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The Scroll of my Life

Chapter 7 – During the Days of Spiritual Awakening (Hisoyreres)

My whole being trembles when there float before my eyes the holidays in Semyatitsh. My father and mother pass by with their tender love and awesome respect for the customs and commandments, especially of the High Holidays. The days of the month of Elul were suffused with reverential dread (furkhtikayt). Sabbaths come and go and the year's end approaches and the Jews were engrossed in devoutness (yires-shoma'im). No small matter, the High Holidays impending, days of purification and elevation. Jews carried out a general cleansing twice a year, a half year separating the two events.

One was a cleaning of the home and a cleaning and polishing of its utensils in honor of the holiday of freedom. The second was another kind of cleansing, an inner one, a cleaning of the spirit, wiping off a year's accumulated filth so as to enter the new year purified. Purification means, too, no insults, no anger, no resentments, no staying mad at one another. That is the way Jews in Semyatitsh, from the opening days of Elul till the onset of the High Holidays, used to open a new chapter in their relations with one another. Our fathers and grandfathers, mothers and grandmothers considered it necessary to cleanse our souls and carry out an earnest examination of oneself and of the world.

Preparing for a great event can be as important as the event itself. Elul was the season for preparing oneself for the High Holidays. In order to be ready, you went about in an Elul mood (mit elel-shtimungen) for the entire month. The blowing of the ram's horn (dos shoyfer-blozn) in the "Khaye-odem" besmedresh announced to the entire shtetl that the days of reckoning (din-vekhe'zhbm) had begun. Yellow leaves dropped from the trees and Jews told one another that even the trees knew it was Elul. Hasidim claimed that the trees in the forest were also being called to a day of judgement (yom-hadi'n). Scholars teaching Talmud classes to the public took the occasion to discourse on Elul, on the sounding of the ram's horn, on the Days of Awe, on the concealed ways of God, on the world and on the Jews. They said that Elul was the time to reflect as to where one stood in the world.

I once heard one of the scholars telling a story about a hasidic rabbi (guter-yid) who led a life of wandering as penance for the Exile (opgerikht goles) and who had gotten lost and had to spend the night in the woods. It was the eve of the first day of Elul (rosh-khoydesh elel) and so he rose early and began to pray. As soon as he ended his prayers, he heard the leaves and branches of the trees tremble, from which he understood that they had heard the blowing of the ram's horn.

It made him sad to think he had missed hearing the blowing of the shofar, and he burst out crying at the top of his voice. Someone with a shofar in his hand then appeared before him and spoke as follows, "Do you wonder how the trees and grass hear the blowing of the shofar?"  The Day of Reckoning is for everyone, for all of God's creatures, and the blowing of the shofar is for everyone, for heaven and earth, woods and fields, rivers and seas, vegetables and grass. Since you never missed the first blowing of the shofar, your lament was accepted. Here is a shofar for you."  As soon as he finished blowing the shofar, the figure disappeared. All those who heard the scholar's story continued to sit at the table, pensive. They saw plainly that this was a call to repentance, to an earnest self-reckoning and a reckoning with the world.

Semyatitsh Jews knew what Heaven required of them during those days. They knew that a person's life was futile and that there was really no difference between one person and the next and between the human person, the crown of Creation, and other creatures on the earth. The more one considered the greatness of Creation, the more shallow appeared one's own accomplishments. The sound of the shofar, like a net, covered the the shtetl with a light curtain of thoughtfulness and cast the secret of Elul over all. When I think back to those days it seems to me that the sun shone with a tearful gleam and that the secret which the shofar brought with it spread throughout the entire shtetl and further, too, to the shady harvested fields and as far as the woods. People returned home from the besmedresh deep in thought, still reflecting on Elul, on the oncoming Days of Awe, on the Day of Reckoning.

I have lived in many cities and countries, experienced much, joy and sorrow, but my most powerful memories are those of Elul in Semyatitsh. The last days of Elul are very special. Just as the evenings before a holiday were cheerful, so the Elul-days were sad. As the High Holidays approached, each day weighed more heavily on the spirit, and fear (eyme) of the Day of Reckoning became a part of nature and of the soul of every Jew in the shtetl. Two periods on the Jewish calendar are dedicated to purification and renewal: that of Nissan and that of Elul and Tishre. The latter two months are the most deeply engraved on my soul and I carry with me to this very day what I then experienced. I recall that Saturday evening before Jewish New Year's Day (rosheshone), the first penitential prayers (slikhes) were recited. After midnight, all the synagogues and prayer-houses, including the Slonim shtibl, were filled with worshipers, a frightened look on their faces. All wanted to be true penitents that night and to feel themselves free of sin.

Jews came to midnight prayers (khtsos) even from nearby villages, from wherever Jews lived. You would hear the echoes of horses' hoofs in the dark penitential-night (slikhes-nakht). You knew then that it was late and that the prayer-leader (bal-tfile) stood in his place (omed) wrapped in his prayer-shawl (tales) and white linen robe (kitl) and sang out a Kaddish prayer ("yisgadal veyiskadash") which poured dread over the sleeping lanes. The congregation echoed the prayer-leader word for word and with the same melody. Some shook the heavens with their bitter weeping. Hidden behind the words of the prayers were thoughts about problems at home and in the family. The cries of Jewish fathers and greybeards cut deep into the dense night. Now, in my older years, I again recall the supplicatory prayer, "Cast me not off in my old age" ("al tashlikheynu leeys zikno"), [44]words which emitted a strange fear.

