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[Page 122]

19

A Rabbi

Where is there such light, such sunshine,
As emanates from the Torah when one looks deep therein?
If one continues for days and years, one puts in infinite labor,
And yet one still requires a rav, a teacher.
At a meeting the community of Unghen decided
That the town needed a rabbi who could make decisions about kashruth.
Until now the shochet Reb Shloyme had made those judgments,
But now a rabbi should supervise the whole business…

Rabbis arrived in town from all over–
One was a short rabbi, a great speaker, brilliant;
One was tall and bony, with his tallis on his back,
And cited the “Tur” to show his skill in making decisions;
One was a young man who grew confused on the bimah
And spoke about miracles, legends, “He hangs the earth upon nothing” (Job 26:7).
One was a rabbi who shouted, as if he were quarreling,
And delivered his talk as if he were in pain, with a mournful melody;
And one indulged in Midrashim
While he looked through the windows at the women…

And then came to the town, in the middle of the night,
A young man from nearby, a real teacher,
A thin man, softspoken, who rubbed his forehead as he spoke,
And we saw in his smile, his intelligence, that this was a match.
He came from near Belz, Marculesti, son of a scribe,
Married, living with his in-laws, already a rabbi.

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On the Friday night of his first Shabbos in town
People crowded in the shul, young and old side by side.
The rabbi stood there, wearing his tallis, wiping his forehead,
And he delivered words of Torah and wisdom, a pleasure to hear.

So the community quickly called a meeting,
Because the rabbi had impressed everyone.
The leaders got right down to business
And offered Rabbi Fishman fifteen rubles a week.
The young rabbi smiled and twirled his sidecurl:
“That's probably fine…I'm not worried about money;”
But to himself he smiled and said a small prayer,
And Unghen was lucky to get such a man.

The rabbi sped home with his news and light in his eyes.
He waited a month before making the move.
He had a big house with shabby furniture,
And crate after crate filled with religious tomes.
A bedroom, a kitchen–and a room in the front
That would soon fill with books, as a field fills with rye.
High is the ceiling, the walls covered with shelves.
And he laid out his books all neatly in order.

So the rabbi, thank God, settled in Unghen
And established himself in the “Old Shul…”
In a corner by the Holy Ark, holding his siddur,
With his tallis over his head, facing the wall,
He rocked back and forth, prayed more earnestly than anyone.
The bones of his shoulders show through his tallis.

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As the Torah is read, he sits with the tallis on his shoulders.
His face shines before the crowd and he is at peace.

He takes out of his reading stand a large Chumash.
He doesn't study now, just looks around.
And if by chance the Torah reader makes an error,
His voice is heard, mixed with a slight chastisement.
He says no unnecessary words but corrects only the mistake,
So that the reader can repeat it accurately.
How could anyone distort a word, or even a letter, of Torah,
When everything has been inscribed in holiness and awe?…

And once a rebbe [a Chasidic leader] was a guest in town,
And there was an amusing incident:
The elderly Reb Yehezkel of Belz himself
Came to the shul with his Chasidim.
He was seated by the eastern wall as an honor,
And then was honored as the Torah reader.

As he read, he was meticulous about every letter,
And then–he hesitated and made an error.
A quiet sigh was heard from the rabbi
And the “rebbe” repeated the verse and then made off…
Later on, the rabbi explained to the guest reader
That the rebbe's prestige was less than that of the Torah.
Before Musaf the rabbi mounted the stairs of the bimah
And everyone became quiet to hear his voice.
He wiped his forehead and his face shone.
He looked at the crowd as if he had not seen them forever.

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And suddenly: “Gentlemen!” and his eyes twinkled.
A moment–and there was deep silence.
Holy and profound that silence, full of awe,
Like the holy silence before Torah was given…

“And your brother will dwell with you”–all Jews are your brothers.
And the rabbi of Unghen created brotherhood, quietly, without ado.
He gathered twenty leading citizens
And infused them with his spirituality.
Immersed them in beauty and purity, head to toe,
Unified them bound them together in a holy union:
“Live, brothers, exalt the lives that are yours,
Study Torah, and know your own worth!”

Those beloved Jews who lived in eternal fear,
And Jews like Velvel and Yankl, who carried sacks;
And Reb Asher Friedman, the manufacturer,
And Mattia the maskil, who also learned the “Tur”;
And others…they scoop up with pails from sources of purity
And give those treasures to children, so beautiful.
They seek for the children a more advanced teacher
And brought to the shtetl young Sh. L. Blank.

And deep in that brotherhood lay thoughts of Israel.
They wanted to teach children their ancient tongue.
The rabbi ended all of his fine talks
With the age-old promise, “Our eyes will see the return…”
The rabbi and men of the brotherhood soon saw
That young Blank knew Hebrew.
He spoke the language poetically, a pleasure to hear,
And was an able writer in that tongue.

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He taught the children with pleasure in his own way,
And he conveyed his limitless love for the land of our fathers.

Ah, what is man on Earth? Only dust and ashes.
Always the rabbi sits there and looks in his book,
For there the world is steeped in sweetness and delight–
And when he wearies, he goes to the porch.
There on the porch (the domain of Reb Shlumke Brill)
He deals with his dreams, which are fine and peaceful.
He rubs his forehead and paces all around,
Wearing his long jacket with its green collar.
In the evening he returns to the sinful Earth,
As the Jews bring news that he hears and contemplates.

He preaches on Shabbos in shul and holds nothing back.
He analyzes all and wraps it in Torah.
It's the eve of Pesach and in town something is wrong,
As the poor have not been given as much as a potato.
He preaches against the wealthy, speaking wisely and subtly.
He moralizes and flogs them for the sake of truth.
Now one sees those wealthy ones at the eastern wall
As their faces color, turning red from shame…

And once, with the holy light of the Shekhinah,
But in the mournful tone of a lament,
He chastised a woman furiously in public:
“In Kishinev she had an abortion…
‘Whoever shed the blood of man, oy, his blood will be shed’–
‘By man’ means ‘by anyone,’ I assert;
A fetus is also a person…killed in some way,
And the woman is a murderer and merits the penalty of death…”

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The congregation is frozen, barely breathing,
And the rabbi wipes his forehead and goes on to something else.

In summer–people said it was the finest–
The socialists stay by their open windows
And exchange bits of wisdom that they hear and contemplate:
They don't wait for someone else. They do it themselves.
And the rabbi speaks now about the righteous and the wicked.
And he brings down a harsh passage from the Talmud.
He speaks about justice and teaches the wealthy and the bleak,
And the socialists smile and are filled with pleasure.

And the rabbi has a prominent place not only among the Jews,
But he is well known to the local Gentiles.
In a nearby village there was a heavy gentleman
Who insulted the exalted messenger of his master.
So the priest brought them both
To the “Rabina” Fishman to settle things.
Yechiel Neuman was there to translate from the Russian.
The rabbi heard both sides and made a judgment.
Their faces were fierce, as though clouded in fog,
But so great was his wisdom–that they showed their gratitude.

Children, too, grew up in town, representing the future.
Then needed supervision, people to worry about them.
The rabbi would come to their cheder in the morning:
“Young man, explain to me this puzzling verse of Torah.”
He could tell from the recitation if the boy loved Torah.
Then he examined other children's learning.
Then he bestowed a smile upon those boys
And gently urged them to wear their tzitzis.

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Then the rabbi took “golden” kopecks from his wallet
And the children's joy was indescribable…

One time an older rabbi came from Kishinev,
The great rabbi Tzirilson…who was greatly honored,
A major rabbi–who else had such a dignified appearance?
He stayed, you understand, with a certain young man.
In the morning, after prayers, the guest, a pure man, began to speak,
To speak to the young students about Torah wisdom.

