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[Page 1535]

A Semester in the Krekenava Yeshiva

Barukh Shillman

Translated by Dr. Ida Selavan

Footnotes and editing by Rabbi Shalom Bronstein

As a young boy, I traveled from Panevezys to Reb Hirschel's yeshiva in Slobodke [Kovno], and at that time, I visited Krekenava for the first time. One usually went from Panevezys to Slobodke by train, almost a whole day's trip. But this was too expensive for me. All the money I had saved up for two years of study in the Slobodke yeshiva consisted of six karbuntses 1 . It took me a very long time to save up this capital. My chief source of income was this: women who would dash into the synagogue where we were studying and run to the Holy Ark to pray for the recovery of a sick family member would give each of us a few kopeks 2 to recite Psalms for the sick.

After I became bar mitzvah, I had a new source of income. I would be paid to help form a minyan at the home of mourners. On Purim, I would distribute 'Purim gifts,' which also brought in a few kopeks.

My savings would have perhaps been even greater if my mother had not been occasionally forced to 'borrow' some money to make ends meet. Because of this, I had only six karbn. With such an 'enormous' sum of money in my pocket, I could not allow myself the luxury of train travel. Thus, I had to go by horse and wagon.

The first small town on my way was Krekenava. It was Sukkot time and the mud was so deep that one could avoid sinking in it only by staying home. Therefore, I could not walk around to see the town. Also, I had very little time, because the wagon came to take us to Keidan, the next stage on our trip to Slobodke.

Some years later, when I was studying on my own, I visited Krekenava again, this time for a longer stay. I went there out of need, and also because this little town was connected to my mother's family. My maternal grandfather, Reb Shlomo Leib Bloch, came from Krekenava. He was later known in the region as Reb Shlomo Podbrezer, because for a long time her served as a ritual slaughterer in Podbrez (not to be confused with the Podbredz of Vilna Province).

My grandfather's sister, 'Bubba ['Grandma'] Batya,' lived in Krekenava. She was the local midwife and almost all of the youth of Krekenava saw the light of day with her help. When she heard that her brother Shlomo's grandson had come to Krekenava to study, she went all over town collecting 'days' 3 for me [to eat meals at various homes] -- and finished the job in one day.

During the half year I spent in Krekenava, I devoted my time to the Bet Midrash 4 where I studied. There were some fine young men there, who studied with great dedication. They came from various places. I remember one of them who came from Varklan [Varaklani], not far from Rezhitse [Rezekne] in Latvia. Why did he come to the 'metropolis' of Krekenava? He had heard rumors that the enlightened youth of Krekenava had organized a fine Hebrew library. It really was a very good library, with many books, which were utilized by quite a few yeshiva boys. The library was open two days each week.

There were two Batei Midrash 5 in Krekenava. The large one had a shtib'l 6 where the poorest and simplest Jews prayed. Occasionally, preachers would come to town. While I was there, a preacher came who made a profound impression on the town. He was a soldier 7 who had served in Panevezys, and he came to Krekenava to earn a few groschen 8 from his preaching. It was strange to see him delivering his message in his Czarist uniform, standing near the Holy Ark, wrapped in a prayer shawl. He started his talk with a quotation from the Prophets: "Lift up your voice as a shofar," [Isaiah 58:1] and, indeed, his voice thundered and rang out for some hours. Everyone was entranced. He spoke of the abnormal situation of the Jews in Exile, and called upon all Jews to settle in Eretz Yisrael.

Jews in Krekenava earned their livings the same as in all the other Lithuanian towns; as shopkeepers, artisans, and peddlers. However, it seems to me that their main source of income was [funds sent from South] Africa. The Krekenava emigrants to the 'golden land' sent back pounds sterling from which their families made a living -- the other incomes were by the way. The young Jewish women whose husbands had emigrated to [South] Africa waited for their husbands' letters with greater anticipation than for the money [which was invariably enclosed]. These modest and pure Jewish daughters yearned for the time when their husbands would send for them, so that they could build a new life together in the new land.

Krekenava was renowned for its scribes. The title 'Krekenava scribe' was known in all the towns of Kovno Province. They were considered the best in the holy work of writing Torah scrolls, and tefillin and mezuzah parchments. It was very prestigious for a bar mitzvah boy to receive a pair of tefillin written by a scribe from Krekenava. My poor classmates [and I] could not even dream of such a gift. I was once in the studio of such a scribe and saw a row of apprentices working at this holy task, and I could not understand wherein lay the secret of his great success.

[A photograph of R. Natan (Notele) Luria, long time rabbi of Krekenava, also appears in the original article}

[The author of this article, Barukh Zvi Shillman, was the son of Isaac & Sara Rivka Bloch Shulman/Shillman. His siblings were Mayer Shulman (maternal grandfather of Shalom Bronstein), Moshe Mordecai (Morris) Shillman and Esther Dinah Shulman Goldstein. All were born in Panevezys & emigrated to the United States before 1910. The Shillman branch lived in New York, the Shulman branch lived in Philadelphia, where many of their descendants still reside. Isaac Shulman died in Lithuania in 1905 and his wife, Sara Rivka settled in Jerusalem where she died in 1925.]

1Rubles, Russian currency. Return
2There are 100 kopeks to a ruble. Return
3It was the custom of the community to take upon itself the task of providing yeshiva students with their daily meals at no cost to the student. The Yiddish term for this is kest and the 'days' are known as essen teg, 'eating days.' Return
4Study House - usually a large hall, not the synagogue, where men studied on a regular basis. There would be constant activity day and night. Return
5 Plural of Beit Midrash. Return
6 A small room with an ark and Torah where religious services took place on aregular basis. It was less formal than either the synagogue or the Beit Midrash . Often, its regular worshippers were connected by a common occupation, or, in later in America, by a common town of origin in Europe. Return
7 During the reign of Nicholas I (1825-1855) the Czarist government had a specific policy of drafting Jewish boys, some as young as 8 for a 25 year period of service in the army. Communities were required to supply a specific quota, which was higher than that of the non-Jews. If the quota was not reached, boys would be grabbed off the streets. This law was in effect between 1827 and 1857. It was common practice for Jews to try their utmost to avoid serving in the Czar's army, even after this law was rescinded. It was rare for one to remain religiously involved after service in the army, thus the 'profound impression' has an even deeper meaning. Return
8A common term for a small amount of money. In Austria of the time, 100 groschen equaled one schilling. Return

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