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The Scroll of my Life

Chapter 1 – Semyatitsh (Polish: Siemiatycze)

My aim from the start has been to write about the more than forty years I lived overseas, mainly in Lima, Peru; about the various stages of my spiritual and moral life; about my social and cultural activities – and to do all this against the background of Jewish life and struggle, a background interwoven with historical events which shaped Jewish life: facts, events and also personalities who deserve to be included within these covers. The will to describe all this stems from that inner striving felt by persons who have experienced much, the will to gather into the barn all the grain that they have sowed and reaped, to store it all the sooner lest, Heaven forbid, it be too late…. When you start to write memoirs, the years of childhood and youth waken like old unforgettable tunes. A melody churns up into consciousness until, sunk in thought, elegiac, you begin to sing it silently, weighing its beauty against the tears it evokes. For in our hearts we all carry the golden threads that have bound us to what we call the old home (di alte heym). In each of us there smolders a longing which no wind or driving rain can extinguish, a gnawing desire for the homey town (heymishn shtetl) where our cradle stood, where our parents raised us, where the family was welded together, intertwined, each in his own world and yet each so close to the other.

Those years have etched themselves into my heart and cry out: "Do not forget us! Tell about us! Let future generations know who their forebears were. Let them enter into the atmosphere of the homes in which we made our first steps. Let them know the paths along which our parents and parents' parents led us, teaching us to distinguish right from wrong, embracing us with the light and warmth of their beautiful character (sheyne mides) and good deeds (maysim toyvim)." The shtetl Semyatitsh (Polish: Siemiatycze) was and has till this very day remained lovelier and dearer to me than all the cities in which I later lived, studied and worked. [1] After all, it was in Semyatitsh that I dreamed all my child's and youth's dreams about a more attractive world, where I believed in the good angels whom I saw standing by my cradle when my mother sang me the song about the little white goat, about raisins and almonds [2], lulling me to sleep with her song which empowered me to dream of good and beautiful people, of wonder-working saints.

Accompanying me on all my paths together with my mother's song were the melodies of kheyder ('Jewish traditional religious elementary school for male children') and besmedresh ('house of study and prayer') in Semyatitsh. I have never ceased to miss my close friends and dear ones who stayed behind, the narrow alleyways and dark lanes, the besmedresh and the Slonim hasidic house of prayer (shtibl) where all week the melamed ('male religious elementary school teacher') taught the children the alphabet (alefbeys), how to read Hebrew (ivre), the Pentateuch with Rashi's commentary (khumesh mit rashi) and Talmud (g(e)more); never ceased to miss the carefree summer days and the shadowy dusks that wove us about in silken webs, easing us into dreams of other worlds, of distant lands and foggy coasts on the other side of the ocean. These romantic longings for the shtetl, itself today no more than a dream, are of course longings for a lost youth, for early mornings and evenings which have long been rubbed out and covered by the heavy shadows and dreadful specters of the murderous Shoa. Time has already erased many, many pictures of my youth. But when I reach into my memory and start turning over the pages of my life-story, I find mainly pictures of my home, of my parents and brothers, the fine figures of my father Avrom-Leyb (English: Abraham Leib) and my mother Rivke (English: Rebecca), who devoted her life to six children and so loved and respected Father.

I need only glimpse into the past and I see before my eyes Reb [3] Zelik (English: Zelig) the melamed, who had a good reputation as a teacher of younger children. He had a standing in town. Everyone knew that his heart and soul were in his teaching. He was also an elder (gabe 'elder; deacon') in the Slonim shtibl, respected for his cleverness and kindness. I see before my eyes the apothecary Khomski (English: Chomsky), an old friend of my father's, an interesting person with a warm Jewish heart. I hear his low, pleasant voice as he chats with Father; they often met to ask one another's advice as well as to discuss the problems of the world. Khomski was an unusual kind of apothecary, a person with higher education and with genuine yidishkayt ('Jewishness'). [4] His son and son-in-law also were apothecaries and, like him, endowed with the traits of helping others and of observing Jewish tradition.

I see all Semyatitsh before me, a veritable island of Jews who lived and suffered there, raised and married off children. Among all classes the shtetl seethed with Jewish life. They are all alive in my memory. Often I have the feeling that I left them only yesterday, so vividly do I recall them. It is strange, since more than half a century divides me from them, from the shtetl, and in that period I have entered a new world, new worlds…. Nevertheless I see them, all those Jews, in their daily life, on their Sabbaths and their holidays. I see how they hurry to the besmedresh early in the morning and, soon after, are caught up, this one at his trade and that one at commerce. The Jews traded in everything that could be traded, from manufactured goods and haberdashery to vegetables and livestock in the market place. Jews had lived in Semyatitsh for hundreds of years. They were always there, resident there for generations; they built and expanded the town. Even the gentiles regarded them as rooted in its soil, greatly respected the rabbi and even sought him out to settle their disputes; there were even those who, in their fashion, observed Jewish holidays, understood and even spoke Yiddish and adapted themselves to the Jewish way of life.