They spoke about a passage in the Talmud, about the world's petty conceits,
How honor and jealousy and lust can kill a man.
And they spoke about a passage in the Zohar:
“It's good for man to think himself so small.”
When people are equal and think of themselves as brothers,
A person cannot sink deeply into the mud or be submerged…”

And then the Kishinev rabbi, with his sharp eyes,
Looked at the books, which were as colorful as rainbows.
He felt himself elevated as high as the ceiling,
Raised up spiritually by the sacred books.
He looked into a book, took in what it said,
And immediately forgot about everything else.
He turned the pages with interest and pounded on his head:
“Ach, amazing!…It really is amazing.”
Something there seemed hard for him to “swallow”:
“Rabbi–” he said, pointing with his finger–“do you know what's there?
The younger man looked in the book and said,
“Rabbi, I'm not stuck up. I'm modest–

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But from whatever book you want to cite a verse,
With God's help, I could tell you what comes next.”

Then it was noised about, as if it were a miracle,
That the young rabbi left for Odesa.
He left quietly, told no one,
Except for a couple of people who said a prayer for him.
He went to join up with “Mizrachi,”
To give advice and aid for building that new home in Zion.
It seemed like risky work, too great a task,
But the Jews had to be redeemed from exile…

And once–this writer will always recall his joy--
The rabbi had been gone from town for several days,
But earlier, at a poor celebration for the boy,
He heard the child's bar mitzvah speech.
He went to Odesa, came back from a conference,
And got a big welcome at the station.
And there he gave the boy's father a gift
For his son: “The Legends of Israel” and “heroes of the People…

That learned man lived in the town of Unghen for nine years,
Each day of which was precious.
The shtetl wove dreams, acted communally, learned–
By day the skies were clear, and the stars shown at night…
But Zion, the Jewish homeland, tugged at him–
Like Yehuda Ha-Levi, he wanted to fly there!
The community escorted him one beautiful day with its blessing:
“To life!…Let redemption come quickly in our days!”

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20

The River

Several versts [about 2/3 of a mile] outside of town was the river.
It was full of carp and fish of all sorts.
A little prayer house is here, two rooms, with a wooden chamber.
Outside one hears the owner, who walks around with hammer and nails.
Three horses stand in a stall a little way off.
And there is an ice cellar covered with a roof.
And there lies a huge net all spread out,
Which the owner drags and fixes its ripped parts.

And all around lie green fields, blooming and splendid,
While cool breezes blow from the hills by day and by night.
And a man delights there with his shirt open and free,
And one dawn is nicer than the last, soft, fresh, and new.
The rye twists on the hill from the wind,
Which races around and over the river.
The waves bubble up soft and still, like righteous children,
And the fish stick their heads out over the surface.

From the trees one smells the ripe fruit and its juice.
Of grains and greens and of fish in the river there is abundance.
The rye and the barley and the wheat are tall, with full stalks,
And there are footsteps of people who are sated, thankful, and glad.

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And high on the green hill, people have planted, sown, and turned the earth,
And the fields resound as people work so hard.
The children hide among the tall stalks.
Then people tie up the sheaves, which stand like beloved figures.
And near the river there is a tall, thick tower
That whistles and creaks when the wind blows hard.
And deeper in the water is a tall basket
Where they leave fish that they've caught overnight, ready to sell.
The Gentile, Cyprian, has spent many years on the river,
And on Thursdays many Jews come from nearby towns to travel.
And on Thursdays the peasants noisily move the net.
They circle the fish with the net and they listen…

If God has blessed them, they pull fish out of the river
By the scores of pounds and throw them into the basket.
Away from the prayer house, under the hill, at the shore,
They use a scale to weigh the fish that God has given them that day.
The carp of different sorts–they are the prizes of this river;
The gudgeon and their relatives are worth so much;
And the fisherman, the “Red,” drinks a toast from his flask.

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And he's helped by R. Mendel Karnesh and Perlits and Kalarash.

The fish are weighed by the fruitman Reb Yankl Barkan from Unghen.
He deals with the merchants and pays Cyprian.
When Reb Yankl makes a deal, they have brandy and cake.
He gets the fish that have been caught for a small price.
Carp go for six rubles a pound–less worthy fish for 3, or sometimes more;
And Yankl doesn't overcharge, so people pay his asking price.
Reb Yankl is in charge there, and people speak politely.
And Yankl's son Chaim is there as well, always under foot.

People put ice in their carts to protect the fish from heat,
Then cover them with cloth and jump onto the seat.
“Thanks to you, friend Cyprian.” “Hey, Yankl, have a good day!”
“Travel well, have a good trip!” says Yankl with a smile.
“Giddyap” and the horses take off, leaving the fishermen behind:
The Gentile with his earthly belongings and the Jew with his skinny bones.
From afar one can hear the echo as the fishermen go through the field–
They cry out from wagon to wagon, and they sing and they laugh, so full of joy.

Then young people come from the shtetl to ride inside the boat.
The river is even and peaceful, so the boat behaves itself.
You don't even need the oars there, so they leave them on the ground.
A push–and the boat glides off, as the youth take in the sun.

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Deep in the stillness of nature, one hears the buzz of bees.
The hill overlooks the scene, and the boat makes its way.
And the young folks sit and watch, full of joy and quiet sweetness.
And Yankl, the fisherman's son, guides them down the river.
“Ha!”–yells “Leibl the Red” as his apprehension shows,
And “Ha!” a child replies from afar as if in clear response.
So they sail in their boat on the water to the far side of the hill.
Then they sit on the grassy land, silent from such a trip.
They sing a joyful song, full of happiness unalloyed,
As the children of Israel sang at the Red Sea.
And in his pocket Shloyme finds some bread, enough to have a taste.
They eat and they enjoy, as the Jews in the desert ate manna.

Higher up, a train runs noisily through the fields to Unghen.
It disturbs the silence that was so gentle and mild.
The whistling and the rattling of the city trains fill the air,
But songs of birds and croaks of frogs can still be heard.
And in the evening every corner of the fields lies silent,
And the tower bends in prayer while crickets sing their praise.
Birds peep out of nests in wonderment
While cows and dogs shiver with surprise at every element.

At dawn, when Creation lies wrapped in dreams,
And the Earth is washed with dew and bathes in solitude and peace.

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Cyprian is already outside and looks around with furrowed face
And uses his fat nose to smell whether threats lie in the air.
He goes to take the huge net from its wooden beams,
Because after every use one must stitch it up.
Later on he scratches his hard head
And overturns the boats to dry them out, then seals them up with paste.

Outside the town, where the bath stands, is the river's source.
Further on is a stream, rich in grass and frogs.
One either side lie woods–and from one side the sound of women's voices:
They wash and scrub on washboards and, with grunts, throw clothes into their baskets.
Above there is green moss, and the leaves there have no smell.
As God created the river, He made that vegetation as a joke…
But the stream has some importance,
For underneath the hill, on the shore, there stands a well.

Unghen and the river are united, like a room inside a house,
Except that by the river is more and sun and air, more open space.
And often Cyprian, alone in the field, feels lonely.
He goes to the inn in town to quell his loneliness,
And he complains to the host about their godless times.

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Two sons he has, and both desire to leave the river.
He drinks both day and night, then sleeps inside the inn in solitude,
Because God has taken away his dearest friend, his wife, to Heaven…

And the fish in Unghen are cheap, the gudgeon go for kopeks,
And the poor people like the cheap and filling kinds.
People rich and poor eat fish all week.
They eat with pleasure and joy, so proud they are of the bountiful river.
When Erev Shabbos comes, they gather fish in baskets, much like gold,
So that on Shabbos they can have a hit of the Heavenly table.
“Oy, is this carp good!…so sweet is the broth we've made.”
And they sing the Shabbos songs with joy and glee.

But Cyprian spends the night alone in bed
And dreams about the past and thinks about the Jews.
His windows still are open, and no branch or leaf does stir.
The night is still, except the cat who scratches at the door.
And he thinks, “Ah, for ten years I have lived contented here
And always walked my usual path to reach the Jews in town.
Such gentle people…so friendly, smart, and nice!”
He signs the cross and thinks: “If only I'd been born a Jew…”

[Page 136]

21

New Teachers

Before a prayer house, the courtyard–huge,
There Jewish children learn the aleph beys.

The rabbi lived in a muddy little street,
And the children fall and get muddy and wet.

The teacher's young assistant picks them up from home
And marches them through the muddy streets.

They are attached to him as if by a rope,
And sometimes they hold a piece of bread with jam.

He carries a child through the mud on his back, this guy,
And looks at the bread and jam as a horse regards hay.

