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[Pages 1483-1496]

My Town Dusetos

(Types and Episodes)

(Dusiat, Lithuania)

55°45' / 25°51'

by Mordecai Jaffe

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

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The names of my shtetl [town]: in Russian, my town was called Dusiaty. Jews called it Dusiat. As real Litvaks they jumbled it: Dusat – Dushat.1

It was a small shtetl in a smaller Lithuania. Independent Lithuania, as is well known, preserved its former state emblem: a rider on a horse that stood on its hind legs. It would be asked: why did the horse stand this way? Because if the horse puts down his two front legs he is already in another country.

I was born In Dusiat. I spent my youth there. I still remember very well the entire shtetl with its three streets, with its wooden houses, among which in some places the red brick house of a rich man would appear. The shtetl possessed around 300 Jewish souls. The gentiles–perhaps another 100 souls–lived near the edge of the shtetl.

Without any exaggeration: every Jewish house had a person, a type with a particular character, or let us say, a provincial personality.

I will try to describe, from memory, a series of types from my shtetl who were residents at the time that the villain Hitler entirely annihilated it. It should not be implied that they need to be positive or negative, comic or elevated types–the main thing is that they provide certain features for a general picture of past Jewish Lithuania.

 

This and That

Jews in the shtetl would be very fastidious with the particular title, rov [rabbi]. If someone said, “Rov Avraham” to someone, Avraham must have been a remarkable man, a great scholar, a moral person. It did not matter if someone was only pious. Piety alone was not the highest level.

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He first received an enhancement through learning and good qualities. The age of the Jew also was important. The age of the “Rov” had greater importance.

The proof is: There was a son-in-law of a very wealthy man in the shtetl. He was named Eber. Of course, the wealthiest man could indulge himself in having such a son-in-law! This son-in-law was filled with knowledge, both of the Torah and with secular knowledge. He was an eminent scholar, a fine cantor and synagogue Torah reader; and essentially a very pious man. However, no one in the shtetl called him “Rov Eber” because he was too young and his beard was too short.

Therefore, when the entire shtetl called the ritual slaughterer Rov Shaul Dovid, it was understood. He had justly earned it [the title “rov”]. He had a stately appearance, was a scholar, a clever man, a person of good qualities–I do not have enough fingers on which to count the good traits of this Jew. We had faith in him. We had respect for him. He answered a question. He gave advice. He had a good proverb. He straightened out quarrels. If there was a celebration, Rov Shaul Dovid took part in it. He offered consolation if, God forbid, there was a sorrow. How could he act otherwise?

The butchers did not need an excuse [to start quarreling]. It would happen – and very often – that they would fight among themselves. What do butchers do if they fight? One grabbed an axe and ran with unnatural eyes jutting out to the second and shouted that he would simply kill him. The second one was also a butcher; his father had been a butcher. He grabbed a knife and stood opposite the other one and was capable of stabbing him to death. When two butchers went wild, they really could do something: and, therefore, they did not need to learn what to do. There truly was a danger, a fear. Jews stood at a distance and did not know what to do immediately. They only waited for a miracle.

Suddenly someone remembered and said: Listen, perhaps we should go to Rov Shaul Dovid? We do not have to do more than that. Their eyes were

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wide open, their mouths foamed, but they [the butchers] laid down the axe and the knives and they left. They went to him–they no longer wanted to spring at each other like wolves, but they stood quietly like sheep, servile, ashamed, bent over, just as [if they were waiting] for a lashing with whips.

And what did Rov Shaul Dovid do? Listen. He did this: He sat reclined, comfortable in his armchair as at a Passover Seder. He listened calmly to the first one, listened carefully to the second one; and as they had already discussed matters a little, he ran his hand slowly over his long beard, coughed and said as follows:

–It is this way.
We already knew what that meant. The “it' meant that Jews do not need to and should not fight… Fighting is a bad trait–neither side can be correct… And fighting–all the more reason not to… And each butcher has a wife and children… And if a butcher grabs a “this,” which meant an axe or a knife, God forbid, one could kill the other one… You understand? So how do you not have pity on the wife and children? It is this way–

In short, it was straightened out as they say and [the two butchers] had a drink. The butchers did not know what to say. They could only say the words: Rov Shaul Dovid.

