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[Pages 407-417]

The Kurland Litvaks
(Latvia)

By B. Rivkin*

Translated by Mindle Crystel Gross and Dr. Sonia Kovitz

With appreciation for the assistance of Dr. Simon Civjan
of the Tsivyans originally from Dvinsk, Latvia

*This piece was written for the book Lite several months prior to the author's death. He died in 1945 at age 62.

There was a region on the Dvina River with Kurland on one bank, Vitebsk District on the other, and Kovno District beyond—a region populated by a special type of Jew, neither Kurlander nor Litvak, but a combination of both. I will call them the “Kurlander Litvaks.” Since the events of the last quarter-century mixed all types of Jews together, the Kurlander Litvaks, no matter their number, must be described as a memorial.

On the west this region embraced Riga and on the east, Dinaburg (Denenburg, Dvinsk) and included the following towns: the twin towns Yakobshtat-Kraytsburg with the Dvina flowing between; Livenhof (Libemuze) located 25 viorst upriver on the Dvina [Russian: 1 viorst = 2/3 mile]; and Shtakmanshof (Dankere) located 25 viorst downriver. Fifty viorst from Riga midway along the road was Friedrichshtadt (Nayre), the circuit capital [county seat]. I myself am a Yakobshtater, Borukh Avraham Vaynroyb, with my true name “son of Abba Sheftl der furman [drayman].” Yakobshtat is thus for me the center of the world and the region. [After emigrating from Latvia in 1911, Vaynroyb became a literary critic and essayist in New York under the pen name B. Rivkin.]

How old was the town? In the old marketplace, which strangely was called the “new marketplace,” a large stone was mounted, and on it was engraved a year from the 13th century when a battle took place and German knights perished. This stone was their memorial. In the old market (or the new-old market) a corner area of green houses, with verandas decked with woven branches and leaves, served as a reminder of the Germans of old. Located behind these was the town's lustgarten [German: recreation park]. Near the Dvina, surrounded by huge old trees, stood a barred tower, taller than the trees—an abandoned military watchtower.

It is clear that the two towns—Yakobshtat-Kraytsburg—were founded on account of highway robbery and the strategic location. A viorst or two below the twin cities, the Dvina was humped or bent in the shape of a knee through the rapids—a narrow rocky descending slope over which the waters were eternally rushing, noisy and turbulent. Above the rapids the river spread out broadly between the two towns, and one had to squint to see the other side. In the spring when the river would flood the rapids, maykes, layves [types of boats], occasionally large steamers, and countless rafts would pass through freely. In the summertime the rafts had to stop, especially on the Yakobshtat side where the riverbank was flatter, to wait for the river-pilot to help them navigate the narrow crevices between the underwater-falls. In the deep waters a steamer, along with two boats with rudders and a ferry (pulled either by a steamer or a rope stretched across the river) made the twin towns into one. And this was of course especially true in the winter, when the Dvina froze.

As I now suppose, the two towns occupied an outstanding strategic position for conducting battles. Kraytsburg and its town center wound its way uphill. Two viorst beyond Yakobshtat, running the length of the town, stretched a chain of small hills, upon one of which the Jewish cemetery was located. I have proof that many a serious battle was waged in the vicinity of Yakobshtat: during the first world war, Yakobshtat was a permanent center of conflict and when Hitler marched into Soviet Russia, Yakobshtat had the dubious honor of being the first to be mentioned in the cables. And even stronger proof: in the center of town between the four synagogues there was an ancient military cemetery called “Vienna,” which served as a lustgarten for the kheder yinglekh [little boys of elementary Hebrew school age] in their free time. They dug in the sand and found skulls and entire skeletons, which they would examine with terror in their hearts while studying the anatomy of the human body. Afterwards, to revive themselves, they made little whistles from the soft willow branches so that they could proclaim their cheerfulness to the entire town. The beautiful bright highway to Riga lifted the heart and led to baronial courtyards and estates. The gloomy Grimik highway to Dinaburg led to a suburb of Brod inhabited by “Vanya's” [Russians], where the criminals of the entire region were from. All the other gray and sandy roads out of town led to Latvian villages.

And now to my main interest–the Jews, the Kurlander Litvaks. The population of Yakobshtat, more than half of which was Jewish, numbered approximately 8,000. Kraytsburg was a little smaller, but with a larger number of Jews. (Kraytsburg was in Vitebsk District, where Jews were permitted to live.) Jews occupied the town's center, the main street, and the side streets. The outskirts of town, which were constantly expanding, were occupied by Latvians, Russians and some Poles. Large houses and orchards, entire courtyards—belonging to Germans, wealthier Russians, and Latvians—were found throughout the length and breadth of the town.

Jews were the owners of large dry-goods stores, haberdasheries and hardware stores, and many were grain and flax merchants. Most important of all were the timber and lumber merchants who spent weeks and months in Tukum and in Riga. There were two match factories in Yakobshtat, which were owned by Jews. The main food suppliers for the Jewish shopkeepers and brokers were the two markets held during the week. Then there were the Jewish artisans: tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, cabinet-makers, tinsmiths, glaziers, blacksmiths, watchmakers and goldsmiths. There were many Jewish draymen with lightweight coaches on springs for passengers and heavier wagons for bigger loads. The station was located on the opposite side of the Dvina, about three or four viorst beyond Kraytsburg. Germans were the owners of the brewery and the two mills—the steam mill and the windmill. The pharmacist was German, as were the carpet-makers, bricklayers, printer, butcher, saddlemaker, and turner. The turner was an evil person, a “Hitlerist” for Hitler, who would start fights. But the maker of pipe organs, a gem of a person, also was German and he truly loved the Jews. The Germanized Latvians were bad, but the Russified Latvians were even worse, by nature true traitors. Most of the time the Latvian villagers and the Jews lived well together. One winter, my uncle, a peddlar, got rich. He became practically a soykher [merchant, businessman] when his sacks of grain and pelts burst open and took an entire winter to dry. What happened? He found favor with a Latvian farm-owner [who bought the lot].