I see myself as a small child striding beside my father to the penitential services, which were also held in the later dim daybreak hours. The cold penetrated my bones and my body shivered. You only warmed up once you were inside the besmedresh, which was all lit up with many candles and extra-bright lamps (blits-lompn). [45] Young and old were gathered there.  The cantor, wrapped in his prayer-shawl, recited the "Thirteen Virtues" (shloshesre-mides). His voice and the melody went through me. I felt my father choking back his tears and, pitying him greatly, I burst out crying. Father and the other worshipers were moved by my piety, finding in my weeping a sign that I understood the meaning of the penitential prayers.

During the penitential days I made a special effort not to talk too much, speak ill of anyone or repeat gossip. I too wanted to arrive at Judgement Day clean and purified. Together with the adults I practically screamed the words of the prayer, "The soul is yours and the body is yours, have pity on your handiwork."  In those days in Semyatitsh there was also a season for High Holiday prayer-books (makhzoyrim), prayer-shawls and prayer belts (gartlen); for large wax candles and low, wide memorial candles (neshome-likht). Many homes also bought new doorpost-amulets (mezuzes) as a remedy (zgule) to ward off illness, demons (nisht-gute), ghosts (rikhes) and all kinds of devils (mazikim). Day and night, men and women went to the cemetery to unburden their hearts by the graves of kinsmen, whom they called by name, and implored to intervene for them in Heaven.

In the evenings, preachers (magidim) from afar would come to the besmedresh to call for spiritual awakening, for repentance. There were some Jews who were so pious that in order to be further removed from materiality, from dependence on earthly needs, and to elevate their spirits, fasted more than half way through the first day of Elul. My father, however, sought during these days to help others with money and words of comfort. He wanted every Jew to be filled with love of his people and friendly relations among Jews. That is how my father understood the meaning of repentance and self-examination. The individual must always check his conscience to make certain he is not too involved in pursuing material pleasures or glory, and in achieving these things at the expense of other people.

He once told me that the danger of large and brutal sins was sometimes smaller than that of more "delicate" sins that are less likely to be noticed. In every person, my father said, there are wicked tendencies, inclinations to do evil. However, he can overcome them through sparks of love of the Jewish People, which are to be found in every Jew. Therefore one had to seek ways to raise oneself through repentance and self-examination.

Mother used to say, "Just look at how fast the year goes by. You hustle and bustle until it's suddenly Elul. Why all the bustle in the foolish world? Elul arrives and you catch yourself" ("khapt men zikh ersht"). It is hard for me to pull myself away from my memories: through open windows you heard children studying and their voices already announced the High Holidays. Not far from our courtyard [46] lived a High Holidays cantor (yomim-nero'im-khazn) and I heard him singing to himself abstractedly, sadly and touchingly "Haneshomo shelekho vehaguf shelekho" ('The soul is yours and the body is yours') and in my own fashion I unconsciously began to hum a tune without words (a volekhl), woven with sincere thoughts.

In the "Khaye-odem" besmedresh I heard Jews say that things had changed for the worse. "There was another generation then, a generation of people with good minds and warm hearts, with faith and devotion – an entirely different generation."  This is what a Slonim Hasid said, an elderly man with a distinguished beard (hadres-po'nim bord), who was known as a virtuous (erlekh) man as well as a Hasid. When I recall those years, I could go on talking about them forever, day in and day out, without ever growing tired of them.

At home, too, there were reminders of Elul. On one occasion we needed to buy a new makhzer, on another some other holiday item, but for the most part we felt Elul in the besmedresh. Jews sat there deep in thought, bent over ethical treatises (muser-sforim) and with tears in their eyes. At afternoon prayers in Elul there were more worshippers than usual and after the afternoon prayers (minkhe) they stayed for the evening prayers (mayrev). They sat at the long tables, sighed and told stories of Hasidic rabbis (gute-yidn).

Once a preacher (magid) came, an old Jew with a frail body, and overgrown beard and earlocks. He came just before the afternoon prayers and delivered a sermon (droshe). He spoke with a tearful melody (nign) and his parables (mesholim) fired my childish fantasy. He compared the world to the sea and the person's life to a ship at sea. The person is the captain of the ship. When he sails his ship wisely and virtuously, obeying all laws, he need not fear the waves. He then moved to the idea that God had given man a gift, a clear soul, clean and radiant. Therefore people must praise and thank God night and day for his magnificent gift. One needs to keep in mind that the soul must be returned clean and radiant to its Creator in the next world.

Why has all this remained so inscribed in my memory? It seems that I responded to the honesty of the preacher's words. He virtually begged with tears as well as shouted louder and louder that it was Elul in the world, that the High Holidays were approaching and he began to paint Hell (dos genem) in the most fearful colors. He then passed over to Paradise (ganeyden), which he painted in the most marvelous light and he promised it to all who would earn it by their good deeds.

As a child I listened to that fierce exhorter (beyzn moykhiekh), to his cries (koyles), which petrified every limb with the fear of dark Hell, and I greatly longed for bright Paradise. Deep in my heart I desired to be free of sin. I recall Father saying it was wrong to frighten people so with such a terrifying Hell. One should also have pity on Jews. You can awaken people with an explanation of a Bible passage (dvar-toyre) or a word of comfort…. Writing now about Elul-days in Semyatitsh, I again feel that same shudder and the same thoughts pierce my mind: perhaps I don't yet have enough good deeds (maysim-toyvim)? [47] I knew that other Jews in Semyatitsh also thought in this way.