There crop up in my memory many facts of which I must write, but as I recall them and, indeed, Semyatitsh generally, I am overcome with deep emotion, images chase one another and it becomes difficult…. Childhood breaks through the mist of years and for a while gives off a pleasant light that warms the heart, mingling sadness with sweet longing. Distant sounds reach me and I hear forgotten voices. Silhouettes of persons decades removed, figures of dear ones young and old who have long since found their rest under mounds of earth in the Semyatitsh besalmen ('Jewish cemetery') or whose bones are mixed somewhere with the dust of strange lands. For all who remained there were horribly murdered by the Nazi barbarians. They all flow into my memory together with images of the shtetl as it once was and I so badly want to talk about them, to celebrate them and to mourn them.

I would like to take my children and grandchildren there, to introduce them to Semyatitsh young people, many of whom grew up in dire need under the yoke of poor, exhausted parents and yet managed to nurture a great inner store of life energy. Summer and Winter, with great persistence, they studied in the kheyder, in the Slonim shtibl, in the besmedresh.  Others were infected by the new winds which then were beginning to blow among the Jews. These youngsters, boys and girls – some secretly and some openly – read Jewish newspapers, books, literary journals in Yiddish, Russian, Hebrew and Polish. Some went off to the big cities in search of careers and inner growth. I met a few of them in the course of my wanderings in the wide world. Most of them, however, stayed in the shtetl, and hoped for better days.

I remember from my earliest childhood how my mother said the "Moyde ani" ('I Thank') prayer with me. [5] These were the first words in the sacred tongue (loshn-koydesh) that Semyatitsh mothers taught their children. She would then dress me, her lips quietly murmuring her blessings, wishing that good angels shield me from evil. Those early mornings have remained engraved in my memory and in my soul. The "Moyde ani" prayer has been permanently etched in my consciousness.

When I reached the age of four, my father took me to kheyder. Today I know that that day was a holiday for my parents, just as it had been when my older brothers Yisroel (Israel) and Pinye (Phineas) turned four. I was the third. The occasion later repeated itself with my younger brothers Shimen (Simon) and Motele (Mordekhai). My youngest brother Motele and my only sister (at that time) Sorele died during a typhoid epidemic in Semyatitsh. [6] Our successes in learning the alphabet and, later, in being able to pray from the prayer book (sider; cf. Hebrew: sidur) gave great pleasure to our parents. It was that way in all Jewish homes in Semyatitsh. There was not a single child that did not attend kheyder. Even the most indigent skimped on food so that they could pay tuition fees to the melameds who taught their children. My memories of kheyder are pleasant. [7] I gladly went to kheyder, where Reb Zelik's teaching was accompanied by storytelling. I simply longed for my new schoolmates.  At home Father explained the positive precepts and practices of Judaism (mitsves) with a certain logic so that I might understand the reasons behind them and, equally, the senselessness of sinning. Sinning meant doing something foolish for which one paid a high price in the world to come.

Being a Slonimer hasid (Yiddish: khosid) didn't keep Father from considering himself a sympathizer with the Mizrakhi Religious Zionist Movement (mizrekhist), from being somewhat progressive and from having boundless love for the Land of Israel (ertsisroel). He inculcated this love into the hearts of his children in the same way that he taught them to be modest, never arrogant, even when they were better at their studies than others. In earliest chilhood Father taught us that we have to help the children who fall behind and that we must never regard ourselves as more clever or better than others. Father tried to instil in me this trait of helping others, and he explained to me the saying of our sages of blessed memory (khazal), "Kol hamekayem nefesh akhas miyisroel, keilu mekayem oylom mole" ('Whoever saves one Jewish soul is like one who saves all the world'). [8] Well, what Jewish child didn't want to earn the merit of sustaining the whole world?

It seems to me that most of the children in Semyatitsh imbibed this virtue and greatly respected children and adults who were exceptional in their readiness to help others. Children in Semyatitsh were taught to love Jews, to love to help others in need. I am not saying this just to use a fancy expression but because it is an authentic fact which I had the experience of observing and attesting in Semyatitsh. When I met Semyatitsh fellow townsmen abroad, I immediately saw in their eyes this quality which we acquired in childhood. Thus the love I feel for these people is great.  They live in my memory and in my mind I caress them in moments of longing.  The road I have traveled has been long and far, winding across cities and countries, but always before my eyes I see the lovely traits which so characterized Semyatitsh Jews, young and old. That is why I feel so warm and homey when I meet people from my shtetl. It gives me a chance to prove to myself that my memory has not deceived me and that the influence of our old home remained a positive one even in later years and in distant lands.

Life has taught me that other Jewish children in Semyatitsh were, like myself and my children, deeply affected by the atmosphere of respect for persons of moral excellence. Even those who in later years broke with religious observance nevertheless respected Jewish tradition. Semyatitish differed in that respect from other towns, where the first steps of youngsters gone bad involved sinning for spite, eating pork (esn khazer) and openly desecrating the Sabbath (mekhalel-shabes zayn). Even when we became members of Zionist or other political organizations, we continued to accompany our fathers to synagogue, were considerate of the feelings of the observant and we ourselves had positive feelings towards Jewish tradition.  Children learned in kheyder that respect for parents was a talisman for long life and this notion penetrated deep into our hearts. It affected me in particular, since I loved my father very much and I observed how my mother, who died young, gave him her respect. Her sister, too – who later became our stepmother – also greatly respected and loved him. She also loved us children and we did not feel like orphans. She was a devoted mother to us.