Those who considered themselves true Kurlander Jews were the ones who had settled in Kurland prior to the early '80s, I believe before 1882. They were the yakhsonim [“Jewish nobility”]. Only they had the legal right to reside in Kurland. It was easier to study the Kurlander Jews among the balebatim [middle-class householders], since they constituted this type. Originally there were several kinds. One kind came from authentic Kurland near the Baltic Sea, from the towns of Tukum and Hoznput that lay between Riga, Mitave, Libave, and Vindave. The second kind—originating in White Russia and Kovno District—came mainly from Ponevezh and Birzh. Artisans, peddlars and teachers arrived. Also, naturally, came those who were lured by the lumber business on the Dvina. On rafts and because of rafts they came. In Yakobshtat-Kraytsburg they intermingled, influencing each other in character, behavior, and language, yet retaining the signs of their origins.

The original Kurlanders were the Yoelsons, Mayersons, Lilientals, Rozentals, Talerozes, and Koblentses. Even in America I can recognize authentic Kurlanders—by their heavy yet soft, fleshy noses from which seems to hang suspended five pood [200 pounds] of German self-importance and pomp, swollen with haughtiness towards the Litvaks. Ongeblozene indikes [puffed-up turkeys] is the nickname the Litvaks gave them. There in their Hoznput they spoke daitchmerish [Germanicized Yiddish], a kind of cavalier's German. The Litvaks were the Markushevitches, Komenetskis, Levitases and Lurias: rich as Korakh, yet democratic by nature. Even when stuffed to the gills with money, they let it be known that their origins are of the people. Even the sharp, keen-witted gemora-kop [“talmud-heads”] behave like proste khay-vekayims [plain and ordinary folks]. When these two types intermingled, an ideal democratism emerged. Picture democratic yahudim [German Jews] whose behavior is refined, modest, and friendly towards the poor!

The influence of the Litvaks was so widespread that all the shuls [synagogues] davened [prayed] using hasidic prayerbooks. Even in the private shul of the grandest and richest German Jew, Leytse Taleroz, they davened in the manner of ari hakodesh [the Holy Ari, Itzak Luria of Safed, 16th century mystic kabbalist]. All the shuls had small annexes called khabadnitses [Chabad, name of the Lubavitcher hasidic movement, is the Hebrew acronym for Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge], but no one studied Chabad there, rather the poor folk had separate kriyas [readings from the Torah] there so they could have their own aliyas [honor of being called up to bless the Torah reading]. Even the craftsmen's shul prayed with German-democratic-hasidic pomp. It was only the butchers who remained stubborn. Their little butchers' shul was the only misnagdishe one [opposed to hasidism]. The town was hasidic even though no one ever traveled to a hasidic rebbe other than the Lurias, who were originally from Birzh, relatives of Yehudah Leyb Zosnitz. No rebbe ever visited Yakobshtat.

The Kurlander influence on the Litvaks was felt mainly in the way of life at home, in home etiquette and its effect on the youth. Therefore I must return to the true Germans who were the original residents of the town. The Petersburg government was then in the process of Russifying the Baltic provinces. The German officials and magistrate had only recently been replaced by a Russian police administration and judicial system. As a kheder boy, I would see a shande-vagon [“shaming cart”] with a criminal tied to a raised seat being driven to the shandeslup [pillory] in the field where the soldiers were drilled. This happened in my time when the state school was converted to a six-grade Russian public school. In community affairs, however, the Germans still played a large role. The new officials—the inspector, the prison overseer, and the lawyer—were Germans who spoke Russian haltingly, carefully pondering every word. Also on the Jewish side the recent transition from German to Russian was still very apparent: the director of the Jewish school, a landsman [Jew from the same locale], spoke Russian with a terrible Jewish-German accent. By the way, a typical Kurlander Litvak, a poor yeshiva student, learned German while studying Hegel's philosophy and following Hegel, justified the giving and taking of interest. He insisted that his students learn dikduk [Hebrew grammar] and taught them the Bible using the [German] Biblical Commentary of Moses Mendelsohn [translator of the Torah into German and founder of the haskalah (“enlightenment”) movement to bring modern European knowledge to traditional Judaism].

In the middle class private homes, German still held full sway. The children were sent to Russian gimnazyes [high schools] in Riga and Mitave. In the Riga Polytechnic School of Dorpat University and in private homes, German was after all a sign of education, and tsum viderzehn [Yiddish adaptation of the German phrase “until we meet again”] and vilkomen [“welcome”] were heard spoken in fine style and seen inscribed over doorways, when the gracious lady of the house returned from the resort town of Doblen [Dobele, located near Mitava]. For the original Kurlander, German was exclusively the language spoken at home even by those who understood and were able to speak Yiddish. German set the social tone for both good and bad. Middle-class daughters traveled to Riga and brought back news of the wonders of the German operas that they had seen: The Jews, The Huguenots, and Vasco de Gama, in which an akrent [vessel] (a ship, that is) had sailed onto the very stage.