“Ezralik, so much bread? What are you, a giant?…”
And he takes a bite of the bread and jam.

And so the poor helper has breakfast before
He brings the young students to school.

The children sit in cheder around a long narrow table,
In a row, on a bench, and they gawk at the rabbi.

The others assemble in the school or the courtyard
Under the watch of the assistant, who passes among them.

All day long he is hungry-for an apple or for nuts
Or for bread spread with schmaltz, or a plum–oh, for just a bite…

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He's either in cheder or running outside
While a child cries, poor thing, for he's soiled his pants…

He undresses the child in the courtyard outside
While the children play games and run all around.

The poor boy has made such a mess of himself
That the children regard him with eyes full of woe.

He puts on his pants, which are now nice and clean.
He washes his hands and says the “Asher Yatzar” [prayer after using the bathroom]

Then there's a child whose eyes seem confused,
For God has decreed that the poor child is not bright.

The helper assists him in entering school
And must constantly repeat that a “vov”'s not a “zayin.”

Rabbi Abraham sits in the school all bent over
And uses his pointer to teach hour after hour.

“Come on, say again. What is this?” Say, young men.
You'll forget all you've learned if I don't use the whip.

Try to get in your head at least some bit of Torah:
The “gimel”, you see, has a foot that is bent.

Be sure, when you learn all these fine Jewish letters,
I'll give you a bride with a fine brass pupick.

The poor Jewish child sits sadly in place
And fearfully repeats what the rabbi has said.

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In the siddur the boy can't tell a “Tzadik” from a “resh,”
And from behind the rabbi gives a squeeze to his cheek…

But when he sees a good student, he kisses his head:
“Ah, bless you, my son. You'll be a rabbi someday.”

When he's out in the street and encounters a student of yore,
He's ever so happy and his face shines with joy…

He puts his face forward
And pulls a hair from his beard or his cheek.

His pointer moves all over the place,
And people in town call him “Avraham the plucker.”

But the problems of the Jews make him ill.
“Oy, my children dear, remember to be good Jews…

Believe in God and tread on Jewish paths,
And may the Redeemer come in our own days.

Avraham the teacher, a good man, a wholehearted Jew,
Worn down by poverty he was, and wearied by teaching.

He planted many seeds of torah…
His memory is blessed, let him be remembered forever

* * * * *

The second in town, a beloved teacher,
Also had a school and led the prayers in shul.

He was worthy of teaching in the women's shul.
His home was too small because it was full of his children.

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Reb Aryeh the teacher teaches Chumash to the children
And mixes in a bit of Rashi, too.

There's a table, there a stool, and there a couple benches
And the children breathe free because there's so much room.

Aryeh the teacher is quiet, but clever as a fox.
His beard is trimmed and blond, of middle length…

He walks around the room, both here and there,
And helps his students when their work is hard.

One child reads the sedrah of Mishpatim:
“And these are the mishpatim…” and then, as if in pain,

The rabbi give him a twist upon his back,
And a cry rings out over the children's heads.

“Golem!”–the rabbi says in anger–“Simpleton!
Mishpatim–that word has a meaning…

Children, how did I translate that word in the past?”
“Laws”–says a boy who fidgets in his seat.

The rabbi gives a sharp look at the boy, who got it wrong,
But he has turned already to his book.

Then the teacher turns with hands held at his back:
“Listen up, you scamps. You all should look at me.”

With eyes wide open at that man they stare,
For they are always eager to learn Torah from him.

“‘And these are the laws’”–the Midrash tells us
That God has given us laws that are precise.

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‘And these,’ see what the Shulchan Aruch says–
And you will learn how people study in the cheder.

So after that the verse says ‘which you will put’–
Why not ‘lay before’ or even better ‘give’?

Because ‘give’ is not enough, for people can be lazy.
These laws must be put in people's mouths.

Nu, my group of scamps, do you grasp Midrashic sense?
A Jew who understands these laws will lead a holy life.”

So Leibl continues–“If you purchase…”
But Leibl has a bunch of buttons in his pocket.

He reads the words of Chumash haltingly,
And steals a glance at Noach, his good friend.

The Chumash, of course, is sacred, but buttons seduce him
Thanks to their pretty shapes and colors.

Under the table he trades them with his Noach.
Chumash he loves, of course, but buttons he loves, too.

He begins to talk: “‘If you purchase’–
A Hebrew slave…then you purchase…

For six years…six years…six years…
Give me a military button and I'll give you two…”

And Reb Aryeh runs to him with a raised hand
And gives him such a smack his face turns red.

And makes him empty buttons from his pocket:
Silver, gold, military brass.

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“So this is how you study Torah, empty heads.
What will you get from learning of this kind?–Just blows!

Torah and buttons…‘Be careful of the sons of paupers’ [B. Talmud Nedarim 51a].
Tell me, how can Torah compete with buttons?”

Once a month he takes the older boys
To the Holy Ark in the men's shul

And the boys at the table are struck with awe
As he shows them the letters of the Torah.

He teaches them to recognize letters, words.
His eyes twinkle, and he rejoices.

“Children”–he points, and his voice booms firmly out–
“The basis of our people's strength lies here!…”

The third teacher in our town is Itzik–
Middle-aged, thin, black bearded–suave.

He's lame in one foot and walks with a cane.
He's nice…but can throw a sudden shock in students.

He will not be married–he thinks it is an error.
He's angry, shows the jealousy of the Lord God of Hosts.

His face ablaze and crossed his eyes,
He hobbles noisily and sits–upon the table!

“Oy, Chaim, you empty simpleton, where have you drifted?
You dream of birds and you don't know a verse!

Evildoers are not our friends–they're wicked–
Oy, children, your heads are truly like those of our foes.

[Page 142]

Isaiah lived for many years, just like our teacher Moses,
But if he'd heard you, he'd have wished for less…”

Shloyme recites…“‘With all my bones…’”
And he limps around the benches, as he tends to do.

No one turns, but they jabbed behind their backs,
So as he passes by they bow their heads.

He teaches Isaiah and Tanach to the older ones
As well as Hebrew and a lot of grammar.

With the older class he studies pages of Gemara–
Reb Itzik studied in the yeshivas of Lithuania.

Yossl the cobbler saw that his son was disabled
And dreamt that the poor boy could be a teacher.

And when Yossl the cobbler passed away,
His dream then came to pass. It came to be.

Reb Itzik teaches them the meaning of their prayers
And teaches Psalms and Proverbs and Megilloth five.

And when a question comes regarding justice, he pauses
And seeks to raise the children to a higher rung.

“‘God will fight for you and you will hold your peace’ {Exodus 14:14]–
Listen, children, to this new, fresh thought:

Moshe our teacher, dear and godly leader,
Spoke to the Jewish people like a prophet, with fire.

[Page 143]

He showed them the best way to live their lives
So God would give them blessing and abundance.

‘God will fight’–He will give plenty, food,
‘You will hold your peace’–you will plow, or need will come…

He clarifies a passage beautifully, with taste,
And shows compassion for the poor, for those in need.

He turns the Siddur's pages and prays well
And leads the children in song and psalms of praise:

‘You see, dear children, the words that say
‘Trust not in princes nor in the son of man who cannot save’ {Psalm 146: 3]?

Now listen: take the Siddur seriously.
We must always trust in God.

But listen closely to my explanation
And pay attention to the melody…

‘Trust not in princes’–don't rely on ‘fine people,’
Who tend to stand apart from truth and justice.

‘The son of man who has not’–whence then comes help?
The poor and silent help us and bring cures…

Tanach brings us to God, our Lord and Ruler,
While the prophet punishes thieves and takers of bribes.

‘Your rulers are thieves’” [Isaiah 1:23]–the rabbi yells out loud.
“‘Your rulers are thieves’ who steal from the city.

[Page 144]

‘They neglect the orphan’–they neglect the orphan.
The Torah is nought to them–they overlook its laws.

When widows and orphans approach the judge for justice,
He looks at them with hatred, as he would a spider.

He makes them slaves and talks with scorn and pride.
They draw his water, chop his wood.

Oy, what a disaster, what a disgrace.
Such sins among us Jews, in Jewish territory.”