Life in Semyatitsh for a Jewish boy in those days consisted of praying, studying and working. When I reached the age of eleven, by which time I was already studying Talmud (g(e)more), my father held that I was ready to study in a yeshiva in Sokolov. Study itself plus the pervasive spiritual atmosphere together promised the possibility of growth in learning-ability and of enrichment in Tora-knowledge. Studying at the Sokolover Rabbi's yeshiva had a profound influence on my later life, a subject worth treating in a separate chapter. [9] Till this very day I hear in my ears the Talmud-melody that filled the study hall, a melody suffused with longing for higher worlds; it seemed to add flavor to the life of the young student. It strengthened his faith not only in the Creator but in Man, in himself, in his own ability to act meritoriously. In quiet moments there resounded in his ears the passage in the book of Psalms, "Yitamu khatoim min hoorets" ('May sinners be consumed from the Earth', Psalms 104:35), and this made him certain that a time would come when evil would disappear from the world, when the evil instinct (yeytser-hore) would be totally conquered.

During the period when I studied at the Sokolov yeshiva, fragmented rumors of stirrings in the Jewish world barely reached me. At that time I understood very little about such matters, but I had started to think about them. I began to experience great curiosity as to what was going on in the wide world, but I enclosed myself deeper in my religious world and no heretical ideas overcame me. My life was completely attuned to the Jewish life style of home and community, to the teachings of my melameds and to what I heard and absorbed in the Slonim shtibl. My father by now was somewhat progressive and from him I heard no stories of wonder-performing rabbis, but he spoke respectfully and admiringly of the greatness of the Slonim rebe's love of Israel (ahaves-yisroel) and other traits of higher morality. This strongly influenced me and molded my character, taught me how to relate to people, to the poor and the fallen, taught me to believe in the power of a great hasidic rebe to influence people for the good, influence them to follow a straight path and achieve a high degree of humanity. Thus Semyatitsh children and youth soaked up and came away with a rich patrimony of spirit and morality from home, kheyder, yeshiva and besmedresh. Despite the difficult material circumstances in the shtetl, Semyatitsh Jews clung to their beliefs and made Jewish beauty an intimate part of their being; they proudly bore the yoke of studying the Law and performing good deeds (mitsves). Semyatitsh children reverently believed in the coming redemption which would liberate the Jewish people from Exile (goles).

As I have already indicated, my father was not a fanatic hasid. I recall that when the Slonim rebe lodged at our house, I noticed that he stammered. My father, the apothecary and someone else whose name I don't remember were once discussing this. The latter had dropped the remark that the rebe was a stammerer. Hereupon the apothecary replied that this was merely the impression one received from the manner in which the rebe deliberated over each word that left his mouth. I listened eagerly to this exchange, but in my heart I knew that it wasn't so and that the rebe really was a stammerer. But the rebe did not therefore cease to be great in my eyes. It was clear to me that rebe and holiness went together and that the Slonim rebe was a holy man. My self-confidence, however, was not undermined. For hadn't I myself heard him stammer?

Semyatitsh was no fortress of hasidism, but many Semyatitsh Jews were under the influence of the Slonim rebe in whom they saw both a brilliant and a saintly man (a goen un a tsadik tsuglaykh). There were scholars in Semyatitsh, but most of the Jews were simple people, reciters of Psalms (oymrey-tilim). [10] Through recitation of psalms, which came from their depths, they consoled themselves and lightened their spirits. Recitation of psalms, private and public, was widespread among all classes of Jews in Semyatitsh, young and old. The shtetl also had a Society for Reciting the Book of Psalms (khevres-tilim) whose members daily recited several psalms in unison before the morning prayer services. When a member of the group was out of town, he took his Book of Psalms (tiliml) [11] along with him and recited psalms at every opportunity.

Though it is long since I have been religiously observant, looking back I must admit that prayer and study of religious texts (dos davenen un lernen) [12] helped not only hasidic youth but also progressive boys and girls to withstand temptations and to resist spiteful atheism as well as the fluctuations caused by the new streams of thought and the new ideologies which endangered Jewishness in the shtetl. It also helped them avoid falling into doubt and despair when they were forced to undergo hardships, which were certainly not lacking in the years between the two world wars.  In moments of inner stock-taking (kheshbm-hanefesh) I have more than once clarified the intent of the Talmudic saying "Mikol melamday hiskalti umitalmiday yoyser mikulam" ('I learned from all my teachers but from my pupils I learned the most', Tehilim 119: 99). [13] The meaning is that one must learn from all, great and little, from teacher and pupil, but it seems to me that it was from my father that I learned the most important ethical commandments and principles.  Father taught us the great symbols of Judaism (yidishkayt), the bond between the Jew and the Jewish People (klal-yisroel) and the Jewish fate, the duties of every Jew towards the community (klal), love of the Jewish People (ahaves-yisroel) and love of the Land of Israel (ahaves-ertsisroel).