The slender blonde German frauleins served as examples for the middle-class Jewish daughters, and that is how these Jewish daughters felt and behaved, like genteel and dreamy “baronesses,” like “bewitched princesses.” And that is how they appeared in the eyes of the dreamy young men who were infatuated with these Jewish princesses.

Even madness took place in German. A young deranged boy, when asked to recite Schiller and Goethe, did so by heart, both backwards and forwards. And two spinster sisters from a formerly rich but now impoverished family, even in their melancholy were clever and delicate and had “fine feelings” [English in original], were poetesses with whom it was a delight to speak. The young men were deranged because of their unrequited romantic hunger for the love of the baronesses.

All of these good and bad influences entered into the psychological makeup of the Kurlander Litvaks. It was as if the recently arrived Litvaks, succumbing to the effect of the Kurlanders, were injected with a drop of baronial fantasy, indeed should have been vaccinated against baronial fantasy. While remaining democrats, they now thought much more highly of themselves. Because of their large numbers, they were able to prevail upon the established Kurlanders to relax their conceited attitude just a little, and become more mentshlekh, mild, and sensible. And so they arrived at a balance. There was even a difference between the balebatim of Yakobshtat and of Kraytsburg. Those in Kraytsburg unashamedly looked up to those in Yakobshtat. Yet there was a still greater difference between the Kraytsburg balebatim and the proste khay-vekayim [plain and ordinary] balebatim from the other Litvak towns.

The character of the Kurlander Litvak was reflected even in the faces of the Yakobshtat rabbis. Did you know or did you hear of Rabbi [Mordechai] Nurock, the community activist, politician, deputy of the Duma, and mizrakhi [Zionist group] leader? Nu, I knew him to be a gentle young man. His father was a rabbi in Yakobshtat. With his stately appearance and fine character, with his tolerance and spiritual aura, he was granted authority by all classes of Jews in Yakobshtat. And the common folk, not only the balebatim, were no less Kurlander Litvaks, but without the German books and the German pomp. The folk received in no small measure a dose of baronial fantasy through direct contact. Not all barons lived in palaces. Barons sometimes even hung around rubbish heaps, drunken and destitute. Once my father and his team of harnessed horses drove around just such a drunken baronchik for hours. Instead of paying my father, the baronchik insulted him: “You dirty Jew! Who do you think you're demanding money from”? My father hit him with a drayman's resounding smack right in his baronial mug. He immediately sobered up and handed his silver watch to my father as payment. This was the first watch whose tick-tock helped me fall asleep, and this is how I received my own drop of baronial fantasy.

The respectable Germans frequently related well to the Jewish common folk. My grandfather, Efrayim Vaynrib, was employed in a German brewery. The pipe organ master and the German owner of the largest food business trusted my father with thousands of rubles, and one should add that the German magistrate had more trust in the Jews than in the Latvians. I have a nice story to tell in connection with this. At the marketplace while waiting for a passenger, my father saw three drunken Latvians bullying a young boy who one week earlier had become an orphan, and this was his first outing with his father's team of horses. My father's heart went out to the young boy, so he grabbed a pole from his wagon and started to batter the three goyim [non-Jews] and laid them out half-dead on the cobblestones. My father was sentenced to serve a week in jail, but a year passed and the inspector, a German, left my father alone. After all, he knew that my father had been right. Another year passed and he began demanding his due, such as: “Abba Sheftl, how much longer? The district is hounding me to death—a Jew has been sentenced and hasn't served his time.” My father begged to be excused: “When do I have the time?” Then a little boy died in our town, and the inspector showed up: “Come, Abba Sheftl, after all, you have to sit anyway so you will sit shiva [seven day mourning period] with me. He took my father's talis [prayer shawl] and tefillin [phylacteries] and left. My father followed. In the daytime my father would daven and recite tehillim [Psalms]. At night he would come home. This is how he served his week's sentence.

Since I'm familiar with draymen, I have a suspicion that baronial fantasy would overtake them by way of a baronial horse. Whenever there was a capricous horse with a nik [Latvian: contrary streak], a drayman would buy it dirt-cheap from the baron. My father did the same. And it would take time before such a riding horse could be broken into a drafthorse.

Here's a story that's told. Once there was a blacksmith, a relative of ours, who lived on the road to Brod, the nest of Russian bandits, but he wasn't afraid of them. He was a big, strong man and so were his associates. This blacksmith was one of the first to leave Yakobshtat and travel to America. He had a baronial fantasy: he purchased a baronial horse, forged a large half-covered wagon in which he packed all his bed linens and household articles, and with his wife and daughters he planned to travel to Hamburg in it. But as soon as he tried to hitch the horse to the wagon, when he set the harness in place the horse took off at a wild gallop over fields, woods and hills. Hundreds of people began to chase after. They were on the verge of catching him when the horse devilishly jumped right over all the fences. The smith's journey to America was delayed by a full day.