He pauses for a moment, bows his head,
And anger emanates from his visage

He straightens up, his eyes agleam with joy–
And with the prophets sees a future time…

“‘And it will be at the end of days’ [Isaiah 2:2]–open your books:
Such a world, with problems, plagues, with murder and with graves,

With bloody wars, and new wars all the time–
What does Isaiah say in his prophetic book:

‘The mountain of the Lord's house shall stand’ [Isaiah 2:2]–God's house
Stands firmly on the mountain of Judah, large and proud,

And people from around the world will come
To draw up springs of wisdom in the House of Zion.

Golden days!…An end to jealousy and violence.
Hatred will be destroyed and war will cease.

‘Nation shall not take up sword against nation’ [Isaiah 2:4]–people will live in peace.
This is a prophecy from Isaiah's mouth, not just a dream…”

[Page 145]

He looks and sees the children dreaming dreams.
“Perhaps their fate will be to see those brighter times…”

Now they learn Gemara, tractate Baba Mezia.
To sharpen up their minds, they turn to this.

Reb Itzik has a custom: he says a joyful blessing
When he finds a law regarding truth and justice.

But suddenly he gets upset and grimaces:
‘Something is found’–fools have explained this.

If two men walk the street and find a thing,
It belongs to him who picked it up at first.

So? According to the rabbis, is it ownerless?
It seems the one who holds it claims it best.

The one who's strong and takes it away,
He owns what they both have found…”

When the children look confused, he turns to Ramaz [a commentator]:
“Remember, children dear, God's seal is ‘Truth’…”

The children listen with respect and awe–
As Reb Itzik teaches Sacred Writ.

There were three fine teachers in the town.
So long ago…See what life was like in Unghen!…

I see them in my dreams so pure.
May they rest in Eden, in peace and quiet.

[Page 146]

22

The Hebrew School

The town is full of children, thank God, and the schools are full,
But as yet in Unghen there is no Hebrew school.
There are many heretics who rather than Gemara and Aramaic
Would teach their sons and daughters modern Hebrew.

Once, people who joked about side-curls, kaftans, and kittles
Were willing to have their sons learn without wearing hats.
A Jew who removes his hat leaves himself no choice
And no longer consults a Siddur, “for one sin leads to another” (Avot 4:2].

There were a few people who were tired of all the old ways:
“Whoever knows Bialik's poem ‘About the Bird’ is no idle Jew…”
They boast about Saul Tchernikowsky, about Yakov Cohen, Fishman, and Schneour.
They enjoy poetry and read translations.

They feel refreshed and elevated, as though the town is no longer so confining,
A world with lights and streets, with beauty and dreams and longing,
A world with comfort for afflictions, a message of holiday and peace,
And “oh, how highly mankind is blessed! And there is such love for Jews!…”

Nu, so people will be revived and childish hearts will be refreshed.
They consider writers heroes, with a name, a reputation.

[Page 147]

Yossl Vaynshtayn organizes against Reb Yehuda-Leib Fishman
So that a Hebrew school will finally open.

He is blind and lives in darkness, that Rabbi Yehuda-Leib the Cohen
There's a new world now–and Jews must build a new world, too.
In the Hebrew school the students will learn Russian as well.
Because Russia has a culture, they need to know Russian.

It should not be that a Jewish child does not know arithmetic…
Only a complete boor doesn't know Russian grammar.
We should learn secular subjects and attach to them Jewish concerns.
One should learn Hebrew, history, and Bialik's “Bible Stories.”

Now there's a Hebrew school in a fine building.
The Russian teacher is Fishman, and the Hebrew teacher is Mr. Weiner.
The “Russian” is sedate, but Weiner is sulphur and fire–
He speaks a Hebrew–oh my, it's a new kind of Hebrew.

New customs rule there. The children stand in a row;
In the courtyard–they play and jump around, as do the teachers with them.
The children are dressed up, hatless; the girls with pigtails and braids;
They laugh as they learn, and they raise their hands without fear and trembling.

And the children know history…They come home
And explain that once in Egypt the Jews worked with clay.
The children speak Hebrew, they know how to count;
[In Hebrew:] “The boy cries in the house…The dog barks outside…”

[Page 148]

In front, near the street, in a big room, then
The city library found a corner for books.
At night a stream of students come to trade books;
They thirst after knowledge and take books from every side.

And now there's a meeting of fathers, and the high
Voice of Mr. Weiner is heard as he strokes his head.
He's excited and says: “Ah, Hebrew! Such a language! A pleasure!
Don't forget, dear parents, that it's the language of Isaiah.”

Jewish life in exile must be rebuilt from the foundation.
We must speak the language of Mapu, of Gordon, of Abraham Dov Ber Levinsohn.
The language of Tanach and Mishnah…nowhere else is such beauty.
You hear in it the mountains of Judah, and you get the purity of the Temple.

So let us welcome the school, support it with heart and with fire,
And now let us sing the Hatikva for the land that to us is so dear.

[Page 149]

23

Three Shuls

The first shul did not even have a name,
Since there was only one in town.
When another shul came to town,
There was a stir in the community.
People gathered, wrangled, and anger flared:
Meetings with unending arguments;
And they came up with a name: “The New Shul”–
The earlier shul was “The Old Shul.”

So Unghen had two shuls, thank God.
But the Jews continued to multiply;
The Jews had a bright faith,
And God provided for them…
So some people thought to build a new shul,
In the middle, between the others
But their heads got tangled in a new dispute:
Where would they get a name for this shul?

Well the heads of Jews are full of wisdom,
So the last shul which was nice and roomy,
Was called “The New Shul”; the former “New Shul”
Was named for Getzel, the sexton.

A small man, agile as the wind,
And greatly respected;
Among those who prayed, he looked like a child–
So it was “Getzel the Sexton's Shul…”

[Page 150]

Jews prayed in all three shuls,
Where they praised God fervently and thanked Him,
As their fathers had done, with full hearts,
With deep humility and awe.
“I wrap myself in my tallis,” recited one
As he enfolded himself in the threads;
“My life, my poor life, is crushed with pain.
Protect me from new troubles.

Give me the wisdom and strength
To escape from the enemy;
I serve you and praise you so greatly,
Wrapped by day in my tallis.”
As people arrive at the shul, they throw off
Their weekday cares and burdens;
“Holy shall you be”–they are holy and now must
Render their sacred duty.

“The soul of all life”–yes, one has a soul
That comes there to be engulfed,
And it gathers trust, joy, and consolation
From the light and transcendent holiness.
Arrogance departs. One feels oneself small.
What is Man? Air and straw.
Lord of the Universe, Man is sinful and wily,
But exalted and holy is Your name.

Reb Aryeh's wavering voice, with fire and fever
Resounds in the “higher spheres.”
He is for these Jews the cantor, transmitter of prayers,
And the Jews draw around him…

[Page 151]

Who else could help like one's own father?
So he comes to the prayer of Kedushah:
“The great and holy” oy oy, Blessed art Thou…
And he makes his request.

And the cantor pleads: “Satisfy us with Your goodness.”
I kneel before You;
He is awestruck from praise and “There are no deeds like Yours.”
His praise, his toil is everywhere…
Now he sings, “May it be Your will” as he blesses the new month
And asks for blessings from above.
“Oy, a life of blessing!” he flames in holiness
And never stops singing His praise.

The shul is high and every word resounds,
And one lives there with Heaven and with comfort;
It's new and beautiful and sacred,
And love binds the Jews together.
They pray from deep inside their hearts
To reach the Throne of Glory:
And people sing praises and prayers with devotion,
As David did in Psalms.

Chaykl the carpenter is sexton in shul–
He works at two shuls together,
Since he's also the sexton at “The Old Shul.”
He has a very fine position,
Such honor–he's highly esteemed–
He carried a golden watch
And walks like a king in a palace,
Speaking softly and gently, as is his wont.

[Page 152]

Chaykl has had gray hair from his youth,
And his beard is a beautiful white.
People treat him with honor, a real patriarch,
And his word carries a good deal of weight.
As the gabbai at the table while the Torah is read
Looks at a book, like the “Midrash Peliah,”
And shows little concern about giving out the honors–
Chaykl tells him who should get an Aliyah.