It was the same in other matters.

And do not make a mistake: if it was needed, he stamped his foot or banged his hand on the table… It could not be worse.

However, the main thing was when he said: “It is this way.”

Could we still believe that Rov Shaul Dovid was the great speaker, the sharp tongue? God forbid! Listen: for example, when he wanted to say that he had a cold, he said as follows:

At any rate, in short, why should I talk to you at length? I have decided the … this… there is a breeze from the skylight, do you understand? This … a draft blew in… and the result of this is–I, God preserve you, I caught… a cold.

A Jew, a wise man, very intelligent. But his main strength, his charm, his remarkableness actually lay in the “it is this way.”

 

The “Rebel”

[He was] a redhead with a sharp face and a bushy beard, with strong brows and eyes–which disdained everything.

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He was considered impudent. He stood out strikingly from the grey background of the shtetl. He was angry by nature, excited–he was provoked by every trifle, spitting with anger and speaking harsh words, “Let us break…” This was new at that time. Contradicting, saying the opposite, is a Jewish trait, but in several Jewish stubborn people there is present a submissiveness, a certain generosity –but this Jew did not give in at all, he was capable of killing for a triviality…

One of the first Jewish “rebels.”

Hirsh, Ruven's son, [Hirsh Ruven's hereafter] always lived in poverty and was hungry as a result of all of the laws. Therefore, he really carried a hatred against the middle class that had enough to eat. How can it be imagined that a satisfied person could believe someone who is hungry? That is where he got his hatred and contempt for the “elite” as we call “the golden flag” that, in his opinion, was a band of zealots with non-kosher bones… The pious Jews are not at all pious. They put on airs, the benefactors of God, like turkeys, and in relationships with other people they are even worse than the average people… He said a frumak [derogatory word for a pious person] is not even a Jew, because what is a Jew? Hirsh Ruven's asked and then fixed his fiery gaze–a Jew does not need to be pious; piety is a mask.

–Then what does a Jew have to be? He was asked.

–What do you mean? – He stared and looked with such contempt that [his eyes] penetrated the other person. A Jew must be a Jew!

Hirsh agitated against the leaders and the “system” from top to bottom.
–Here, he argued, Reb Yekl ben Flekla sits and rules the roost: and there in Petersburg is the Tsar, may his glory be exalted. Who are they? The same sinning mortals as all of you, and perhaps, even worse. But, what then? They have convinced us that they are the cream of the crop, [but when] they are overturned–they will be at the bottom…

Feh. I can no longer bear it! Hirsh fumed when he came home from the synagogue at the close of Yom Kippur [Day of Atonement] and was completely tired out from both the fast and from the prayers. Great God! Dear God! All Powerful God! Does God need so much praise?!

–However, Reb Hirsh, thanked God particularly well if a person simply served him a glass of water…

–Yet I say the following: he became even angrier. A god is not a person… He does not need flattery…

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This Hirsh never read any gazettes. [He] took a newspaper page in his hands, put on a pair of glasses, looked and looked and spit and threw it away. But he understood very well and was well informed and liked to read about politics.

Almost everyone in Dusetos was political. Which shtetl Jews did not read a page of Halakhos Milhama [Laws of War], about China, the emperor of Austria, the Dreyfus matter, etc.? But Hirsh Ruven's deduced everything in the opposite way. He rejected such opinions so that everyone held their sides with laughter…

What was the difference, as long as it was well said?

The Russo-Japanese War began. The shtetl was divided into two camps: Russian and Japanese. At the first news that the war had broken out, even before the public knew what to say, Hirsh appeared and swore:

–As I am a Jew, Russia has one soldier!

–But, Reb Hirsh… They stopped him.

–As I am the father of children, Russia has one soldier! One! Do you hear?! And with that he spit and left.