I believe, so far as I can determine, that the “Kurlander Litvak” is not just my own invention. Whether of the class of balebatim or of the folk, he had a clearly recognizable type of face. But my strongest evidence is the melding of Kurlander and Litvak that resulted in a distinctive fused Yiddish, free both of daitchmerisms [Germanicisms] and Slavicisms. It is a litvish [Lithuanian Yiddish] that doesn't mix “sh” and “s.” A litvish based on clear logic and German grammar. This is the tongue used formerly in Kobrin and Hirshkan, both of Vitebsk District, purified of words mixing together Yiddish and Russian such as: stramgolovoy [proud or stiff-necked], gazlovoy [thievish], oyskorenien [uprooted], tseshtazhen [false honor]. The nearest approach to this Yiddish can be found among the Tsivyans [large branch of Latvian Jews] who, I know not how, wandered once upon a time to Danker (Shtakmanshof), and in the speech of Dr. [Max] Weinreich. This Yiddish must have originated in German Kurland, but was most likely ceremonially immersed in our Dvina. This Yiddish has its own special idioms and sayings, which deserve to be collected and accepted into general usage. I intend to collect more of them. For now, here is a deposit.

di dvina brent! [the Dvina is burning!]—an expression among kheder yinglekh [little boys of elementary Hebrew school age] that sets off a stampede.

kholem-noz [dreamer]

a knip ton biz men derzen riga [a pinch that will make you see Riga]

verfel [dice] for dreydel [Chanukah top]

shnoyflen for fonfen [to snuffle or mumble]

nik [capricious, unruly], mayzlekh [“mousy,” timid] referring to horses

sulia [sap of a birch tree]

anker—a small vessel for Passover mead that is sealed with a shpunt [bung].

a mensh a gornisht [a nothing, nobody]—a shtrund [from Italian il stronzo]

kankeres for trantes [rags]

shtrimling—a small smoked fish resembling a shproten [sprat]

ent zikh for enlekh zayn [resemble]

druml [little drum]—a tea-kettle made of sheet metal, wide at the bottom, narrow at the top, used to cook tea or coffee.

arayndrumlen in kop arayn [to drum something into one's head]. Elsewhere people say: er hot zikh eyngedrumelt.

ankreytik [susceptible]—in Kovno this means susceptible to illness, but for us a susceptible dama [Russian: lady] is a lady who makes a fuss.

As an additional example I will give the family surname “Vaynrebe,” which Galicia and Lodz made more Jewish as “Vaynrib” and our Yakobshtat made more Jewish as “Vaynroyb.”

One's very own accent with one's very own shtikl loshn [bit of a language]—that is an achievement. But even greater feats were expected from the Kurland Litvaks. The fact is, the Litvak was the prime achiever of all our movements. A plain and simple Litvak, particularly a Litvak with baronial fantasy, absolutely had to excel. Though it isn't really so. Kurlander lita was the place of origin of all them. In addition to the Tsivyans and Dr. Weinreich, there were Lilliput'n (Kretshmar) and Rakhel Luria (Roza Vulf), both of whom, much like the Tsivyans, wandered to Dankere; and Dovid Druk from Kraytsburg; and Grinbloy, a Yakobshtater. (Rakhel Luria and Grinbloy are already in the World of Truth.) Can you see the signs of baronial fantasy in all of them?

Kraytsburg, more litvish by a hair, excelled over Yakobshtat. All the movements came to Yakobshtat from Dinaburg and Riga by way of Kraytsburg. The Kraytsburger Dovid Druk, my first socialist agitator, came from Riga as an iskrovetz [follower of Iskra, “The Spark,” an early Marxist Russian newspaper founded in 1900].

And Dankere surpassed Kraytsburg. The first Russian revolution [1905] originated in the Latvian Forest Brothers movement. The Stalfer brother and sister risked their lives. I still regret to this day that my Russian brochure on “collectivism and individualism” was without my knowledge translated into Latvian and the Forest Brothers were arrested for it.

Here in New York there is now a Yakobshtat-Kraytsburg landsmanshaft [society of Jews from the same locale]. Its founder was a Kraytsburger—Avraham Baron—from the bakers' union. In Avraham Baron can one see a sign of baronial fantasy—even in his name! There was in the society a Mr. [Solomon] Katzen from the large family of Katzens from Yakobshat—and he was an even greater baron with fantasies—a relief-activist, a delegate, always engaged in plans and projects—but I don't hear from him. I suspect that the most active of all in theYakobshtat-Kraytsburg society are neither the Yakobshtaters nor the Kraytsburgers but the mekhutonim [relations] of their eydems [sons-in-law] and shvogers [brothers-in-law]. May their yikhus [pedigree] be inscribed along with the Yakobshtat-Kraytsburgers. Wake up, Yakobshtat-Kraytsburg, and row toward New York! And where is Libemuze? And where is Nayre?


[Page 417]

Jewish Foods in Lithuania

by Hirsh Abramovitz

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

The largest part of life for an average Lithuanian Jew was occupied with worries about income, but spirituality took over a great part of their lives. There was little time for materialism. But naturally one has to eat to feed one's soul. They were not, however, overly concerned with this. Thus, there was never a customary time at which to eat. They ate when there was time, “when the time arose” or “grabbed something to eat between times.” However, there was not always something to eat for everyone… This was a problem for a very considerable number of the common Jews…

The food was very simple. Food consisted of two principal items – dark bread and potatoes. The third item was “sours,” which meant beets (borscht), cabbage and sorrel.

The Lithuanian Jew often was a kibitzer [mocker] in regard to himself – he would laugh at himself. The story was told about a yeshivanik [religious secondary school student] who in the morning of the eve of Yom Kippur [Day of Atonement] ate a holiday meal: chicken, kreplekh [meat-filled dumplings] and tsimmes [root vegetable and dried fruit stew]. His wife asked him if he was satisfied with the food. He answered, “Of course, but unless I have even a little bit of sours, I am not a person.”[1]

The yeshivanik was the target of many Lithuanian jokes. In truth, before the First World War, the yeshivanik occupied a considerable “statistical” number among the population in Lithuania and he gave a special color to Lithuanian Jewry. However, sours was a food for all Lithuanian Jews, perhaps because it was the cheapest accessible soup and the only “appetizer” besides herring that Lithuanian Jews allowed for themselves.