People are thankful for the honor
That God has shared with us;
“Praised be His name”–the congregation responds,
“Who has chosen our people.”
And the soul is grateful: “Oy life everlasting…”
The heart rejoices and dances:
“The Lord of the Universe has planted
Eternal life in us.”

* * * *

With Getzl the sexton, the shul is quieter.
The shul is at the edge of a field,
And people look out of the window at prayer time,
Enchanted by God's green world.
There is no longer a regular “proper” cantor.
Whoever is by the reading stand leads the prayers;
The “New Shul” has declined, become poor and abandoned,
Far different from the way it was earlier.

There are now citizens, aristocratic and “liberal,”
Jews who deceive God.
They place themselves at the3 eastern wall of the New Shul
And think of the shul with mockery.

[Page 153]

Even on holidays it is not full.
The congregation is scattered and sparse.
Things are hard in the shul
And weigh down the old disposition.

One wraps himself in his tallis, alone,
And says in the old-fashioned way:
“Let the righteous rejoice”–and one should rejoice,
But the tune remains stuck in his throat…
And Getzl the sexton is also quite ill,
Having served there for days and for years:
One dreams as one prays, full of regret–
The shul has lost its luster.

But strong as a fortress the “Old Shul” still stands,
Where prayers and tears beyond number are ingrained.
The walls are imbued with laments and woe,
The rafters are split as if people took an axe to the Heavens with their cries.
The reasons for God's punishments are not clear,
But Jews have hastened to the Old Shul with their tears.
With their faces reddened and bodies shrunk and bent,
Terrified, they pray with frightened eyes.

The air resounds with their cries, their woe, their sighs,
And one hears their pleas and prayers of longing and yearning
For redemption, which lures and enchants, though people weary of waiting and hoping–
The air has absorbed every pain that has struck Unghen.

[Page 154]

If a mother has seen her daughter lying in bed in the shadow of death,
If a son has had to abandon his elderly father out of need,
If a Jewish girl in town, pure and kosher, has been betrayed–
They fall before the Holy Ark with their bitter laments…

And as often as danger looms, as they are on the verge of chaos,
And as often as the town trembles and senses killing, pogroms,
So often the Jews go there, like poor sheep, as though pursued,
And give themselves to God, who helps the oppressed, the beleaguered.
The sons there want to meet their enemies with weapons–
But what is the use of weapons? One must give oneself to God.
Oh, in the light of the Shechinah, by the holy open Ark,
Heaven receives the prayers, and then quiet descends…

Tzirl's Hershel, the cantor, has cried his eyes out
When, on Yom Kippur, his soul has ascended to Heaven.
Now Reb Moyshe stands in the cantor's spot with his long, grizzled beard
And sings: “Oy, my God, from Your place”–“Proclaim from Your holy place.”
He thunders not, like the cantor Reb Aryeh; he is joyful and simple, Chasidic:
“Serve God with joy,” he says familiarly to Heaven:
“When will You rule?–when, dear God, King of Zion, will you come
And lead Your Jewish children, Your beloved, to that place?”

People pray silently, motionlessly, but their requests are profound:
“When will You, oh God, our Father, rescue Your oppressed people?”
And often from the women's section can be heard voices,
As quiet fills the hearts, cries and laments in unison.
And in modest silence they wipe the tears from their old Siddur.
“Ah, dear Father, ah–when will the Jews be restored?”

[Page 155]

They bear freely the yoke of Heaven's kingdom and unceasingly they speak–
Until suddenly they hear a bang and the sexton says, “The rabbi will speak!”

Silence reigns and a holy spirit surrounds the reader's stand.
The rabbi embodies “Know before Whom you stand.”
The rabbi will speak, and people cluster around the bimah.
He takes the three steps up and people hear his fine voice.
Rabbi Yehuda-Leib speaks of the Creator, awesome and mighty,
And everyone makes an accounting for his soul, as on the High Holidays.
A holy silence reigns–no being, no man–
But angels swarm and watch and bless and bless…

And everyone, amazed, sees the glory of Heaven above–
Those at the eastern wall, the other factions, the poor behind the stove…
The town's leading citizens sit and listen.
The rabbi speaks of laws and punishments and disturbs their peace.
He cites the Rambam, his commentary, his deep thoughts,
And brings down clearly a disagreement between Abaye and Rava.
And it seems as if the shul, the people of Unghen, are in Eretz Yisroel,
And a sage, a tanna from ancient times, expounds Torah.

The sexton, Reb Chaykl, in the “New Shul” is little regarded.
With awe and quiet steps he tries to take care.
Later, when the shul is wrapped in the darkness of night
And someone passes by, it raises disturbing dreams and thoughts,
That it is full of souls that pray and float around,
So that he goes quickly, runs as though to save his life…
And the windows seem serious and gray and dull.

The “Old Shul” there in the shtetl of Unghen, is a Temple in miniature.

[Page 156]

24

Joyful Occasions

The house is a poor one, but joy sings out in every corner.
A sheet hangs as a curtain that separates the mother and children.
The children cherish their mother, who has just given birth.
With luck, a little brother has just been born.
Their joy is contained, for they have to be quiet. The momma is weak.
And grandmother Yenta brings pitchers of water and does what is needed…
And “Songs of Ascents” hang on the sheets like holy tablets
To protect the newborn from the evil eye and shades and spirits.

And local women and relatives and neighbors come in,
Say mazel tov to the new mother, and bring cakes and wine.
The mother's sister in her cap and apron seems everywhere.
Earlier she had kneaded all sorts of cakes and pastries
And beautifully decorated tortes of all sorts.
Now she stands by the oven and thinks about the beautiful celebration:
Soon the rabbi arrives with his students to read the Shema.

In the evening, older students come with the rabbi
And watch in amazement, as though angels were hovering.
They stand in the mother's room, and suddenly a voice is heard:
“Good evening. Mazel tov! God the faithful King, Hear O Israel!”
The rabbi smiles as the young ones continue:

[Page 157]

“And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and being.”
The room is full of childish grace and gentle noise
That fills the air like sweet melodies and holiday tunes.

Behind the sheet, the mother kisses her son with flowing tears,
As she hears the end of the children's prayers and their “Amen.”
The grandmother in her apron has distributed the tortes among the children.
Now she stands by the open door as the children eat.
The rabbi halts for a moment, as the father takes up
Cakes and brandy for a toast, to wish the child well.
Then the rabbi and children go on their way,
Leaving behind a heavenly purity, joy without end.

A while after comes the sacred day of the bris,
So people awaken early and look at the time–
Today is the great day, the day of song and joy
As the child is brought into the covenant of Abraham our father.
They walk in the light of the day, not thinking about work and business.
Peaceful Jews, smiling, dressed up for a holiday.
In the room, refreshments are ready, expensive food and wine–
These are poor Jews, but today they are nobility.

Now the child is circumcised and everyone says, “Mazel tov.”
They eat the tasty foods and have a bit to drink…
Moyshe the cantor stands there holding a piece of kugel
As he begins to sing a tune, and as everyone joins in, he calls out:
“You are kugel, you stay in the oven, and you go where you are summoned.”
Everyone's faces light up with smiles, and they sing;
And soon by all three tables their spirits have been raised.

[Page 158]

They sing with booming voices, so that the windows rattle.
And Chaykl the carpenter with his snow-white beard and little feet
Draws himself up and jumps right on the table.
“Hey, take off the tablecloth, the plate, the cups, the food!”
As Chaykl revels, he can lose himself in God.
Everyone is happy and sings; they clap their hands and rejoice.
And Chaykl gets more excited and jumps, he frolics and burns.
“Sing louder!”–cries Yossl the baker–and leads the ecstatic chorus.
“Hey, don't jump,” cries the cobbler Abrasha. “The ceiling might collapse.”

A couple are already tipsy…and they sing louder and louder:
“Fill us with Your goodness and save us…”
They talk and they clamor and dance, and they refill their glasses.
They say “L'chaim” and they kiss lips and cheeks and noses…
“New mother,” yells Zelig the tipsy carpenter. “Come here!
I'll drink one more “L'chaim” for you and your son…no more…”
He kisses her and wishes that the boy will grow to be a rabbi.
And everyone sings, “Blessed is our God” and they kiss and sing some more.