For Father the essential thing was that we should not be ignoramuses (ameratsim), that we should understand the rationale of Judaism. An ignoramus (amorets) in our shtetl was one who had no knowledge, an uneducated person, one who didn't understand may dekoamre rebitsin, [14] one who was somewhat dense in grasping a Hebrew word and in general not too well acquainted with writing – analphabetic. There were such individuals in Semyatitsh, though everyone knew how to pray (davenen) and studied in the kheyder. But for a variety of reasons they had been constrained to leave their studies and remained illiterate. My father would have regarded such a fate as insupportable.  He hired the best melameds for us and when he was in town and had the time he would instruct us, explain the meaning of doing mitsves and why we must do them with feeling, particularly in matters connected to the Sabbath. Perhaps I will get to speak about Sabbath in Semyatitsh. From my earliest childhood years I experienced the sanctity of the Sabbath, which to us was much more than a day of rest, of inactivity. What we did was precisely what characterized Sabbath in Semyatitsh, how we observed and conducted it. Father taught us how Sabbath motifs led into the hidden corners of Jewish thought, of Jewish concepts of Time, History and Eternity. For Father the Sabbath was far more than just one of the commandments of the Pentateuch. Keeping the Sabbath to him meant preserving Judaism.

In our home, we observed a Sabbath-culture whose theme was sanctity (kdushe) blended with enjoyment (oyneg-shabes). The holy day was at once one of joy, rest and spiritual elevation. Father's business was glassware (glozvarg). [15] He used to order wagon loads of all kinds of glass utensils from Piatrkov. In Semyatitsh we had our storehouse (shpaykhler). Father sold his glassware wholesale and not only in Semyatitsh but in the surrounding towns and villages, where he traveled about for weeks. He always returned home for the Sabbath, free of weekday burdens, of daily worry, even refusing to discuss matters connected to his business activities. When I started reading books and saw how our modern literature is full of songs of praise of the traditional Sabbath, I understood my father better. For him, who both studied Talmud and also permitted himself to read works by modern Hebrew and Yiddish authors, the Sabbath cast its radiance over the entire week, perhaps over all of Jewish life.

The proverb says, "If you want to know a people, go and see how it celebrates the Sabbath and holidays." The character of our shtetl, too, reveals itself in its Sabbaths and holidays. The sanctity of the Sabbath day placed its stamp upon me from earliest childhood until old age. I could even say that in a certain sense it determined my spiritual formation, developed in me my enthusiasm for beauty and sublimity (derhoybnkayt) and also my feeling (filbarkayt) [16] for poetry and song.

I tremble when I see before my eyes images of holy moments in the life of our savagely murdered shtetl: the tender love of customs and commandments to keep sacred the seventh day and every holiday with their presence of a "second soul" (neshome-yeseyre) when each holy day arrives. [17] On the Sabbath everyone, according to his income and origin, prepared better food and finer clothes for himself and his children. During the week, people got by with anything at hand. In some homes they ate no more than dry bread and water, just enough to stay alive. But it was a mitsve to prepare fresh Sabbath loaves (khales), wine and cooked food. For those who could not afford the expense, there were always good-hearted people in the shtetl, saintly women who took care that the Sabbath fare made its mysterious way to hungry homes so that the blessing of the Sabbath might rest upon their tables. There were homes in Semyatitsh where white tablecloths were seen only on the Sabbath and holidays. Their inhabitants' faces were grey and clouded all week long, but on Sabbath they cleared, and everything was done, often ingeniously, to provide fish and meat. You can just imagine the happiness of the children in those homes. The shtetl looked different on Friday. From dawn the alleys were filled with the smells of fresh-baked goods (gebeks) for the Sabbath and, in some homes, for the entire week. [18] You ran to kheyder cheerfully on Friday, because you knew classes let out early that day. In the summer you ran out to play right after eating.  When the sun began to cool, you saw Jews headed for the bathhouse, but they didn't allow themselves the pleasure of lingering there. The Sabbath was approaching. They changed into clean underwear (di reyne vesh), [dressed] and with wet beards and earlocks leisurely walked home, ready to greet the Sabbath Queen. [19]

At the same time housewives with firmly-fastened aprons eased the Sabbath baked dish (tsholnt) into their ovens in pots smeared with clay (tep, vos men hot farshmirt mit leym). Then they turned to washing the children, scrubbing the girls' hair, and polishing the silver candlestick for the lighting of the candles. I see our home before my eyes, how it becomes full with the Sabbath and how over all there spreads the grace of holiness. The two Sabbath loaves (khales) covered with a cloth are already on the table, candles have been placed in the polished candlestick over which stands Mother; gentle and pale, lightly bent over, her face covered with her hands, she blesses the Sabbath candles.

Her lips murmured the prayer silently. She prayed for her husband and children, for the whole shtetl, for every Jew. Her hands, like wings of the Divine Presence (di shkhine), hovered over the candlelight, full of charity, of faith and consolation. And, not once, tears fell on the white tablecloth from Mother's eyes.

One does not forget such moments. [20] Always in my mind I see Mother's mild eyes, so holy on Friday night in the glow of the blessed-over candlelights. Mother's eyes have accompanied me on all my paths. Where are you, dear mothers, with your hands that bless? I recall my mother and think also of all the other mothers in Semyatitsh, from the ashes of whose blessing hands new trees grow somewhere in Treblinka, Maidanek and Auschwitz. The bewitching flamelets of Sabbath lights have disappeared from the narrow windows of our homes…. In their place we light memorial candles (yortsayt-likht), remembrance flames for the warm, pulsating, lovely Jewish life which once was and is no more.