Sours were eaten as an “onbeisn,” which in Lithuania meant both breakfast and “so-called lunch” together, as here in America it is breakfast and lunch. In Lithuania not much thought was given to what the meal in question was called. In general, they were not fastidious about the “time table” being carried out with all of its ornaments: “The only concern was that one ate and that there was food to eat…”

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Yet the onbeisn was the center of “feeding the sinful body.”

Sours were eaten with bread and potatoes. In the spring there was sorrel (szczaw [schav in Yiddish]), whitened with a little thin sour cream or sour milk. In the middle of summer they would cook boćwina (beet leaves [chard in Polish]) mixed with sorrel (which gave it a natural sourness). Many housewives would make their own kvas [a fermented yeast-based beverage] from rye flour mixed into warm water. This water would be salted and after a day or two of standing in the warm air it would become sour. Beet leaves were cooked in kvas. They “made use” of the entire beet at the end of summer, crumbling it into the boćwina. The sours made by the good housewives were tasty. “Like wine,” they would praise themselves. It was “not thus” for others and for many housewives it was “without taste” or had a “nauseating taste. ” There were few of the latter. The tradition, the experience and the instructions from neighboring women helped to create a good, nutritious product. The same could be said of “pickling beets” and “sour cabbage” for the winter.

Ninety percent of the Jewish housewives prepared the last two products. Usually, the cabbage was “shredded” (shredded as in cabbage) several weeks before Sukkous [Feast of the Tabernacles in the fall]. When light frosts would arrive, the cabbage had to be taken in from the garden where it would “ripen” – not grow, but become stiffer and better for the purpose of preserving. It was the same with beets.

To shred, all of the green leaves would be removed, particularly cutting out the parts that had small holes from worms. Mainly, one had to check that, God forbid, there were not any cabbage worms in hiding that could make the entire “pickled” cabbage religiously unfit to eat. Usually, friends and neighbors were invited to a Jewish house to help with the shredding. The shredding was done with knives, and for a large

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family a few large casks (barrels) of cabbage would be “pickled.” It was not easy work. However, it was joyful. They sang; the young people ate the cores of the cabbages. The experienced housewives would salt the cabbage, add caraway seeds and “knead” the cut-up cabbage. The cabbage would be placed in layers and be hammered with a shilahes (a wooden block place on a stick that helps split wood) until the cabbage began to show its juice. Apples, carrots, beets (because of the color) and cranberries were placed between the layers. The men did the work of striking (or pressing together) the cabbage. The barrels of cabbage would stand in the house for five to six days in order for [the cabbage] to turn sour. It had to be stuck with sticks in order to let out the slime (gas that did not smell so pleasant…). Then the barrels were rolled down to the cellar or pantry (food storage room) or kept in the hallway [in the houses] of ordinary people.

This cabbage had to suffice for the entire winter. And it also was eaten raw, often with baked potatoes or with bread when there was nothing else “to add to the bread.”

Beets rarely were used in the winter. However, there were “soaked” beets in almost every house. This means that they would peel the beets, lay them in water and keep them in a warm place (not far from the oven) until they became sour. Beets were “pickled” with all of the decorations [apples, carrots, etc.] for Passover. A new “tub” [was placed] under a white tablecloth, covered with something warm on top. The Jews satisfied themselves with the beet vinegar and beets for all of Passover.

Peeled beets were cooked with rossel [fermented beets] and this was a “complete meal” in the winter when there was very little milk and we mostly used pareve [not meat, not dairy] foods. Chopped raw onions were added to it and eaten with baked or cooked unpeeled potatoes. Experts said that was a “tasty food.”

The role of potatoes was one of the largest in the nourishment of the Lithuanian Jews. Potatoes were eaten two or three times a day in various ways – peeled, cooked (with onions and pepper), baked and cooked with “skins” (only washed and cooked). Potatoes would be baked when the large “Russian” oven would be heating. The potatoes would be scattered

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in a corner, not very close to the glowing coals (so they would not burn)…or covered by a yamke [a hollowed area in the front corner of the oven in which to place a pot] (front of the oven, the two sides of a pripeczek – heart or fireplace) and prisak, hot ashes with glowing areas inside, were scattered over [the potatoes]. So that the potatoes could be peeled, they were placed in a basket (made of straw and interwoven with wood) and covered with a cloth and something warm so that the potatoes would be “steamed” and the peels would come off under the effect of having spent time steaming. The baked potatoes often were the only things to grab to “stave off hunger.” Incidentally, the potatoes could be eaten with “unwashed hands” and do one's duty with a short blessing, Bo're p'ri ha'adama [“Who created the fruit of the earth”].[2] Credited to the virtue of the potato was that it [was plentiful and] could be eaten every day (“Sunday potatoes, Monday potatoes” and so on, as in the folksong.)