It was Autumn outdoors and Autumn-like in the soul. Cool winds were already blowing. Mother took care that I was warmly dressed when I left for penitential prayers (slikhes) before daybreak. Wrapped in their overcoats (mantlen), Jews walked through the dark little streets (geslekh), which echoed with the sexton's knocking on Jewish doors and shutters and the soul-catching words he sang out, "Arise, arise Jews, for penitential prayers" ("Shteyt uf, sheyt uf yidn, tsu slikhes'). To compensate, however, it was warm and lit up inside the besmedresh. The prayer-leader from his place (omed) recited the "Thirteen Virtues" (shloshesre-mides) and asked the Creator of the World (boyre-oylem) to utter his fatherly word:  "I have forgiven!"  (Heb. solakhti).

After the penitential hymns were recited, the regular prayer service was held. Many left, each to his own occupation, to his daily toil. But there were those who stayed behind and talked ethics (muser-reyd) as regards devoutness (yires-shomaim) and love of the Jewish People (ahavas-yisroel).  I certainly didn't understand much of what these terms meant, but I felt that they were important and I tried to think them through. I wanted to ask my melamed what they meant, but it seemed to me that he himself was to be pitied – I had heard him mutter to himself with a sigh, "How can one endure it? It is so terrible…."

On another occasion, perhaps because there was a pause in religious talk, the besmedresh youths from deep in their hearts broke out in a song without words. The song was an ardent prayer voicing the faith which lived within these young men, whom I see before me as though they were present in reality. At that time I wanted badly to learn from them how they pray and stay together (mispalel-tsu-zayn un haltn-zikh tsuzamen). Singing was a part of their way of life and their melodies held glowing fire and ecstatic anticipation of complete Redemption. It now seems to me that every situation, every mood had its own tune for the besmedresh Jews, young and old, and that through these tunes they extended their faith, their hope -- their life. The difference between one song and the other was not accidental but intentional. Their songs searched the depths of feeling, action and thought.

Those days and nights of Elul in Semyatitsh are unforgettable and steeped in secrets. It seemed as though the sins of mankind collected to oppress heaven and earth, and I was sure that my plea, the prayer of a small Jewish boy, joined the prayers and entreaties (takhnunim) of the adults of the entire shtetl. Of all the performances (forshtelungen) I witnessed as a child, the most powerful scene was Jewish New Year's Day (rosheshone) in Semyatitsh.

Added to this was the picture the melamed drew for us so clearly in kheyder. He told us how during these awesome days the entire heavenly tribunal (pamal'yo-shel-maalo) sits over a large record book in which are inscribed all one's deeds of the past year, and judges accordingly. I visualized this scene in all its details – how the heavenly judges sat around the gigantic book and read from its pages the deeds of every person on the face of the earth, especially of every Jew, man and woman, child and adult, of our shtetl Semyatitsh. Everything that each of us had done was inscribed there. Not a single slight movement, not a single feeling or thought were omitted, not a single sin was forgotten. As soon as a name was called out, the person's page was found and the accounting began, the reckoning of his sins.

In my imagination I clearly saw how each person's guardian angel (sar), the overseer (memune) of his fate (goyrl), read aloud to the judges what was written on his page. When he finished, the weighing and re-weighing began. The accusing angel (kateyger) and defending angel (saneyger) entered; no small matter – a life in the other world was at stake. The final sum and the content of the deeds alone determined whether the person being judged lived or died in the coming year. If he lived, what sort of life? If he died, what sort of death would be decreed for him? I don't believe I was the only one; all the Jewish children in Semyatitsh saw this in their imaginations clearly, saw how the names were called, and saw all the kinds of life and death. I also saw before my eyes the descriptions of the preacher (magid) and of the melamed in kheyder.

The trial itself, I strongly believed, took place during Jewish New Year's Day (di teg fun rosheshone), [48] at which time the person's actions, from little to great, were inscribed and characterized. The verdict was signed on the Day of Atonement (yonkiper).  Though the latter was the more significant event, crucial in terms of staying alive or not, more disturbing and gripping for me was the Jewish New Year's Day scene of the recording and weighing of human deeds. I stood next to Father in the besmedresh and when the words "May it be inscribed for the New Year" (der rosheshone yikhtevun) were recited, I readied myself with racing heart to hear that now, now my page from the book of reckoning would surface as from a deep wood; there all my sins of the past year were inscribed, my page had been picked and the voice of my guardian angel, a strict angel, would soon read out my sins one by one, one by one.

A shudder went through me and at the same time a feeling of being about to faint – even though I knew that before my thirteenth birthday (bar-mitsve) I was not liable for my deeds; yet I felt that it wasn't possible to be wholly free of responsibility, even at age ten or eleven. I was ready to receive my punishment with love and with the pride that I was a full Jew and therefore merited punishment for my sins. Indeed, I felt that it was a privilege to be a full Jew. Imagining that my prayer was accepted and that my name was called out in Heaven, I broke out in a sweat.

Even today I think, What wonderful thoughts lie in the deep belief that there is a Divine Eye which sees all, and that there is a Book in which everything a person does is recorded. When, in later years, I heard Y.-L.  Perets' poem, "The World is Not an Inn" ("Di velt iz nisht keyn kretshme"), recited, the Jewish New Year's Day scene reappeared to me: how on the strength of the deeds inscribed in the Book of Reckoning a person's life and fate are decided, and the thought that awareness of the understanding judgement gives one power to guide the further course of his life in the days and nights of the coming year. I also think that if the peoples of the world had had such a vision before them, of everyone standing equally before judgement, all deeds being accurately recorded and accounting having to be given for all of them, perhaps then we would not have come to such horrible massacres and destruction, to gas chambers and crematoria, to blood-soaked Nazism, the most terrible desecration of humanity.