* * * *

[Page 159]

Joy has rung out at the home of Yankel Fruchtowczik for a good while.
For years they have wanted to do something for their eldest son.
A golden head he has: he fills it with Torah and thirsts for more,
And Yankel sends silver rubles to the rabbi, for which he works hard.
Now it's time for Chaim's bar mitzvah, and he's preparing a speech with the rabbi.
The rabbi has tested him three times and wished him eternal life.
He is so capable of speaking that people race to hear his insights.
He can give a talk in Hebrew and then repeat it in Yiddish.

On Shabbos the boy read the maftir, and the whole shul resounded.
His Hebrew, the tune, the melody, were so sweetly sung as if by a cantor.
He was dignified as he stood by the table, transported to heavenly heights,
And the women were overcome with joy as they wiped their eyes.
A Jew was arising, who took on the yoke of the Torah,
And like those at Mt. Sinai, he took on the commandments with joy and with awe.
And his mother's tears dripped through the windows of the women's section.
They say the parents' prayer, and then God knows what he'll become.

In the morning, tables are set at Yankel's house,
And great happiness is reflected in every corner.
Everyone is dressed as if for a holiday, sitting happily at the table.
There are eggplants and peppers and olives…and then there is fish.
The young bar-mitzvah boy walks among the company,
And the rabbi with his long blond bear is at the table's head.

[Page 160]

The rabbi, Rabbi Fishman, stands and says a quiet “Ha-motzi” for everyone.
Then they fill the glasses with wine and eat the fish and challah.

Although people are noisy and happy, respect rules the day.
Rabbi Fishman sits at the table, a fine, righteous man of Torah.
No one dances, no one jumps. They make jokes and they laugh.
And the young man rehearses his speech, as he dreams and he thinks…
“Be calm, just be calm,” his father whispers in his ear,
While people offer “L'chaims” and blessings, and they drink down their wine.
Then suddenly the rabbi arises and says a few heartfelt words,
As people look on in anticipation and sit glued to their seats.

The young man will now expand on four verses inscribed in tefillin:
“Shema. If you obey. Consecrate. When the Lord has brought you.”
He weaves and weaves, and he brings together and circles ideas and thoughts.
His eyes beam and his voice trembles, and his speech is long.
He speaks, and as he gets warmer, he pauses at “Consecrate”:
“A Jew is not just flesh and blood, not only blood and flesh;
‘You have made him little less than divine’ [Ps 8:6].
He has a soul. He is holy and must know his place.”

The boy stops–he has spoken in Hebrew and Yiddish.
A moment of silence, of stillness, the people surprised and amazed.

[Page 161]

Then suddenly loud applause, an uproar, a storm.
The boy stands as though he's bewildered, as though it came from Heaven.
His parents and grandparents are dumb for a moment,
And then they surround the boy, the proud bar mitzvah.
They kiss and they hug and they wipe away tears,
And his aged grandfather says that the hopes the boy will be a rabbi some day.

And suddenly the boy disappears, that learned child…
In the other room he looks at his presents, he sizes them up…
He shows his friends, regards those presents with boundless joy--
He doesn't notice his mother by the door or her loving looks.
She's oh, so proud, and in her heart she kisses and blesses him:
“My son, my golden treasure, I wish you health and success.
Grow up to be a true Jew. Let your luck shine and thrive.
May you see the end of exile and go up to Zion.”

* * * *

Beautiful weddings also bring deep joy to town,
Which perks up and forgets all the sorrows and problems of Jews.
One hears the playing of the Klezmer band from Lederman's beautiful hall
As the parents lead in the bride in a phaeton.
The groom and his parents and guests are there already.
It's now the right time to raise the chuppah.
The righteous bride has sat there with her head bowed,
And the groom has put on her veil, as he looked into her bright eyes.

[Page 162]

Now the groom is under the chuppah silent, in a dream,
While the parents look on and sing a joyful melody.
They lead in the bride with torches as she walks slowly, with grace,
And seven times under the chuppah she circles the groom.
She stands beside her groom and looks out through the veil.
The rabbi says the blessing, reads the kesuvah, and then the marriage vow…
Then the groom breaks a glass on the floor–a moment of sorrow–
And the musicians play “Chassan, kallah, mazel tov!”–such joy!

Joy overflows in everyone's hearts.
People kiss and they frolic, they dance in a circle until they get dizzy;
Great fountains of joy and celebration have opened.
The guests wish good fortune to the bride and the groom.
How much blood, how many tears are forgotten
So that their parents could reach this happy time.
People dance and praise their Creator, Almighty God,
And they give heartfelt thanks for His favor and grace.

The hall is so crowded with family and guests that it's suffocating.
People stand on benches near the wall with its colorful hangings.
They look at the bride, so beautiful, with her long train and her grace,
How she beams and dances with her groom, so innocent and pure.
And young men and women in their weekday clothes stand at the side.

[Page 163]

They look on with amazed eyes and absorb the joy and love.
Near the door, near the band, stand children come in from the street.
They stare amazed at the flute and trumpet and the huge bass.

Hearts flutter, people dance, everyone is happy and lively.
They don't feel time pass, though the night has flown.
It's dawn and people who are asleep or half awake hear the music.
First the groom's parents, worn out, leave the hall.
Then the couple is joyfully led to the bride's home,
Where everyone dances another round.
“Nu, mazel and blessing!” Still dressed in holiday garb, the crowd happily leaves–
To build the house of Israel–the couple enter their own room.

[Page 164]

25

Jewish Heroism

Jews then lived in hundreds of little towns
And none of them were spared by their brutal enemy
The Russian and Moldovan governments ruled there,
And the Jews were clever–but they lived on the edge of a volcano.
Today they could build a world in beautiful sunlight,
But tomorrow, oh tomorrow–only God knows what will be tomorrow.
And always busy, eating hardly a crumb–
An uproar–goods and life are worth barely a groschen.

But there are experienced Jews in the modern world
Who say that a man should not go like a calf to slaughter.
The young with bones and fists and raised heads,
Are not afraid of hammer and iron and clubs.
They don't go to plead and weep and cry out in shul–
A swipe to the forelock and the bandit cries, “To prison!”
They pay back the enemy blow for blow.
They sit there with weapons, so that the enemy must say his confession…

The hatred is planted deep from childhood on.
If one sees a Jewish face, he is antagonized.
If a perfectly innocent young Jewish boy strays
Near the post office, near the Gentiles–a stone comes flying
And the villains laugh happily in this sea of hatred:
“Ugly Jew, hook-nosed Jew,” poisonously…
And if one gets hit by a stone on the head or the foot,
They laugh and mock the Jew, the coward.

[Page 165]

Once on a Sunday, on market day in Unghen
There were ten customers at Velvel Lederman's shop.
Reb Velvel spoke to them nicely, sweetly.
Standing there was Leibl Prikazczik, a large boy,
And there by his textiles stood a peasant and glared–
He spat and went outside, where he cursed and raged:
“To the devil with you ugly Jews, you and you…
You should all be slaughtered, devilish Jews!…”

Leibl had a friendly, handsome look;
He was thin, but very strong.
His goodness shone from his eyes;
To help a fellow man was a real opportunity!
He was good natured–it was hard to anger him---
But once he was set off, watch out for danger.
He could fight, Leibl, as Jews in the town knew.
A town full of Gentiles, let them not complain…

When Leibl heard a yokel curse the Jews,
A holy flame was kindled in his heart.
“You want to kill the Jews because the price is too high, Gentile?
You bastard! You scoundrel! May your world fall apart!”
Furiously he grabbed the peasant by the neck with one hand
And threw him on the porch, shaking up his bones.
People looked in amazement–the guy was as fat as a barrel–
And Leibl threw him into the muddy street.

[Page 166]

The Gentile cried out, “To prison!”–there was fear and terror
And voices buzzed throughout the town.
The peasants ran at the wild shrieking
To help their beloved brother in his predicament.
Scores of the enemy stood there with murder in their eyes,
While Leibl stood armed on the porch.
He held the Russian flag with its long pole
And warned: “Whoever comes near me will fall like a cornstalk.!”