The potato also was a kind of manna in Lithuania, from which various dishes actually could be made. Often, mendi melekh [melekh – king in Yiddish] according to the Litvak-Yiddish concept, naturally baked round loaves, were very popular. The potatoes were peeled, grated on a grater, the water was pressed out by laying the grated mass in a dishcloth. (Little by little) rye or buckwheat flour (if there was any] was added to the grated and somewhat dried mass; it was kneaded a little, placed on green cabbage leaves or on oak leaves that had the widest leaves of all Lithuanian trees. The round loaves were placed in a very hot oven (“almost as if baking bread”). After an hour of sitting on the hot tok (the shelf of the Russian oven) the loaves would be done. Milk was poured over them with something sour (instead of bread). And meanwhile the “small loaves” would be given to the children to still their hunger. Loaves would also be given to kheder-yinglekh [religious primary school boys] as a snack. They were mostly eaten in a cold state. However, noshers [frequent snackers] (Protect yourself from the former Litvak noshers…) liked a warm loaf, some with sour cream or with a pat of butter (however, only the rich, middle-class families could have this…).

The same capable houses would make tsigayner [gypsies] from the round loaves. This meant a loaf that was smeared with ground poppy seeds (from the name tsigayner)[3] and covered on top with a dekl [small covering] of the same grated

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potatoes. The tsigayner were baked in the same manner as the usual loaves. As soon as they were taken out of the oven they were divided into four to six portions, placed in a deep copper pan, smeared with butter. Sour cream and butter would be poured over each layer and [it would be] placed in the oven for a few hours. A variation of this was placing a “buttered” pan of the raw mass of dough in the form of latkes [pancakes], also with sour cream and butter poured over the layers and “shoved” into a hot oven for a longer time. Real potato latkes were often baked in oil or goose fat.

The melekh [king] of the potato dishes was a baked pudding. The grated potatoes were mixed with a little flour and shredded onions. Butter was mixed in and it was placed in an oven with bread or just into a hot oven. Small kneidlekh [dumplings] were also made from the grated and rolled-out potato dough, which were eaten in a dairy gekekhts (soup).

They would make large kneidlekh from the potato dough during the winter (they sometimes called them bombes [bombs]). Often the kneidlekh would be filled with raw oat grits, chopped onions, goose or chicken fat and they would cook this and oat groats for a few hours. Certainly, they had more pleasure from the kneidlekh than from bombes.

In poor families, grated potatoes often were added to rye dough, which decreased the nutritional value of the bread, but it would fill the stomachs of the hungry children.

It is difficult to enumerate all of the combinations of potatoes that the Lithuanian Jews used. Potatoes were the most important ingredient in all kinds of soups. A krupnik meant potatoes with barley (groats). This was barley grains, pearl grains, buckwheat groats and all others.

“Simple fish” was a national food; a joker or a village restaurateur, perhaps, had given it this name in order to create more of an appetite. “Simple fish” consisted of sliced, scraped potatoes (in Lithuania one scraped potatoes, did not peel them, so that, God forbid, there would not be too much waste of the potato). No onions were spared for simple fish. It was also peppered. In the wintertime chicken fat was added; in the summer – a piece of butter, sour cream or sweet cream.

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Often simple fish would be used for supper (one food). One would call a good friend to help do the boring work – like plucking feathers – therefore, everyone took part in eating “supper,” which mainly consisted of simple fish, which every Jewish Litvak loved so much. Sour cabbage would also be served.

Wonderful stories were told when plucking feathers that would go from parent to child or new ones that someone had heard somewhere or just from a storybook. Among those invited would also be neighboring gentile girls and boys. Thus, songs – Yiddish, Lithuanian, Polish, Belarusian and Russian – were sung. Most often they were folk songs about an unfortunate love.

Among the Yiddish songs of the 1880s and the beginning of the1890s [and] of the 20th century were Eliakum Zunser's songs (Di Sokhe [The Plow], Der Zion Marsh [The March of Zion], Shtey oyf Meyn Folk [Stand Up My People] and others).

Forty or fifty years ago, plucking feathers was a well-established tradition in every Jewish family. The plucked goose feathers were gathered in sacks or pillowcases, sometimes from ducks. Feathers from hens and roosters were also gathered in poor houses. Every daughter (and having only one daughter was very rare then in Jewish families) had to be provided with bedding, that is, pillows, comforters. The girl closest to marriage endeavored to have more plucked feathers so that she could be proud of her bedding.

After plucking feathers for three or four hours, they had a large appetite for the peppered, simple fish.

In general, no small-town Jew did without his own “stable” [supply of] potatoes; he had a garden or vegetable plot near the house or a little further from the house. However, they would dig around (plant) the potatoes themselves and dig them out themselves. Around the fast of the 17th of Tammuz [fast mourning the first siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians], or at the latest, Tisha b'Av [fast of the 9th of Av mourning the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem], they would begin to “dig up” the earlier planted potatoes, which were called pliansuvke (early hand-planted with germinating shoots). They would remove the larger potatoes and rebury the bush with the same dirt so that it would grow further. Thus they would “dig up” the potatoes until almost Rosh Hashanah.

The Jews who did not have any gardens or whose gardens were too small to provide potatoes for the entire winter would

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plant potatoes with the gentiles under various conditions. Artisans, such as blacksmiths, shoemakers, tailors, wheelwrights, tinsmiths paid with the labor of their hands. Shopkeepers with goods, tavern keepers with whiskey or beer. “Jewish manure” was a salable “good” for the peasants. Through the winter there would be considerable manure from the “Jewish cows,” “Jewish horses” or even from goats (these national Jewish cows in the Lithuania shtetlekh), which would improve the lean Lithuanian soil because the peasants rarely had a sufficient living inventory, which was the basis of every field economy. The Jews gave the seed (potatoes), the manure, several gildn; the peasant – his field and his work. They divided the harvest in half. But, in accordance with what had been agreed. The poorest Jew worked to create at least one and a half “tun” of potatoes (a tun in Lithuania was 24 pood [about 38 kilos or about 16 pounds]). However, in order not to “economize on the potatoes,” a family of six or seven people (which was not a large family several dozen years ago) needed three to four tun of potatoes for the winter.