Since the murderous Shoa, the mass death of the Jews during World War II, whole libraries of books have been written – testimonies, histories and chronicles. Whole mountains of books have been written about the atrocities of the Nazis. Philosophic and scientific works are being written, too. But has any of this helped to change the world? Have people really and truly examined what happened? Don't we see antisemitism raging again in the diaspora, the world having already forgotten what happened? I believe that all those books lack the power of the pages of the Book of Reckoning, open for judgement of the world. Those books are not a "Let them be inscribed" (yikhtevun) of a divine hand, which responds to all so as to make each person responsible for himself.

Again there wakes in me the fantasy of my childhood years and I regret that the nations of the world refuse to listen to a divine force reading aloud the list of sins and crimes being committed. And that is why there is missing today the belief in a new world of justice and righteousness, as the Jews of Semyatitsh understood it. The world lacks the Jewish New Year's Day, which was given to enable us to free ourselves, at least internally, in our hearts, from the dominion of sin and evil. The little Jewish boy in Semyatitsh understood that acceptance of the Kingdom of Heaven (malkhes-shomaim) was the central motif in the prayers of the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement. As early as the kheyder, the melamed taught that the prayers are called "of the realm" (malkhuyes), since they proclaim God's realm, his authority over the world, the reign of truth and righteousness.

In later years, when I understood better the content and meaning of the Jewish New Year prayers, I grasped, too, that the concept of fear of God, of fear of Heaven (yires-shomaim), had a deeper meaning. It was a concept of reverence (yires-hakoved), of majestic esteem and respect for the Judge and Conscience of the World. I had a like feeling of respect for Father and Mother; my fear (moyre) of them was not physical but moral. To me, Father and Mother were moral personalities whom I respected and whose feelings I always considered, avoiding any action that might cause them distress (agmes-nefesh).

Indeed, that is why I devote so much space in these memoirs to my childhood. I remember how my father held my hand going to and coming from the synagogue (shil). In his large hand my father held my small child's hand. He held it fast, securely, and I felt the warmth of his hand. He was a protector and a support for me not only physically, being bigger and stronger, but also spiritually. I love to recall those times. A holiday breeze chased through the narrow streets and Father's hand was so deep, so encompassing, that it seemed to give me power, seemed to strengthen my footsteps. Not only a breeze but even storm winds will not tear me from my father's firm, warm hand. All the Gentiles around Semyatitsh will not tear my father's hand from mine. [49]

I also sensed Father's strength in the besmedresh, where the mood was an elevated one; despite the holiday air, in their hearts people were afraid.  The adult males swayed back and forth with their prayer-shawls pulled completely over their heads. The women in the women's section (ezres-noshim) wore their holiday jewels – pearls and earrings, their white silk kerchiefs, their pretty dresses. By the pulpit (omed) large candles burned with a yellow flame, which expressed the feelings of the worshipers – every heart quaked.

These images inscribe themselves in the memory forever. I still see those Jews, how they fill the besmedresh. The cantor has placed himself at his desk (omed) and the choristers accompanying him have assumed their positions. Everyone has been carried away by the melody which has pierced their hearts. Suddenly the voice of {the cantor} during the prayer became more resolute: "Be afraid" (uvekhen ten pakhdekho). In the course of time I have gone deeper into the meaning of that prayer. "Spread your fear over your entire work and your dread over all your creatures and let all fear you whom you created and let them all bow before you and let them become one to do your will with all their heart."

In later years it was clear to me that this prayer concerns not only fear; only naive persons will believe that its purpose is to frighten all the creatures in the world. I believe that we must read this prayer with understanding in order to grasp its true meaning. It is a dream that the day will come when the conscience of the world will be aroused, when all peoples will see that they are children of one father. That is the dream of the Jewish New Year's Day (rosheshone). Is it then not the loveliest idea of a new world and a new person?

It seems to me that all those Jews in the "Khaye-odem" besmedresh, as in all the other houses of prayer (bote-tfile), felt that the Days of Awe were also days of love and justice, of truth and humanity. The Jewish New Year's Day worship in the Semyatitsh besmedresh reflected the great moral struggle for a more beautiful, a better world. Jews prayed for the disappearance of evil in the world, for an end to the dominion of sin and malice. With much warm feeling, heartfelt words, hot tears and love for their fellow men and women, Jewish fathers and mothers – simple Jews and Jewesses of Semyatitsh – prayed earnestly, hoping to come before God's Judgement with clean hands and a pure heart.


Chapter 7 – Footnotes:

  1. Psalms 71:9 Return to text
  2. I translate likht 'candles', but the word also means 'lights'. Return to text
  3. In many towns and cities in Eastern Europe, homes surrounded a hoyf 'court' or 'courtyard'. Return to text
  4. It would be more colloquial to write 'haven't done enough good deeds', but the sense requires 'have'. The good deed done, the doer has it for presentation at the Day of Reckoning. Return to text
  5. 48) Rosh Hashana is celebrated for two days. Return to text
  6. M.R.'s use of the future tense here suggests a symbolical reading in addition to the literal one. The teller will never let go his father's hand, will not sever himself from his roots and his traditions. The future tense also communicates the teller's identification with the boy and his ability to recreate his own past. Return to text

Chapter 8 – The Blowing of the Shofar (Shoyfer-blozn)

I would like to go on talking about those Days of Awe in Semyatitsh. For my own sake as well I want to recall the mood of those days. Upon ending the morning service (shakhres), the Scroll of the Law (seyfer-toyre), wrapped in a decorated velvet cover (a sametn mentele) and embellished with a silver crown, was removed from the Holy Ark (orn-koydesh). At that time I kissed the sacred scroll with eager lips. My father carried it to the dias (bime), [50] where it was opened with a sense of pride in its holiness; it had been given to us as a gift at Mt. Sinai. As in childhood, I am to this day moved by the thought that Jews have been carrying the Scroll of the Law for thousands of years – as my father did, pressing it to his heart.