A score of boorish peasants came at him,
Tried to surround and contain him.
He raised the flag and began to attack and assail them.
Some lay bloodied in the mud, fallen helplessly.
Then the ruffians grabbed at him,
But he threw away the flag and went furiously after them!…
They were immobilized…and Leibl got back to the porch.
The ruffians ran off, yelling in panic…

* * * *

And when our enemies showed teeth and nails,
A hellish fire burned in Jewish bones.
But the rage was tamed, the wrath was stilled,
And the Jews and Moldovans became “good brothers.”
More than once a Gentile stood near Mottye the smith
And looked like he was sitting on the anvil, that iron Jew;
He marveled at his strength, at how the sparks flew
From the red hot iron–and from his eyes.

Yes, strength and valor are great gifts from God–
And Mottye is tall and powerful and taut as a string.

[Page 167]

His muscles are tight, like metal screws,
His face bloody, with darting eyes.
And often in his shop is Petya the valorous.
The Gentiles tremble before Petya as if they were feverish.
And Petya does not envy the Jew's great strength.
He smiles at him and hides his hatred inside.

Often the winds have brought in terrible news
About Jews in other towns being killed or beaten.
In pogroms against those purely innocent,
Helpless small children have fallen.
So Jews run to their shuls to beg for mercy
And that the One above should hide and protect them from the enemy.
And people have brought to Mottye the smith
Shocking news in secret at night.

Petya has secretly prepared some thirty Gentiles
To meet at dawn behind the bathhouse.
From there they would go on to break windows,
Terrify the town–and then steal and kill.
Mottya was silent, said not a word,
Though he felt sorrow and pain deep in his heart.
His eyes blazed with fire and questions and thoughts:
“Why. Oh why?…Does God not live in their hearts?”

In the morning they prepared a feast outside of town.
Brandy they drank and inflamed their murderous hearts.
Those Gentiles awaited Petya, the huge peasant,
While Mottya went to the bathhouse and hid in the gate.
“Hurrah, our Petya,” they called as he approached.

[Page 168]

But suddenly–oy, something frightful occurred:
Petya, who carried hammers and weapons and rope
Was struck on the head by Mottya's iron bar…

It's Mottye the smith…” they began to shout,
And together they attacked him for vengeance,
But Mottya raised his weapon, completely unfazed,
As though he's been born for heroic deeds.
He moved calmly and fearlessly against them,
And they fell as his weapon met their heads.
His weapon moved quickly from left to right
As they cried, “To the prison! Have pity! With tears and shouts.

Many of the ruffians were splayed in the mud,
While others had taken to flight…
And Mottya stood there with his weapon in the air, like a flag,
And shouted: “Hey, killers, what did you think to do?
Why are you fleeing? Are you afraid of being beaten?
Fools, to the devil with your mothers and fathers!….”
While those hooligans fled, screaming,
The others lay moaning deep in the mud.

But Jewish valor comes not from a thirst for blood.
The lives not by fist and iron and club.
Deep in his heart every Jew has the feeling
Every day to give quiet thanks and praise.
His hand is stretched out flat toward Heaven,
And he goes on his way without fists and weapons and axes.
Jewish heroes today, like those of yore,
Seek only to live and to protect their people…

[Page 169]

In Unghen, too, the people had a whole different mission,
Because they see the Jewish ethos as dear and holy.
Down here things are narrow, but Heaven is spacious.
There one bathes in light; body and soul are clean.
Our ancestors suffered such shame,
Constantly attacked and beset by the hands of Esau.
Nu, the Yahrzeit candles burn in our hearts
And bind us to God and to our forebears.

It's true that people choose murder and hatred,
Though we know that such rage helps no one.
But holy anger is forged from pain in the shtetl,
And young men arm themselves to protect the Jews.
They go proudly, heads high. They cannot be restrained.
Their courage storms forward, as strong as a flame,
And Sender Hersh and Leibl and Noach the Red
All swear: “We will take vengeance of fall down dead!”

Outside the shtetl they encounter the foe
Who come from nearby to attack the Jews…
These villains bring carts filled with axes and weapons,
But they are attacked all at once by these young Jewish men.
They are killed or just bloodied, as they call, “To the jail! Oh, Jesus!”
And they quickly go home, without pogrom supplies.
Oh Jewish young men…like angels from Heaven,
They've protected the people from theft and from death.

[Page 170]

26

Revolution

Oy, how much blood, how much Jewish blood has been poured out over generations?
But the villains have not succeeded in annihilating God's people.
For generations people have tried to poison the hearts of the Russians,
And the Russian earth has absorbed seas of Jewish blood.
Beaten, oppressed, and always there were new decrees.
Saddened, darkened was Jewish life, condemned to blows.
They ran to shuls for salvation and to the nobles to plead–
Then the First World War erupted, and the town was at the border.

Rosh Hashanah arrived, the greatest and most awesome day for Jews.
At night after prayers, people lay their weary bodies in bed,
And police raided their homes with their cold weapons
And took forty Jews from the town, including Itzik Meir the shochet.
Those devils, those robbers made a horrible mockery,
Chaos, with drink and deception, while the Jews were pure and innocent.
The enemy has no God and no shame in their hearts,
As they devise a pretext: “You're smugglers. You have contraband!…”

They force Jews from their homes and send them far away,
And the cries of mothers and children go on endlessly.
The tears of the women are powerless, as is their begins on their knees.
No heart is moved, as hard countenances break down the doors,
And forty families are left fatherless and homeless.

[Page 171]

And children cry in their homes for weeks and months.
“Oh, Mama, oh where is Daddy?”–the children cry and ask–
And informers do their business on all the secret routes.

By the border the informers do their work.
It's easy to sharpen their knives against the powerless, the Jews.
They walk around town with their pointed mustaches like nobility--
Weinberg–he and others prowl around the Jews
And suddenly–ah, revolution!…a flame reaches the blue skies:
The wicked flee like mice, into dark, gray holes.
They overthrow the thieves, the military, the epaulettes,
Who run into the dark woods, into caves where they can hide.

Things come to a boil in town. There's a stampede at the post office.
They get news via telegraph of what's happening in the world.
And soon those who thought themselves so fine are brought down,
While the downtrodden shout “Hurrah” and dance and revel.
And as though through sorcery, without plan or thought,
The rich are conquered and the workers feel their strength.
“Hey, comrade, we're going to that informer Weinberg,” they cried.
“If we find that scoundrel, he'll sure be sorry!”

And a gang of strong young men go off
And find him in his courtyard, hiding in a corner;
They smear his face, his precious skin, with mud
And put on a hat dirtied with thorns and feathers
And inscribed, “I'm an informer, not a Jew,
A killer, a thief, a scoundrel, a bandit.

[Page 172]

They take him into the street with mockery and derision,
And everyone mocks him and laughs at him.

The important leader, Shalom Vaxman's long-time bailiff,
Stands now in the procession with Weinberg the informer.
He throws up his hands and makes a heartfelt speech
And warns their enemies that the time for vengeance has come.
The poor are now free and happy, elevated.
They will now crush and destroy the people's foes.
He yells and he curses and he spits in the scoundrel's face.
They take the informer to prison and lock him in a cell.

And people in town speak of a beautiful, solid community.
The warehouse owner is no longer the best, the finest leader.
The rabbi with his bright face and smile, with his dark beard,
Rebelski the rabbi–his word no longer has influence.
People come to the shul while he is giving a talk
And they assault him, while he just stands there, silenced.
Poor workers yell and the rabbi stands breathless:
“We're free, and now we're in charge!”

Then later new troubles come to Unghen,
As our beloved town is taken over by Romanians.
Then the town declines, as fences are put up

[Page 173]

And they are separated from Russian Jews, like children from their mother.
And now the Bolsheviks rule Russia
And it feels as if night has fallen over the Jews.
And in Romania, hostility toward the Jews increases without limits–

----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- -----

But then this writer left, and the door is closed…

* * * *

But the writer left behind something dear and beloved.
Ah, stony Jews, full of spirit, like rye in a barn,
They preserve that faith with golden chains to their ancestors, to the root,
And modestly bear suffering in their hearts from generation to generation.
They have welded the beliefs of millennia to their hearts,
And people have etched deeply the ways of the eternal Jew.
They are firmly established on the Earth, as God's throne is established above.
They dream of a bright tomorrow, strengthened and elevated by their past.