Let me pause to talk about the festiveness of the Sabbath, of the Friday nights when I went attentively (trit ba trit) with my father to pray in the Slonim shtibl.

The same piety and zeal that Father showed for the Sabbath, he showed for the religious Zionist thought of the Mizrakhi movement. The young men who espoused the idea of Return to Zion (shives-tsien) delighted him. He told us this and I often heard him say the same in his talks with the apothecary Khomski. They were alike in their sensitivity and in their clearheadedness. They were both people who wanted to deal reasonably with whatever moved them strongly, with everything that happened around them in the shtetl and in the wider world. These two men felt true friendship for one another. They would meet mainly in the evening hours between late afternoon and evening prayers (tsvishn minkhe un mayrev) and afterwards.  Father often took me along to the Khomski's home. Everything there was sparkling clean and breathed tranquility. Khomski greeted everyone with a kindly smile, whether at home or in his apothecary, where there also reigned a stillness unknown in the ordinary shop. The customers entered one at a time, ordering a medicine which the doctor or the barber-surgeon (feldsher) had prescribed for a sick person. Medications were not ready-made in those days. They had to be prepared with exactitude, measuring every gram. This was time-consuming and thus Khomski was always occupied, but when Father came in he quickly finished with his patient and straightaway sat down to talk to Father.

The quiet, monotonous life in the shtetl swallowed days and nights, but every so often events took place which shook the town's daily routine. Such an event was the arrival of the Slonim rebe in the shtetl and the gathering of the hasidim about him. The rebe always stayed at our house, which was soon full of hasidim. They came to give their greetings and also to leave slips of paper (kvitlekh), on which the troubles of each one had been written down. They brought tributes (pidyoynes), [21] asked advice, unburdened their hearts to the rebe, told him their troubles (di tsores), which were not lacking to Jews in Semyatitsh. As I have already mentioned, Father did not tell stories of the rebe's wonder-working. But from the compliments which Father gave him as he sat at our table, I recall the praise that, even though the rebe was a great scholar, a master of the revealed and the hidden Law (a godl betoyre in nigle un nister), he always related with the greatest warmth to even the simplest Jew. Father said that the rebe had elevated simplicity to a high spiritual level (madreyge). He said that the simple Jew, who is capable only of reciting a chapter from the Book of Psalms, even when he does not understand the meaning of the words, can through his good heart and pure intentions achieve a higher spiritual level than the scholar who boasts of his learning. [22]

I do not feel competent to describe the entire inner world of my father. That requires a large work, a separate book. Time, too, has erased from my memory many of the words and deeds which reflected the rectitude of his person. Therefore I wish to record what seems to me to be especially important. The word important (vikhtik), I believe, is one he copied from the rebe. He used it to show the rebe's profound humanity, but it also expresses his own deeply human character, his own respect for simplicity. I see this too in the saying of the rebe which Father repeated: "You can't form a quorum for prayer (minyen) with nine Slonim rebes, but you can with ten ordinary Jews, even if they are of the commonest sort."

Interesting, too, is his interpretation of the comparison of Jews with the stars. From below, the star seems small and the Jew small, but in the heights, in the skies, it turns out that the star, which seems to us so small, is a lot larger than what seems small in our eyes. And so it is with the ordinary Jew who seems small in comparison to the great scholar.  In heaven, however, great with countless mitsves, the ordinary Jew not seldom claims a better place in Paradise (ganeydn) than does the scholar. [23] Among my melamdim ('teachers') were several who used to tell us about the informal homiletical talks (toyre-shmuesn) of the Slonim rebe and other rebes. Let me make the point here that even though the melameds were totally lacking in any kind of pedagogical training, many a modern teacher with higher education might very well have learned from several of them how to teach children. Such a melamed, as I remember him, used no belt (pasik) or whip (kantshik), but imbued in the children a desire to learn by means of pleasant words alone.  They became attached to him from the first moment that they entered the kheyder and, indeed, were reluctant to part from him after a half year, when the term ended and they were transferred to another melamed. I remember how my melamed, sincere and always pensive, wove into every page of the Talmud (blat g(e)more) that he taught us apposite legends, stories and parables, and in that manner helped us to become engrossed in learning and, at times, to digest a difficult Talmudic topic (sugye).

I do not intend to discuss all the kheyders I attended and all the melameds with whom I studied in Semyatitsh. That is a gallery of figures and types who constituted an important part of my childhood and of Jewish life in the shtetl in general. I wish only to comment that those kheyders were my universities, where I learned to understand the first principles of Judaism (yidishkayt) and humanism (mentshlekhkayt). May my few words serve as a monument to those who first implanted in me respect for the printed word, for the Jewish spirit, for the virtues and high ideals of the prophets and the sages of the Talmud. The older I got the better I understood and the higher I valued the education which we received in the kheyder, the yeshiva, and the besmedresh.