Later, when the Japanese captured one fortress after another and the Russians suffered heavy defeat, he laughed:
–So, do you see how right I was? I take the position that if the Russians had had at least two soldiers, would they have received such blows?
True, as one learned strategy from the palm of his hand, the Russian navy often sank in Hirsh Ruven's spit…

 

Elijah Sarah-Mirra's

There was a time when the shtetl was not yet civilized. There were no schools; even no reformed khederim [religious elementary schools]. The young children, the Jewish children, were tended to by pious and good Jews.

Elijah Sarah-Mirra's was one of these “pedagogues” with whom lay the education of many Jewish children.

That a wife's name is attached to a man is a sign that he is a respectable person, is good-natured. Elijah was a silent, non-talkative old man, short, with a long disheveled beard whose

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color had long ago been forgotten. He was calm, did not harm a fly on the wall and the children had no relationship with him.

Alas, what was he supposed to do? He had a bakery at home; a stall at the market where his wife would sell bread and bagels. And Elijah had to knead and bake, bake and knead every day. Sarah-Mirra, his wife, was a completely skillful Jewish woman and limped badly. Elijah helped her. He stood over the kneading trough kneading all night, carried water, chopped wood–and immediately the next morning he had to go to kheder [to teach].

It was a real pity for everyone: both him and also for the children.

And perhaps not for the children…

There were those teachers who would torture, force education on the children in every way, flog them with a switch and pull their ears… Elijah was a Jew, small, weak, never had enough sleep. One of his eyes was completely closed and the seeing one always was drawn to sleep, What can such a teacher do?

And, therefore, learning was more joyful with Elijah.

A small, dark kheder somewhere in a small prayer house. Long, greasy benches and tables. Several groups of Jewish children sat around the tables and waited for the teacher. Meanwhile, the group usually did not rest. Some were on the middle of the table, some outside. They shouted; they jumped; they danced. One hurt another. They almost did not notice when the teacher arrived.

He coughed, blew his nose and wanted to show that he was there. However, the group was occupied. He banged on the table and shouted:

Shkotsim!c We need to learn! Shkotsim!
Elijah sat down, took the pointer and opened a book.

He sat and pointed. He was blind. He wanted to sleep. He pointed in the wrong direction. The children burst into laughter.

And during the larger classes where they studied khumish [Five Books of Moses], he truly wanted to sleep. His head bent down to all sides, his nose fell and pointed downward. The children laughed. He shouted and again his nose fell. Recognizing that [he was falling asleep], he laid his hands on the table, laid down his head and took a nap…

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And as Elijah woke up, he found it was quiet and calm. The group had run outside.

He rubbed his only good eye well, stretched, moaned and went to bring in the shkotsim.

–Momzerim [illegitimate ones]! He shouted: You are strolling outside! Strolling outside!
The group entered noisily, stamping their feet, with a clamor, nearly throwing him down until he was really angry:
These are momzerim! You are strolling outside! Strolling outside!

And, at the same time, he said “stro…” with such stress and with such a shriek that the children became frightened of this Jew and took their places.

 

A Page of Gemarad

This shtetl was famous for two things since the earlier times: its scholars and synagogue Torah readers. A cantor and Torah reader were considered as two separate things there. One did not have to have a sign of a good singing voice to be the best Torah reader. Proof of this was that there was almost no house in the shtetl in which there was not a Torah reader. It happened more than once that a dispute arose and even a quarrel as a result of the fact that they could not divide the “honors” [of reading the prayers in the synagogue during a service].

As for the scholars, many had already died. Some of them faded and a generation arose that studied a page of gemara not entirely for the love of it.

Genteel young people, sons-in-law and simply young people came together to study. At first glance, it was a usual thing. A shtetl that had no theater, no club and no place to play a game of cards can grow accustomed to worse…

But yet __

After evening prayers three Jews sat studying the gemaras in the small emptied synagogue.

