[Page 115]

He has a broad beard, and he holds onto his whip.
He asks Chaim Barkan a technical question:
What's the difference between speaking the holy tongue
And speaking Hebrew each month?
“I'm just a simple guy and you can laugh at me–
But is there a difference between the two tongues?”

He's such a plain guy.
At night he goes to water his horse in the river.
He passes the door of Mattia Hermanski,
And Mattia asks, “Nu, Zeydl, what's new?”
Responds Zeydl, “I'm full of woe.
My horse has died and so has my father.”
And he walks away in endless sorrow
About his horse and his father, both gone…

A wealthier man lives not far from the station–
That's Chaim-Leib Schwartzman of hotel fame.
He speaks loudly, uses fancy words.
He has a small beard, but holds his head high.
Near the church, not far from the station,
Stands his hotel with its door propped wide open.
Everyone who has business in town to conduct–
This is where merchant meets merchant.
There are many rooms, and a big dining room,
And the whole place is pleasant and comfortable.

A fine family, full of good intentions.
A promise? A favor? Chaim-Leib Schwartzman is there.
If the guests are loud, taken up with their business.

[Page 116]

They still get along, because they're in a nice place.
But the heart and soul of the hotel
Is not Reb Chaim-Leib but his wife Gittel.
She has a laughing voice, she's tall and heavy,
And when she walks, her steps resound.
She has smiling eyes, and she's a clever one.
She weighs all that she says, every word.
Women come to her for advice,
And her door is always open.
One son of theirs, Manye, tall and fine,
Went away to America, far away.

Manye later returned
To see his mother and father.
Everyone chased after him and wanted to know:
“How could you leave that wondrous America?”
His parents watched him thankfully
That they were destined to see their precious son again.
His brother Yossel is among the youth
And feels himself exalted in the throng…

And Machlia Aberbach, short and fat–
She weighs about two hundred pounds.
A fine woman, Moyshe Chansze's mother,
A beautiful, noble, sweet soul.
She is a widow, but her son is a success.
He purchased a fine coach
And in surrounding towns and villages
His noble horses convey rich passengers.

[Page 117]

Says Machlia to the poor in the street,
“Do you need a loan for a short time?”
If months go by without repayment,
Never mind: “They've nibbled on God's bounty.”

And there comes a Jew named Yankel Kopzak,
Who has a small store, fully stocked.
Once my grandfather dragged himself there with his cane
To buy a flask of kerosene.
It didn't suit Yankel…his store was too fine.
But the real merchant was his clever wife Breyne,
A heavy woman who walked like a duck.
She was sly, spirited, a real Cossack:
“What say you, Yankel?” and gives him what for:
“It doesn't suit you. You have no head for business.”

And then there is Chaimke the cobbler, the righteous,
With one blind eye and always gloomy,
A small man, and even smaller his Freyda.
There is no peace between them.
Someone once suddenly opened their door
And heard her complaining while he struck her.
Fourteen children she bore him.
A while she tended them and then no more…
No children remain in Chaimke's house.
A month or two, and then they were buried.

There's Godl the baker, who looks so tired.
His narrow beard extends below his knees.
He's old, bent over, with a voice so shrill

[Page 118]

And wonders: “Where have the years flown?”
But in the street he calls out loud,
“Chaim, come here. I have something to say!”
The young man comes running, and Godl says, “Listen:
Today one's alive and tomorrow–who knows?”
He pulls up his trousers a little bit higher
And waddles away with a shrill kind of cackle.

And Shmuel and Moyshe, two brothers, so close,
Who kiss and quarrel, then make up again.
Wagoners–they constantly use their minds
To find outlets for their iron muscles.
Different sorts of merchandise they carry on yokes,
And they bear such burdens through the whole week.
But on Shabbos, early on, people hear an uproar.
They run…Shmuel and Moyshe are exchanging blows.
It's a storm, a regular to-do.
They're killing each other, fighting with fury.

And later Shmuel comes to shul as if nothing occurred,
Dressed nicely, a quiet citizen.
He has a spot not far from the reading stand,
And he always prays righteously and fervently.
“Oy,” he thinks, “to have fought on Shabbos.
It's a sin that simply cannot be borne!”
So he sings out his prayers in a booming voice.
He sings and repents and seeks consolation…

And there's Yosef Friedman with his large hands.
He is, you know, well-read and intelligent.

[Page 119]

He's tall and bony and his jacket's too big.
The young man has a good background and walks with a cane.
A bookkeeper he is, and a Hebraist, too.
Like Asher his brother, a fierce Zionist.
His eyes are like dots and he gestures a lot.
The man's a real mentsch…a talented young man.

The town has folk, too, who often travel:
Sometimes one goes to Odessa for a cure
For his throat, goes to the sea if he can–
And hoarse he returns to his town of Unghen.
The man who's hoarse remains here happily
And sees little value in the doctor's diagnosis.
He buys his fruit from Mechel the druggist
And complains in his room about the world that deceives.
He trusts a single, solitary thing:
His son, Kalman Kleinman, as everyone knows…

Oh how the young people struggle for Zion.
Whatever they do, they feel they should do more.
The Tz'irei Tzion need a new leader,
So Kalman Kleiman will be their new chief.
His mouth overflows like a bubbling spring.
His speeches are good, and he sounds like a prophet:
“Herzl has taught:
No more exile! We won't be slaves!
We fight for what's due us, we fight for what's right!…”
The fruitman is pleased at these words from his son:
“Oy, friends, I'm so delighted–I don't know what to do!…”

[Page 120]

When one speaks about the Jewish people,
May one mix in falsity and ugliness and sinfulness?
There was in Unghen one policeman, a real Cossack,
Who roamed around the town
With hatred and with bad intent in every step.
But the Jews have a God in Heaven…
The police would stuff themselves and drink,
Do anything to satisfy their needs.
They were drawn to drunkenness and sin,
And they were prone to seize on Jewish property.

One time the Cossack came
Into a shop and took some cigarettes,
But then–such courage the shopkeeper had–
“Give back that pack that you just took…”
The villain simply chuckled, “Ah, Moshke, you fool,
You'll go to Siberia for insulting the czar!”
Then he went to Chaim-Leib and gulped down some wine
And talked about the “plan” he had in mind.
Then Gittl wept as if for the czar
And managed to avert that bitter decree.

I'm pleased now to write with my poor little pen
That so many children lived in Unghen.
Yes, how can a person know what tomorrow will bring?
But they dream that their children will play a good part.
They dream that their children will create and enjoy
Fields full of joy, and knowledge and wisdom,
Lacking yokes and obligations, so they can be free.

[Page 121]

And they study the Torah with rabbis who teach.
Let's hope that they will then be free, without worries,
And we wish a bright future to all their descendants.

Outside the town there are fields, so nice,
And among the trees is found the cemetery,
For the Angel of Death sometimes visits the town,
And folks mourn and wail at graves that hold their ancestors.
The past lives on…one sees very clearly
How Spain drove us out and how Chmielnicki pounced on us.
How much they've persecuted us…their hatred and their evil!
They chased us, they killed us, they pained us so badly.

But the Jew travels on upon our bloodstained road,
Escapes from foes and feels some dignity.
He goes his way and sings his praise to God
And prays that there just may be peace in the world.
The shtetl of Unghen is such a place.
They work, they celebrate, they do whatever they can.
They thank God from their hearts for the pleasures that they have
And they say with longing: “L'shana ha-ba'ah…”

 

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