Chapter 1 – Footnotes:

  1. In 1965, M.R. with his wife and two older children, Ruth and Abe, went to Semyatitsh to reclaim his mother's remains. The visit, according to his son Daniel, was a total disaster. This visit apparently did not affect the image in M.R.'s mind of the shtetl of his youth, an image from which he drew strength all his life (oral communication from Daniel Radzinski at 15 John St., Brookline, Mass. on 12 November 1990). Return to text
  2. An allusion to the folk lullaby "Untern kinds vigele," which has numerous variants and which appears in adapted form in the refrain of "Rozhinkes un mandlen" by Avrom Goldfadn (1840-1908). The Israeli folklorist, Menakhem Gefen, has written extensively on this motif (see Menakhem Gefen, Mitakhat laarisa omedet gediya, Tel-Aviv: Sifriat Poalim Publishing House, 1986, pp. 12-68, 247-258). Goldfadn's song is from his popular operetta Shulamis (1880).  For Goldfadn's song in an accessible collection, see Mir trogn a gezang! by Eleanor Gordon Mlotek, New York Workmen's Circle Education Department, 1987 {4th edition}, pp. 4-6. Return to text
  3. Reb is a term like Mr. in English. It is not to be confused with terms of address for a rabbi. Return to text
  4. Perhaps Radzinski regarded Khomski as "a zeltener tip fun an apteyker" ('an unusual kind of apothecary') because, unlike so many shtetl apothecaries, his worldliness was balanced by a devotion to traditional Judaism. In the literature of the Haskala (Yiddish: haskole), which presumably reflects reality in some measure, the town apothecary was often one of a small group of secularized intellectuals and not seldom was reputed to be an apakoyres ('unbeliever'). Return to text
  5. In Ashkenazic Hebrew and in Yiddish the opening words (which are also the name) of the prayer are pronounced /Moyde ani/ and the stress is on the first syllables (cf. Israeli Hebrew /mode ani/ with the stress on the final syllables). Return to text
  6. Could this have been the flu epidemic of 1918-1919 that killed over twenty million people worldwide? Return to text
  7. Hebrew and Yiddish literature are full of negative descriptions of the kheyder as well as of the melamed. The Haskalic literature of educational reform reinforces the impression of a backward and often sordid and even cruel regimen in countless kheyders (Yiddish: khadorim) throughout Eastern Europe right up to recent times. The battle for reform was a savage one. There are favorable pictures of the kheyder in Hebrew and Yiddish literature, but they are fewer than the unfavorable ones. Return to text
  8. This saying is found in the Mishna in Sanhedrin 37 and in the Gemara in BB31, where the verb in the second clause is kiyem rather than the present mikayem. The Mishna version reads: "Hamekayem – maale alav hakatuv keilu." Return to text
  9. M.R. studied at the yeshiva in Sokolov, where his father had a brother. Return to text
  10. M.R. is referring to tilim-yidn, unlearned Jews who recite psalms from the Book of Psalms as opposed to studying the Talmud. Shalom Asch has titled one of his novels Der tilim-yid. M.R. uses the term oymrey-tilim rather than tilim-zogers, which is its literal translation, since the latter had come to refer to poor persons who recited psalms at funerals in return for alms. Return to text
  11. The diminutive form of this word suggests affection. Return to text
  12. lernen ('study') here does not include secular subjects; in its most specialized sense it refers to study of the Talmud by oneself. Return to text
  13. Cf. "Harbey lamadeti mirabosay, umikhaveray yoter miraboysay, umitalmiday yoter mikulam" (Taanit 7). The saying is invoked with the first three words alone: "Mikol moray/melamday hiskalti." Its meaning is 'I learn from every teacher'. The meaning is said to have originally been 'I became wiser than my teachers' [Alkalay 1965: 2613]. Return to text
  14. Stutshkov, Section 334 {= amartses}, p. 299, gives "nit visn (nit farshteyn) may dekoamre rebitsin." Yehoyesh and Spivak (p. 138) gloss this expression 'What the rabbi's wife says' and indicate that it is a parody of the Talmudic expression "May-dekoamre-rabonon" 'what the rabbis say'. Return to text
  15. His great uncle had a glass/crystal business in Shedlitz. The following rhyme, relayed by his son Daniel, indicates that M.R. worked in this business for a time: "Kleyner Mikhl iz gevorn a hoz/Geyt arum un farkoyft er gloz" ('Little Mikhl is a hare/Goes round selling crystal ware'). Actually, this rhyme was attached to Mikhl by his movement comrades at the end of his hakhshara period, which is described below. Return to text
  16. Not Standard Yiddish. Based on Modern German: Fühlbarkeit. Return to text
  17. "Neshomo yeseyro noyseyn hakodesh-borkhu beodom erev shabos" 'God gives man an additional soul on Sabbath Eve' (Beytsa 16). MEYYED glosses this "the additional soul which is said to possess a Jew on the Sabbath; hence, Sabbath festiveness". M.R. uses the term which makes of the second soul's presence a quality, i.e.
    neshome-yeseyredikayt. Return to text
  18. MEYYED glosses gebeks as 'pastry'; Harkavi's 'what is baked' is better, since both bread and cakes are doubtless meant here. Return to text
  19. The average Jew had a set of clothes for weekdays and one for Sabbaths and holidays and thus normally only washed his undergarments. If he could afford to, he dressed better on the Sabbath and even walked in a more relaxed manner, as called for in the following passages: "Loy yehey malbushekho shel shabos kemalbushekho shel khol" 'Let not your Sabbath dress be that of weekdays' (Shabos 118) and "Loy yehey hilukhekho shel shabos kehilukhekho shel khol" 'Don't walk on the Sabbath as you do on weekdays' (Shabos 118). Return to text
  20. The love for his mother is a powerful motif in M.R.'s life story. The mother figure here appears to be a composite of his biological mother and his stepmother. According to his son, Daniel, much in the character and behavior of M.R. is traceable to his mother's death when the young Mikhl was ten (ca. 1920). His father married his wife's younger sister, his sister-in-law Brokhe (Brakha), with whom he had five girls (i.e., Mikhl's aunt became his stepmother). Return to text
  21. A pidyen (plural: pidyoynes) was a payment to a hasidic rebe for advice and assistance. Return to text
  22. Syntactically it is Father who says this, but the sense appears to be illustration of the preceding sentence, which makes the rebe the subject. Return to text
  23. This passage in the typescript is totally confused due to unconscious inversion of the words large and small while typing. The typescript reading, which I have corrected above, reads as follows (I underline the three words which need to be reversed):  "Interesting, too, is his interpretation of the comparison of Jews with the stars. From below, the star seems large [read: small] and the Jew small, but in the heights, in the skies, it turns out that the star, which seems to us so large [read: small], is a lot smaller [read: larger] than what seems small in our eyes. And so it is with the ordinary Jew who seems small in comparison to the great scholar. In heaven, however, great with countless mitsves, the ordinary Jew not seldom claims a better place in Paradise (ganeydn) than does the scholar." Return to text