I see his face before me, radiant with pride, as he read from the Tora. I had the feeling that it was his soul that was singing the Jewish New Year's Day melody (dem rosheshonedikn krie-nign), one which suggested the distant East, the Land of Israel, the aroma of palm trees. My father was not alone; he was merged with the others, with the Jewish People, a people of noble lineage – dressed in silk and velvet, in white prayer-shawls, with eyes towards heaven, towards God's wonders, listening to what was inscribed in the Tora in letters of fire. I see before my eyes the picture of the blower of the ram's horn (bal-tekeye) standing on the platform (bime) wrapped in a white prayer-shawl (talis), his head held high, heavenward. Everyone feels the awful responsibility that this venerable Jew has taken upon his old gray head, the blowing of the shofar on Jewish New Year's Day – will God accept his mission (shlikhes)? Are heart and soul now altogether clean and pure?

All heads are bowed, enclosed in prayer shawls, yet they seem exalted; a holy secret hovers about them and over them. The shofar-blower takes the shofar to his lips. The dread in the besmedresh and in the hearts of everyone grows thicker, the anxiety more pronounced, since the world is full of accusers, opponents of the human person. They seek to do evil and the soft, modest voice of the shofar must break through the destructive angels (malakhe-khabole) and reach the Creator of the World, so that He will listen to our prayers.

After the blowing of the shofar, the Scroll of the Law was returned to the Ark and the congregation recited the Additional Prayers (musef). I was still a boy and I stood next to my father; I felt that his heart was full of grief. I heard his voice, sincere and pleading. And my heart, like his, was full of entreaty and introspection. Individual self-examination is just like communal self-examination and is appropriate all through the year, especially on Jewish New Year's Day, the Ten Days of Repentance and the Day of Atonement, but it was only afterwards when I was grown up and understood the synthesis of Judaism and universal humanism (almentshlekhkayt), that I saw what was special in the prayers for the Jewish New Year's Day (rosheshone).

Perhaps it is thanks to the mood in the besmedresh that I was also able in later years to grasp more clearly the idea of the greatness of the New Year holiday (rosheshone) among Jews; an idea which encompasses the entire world. Every Jewish New Year's Day I think back to that time and I make comparisons. I think of Jewish students and professors who study how to split atoms and I wonder if these intellectuals, alienated from a normal Jewish life, know about Jewish particularity (bazunderkayt). Do they grasp the universal meaning of the prayers of the Days of Awe?

It seems to me that they ought to become more familiar with these prayers and also with the intimate Yiddish prayers (tkhines) of our grandmothers. From them they would learn of the hopes and longings which simple Jews and Jewesses, grown adults and small children, invested in these prayers. When you immerse yourself in these prayers you are amazed by their human beauty, of a sort which cultured peoples can but envy.  Unforgettable to me are not so much the words as the mood (shtimung) which the intimate Yiddish prayers (tkhines) evoke. The Yiddish prayers of our mothers and grandmothers are Jewish and universal, human and national. I was strongly affected by them as a child, both in the besmedresh and at home where I heard my mother quietly uttering them in the dusk of departing Sabbaths and holidays.

After Jewish New Year's Day (rosheshone) there follow ten awesome days of repentance, of self-examination and self-purification, in order to stand before God on the great day, the Day of Atonement. These ten days, which begin {on the third day of Tishri} with the Fast of Gedalia (tsoym-gedalye), are hard. You fast all day and it is gloomy – just yesterday on the last night of Jewish New Year's Day you wished yourself a happy new year and here you are already fasting again. As I child I thought it strange, but Father sat down with me and explained that a terrible thing had happened on that day: out of envy and hatred a Jew had killed the Jewish leader Gedalia son of Akhikam of Mizpah in Judea (Gedalye ben-akhikom fun mitspe in land yude).

My father's story gave me no rest and when I got older I started to search in books to learn more about the period of the Destruction of the First Temple. At that time there were only poor farmers in Judea and among them lived Gedalia son of Akhikam. The King of Babylon had appointed him to be in charge, and he had done all he could to make the life of the Jews an easier one. He was much loved and following his assassination a memorial day for him was declared.

Quietly, wordlessly, gravely and tremulously, the Day of Atonement (yonkiper) arrived in Semyatitsh. It was as though the world held its breath, and the earth and skies with their horizons had surrendered in fright to the oncoming evening of the awesome and holy Day of Atonement. Jews left their businesses, left their daily concerns and hastened to the besmedresh, to the synagogue (shil), to the Hasidic shtibl; they gave alms to the needy (tsdoke) and they forgave one another (men hot zikh ibergebetn).

On the day of the evening of the Day of Atonement, people went to immerse themselves in the ablutionary pool {ritualarium} (mikve). On the tables of the besmedresh there were platters in which headings (ibershriftn) were placed marking the various purposes for which money was being collected. After prayer services, everybody put in a coin. There were also platters for the Jewish National Fund (keren kayemes leyisroel), the Jewish Foundation Fund (keren hayesod) and other Zionist funds. After the last meal we all went to services together with Father. On the way we wished each other a happy new year (a gmar khsime-toyve 'a final good sealing for a happy new year'). Everyone carried holiday prayer-books (makhzoyrim) in their hands. Both inside and around, the synagogue was full of people and of light. Everyone carried a candle for his soul.