Every Jewish house had a cellar into which the potatoes were “poured down” after removing them from the field. With three tun of potatoes even a poor Jew could look at the coming winter more calmly, even if, God forbid, there was a lack of bread.

In many cases poor Jews would “get through winter” with potatoes and sour cabbage. Bread was an expensive guest…However, it must be said that in one way or another the majority of Jews in Lithuania had prepared for the winter a few pood of carrots, a few pood beets, turnips, onions and such garden products. They only had to earn extra money for a piece of bread and whoever owned a goat giving birth or a calving cow would have a little milk around Shevat or Tevet [around October to December]. If “God helped” and they could make use of the calf, they had their own piece of meat and times were happier.

However, because of the potatoes there were a number of rachitic children who suffered with the English illness, or as we would call it in Lithuania, ripkukhn [rickets]. However, it was not a large number; the natural rye bread and the sour cabbage helped avoid a complete illness because of the vitality of the two first-class food articles.

It should be understood that the most “beloved” accompaniment for baked or cooked potatoes was herring,

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which also was the main food with bread in Lithuania. A herring also was a national dish or “the dish.” A herring was eaten raw “from the barrel” (from the cask, from the keg), tearing off only the outer skin, in certain cases only the laske (scales). Others dipped the potatoes in ljok (the liquid found in the herring barrel) and maintained that this was the “true taste.” The herring was also baked, often baked in sweet, sweet-sour, fried, as well as being chopped with onions and so on.

Often potatoes, sours and herring and rye, dark bread were the only foods for during the week.

Forty or 50 years ago almost all Jewish houses baked bread for themselves. The bread was of a uniform kind: dark rozeve [rye] (correctly, rozove – ground once) bread. The entire rye kernel was utilized with the membrane, with the starch, with the zarodek (germ), with everything. This was a true and honest crescent loaf. Correctly, a little bit of flour (whole rye) was mixed in a kneading trough with warm salt water. It was left standing overnight, covered with a dishtowel and then covered well with a fur or a pillow. The flour mixture began to ferment because of the warmth. The next day the sourdough was kneaded by hand for three-quarters of an hour, adding additional flour and water. After kneading, the dough in the trough was covered again and left in a warm spot for four to five hours until it rose. Then they would form loaves (each one 15 to 25 pounds). During the winter the shovel was sprinkled with dry flour (so the dough would not stick to the sides of the warm oven); during the summer other members of the middle class, particularly those living in Jewish settlements, who lived near rivers or lakes, picked aromatic water grasses and laid them under the cover of the loaf of dough. In the autumn they would use oak leaves as a lining. Many had prepared leaves for the entire winter. The loaves would need “to sit” in the oven for four to six hours, depending on their size. Women of the house who did not want the tops of the loaves to appear dark sifted the flour kernels through a thick sieve. The resulting thin flour would be mixed with water and smeared on the top of the loaves (before sitting in the oven) with the mass that was whiter than the whole-kernel flour. This mixture was called kharmuszke. The kharmuszke gave the

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bread a “Jewish appearance” in contrast to the gentile bread, which would be as “black as coal.” The gentiles often ground [their flour] on a homemade millstone. The grains were “roasted” by this and the gentiles thought smearing [the breads] with kharmuszke was an unnecessary luxury.

The sourdough from which black bread was baked was called roszczine. Roszczine latkes [pancakes] often were made from this. A piece of risen dough would be removed, mixed with water and rye or, even better, a little fermented (buckwheat) flour was added (to weaken the sourness) and latkes were baked from this. Such latkes had a pleasant sour taste and “really asked” that they be eaten with sour cream or with melted, salted butter.[a] The eating of latkes was a holiday for children who almost never ate sweet things or fat “cookies” or babkas except on Shavous [spring holiday commemorating the Jewish people's receiving the Torah from God].

An even greater “holiday” was buckwheat latkes (from buckwheat flour), which would be dipped in hot, melted butter. Wheat latkes were baked in middle-class houses for grand guests. However, as is said, not every man is privileged…

Often, working people would only have dark bread and sour milk with which to nourish themselves and this gave them strength to do their heavy labor. They did not know about vitamins then, but the body probably felt that it was getting a great amount of vitamins from these foods.

The aroma of freshly baked rye bread would permeate the entire area. It is no wonder people could do the heaviest work after eating plain rye bread with sours, gulping down a kind of krupnik [barley soup] slightly whitened with milk. This was “breakfast.”

The “lunch” (three o'clock in the afternoon) consisted of some kind of appetizer, such as sour milk with a little sour cream (podsmetanke – thin layer of cream between the thick sour cream and the layer of sour milk). Or just a piece of bread with cheese. Or again sours. In the summer there was cold sours (chlodnik [cold beet soup]) – beet leaves with small beets, and “epicures” broke onions into this with a cucumber. Cucumbers in season were a very popular food for the Jews (gentiles did

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not care much for cucumbers). Jews ate cucumbers both sweet with bread and salty or soured. Serious women of the house would salt the cucumbers for the entire winter. Those who lived in Jewish communities and ran a large household salted cucumbers in large barrels. In the salted cucumbers they put oak leaves (which would better preserve the cucumbers), dill. The barrels would be hermetically sealed and rolled into the lake (not very far from the shore) for the entire winter. Before Passover they would draw the barrels from the water. The cucumbers would be sour, but stiff. They used them for Passover with meat and just to eat “sour cucumbers” instead of fruit.