Chapter 2 – In the Yeshiva

Arriving in Sokolov, I experienced for the first time the transition from one stage to another. Up until then in Semyatitsh I had been as free as a bird, a child without worries. In dear old Semyatitsh I had my bunch of friends and imagined that Semyatitsh was the world, with everything a Jewish boy could want. I believed that God Almighty sat in the skies above, looked down on our shtetl below, saw everything we did and that the angels watched over us, recording everything we did and for which we would have to give an account. In Sokolov all at once I became another person, an exile (goyle) to a place of learning (lemokem toyre) with all the big and little concerns of a boy away from home. True, I didn't have any major worries. I lodged at my uncle's, my father's brother Isaac (Yitskhok). He also dealt in glassware, but on a larger scale than my father.  Nevertheless Father didn't want me to be too great a burden upon his brother and arranged that I, like all the other out-of-town students, take meals with a different householder each day (= esn teg).

There were householders who knew my father well and even regarded it as a privilege to have the son of Avrom-Leyb eat a weekly meal with them. But I was not awfully fond of eating in strange homes. The first days I suffered great homesickness and could hardly keep back tears with each bite of food, but I regarded it as absolutely natural to live on an equal footing with all the other yeshiva students (yeshive-bokherim). In time I adjusted and I got on quite well. In Sokolov my eyes were opened and I began to look differently at things, people, the yeshiva-students with whom I studied. I saw before me new worlds, which gripped my interest. I was soon a resident and acquainted, too, with the older yeshiva-students, with whom I debated over study subjects and discussed other matters as well. In general, I tried to show that a Semyatitsh boy did not fall behind others, even those from bigger towns.

Study at the yeshiva was of another cut from that in Semyatitsh. I slowly came to realize how huge was the sea of Talmud with the Additions (toysfes) and the Commentators (meforshim) such as the Maharsho and the Maharam. [24] There is so much to learn and to remember. There were students in the yeshiva who excelled in their diligence and I wanted to emulate them. This was not easy to achieve, though there were moments when I thought that constant learning could serve me as a life goal as it did the most assiduous of my fellow students. Once there even flashed through my mind the notion of becoming a rabbi (rov), or a hasidic rabbi (rebe), or a thaumaturgic hasidic rabbi (tsadik), and of becoming conversant with heavenly matters. All roads seemed open, safe and lit. I needed but to grow up. While praying I was mindful that Heaven would have to help if my diligence was not to desert me.

In the course of later years, when I already lived in Peru, the desire to study returned to me, the desire to relive those precious youthful days and nights of Talmud study, with the critical commentaries and crafty arguments (mit toysfes un pilpulim). However, this was not to be. What did occur was that I was surprised with myself, seeing how much I still remembered from my yeshiva days. The truth, however, is that time, decades of immersion in business and in all sorts of communal affairs, have weakened my memory and I would not today undertake to digest a critical commentary (a toysfes), extract the secrets from a difficult Talmudic topic (sugye). I recall, however, how enjoyable it was in the yeshiva to draw out those secrets, expose and clarify them, disentangle them as one would a tangled skein.