The wax of three candles attached them to the table. The gemaras were large and heavy. When they leafed through a page it rustled in the quiet of the small synagogue and the shadows of the three people mimicked their every move on the wall. The men rocked, wrinkled their foreheads, smoothed their beards and sang along gently with each other. One asked another a question with a melody; the second one answered with the same melody. The third one rocked with satisfaction. God forbid, they did not quibble and they did not spend much time with difficult questions. They did not grab

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each other by the buttons. They did not wave any sharp swords of subtle arguments and they did not stick each other with spears of insight. They only studied a page of gemara with a melody.

Three Jews came together and decided to study together all night and for several years they carried the Talmud on their own shoulders.

The three Jews were Shraga the butcher, Lozer the potter and Moshe Itze the bath attendant.

The first was an old man in his sixties, a short, stooped little man. He had a small black beard that had no sign of a grey hair. He had a pair of good-natured eyes that were young and childish. The second was a blond, with a pair of squinty eyes and a wide nose. The third had an open face enclosed by a black beard and lit up with quiet, mild eyes. All three rocked, sang, spoke, spoke to each other and did not notice if someone stopped at the door listening to them. These three simple Jews possessed a strength; they carried the entire Talmud on their shoulders.

 

Pinya the Dyer

Pinya the dyer was not a great scholar. It is quite possible that not only [could he not read] a page of gemara, he did not even know how to leaf through it and even was obtuse in reading Hebrew. He simply could not gain an understanding of a fragment of prayer. He choked on the smaller letters of the prayer book just as on the large ones, although a pair of glasses always sat on his nose during prayer. And it is no wonder that the little that Pinya had snacked on in religious elementary school [kheder] he even then had not digested. And the older Pinya got, the little he had learned slid from his memory.

However, Pinya therefore had great respect for a scholar. When he became acquainted with such a person he turned to him and, turning, closed his eyes, cocked his ears and truly swallowed several words that came from the other one's lips. You can imagine that he could not approach everyone. From most he sensed disdain.

However, he succeeded with one, actually an eminent scholar, but one who was by nature tender hearted, a modest man with whom he could speak a little and discuss matters. This was Itsik, the fur merchant. Pinya would come to his house, sit for many hours and listen to what the other one would say to him. Mostly, comments on traditional Jewish texts. And given that

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they both had time, as was customary, because Itze's wife ran his shop and Pinya was satisfied with the little he made dyeing peasant cloth, they spent their time conversing.

Itzik was much younger than Pinya, but he already had a considerable beard and mild, good-natured eyes. Pinya struck a stately appearance and looked straight at him. Now he related a commentary. Understand, [it was] a quotation from the sages, and more than anything from a book of ethical teachings, stories of good Jews, proverbs by famous preachers that Pinya understood better and received in his own way.

Itzik spoke and Pinya sat near him, lowered his head, closed his eyes and swayed, absorbed in several words. When it came to a strong point, he lifted his head, his eyes shone and stroking his long, wide beard, smacked his lips and made noises with his tongue: “Well, well?” And what, Itzikl, what did they say to the Kelmer?b

–The Kelmer, Itzik said, began pointing at them with his finger and began to shout: “Villains! False weight and measure! Help! False weight and measure! And if you would go there, you know what they would do to you for this? They would burn and roast you in seven fires. And you still would not be purified. Your bodies would be burned and your souls would be thrown down to the world below and you would be transformed into animals and birds. Into insects and crawling creatures. And… and…

–Well, well! Pinya shook his head, so Itzikl meant to say this. A shock! He was seized with dread! Well, well!

Pinya really lived with the stories about the preachers.

Once Pinya spoke out:

–Itzikl, do you know what I want to tell you? I mean… It is unimaginable. I…

–What is unimaginable?

–I think that I should become a … preacher.

Itze looked at him amazed. Then he smiled:
–Why not, Pinya? You have a respectable beard as is appropriate for a preacher… and it would not be wrong.
Pinya smoothed his beard happily with his brown fingers and was no less than rapturous.
Oy, may you be healthy, Itzikl. Eh? Would I really be suited for a preacher?

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–How is this measured? However… Pinya! A preacher must know something! What do you think?