The besmedresh was full of burning memorial candles (neshome-likht). Suddenly everything became still. Everyone held their breath and the strong voice of the rabbi was heard. His fiery sermon was full of deeply meaningful thoughts on the holiest day of the Jewish year. I didn't always understand the rabbi's sermon (though he explained most clearly what the Day of Atonement signified for the Jew), but his main intent engraved itself in my memory: all resentment and friction between people must be forgotten. With an ancient melody which one generation has transmitted to the next, the cantor, in a low, trembling voice began to sing that tune that is concealed in the soul of every Jew, sealed with the seal of fugitive cellar-synagogues in Spain, "Kol nidre…."

Later years I heard many debates regarding that Day of Atonement (yonkiper) prayer. While listening to the "Kol Nidre," we are so deeply moved and so transported to higher spheres, that the words of that wonderful prayer are almost impossible to understand. What is the meaning of the solemn declaration that all vows and oaths which we make in the coming year are null and void, inoperative and worthless? What do the words mean? That our vow is not a vow and our oath no oath? Is this to say that we announce in advance that our word and our promise are good-for-nothing? It is absolutely clear to me that not a single Jew in Semyatitsh thought in such a manner. After all, Jewish life in our shtetl was rooted in the sacredness of the word.

Jewish institutions depended upon the donations promised on being given the honor of reading from the Tora in the synagogue (aliyes) or on other occasions; oaths were often made at lawsuits (din-toyres). What sense would all this have had if one could simply ignore solemn promises? I thought about all this a great deal in later years and it became clear to me that the meaning of the "Kol Nidre" lies elsewhere. It has to do with the moral battle which the individual wages within himself. There are conflicts and temptations within the person who struggles to raise himself morally, to free himself from dependency on the material world and its concerns. Here I would like to emphasize that Jewish morality in my home, as in Semyatitsh generally, was in all times bound up with the sacredness of the word, with honoring a vow (neyder), not to speak of an oath (shvue). There is an entire tractate in the Talmud, Nedorim ('Vows'), which we studied in kheyder and in the besmedresh.

I must add that vows and oaths were also important instruments in the struggle with one's own weaknesses. Nonetheless, not always does a person have the strength to fulfill all that he has undertaken, and it may then happen that he falls into a state of despair. Life has taught me that there is a great deal of good in people, and therefore they can succeed in climbing higher, but they may also at times begin to fall. Here is the significance of repentance and of the Day of Atonement: constant effort to strengthen oneself, constant readiness to battle against one's evil instincts, against the dark forces within oneself. For this reason, everyone is called on the night of the Day of Atonement (yonkiper) to pray with us – even the sinners, the lawbreakers.

When I was at the Sokolov yeshiva, I heard from the Rabbi (sokolover rebe) that man's greatness lies in the fact that he can also sin. We have to remember, however, that this is but a small part of human greatness.  Man's ability to find ways and means to avoid sin belongs to an even higher level of greatness. This helped me at that time to understand better the meaning of the "Kol nidre" prayer, which was sung with so much longing and entreaty, sung with such ease yet from such depths, [51]sung so beautifully and yet so solemnly and tearfully. Yes, my children and grandchildren, as well as all others who read the pages of my book, remember that prayer. It is a song of immense loneliness blended with a song of an ancient people. Thus they stood in the Semyatitsh besmedresh in silk garments, with silk prayer-belts (gartlen), in white linen robes (kitlen), and sang together with the cantor, with trembling voice, that same soul-melody imploring the great Creator of the World.

There was a brief transition from singing to weeping and shouting. On the holy night of the Day of Atonement, Heaven was entreated with bitter tears for forgiveness of sins. That night in God's world was a speechless and fearful one in Semyatitsh. When I recall those nights, it seems to me as though they held concealed the fate of the Jewish flock, the bitter fate which befell it with the coming of the darkest night in the history of the Jewish people. But no one thought of such things at the time. They stood in the synagogue, in the besmedresh, illumined by the light of the memorial candles, sanctified by their prayers and their tears, feeling guilty towards God and begging him, "Hear our voice, take pity on us."

The following morning at sunrise one was again in the synagogue and the besmedresh. With no shoes on one's feet, no food or drink, one prayed all day, crying out to the great Creator of the World to be merciful and forgive one for his sins. I confess that I feel abjectly poor and helpless in describing the Day of Atonement in Semyatitsh, the role it played in my life and in the life of our shtetl in general. Perhaps some will ask, "Didn't they resume committing the same old sins of the past year right after the Day of Atonement, right after beating their breasts in confessing their sins (geshlogn al-khet) and spending a whole day fasting and repenting?"  It seems to me that this is the wrong approach.

True, right after the Days of Repentance Jews energetically returned to their old businesses, yet the Days of Awe nevertheless had an enormous moral effect on every Jew in the shtetl. Everyone, at least for a time, was morally purified through experiencing the Days of Repentance. Just as a person has to wash periodically and take care of his personal clothing, in like fashion he must always pay attention to his deeds. The ten Days of Repentance did not turn anyone into an angel, but it did help one to remain a human being (mentsh); without repentance a person is in danger of becoming bestial.

The Day of Atonement in Semyatitsh proved to me how much a person could change as a result of spiritual stock-taking. The wonderful sounds of "Kol nidre," of "Unesane toykef" and of other prayers had a great effect on people throughout the year. Every year added its bit, corrected something and deepened the thirst to be purified. Every person lives through a great deal in his life, but as far as experiences are concerned, my generation may be the richest of all. It is no less than a duty that we share what we have gone through. I have something to tell future generations. What I have to tell should have a moral effect on those who come to know the trials of my generation.