There were also times in the yeshiva when a difficult question would nail me to my place and render me helpless, no matter how I strained. What could I do? I knit my forehead, hummed a study-motif, exerted myself to find a way out, but no solution suggested itself. At such a point, having no other recourse, I turned to an older student. And how strange it was that the same words of the same problem sounded altogether different in his mouth. The mountain which seemed to me impossible to climb disappeared; the road was now level and smooth, a snow path for a sled. I envied the older student's sharp brain and clear thinking, for his diligence in study. He was not the only one. There were many like him. I think of them often, especially when I have occasion to observe the methods of present-day modern pedagogy. How different the latter methods are, how different the aims, and how different the approach of the modern student, from public school through university.

There was a special term in the kheyder and the yeshiva for the kind of study which it embodied: study for its own sake (lernen lishmo), direct experience of learning with no distractions. The purpose of education, actually, was to study Tora (lernen toyre). It was for this that our parents, with such great dedication (mesires-nefesh), established the kheyder and the yeshiva, giving their children the possibility of sitting and learning from morning to night. That is Jewishness (yidishkayt).  True, my Jewishness today is not that of my grandfathers, but I see that deep in my being lives the heritage of that older Jewishness (amoliker yidishkayt). My Jewishness is the product of the Jewishness of former generations, digested and revised. It is the recreated teaching of elders and grandfathers, of ancestors of all generations, and of contemporary modern Jewish culture. In examining the ways in which Jewishness has been observed in various periods, one realizes that in the past, too, there have been those who construed the essence of living Jewishness in a like manner. I touch on this subject superficially here, but I hope to return to it in later chapters about later periods of my life, when I was often engaged in dealing with problems of Jewish education. [25]

Full of beauty were those past years in Semyatitsh, distant, sweet, homey (shtetldike) years of my childhood and youth, years enveloped in dreams of great deeds, in fantasies of a distant great world, accompanied with the prayers of devout Jews, with hasidic melodies, and in the later years, with the exalted songs of young pioneers (khalutsim), with the idealistic dreamers who so fervently believed in the ideal of Return to Zion (shives-tsien), of a just world, and who glowed with expectations to see their ideals realized.

In my ears still sound the old hasidic melodies that floated across the shtetl from the Friday evening service (kaboles-shabes) to the meal at the close of the Sabbath (melave-malke), the tunes of "Askinu seudoso" and "Kol mekadesh." [26] Every time I think of them I have the feeling that people who free and purify themselves from earthly concerns sing in this way, uniting their very beings with heavenly matters, themselves becoming pure spirit.

The Sabbath filled the homes of Semyatitsh with angels (malokhim), ministering angels (malakhey-hashores), the "second soul" (neshome-yeseyre), the Sabbath Queen, and with guests, whose presence gave one the feeling of having done a mitsve, a feeling which affected me from earliest childhood. It seems to me that the idealism of the progressive and emancipated young people also embodied the feeling of doing a great mitsve, the feeling of our parents and our parents' parents, which had been inculcated in us when we started to go to kheyder. The kheyder complemented the education in the home. In all of the Jewish homes there was an atmosphere of moral earnestness, of devotion and responsibilty, of a Jewishness (yidishkayt) with which our mothers rocked us to sleep and which the kheyder teacher (rebe in kheyder) taught us, explaining that life in this world was but a preparatory corridor to a world all good and eternally beautiful. Home, kheyder and besmedresh followed me in my later years of wandering, when I came to know cities and countries, new persons and peoples, acquainting myself with their history and manner of living. I then began to understand that the history of mankind is actually the story of peoples who, like individuals, are born and die, rise and fall.

Not seldom have I mused over the phenomenon that of all peoples it is the Jews, the poor lamb in the midst of seventy wolves, who have lived longer than all the other peoples whose history began when theirs did. I found the reason in the Jewishness (yidishkayt) of my shtetl Semyatitsh.  Jewishness, high morality and ethics, respect for the Tora, for its learned and scholarly students, they gave the people the strength to live, to overcome all troubles and wants, the strength to preserve the image of God (tselem elokim), to remain human beings and Jews.


Chapter 2 – Footnotes:

  1. The "Additions" (Hebrew: tosafot) are critical glosses to the Babylonian Talmud, largely additions to Rashi's commentary on the Talmud. In Talmud editions Rashi is printed at the right of the Talmudic text and the Tosefot on the left. Maharsho is an acronym for "our teacher, the scholar-rabbi Samuel Edels" and the reference is to this scholar's famous Talmudic commentary. A 'subtle mind' in Yiddish is a maharsho-kop, i.e. 'one with the head of a Samuel Edels'. Maharam is an acronym for "our teacher the rabbi-scholar Meyer" and refers either to Meir of Lublin (1558-1616), famous for his textual notes at the end of the Talmud, or the martyr, Meir of Rottenberg (ca. 1215-1293), who is known for his Talmud commentaries and his Lament on the burning of the Talmud. Return to text
  2. This is one of the many instances in the typescript which make it clear that M.R. had planned to include recent years in his memoirs, whereas his final subject is the Peru of more than several decades ago. Return to text
  3. The Aramaic opening phrase 'Prepare the meal' introduces the hymns (zmires) sung at all three Sabbath meals. The text entered the Sidur from the Zohar. "Kol mekadesh shevii" ('Everyone who sanctifies the seventh day') is a hymn sung at the Sabbath evening meal. It was composed by one Moshe, as seen in the initial letters of the first stanza. Return to text
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