–This, this I will say to you. And Pinya seized Itzikl by the hand and said to him:

–You will write down for me… Do you understand? If you would be so kind and write down what is needed… and I will learn it.

Itzik did it. He took pen and ink and wrote with circular handwriting a kind of sermon that really stood one's hair on end.

It continued for a considerable number of months. Pinya came to Itzik every day; and the other one tutored him for so long and so widely until Pinya gave the sermon smoothly. And then Pinya placed the sermon in his chest pocket, wished Itzikl all kinds of good things, said goodbye to him and with the sermon went through Jewish cities and shtetlekh in Lithuania.

 

Itzikl Business

Itzikl was a tiny, little Jew with a small, pointed beard with small moist, merciful eyes; calm, wise, never arriving anywhere late. He was dressed in rusty brown from head to foot, dusty and clay-covered, like an old, used up vessel. He spoke with a pitiful squeak and he walked like a child with small feet twisted by rickets; no one knew if he would get where he was going or would fall… A pitiful, little Jew…

And in truth, he had such an appearance because he was the poorest man in the shtetl. There was no one who could compare to him. All in all, he earned three rubles a week. This round sum sufficed for him for everything. However, so that it is clearer, I must add that Itzikl was a modest man. He did not, God forbid, squander the few rubles for simple things such as stuffing his body or puttting new clothing on it. Itzikl had a very different way. He divided his earnings into three equal parts, each portion dedicated to three purposes: he used one-third for living. He bought religious books with the second third. And he gave charity with the third third.

Having this system, it is not any wonder that Itzikl did not overspend [his earnings]. He was more behind the times than Rothschild.

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However, it did not bother him. And he did not, God forbid, worry. Rothschild truly was rich, richer than he. But the question was, was Rothschild more satisfied than he was?

Itzikl did not take any matter to heart. Why should he let something bother him if he was healthy? He could read a book and he even had the opportunity to give charity.

But once Itzikl became entangled. And here we come to the point of why he was called the “Itzikl Business.”

Itzikl was a mason by profession. In his life, he had torn down many ovens and built them up. It is said that he knew the trade very well and worked with devotion. He never received any complaints: if the oven smoked, he was a craftsman and was decisive. He took it down, redid the bricks anew, scratching and pushing forward until the oven no longer smoked. It cannot be said that he always finished quickly. It happened that he was a little late. But what was the hurry? He did not need more than three rubles; and in the end, he would not make more; why should he hurry?

In short, he knew the trade.

Once Itzikl undertook the repair of an oven. It was a strange, broken oven. It drew the smoke sometimes and sometimes it did not draw it. It seems the oven would draw all of the smoke and suddenly it would capriciously, out of thin air, spread the smoke with its full mouth, so that it became dark, suffocating in the room. A capricious oven. And Itzikl had to detect its weakness, its craziness and control the oven.

Itzikl sweated over it a great deal. In sum, Itzikl was not enough of an engineer so that he could calculate exactly and precisely why an oven would lose its smoke and where it lacked planks and where something was not in order. What now? Itzikl had already repaired brick ovens for three-quarters of his life. There had never been an oven he could not repair.

However, here something else occurred. Itzikl broke the oven open and crawled inside its very belly. He calculated that he would be able to tap the pulse of its interior more easily and the oven would no longer fool him. And he did his work this way: he laid enough bricks inside,

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placed a pail of clay inside and being inside it was easier for him to see and actually to work.

Thus, Itzikl laid brick on brick little by little, smeared them with clay and reinforced this, and the hole in the oven through which he had crawled became smaller and smaller by length and width until Itzikl realized –

What do you think, what?
A trifle that he had bricked himself in and could not get out.

But not get out at all. Thus it was and the hole through which he had entered was too small.

So, what should he do? He sat in the oven, scratched his side-curls, pulled on his small yellow beard and said:

–Oh, a real business.”
Most likely someone in the house heard him. From then on, everyone in the shtetl and the surrounding area called him:

Itzikl Business.