But at the same time it is equally important to me to tell my story. We know that when a person feels deeply agitated, depressed, unable to cope, and cannot drive off the melancholy (moreshkhoyre) that oppresses him, he seeks relief from a doctor. The psycho-analytic method developed by the great thinker, Sigmund Freud, is today widespread. The patient comes to the psychoanalyst, speaks freely of whatever is on his mind, and the doctor tries to determine what is disturbing the patient. The doctor assumes the role of father and protector and the patient reverts to childhood. He becomes a child again and seeks security from his newfound father. The psycho-analytic method assists the patient not only in uncovering the cause of his melancholy, but the guilty party. The psychoanalyst frees the patient of his various complexes and he becomes a different person.

I don't want to get into the question here of how scientifically corroborated the psycho-analytic method is; there are serious doubts about it and serious opponents. I merely wish to point out that there is an old Jewish psycho-analytic method, the method of repentance (tshuve), of spiritual stock-taking (khezhbm-hanefesh). The individual examines himself, analyzes his actions and thoughts, and seeks a way to free himself of his faults. However, there is a fundamental difference. Jewish tradition emphasizes primarily the conflict between the individual and his fellows, between brothers and friends. Envy (kine) causes him to sin and leads to constant temptations (shtroykhlungen). [52] Repentance liberates the individual from envy and hate, helps him become better.


Chapter 8 – Footnotes:

  1. The platform where the Tora was read. In many synagogues today, there is a single stage at the back of which the scrolls are placed, where the Tora is read, where the sermon is delivered, etc. In the Semyatitsh besmedresh the Tora had to be carried to the platform to be read. Return to text
  2. The original has "laykht un dokh tif" ('light and yet deep'). Return to text
  3. shtroykhlungen perhaps means 'stumblings' here. Return to text

Chapter 9 – Feast of Tabernacles (Sukes)

Only a few days after the Day of Atonement came the evening of the fourteenth day of Tishri, bringing to child and adult in Semyatitsh the holiday of the Feast of Tabernacles (sukes 'Sukkot'), the holiday of double remembrance – of how our ancestors dwelled in booths when they came out of Egypt and of the holiday of harvesting field and orchard, the joyous holiday of the citron (esreg) and the palm branch (lulev). The climaxes of the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) are Hoshana Raba (heshayne-rabe), Shmini-Atseret (shminatseres), and the separate holiday of Rejoicing of the Law (simkhes-toyre 'Simkhat Tora'), which was celebrated so joyfully in our shtetl. It always brought cheer into every Jewish home.

Booths were put up on every street and alley. I remember very well how in the four days between the Day of Atonement and the Feast of Tabernacles my father would examine the sky for clouds, and how happy he was when the sky was bright, promising a fair and rainless Feast of Tabernacles. When I visualize the zeal with which the Jews of Semyatitsh prepared for Sukkot, bought "the four kinds" (di arbo'o minim) – the citron, palm branch, myrtle and willow, wonderful thoughts come to me regarding their meaning and their symbolism. The four kinds have been compared to the Jews, who are said to possess in themselves a synthesis of all these plants – fruit of a lovely tree, branches of a palm tree, and willows (verbes) on the rivers. [53]

The shtetl celebrated the water-drawing festival (simkhes-beys-hashoeyvo). I eventually learned that the joyous ceremony of pouring water also had a deeper meaning. Water is a messianic symbol; it is the water of life, of help, of salvation (di yeshue). Jews in Semyatitsh also connected Sukkot with longing for the Land of Israel (ertsisroel).  The symbol of the booth is authentically Jewish, signifying the art of living in two worlds and the art of creating a world for oneself as well.  It does not matter if one's own world seems small and unassuming as long as one can see the sky through the branches of the roof (skhakh). The children, too, understood the symbolic and historic meanings of the booth.


Chapter 9 – Footnotes:

  1. M.R. has inadvertently omitted the myrtle. Return to text

Chapter 10 – Rejoicing of the Law (Simkhes-Toyre)

Simkhes-Toyre (Hebrew: Simkhat Tora) was the highest point of Jewish holiday cheer. It is the last day of Sukes (Sukkot), which ends wonderfully with the celebration of the Tora. It is remarkable that this holiday became a special folk festival among us. Not only scholars (lomdim), but simple Jews – workers, traders, craftsmen – rejoiced around the Tora. They had all absorbed the little song, "Tora is the best merchandise" (toyre iz di beste skhoyre), with which their mothers had rocked them to sleep in their cradles. [54] How happy the children were to parade around the reading platform with little flags that their parents had bought for them and on top of which had stuck red apples with burning candles in them. I always thought my flag was the prettiest, since my father had put the prettiest apple on it.  Dancing with the scrolls of the Law in the besmedresh went on until late at night and I never tired watching the merriment. Every Jew, child and adult, participated in the procession with the scrolls of the Law (hot bakumen a hakofe).

On the following morning every Jew was called up to the Tora during the Reading of the Tora, when the various Tora-reading honors (aliyes) were sold. These formed a hierarchy: the valedictorian (khosn-toyre), [55] the reader of the lesson from the Books of the Prophets {haftoyre} (mafter), the reader of the first portion {literally 'groom of Genesis'} (khosn-breyshis), and then the Tora-callup of all the male children together (kol-haneorim). The lights of the besmedresh, which was full of radiant-faced people in their holiday best, sparkled merrily, gaily, in holiday mood.

At the procession ceremony (hakofes) it became cramped in the women's section (ezres-noshim), and the women crossed over the threshold of the men's synagogue. Their jewelry, their earrings and pearls shined in concert with their eyes. They watched their husbands and sons joyfully press the scrolls of the Law to their hearts and march and sing with them around the dias (balemer).