Trouble after trouble piles upon the Jews, like waves in the sea,
And the Jew looks on wisely with a deep, eternal blaze.
The Jew is connected to Heaven through praise and song,
And the Jew sees into the depth of the world, where snakes nest:
For what is man? As small as a fly, like a leaf in the wind.
The impure drink the blood of the weak and are never sated.

[Page 174]

Sin is deeply engraved, as if on a stone slate.
Punishment will come, affliction, but after that–Messiah…

This writer left behind Jews who yearn and long for redemption
And Zion, the land of our ancestors, where magic takes effect.
It's an old longing from generations of leaders and the great,
From Herzl to Yehuda Ha-Levi and “to your offspring forever” [Genesis 13:15].
However much your enemy attacks, ravages, harasses, horrifies,
Your magical faith remains and will not allow you to be effaced.
People wait and hope and lament from holes and pits,
But never will the beauty of Jewish homes be destroyed.

I know them, the beautiful, pure Jews of Unghen,
And even now the fire of longing still burns in me.
I immerse and cover my gray head when I remember
The years, the youth, the love that God game me there.
It's a balm to my heart, a cure for the present,
The God in His mercy allows me to remember my shtetl…
And always I think you, Unghen, and remember with tears in my eyes.
I bless you and wait for the complete redemption of our sinful world.

(End of Part Two)

[Page 175]

Destruction
(Epilogue)

The Russians governed Bessarabia, captured that bit of earth.
Romania lay under the knout, under the sword.
The helpless masses lived with anxious hearts.
The mighty one, Ashmodei, reveled with drums and cymbals.
It was difficult, dangerous. Of old, people laughed, joked.
They would build a new world, without Heaven, without God.
And under their heel lay the ancient Jewish people,
Who bowed their heads low before the new prince and followed him.

But the Jews did not surrender to the knout and the torture.
They were ancient…Hamans come, but soon they fall…
It is just like in Spain, when the Jews walked the streets with a cross on their hearts
And in their cellars focused on holy books and siddurim.
Just so, the Jews saw and bewailed the terrible destruction,
How people oppressed them, defamed their faith, regarded only their past.
How filthy young men tried to enter Jewish holy places
To destroy, to break the Tablets of the Law and to transform the sacred into trash.

A flame also burned in the hearts of the young and flared.
They dreamed, but they were misled; they lacked the strength to defend themselves.
The youth were confused; people looked for heroes, new figures,
Who lured them and scared them, and the old secrets took hold.

[Page 176]

The young were lost in dreams, with confusion and shouting.
They thirsted for a brighter world that was hidden in dreams,
But deep in the heart, eternal Jewish plants were rooted
That went deep into the soul and peered out through the eyes.

But the young fooled themselves with their own foolishness–
They must now serve the Jews, their people, ever faithful!…
But trumpets sound around them, muffling all feeling.
People bear treasures in their hearts, but do not express them.
They have trust, consolation that the Jewish word will blossom,
And the Jewish people will create a place for themselves among the nations.
But they do not remember the millennia-old treasures,
And they long still for redemption and sing in the community choir…

And later they go like slaves in step on the common way,
And they yearn for freedom, redemption, and they seek a better day.
They hope for a brighter day, when people will improve
And people's hearts will be full of truth and fire and faith.
But no one is as bitter as Jews; resentment gnaws.
They twist as of old in torture, locked in prison,
For where is blessed redemption–there is barely a drop?
Man is silenced. He lives under the knout, his head bowed

* * * *

[Page 177]

And suddenly in Germany a Pharaoh, a Haman appeared,
May his name forever be blotted out.
With his soldiers he marched through countries and cities
And murdered and burnt and destroyed, and shot and pulled down and trampled.
Countries and people he consumed, and there was not enough room for him.
People were silent and amazed, for the barbarian could not be contained.
The fields where he came lay ruined and the earth sorrowed–
And then they were in Bessarabia and took my shtetl.

He killed so many, one can hardly say their names.
May the martyrs rest in peace, and may my pen not shame them.
The world had never seen such bloodshed, such killing,
And Heaven had never heard such screams, such shrieks.
“The Jew is guilty of everything!”–the murderers cried out,
And to destroy, to kill, to wipe out was Ashmodei's dark decree.
The murderers waited, like bloodhounds, and chased them into holes and ravines.
There was no place on earth for people to hide.

And there came a man from the neighboring land,
A heartless, shameless devil in the form of a man.
Earlier he had smiled on and favored the “clever” Yids,
But suddenly–a partner to the monster, and then–a wild tyrant.
He extracted later from Jews, through guilt and obligations.
He stood with a bowed, uncovered head, asking for help and favors.

[Page 178]

And now he marches with spiteful laughter and steals from the Jews
And shows where the “Yids” are hiding in holes and pits.
They drag the Jews, and their bodies scream wordlessly.
They torture the old and children and shoot them on the spot.
And outside the cemeteries the dead are hidden without honor or prayer,
And my city, my community, has become a giant cemetery…
A hellish world has heard the screams, the pleas, the alarm,
But heartlessly and godlessly gave no relief to the horrors, the tortures.
With savage hands and rifles and fire and burning
They emptied–dear God–my people from the shtetl of Unghen.

Not everything in this ugly, gray world is scornful.
The hills and woods, the gardens, the river and fields all weep.
The laughter of beautiful Jewish daughters doesn't ring in the woods,
And pure Jewish prayers no longer rise to Heaven.
Jewish intelligence built and completed roads and homes.
Those roads and homes cry out with blood, with Jews in graves.
The fields are dry without rain. One cries, defends oneself.
One turns in fright to the all-powerful Jewish God…

[Page 179]

Jewish souls float on high over the earth,
And look over the fires, the pyres and smoke.
And at night they cause the Gentiles to writhe in sleep,
And he has fearful dreams of punishment, of death, of bodies.
He's plagued by frightening images of weapons, of rods and clubs.
He's tortured, as if bound up, and his blood is aroused.
The Jews from whom he bought bread pass before him,
For he turned them over to killers to murder, to death.

And always the Russian-Moldovan feels the sting of a whip:
You have sinned, you killers, just like the bestial Germans.
For generations you lived as neighbors with these good people–
You ate, you talked, did business, drank “L'chaim” together–
But when the devils destroyed Jewish life and property,
You aided the hangman, killing and robbing at will.
Your dogs howled in their homes, and your barns stood empty.
Not a single Jew is seen in town, clever, precious, smiling.

* * * *

But I bring you assurance, my Jews, holy souls, downcast,
You, bodies abandoned in graves, dear, beloved brothers:
Your heartfelt prayers had an effect in Heaven,
For our powerful Creator brought a great redemption:
And when, above, you hear a familiar song of Zion–
That's a song of redemption that resounds throughout the world.

[Page 180]

The Jews return to “their borders” and the dream is revived.
They will live forever in their own fields in peace and quiet.

My soul will be torn between joy and pain;
It seems like God must have cursed my weary soul
So that after my death it will wander over a double trail,
By day in Zion's fields, by night on the shtetl's roads.
Immersed in the light by day and reveling in the Shechinah,
Drinking in the joy of my people and relishing joy and wonder,
But by night again homeless, mourning by the ruins,
Singing over the graves, enveloped by sorrow and tears…

(End)

Philadelphia, September 28, 1958
Erev Succos, 5719

Thanks

This book has been published with the help and assistance of the following important friends and colleagues:

N. Changing, General Secretary of the Worker's Ring; Z Yefroikin, Worker's Ring Education Director; Moyshe Shpiegel, author and translator; Y.L. Gross, publisher, my fellow shul activists Velvel and Hinde Bluestein, Hershel and Ada Nybar, Yosef and Liza Zeblin, and–last but not least–my dear wife, Itta, who was the first to read the manuscript.

I give you all my deepest thanks.

 

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