 

Leibele “Nie Rush

No one was to blame that when Leibele was young he had no desire to sit in kheder and study. The black Hebrew letters made him dizzy and he could not in any way remember what he had learned. Therefore, he acquired the title of “blockhead.” His teacher, Shmaya, the teacher of the youngest children, often tried to bang the learning into his head with a ruler or with an open book. But it did not help. He remained dull and could not understand even a bit of traditional Hebrew.

Therefore, Leibele had light hands since childhood. His hands would often creep into someone else's pocket or deliberately into someone else's pack. And there was no difference, a trinket, something to eat, a coin, everything was of use to him. These hands would sometimes be well slapped and Leibele himself received sideswipes and punches.

Leibele's weakness for sticking his hand where it did not belong became stronger with time. He walked around the market very often, looking for a peasant's wagon and whatever he snatched was an income for him.

He once tried to be daring.

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He stopped at a wagon of vegetables and fruits and when the peasant looked away, Leibele grabbed a pumpkin and was about to turn away. But just then the peasant looked back and grabbed him by the arm. The peasant did not delay and just tore the pumpkin from his hands, laid it back in the wagon, pushing [Leibele] at the same time and said short and sweet:

Nie Rush! (Do not touch!)
From then on this remained his nickname: “Leibele Nie Rush.”

When Leibele became older, he was, no evil eye, still a young man in age; he took on greater challenges. He began to visit houses.

Once, Leibele decided that he really was having no success going to strangers' houses where someone could walk in. He would try his luck among his own, where he knew everything and it was easier to find the door by touch.

He thought it over and once on a dark night he crawled up to the attic that belonged to his former teacher, Shmaya the teacher of the youngest children. Leibele was not mistaken. In the attic a long rope was hung and on it, now drying, was washed laundry. Leibele began to examine the meagre amount of possessions.

Below, Shmaya the teacher sat in his room, reading a book. His ears heard the ceiling creak as if someone was walking around in the attic. Shmaya thought: who could be walking around in his attic so late? If it was a cat the ceiling would not seem to move [or creak]. Then what? A thief? He needed to take a look.

Although a teacher, Shmaya was actually

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not a timid person. In addition, he had a pair of strong hands. However, for safety's sake, Shmaya took an axe in his hands and began to climb up to the attic.

It cannot be said that his heart was not thumping. He was a little afraid and his face was pale. Therefore, he tightened his hand around the axe and raising the axe in the air he crawled up to the attic and shouted:

Kto tam? [Russian: Who is there?]
No one answered. However, Shmaya moved closer and in the darkness noticed a human shape. He was perplexed: before him stood his former student, Leibele “Nie rush.”
What? What are you doing here so late? Shmaya asked him and looked at him with astonishment in his eyes.
Leibele remained standing pathetically before him, scratching a side curl and in a weak voice, with tears in his eyes, he murmured:
Rebbe! Life has devoured me. I cannot live any longer… I wanted to kill myself… I wanted to hang myself in your attic… Do you understand me, rebbe? Hang myself and it would be the end!
And Leibele was so distressed that he began crying, simply sobbing.

So what was Shmaya's answer to him? He took him by the hand, looked into his eyes and calmed him and thoughtfully said:

–Go home Leibele! Do you see? The rope is already taken. God willing, the laundry will dry and we will then take it down to the house. You will be able to come back here and hang yourself very respectably… Meanwhile, go home!

 

Original Footnote

  1. The Lithuanians later called it Dusetos, but to me, it is Dusiat. Return

Translator's Footnotes

  1. Reb Yekl ben Flekl is a nonsense name indicating foolishness, an unfavorable comment on the leadership in the town. Return
  2. Probably a reference to a famous 19th century preacher, Moses Isaac ben Noah Darshan, known as the “Kelmer Maggid,” the Kelmer preacher. Return
  3. Derogatory word for gentile boys, often used affectionately to refer to boys who are misbehaving. Return
  4. The gemara consists of rabbinical analysis and commentary on the Mishnah–the Oral Torah. Return

 

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