It was just as cheerful in other prayer-houses (botey-midroshim), including the Slonim shtibl, as it was in the "Khaye-odem" besmedresh. There was non-stop singing and dancing everywhere and, therefore, as long as my memory serves, I will remember the joyous scenes of Simkhat Tora, from the moment the doors of the Holy Ark (orn-koydesh) were opened and they began handing Scrolls of the Law from one dancing group to another.

I danced along at every procession and there were always those who sought a new melody for every turn around the platform. The next day, too, Hasidim went from house to house and were treated with food and drink everywhere. The gaiety and joy are indescribable. Our mothers experienced the joy and they themselves also felt younger and carefree. Simkhat Tora was the holiday of all the Jews of Semyatitsh. You did not have to seek joy in the shtetl, for our parents possessed the richest treasure of delight in themselves, and the key to this treasure was the holiday, which drove away every sorrow, all weekday cares and vexations.


Chapter 10 – Footnotes:

  1. This phrase appears in many contexts and also independently as an adage or proverb. Ignaz Bernstein notes it under "Toyre" (No. 11) in his Sprichwoerter und Redensarten (Warsaw, 1908) and identifies it as from a children's song. It appears in some versions of the folk lullaby referred to earlier. See also Yisroel Furman, Yidishe shprikhverter un rednsartn, Tel-Aviv: Menora, 1968, p. 415 (no. 1763). Return to text
  2. Literally 'groom of the Law', who read the last portion of the Law. Return to text

Chapter 11 – Hanukka

Winter crept up on us with its freezing weather and its snow storms, and there were days when there was danger of coming to harm. Winter in Semyatitsh lasted long and the days and nights lingered and were hard, until the Feast of Lights (kha'nike) [56] arrived. The weather was mainly dry and frosty and the snow on the ground was already frozen hard. The entire town looked as though it had been wrapped in a great white coat. True, as I already mentioned, blizzards sometimes caused the market day to be cancelled, thus causing anguish to our parents, but the children did not allow anything to quell the holiday mood which came with Hanukka. The Hanukka candles in silver and brass candelabra (menoyres) shone through the frozen windows at night.

In the kheyder, year in and year out, just before the holiday, the history books were reopened at the story of how our ancestors in the days of the Second Temple threw off the yoke of the Syrian Greeks and cleansed the Temple of pagan elements. During Hanukka it was usual for children to be let out of kheyder early, giving more time for play. I recall my mother reading me an old Jewish legend from the Yiddish Pentateuch (tsenerene) about the heroine Judith who killed the Greek general Holofernes, saving her people and inspiring Jewish heroes to fight and win.

In Semyatitsh Hanukka was also the holiday of play. Even the most devout (frume) Jews let themselves relax for a while and play games. Like all the other Jewish children I enjoyed spinning teetotum tops (dreydlekh). [57] The top had Jewish letters and was a part of the Hanukka ritual.

When I became older I understood better the candelabra (menoyre), the most important symbol of Hanukka. Archaeological excavations which have been carried out in Israel and in other lands in the past few decades have shown the symbolic role played by the candelabra in Jewish life. At every step we encounter the image of the candelabra, handiwork of ancient artisans. The Greek rulers believed that by occupying Jerusalem and introducing icons of the Greek idols into the Temple, they would ultimately break the moral resistance of the tiny people of Judea. Their calculation was wrong.

The Temple was indeed sacred, but the people found a way to God outside it. When the candelabra in the Temple was extinguished by the brutal oppressors, candelabra were lit in homes throughout the land. The eternal light (neyrtomed) of Jewish life was not affected. The Hanukka candelabra replaced the Temple candelabra. The Hanukka candles virtually brought the Temple into the Jewish home. At the conclusion of the afternoon-and-evening prayers (minkhe-mayrev), people hurried to get home from the besmedresh in order to light the Hanukka candles. Often, guests were already waiting at home and mother was serving Hanukka dishes -- pancakes (latkes), puffs (pontshkes), blintzes (blintses) with cheese or jam filling, dumplings with roasted goose-skin bits (varenikes mit grivn), pastries and sweets, and also various beverages. On Hanukka nights the hot tea had a special taste.

In our house I felt that Hanukka was a holiday of the Jewish home. It was warm and bright. Guests visited and at table exciting stories were told and all kind of events were described. We youngsters received gifts of money (khanuke-gelt) from Mother and Father and from aunts and uncles.  The warm home atmosphere robbed you of all desire to go out of doors, where cold winds raged and the frost cracked. When we grew older my appreciation of the significance of Hanukka grew as well. I was by then a member of the Zionist movement and understood that the Hanukka candles nursed the flame that the Hasmoneans had kindled in Modiin hundreds of years ago. This was the flame of Jewish national consciousness and of the fight for freedom.  For us, young pioneers (khalutsim) at a Zionist training farm (hakhshore), those Galilee villagers served as an example.  [58] Precisely because they were molded by their faith, in Jewish spirituality, they became forerunners for all later struggles in Jewish history.

Jewish youth in Semyatitsh turned Hanukka into an occasion for raising money for the Jewish National Fund (keren kayemes leyisroel). Literary-artistic evenings were organized in which works by Hebrew and Yiddish authors were read. Hebrew and Yiddish songs were sung and the drama circle put on plays. Thus I have also remembered the days and nights of Hanukka as a lesson left by the ancient Hasmoneans for the Hasmoneans of the present day. That is how we saw ourselves in our youth – as the future fighters for a Jewish land.


Chapter 11 – Footnotes:

  1. In English generally written Hanukka, sometimes also Hanukka. Return to text
  2. These can be defined as 'four-sided tops with a letter on each side used in a game of chance'. Return to text
  3. Modiin is, of course, near Lydda and not in the Galilee. M.R. doubtless meant "Judean villagers."  Return to text

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