“Supper” consisted of dairy soup. Mainly, farfel. The flour would be mixed with water, well kneaded, cut into thick sections and chopped with a cleaver. The farfel would be made with dark flour, privarok, which was a ground mix of chickpeas, barley, rye and buckwheat. This had a specific taste and was mostly used in the summer when there was enough sweet milk. When fresh potatoes appeared – peeled potatoes were put into the farfel. And in middle-class houses they cooked wheat farfel.

During the winter, supper consisted of potatoes placed in the oven with a little rendered fat, baked or cooked potatoes with sour cabbage.

Chickpeas, lentils and beans were among the most beloved dishes. In addition to their delicious taste – Lithuanian Jews felt that they gave them the strength to do their work. Chickpeas were used for soup during the week. Chickpeas were cooked “separately” and barley was long-cooked (this means, cooked for a long time so it would turn into a paste) and then they were mixed together so that it turned into a “strong soup.” Rendered fat was added to the soup, mainly rendered goose fat. Beans were cooked in a similar manner, which needed to be put in an over for a longer time. Lentils were cooked with farfel.

It was a tradition with all Lithuanian Jews to cook chickpeas until dry, which were eaten with brine (from beets) on Friday mornings. The chickpeas were looked over before cooking. They would pour the chickpeas (that is from the water or from other mixtures) on the table and rolling them separated the wormy ones. The chickpeas were done by the children (very easily), but during free time almost all members of the family

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sat around the table and picked through chickpeas so that there would be a supply that could be used when they had to be poured into the pot and there was no time then. Chickpeas and beans were used in making cholent [Shabbos stew]. This was mixed with pearl barley.

They “made” Shabbos. The means – they needed to put [the Shabbos meal] together, bring it together. Often this was extremely difficult for poor Jews for whom the necessary ruble was lacking on erev Shabbos [the eve of the Sabbath]. Shabbos could be prepared for a family for a ruble.

As a rule, they used meat on Shabbos (and Friday night). The rest of the week they made due with whatever was available, but Shabbos could not be “shamed.”

The contrast between Shabbos and weekday foods was colossal. Everything good was prepared for Shabbos. One could say, perhaps, that they had to compensate for the half-starved bodies with dense foods that they did not eat during the week and that they required. In truth, it was done because of the Shabbos queen. Shabbos [was not] a trifle. It seemed that not only shtetl [town] Jews and the village Jews kept Shabbos, but also nature was observing the Sabbath. And since this was so – how could such a guest as the holy Shabbos be greeted with borscht or a krupnik [barley soup] that would have been a desecration?

And the poorest family baked “a piece of challah” for Shabbos. Alas and alack, there were families that did not have the needed 10 to 15 kopekes to buy flour and yeast. In general, money had to be collected for such a family for Shabbos (well, being hungry during the week was not a rarity and did not move neighbors, but allowing a Jewish household to be hungry on Shabbos could not be permitted).

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We can suppose that on Shabbos there was a piece of challah in every Jewish home. But Shabbos is not Shabbos if there is not a piece of fish or meat or both.

They had meat more during the week during the winter, beginning with the High Holy days in the autumn. That was the season of sheep, young hens (chickens), ducks. A considerable number of shtetl Jews would [butcher animals]. [They would buy a lamb, a calf, have it slaughtered by the shoykhet [ritual slaughterer]. They would sell part of it and the remainder was a profit left for themselves. The remainder would include the head, the lungs and liver, feet and so on. Smaller parts, the surplus would suffice to prepare for Shabbos. Who was there that could buy an entire side of meat for themselves?! In winter it would be a calf. In middle-class families, the meat was salted for the several winter months and kept frozen.

Sometimes the meat was “heard,” but the smell would “boil off” and, God forbid, no one was harmed. People probably were healthy then or perhaps, the air, the heavy work, with the dark bread and the sour cabbage caused the stomach to be healthy and endure all kinds of food.

There is not much to say about holiday foods or foods for Shabbos. Only the buckwheat pudding must be mentioned, which was baked out of roasted buckwheat flour – this was a kind of pudding baked in goose fat that would be cut in shiny pieces. In the richer houses it was baked with rendered fat and poorer used oil. On the winter Friday nights, after taking a nap, they would take out the “saved” buckwheat pudding and have great pleasure.

The traditional fish, meat, tsimmes [root vegetable and dried fruit stew], lokshn [noodles], kreplakh [dumplings] and so on, and baked sponge cake and torte and so on, in general were the same in all areas in which Jews lived, where they lived in well-established Jewish communities.


Original footnote

  1. According to a Russian gastronomic saying, “A carp holds that one should roast it in sour cream” and in the Jewish way, “A latke seeks butter”… Return
Translator's footnotes

  1. A holiday meal was a more substantial meal than the meals the poorer Jews usually ate. The humor is found in the fact that after such a substantial meal, the yeshivanik would still miss his usual meal of sours.Return
  2. Normally a blessing is said and hands are washed before eating. Potatoes only require a short blessing and could be eaten quickly.Return
  3. The name of the roll most likely comes from the word tsig – goat; the poppy seeds resemble goat droppings.Return

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