Chapter 12 Purim
While I write these lines there still ring in my ears the joyful voices and songs of big and little in our Jewish Semyatitsh. There is a Yiddish saying that "Not every day is Purim," and not every day do miracles occur such as those that happened to the Jews in the capital city Shoshan."  But the story itself, the Book of Esther, is a treasure of joy, a miracle which actually took place and which repeats itself in Jewish history. The Purim miracle of Haman's fall gave comfort to the Jews in our people's most trying times.
Jews in Semyatitsh comforted themselves that just as Jews had overcome all the Hamans in the past, so would they overcome those of the present. I loved the holiday, as did all the other children and youth in the town, and we knew how to make the day a merry one. Purim fell at a time when winter was losing its strength and the snow began to melt under the warm rays of the sun. The days began to grow warmer and little by little people put aside their winter clothing and the Purim holiday adapted to the weather.
At home all kinds of dishes (potraves) were prepared, and principally stuffed poppy-cakes (homen-tashn 'Haman's ears') were baked. A large white loaf (koyletsh) was baked for the feast and all this baking spread appetizing aromas across the streets and lanes. Shopkeepers had their hands full; housewives kept remembering some additional item they needed for baking or cooking. In Semyatitsh Jews didn't agree with the saying, "Ague is no disease and Purim is no holiday."
On the contrary, young and old welcomed the cheerfulness and liveliness which Purim brought into Jewish homes. In kheyder we studied the Book of Esther, stories from the Midrash and from other books, which told and explained how Jews faced total destruction and how thanks to Queen Esther and her uncle, Mordecai the Jew, the Jews of all one hundred and twenty-seven provinces of Ahasuerus's empire were saved, and Haman met his end.
A holiday mood reigned in every corner of our home. We enjoyed Father singing "Rose of Jacob" (shoyshanas-yaakoyv).  At the holiday table, which was set with every delicacy, Father retold the story of Purim, the story of the Jewish struggle for life and survival and human worth. Father stressed to us the places in the Book of Esther which told how everyone bowed to and went on their knees before the wicked Haman except the Jew Mordecai. When the king's servants asked him why he did not bow, he told them that he was a Jew. Perhaps I'm exaggerating, but I believe that we can learn from this that the Jews were the first in the history of civilization to proclaim the idea of the sacredness of the human person, that one human must not bow down before another.
One can derive one more principle from this, a Jewish one, which yields the meaning of the conflict between Mordecai the Jew and all the Hamans of all times. The Jewish people became bound up with a great and holy idea, that of Jewish solidarity, of the collective character of its fate. I saw this already in kheyder while studying the Book of Esther, where it says that Mordecai the Jew communicated to Esther the historical words: "Do not think that in the king's palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep quiet at such a time as this, relief and delivery will come to the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father's house will perish. And who knows if you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?"
I see here a warning to Jews of all times, to Jews who have risen to positions of distinction and are liable to forget their people and their origin. In addition to all these ideas and thoughts, there is the elementary thought that in teaching Jews to outlive Haman, Purim taught them to outlive the Hamans of every age. I would like to stress that although it was commendable (a mitsve) to drink, seldom was a Jew in Semyatitsh ever drunk. On that cheerful day, too, the Jew preserved his human dignity. He didn't make merry to the point of forgetting himself. You didn't see Jewish drunks stumbling about in the streets, even though Purim gave us merriment to the full.
Chapter 12 Footnotes:
Passover preparations took place long before the holiday arrived. Actually, as early as the preceding summer fruit season, wine and jam were prepared. During Hanukka, the geese which had grazed all winter were slaughtered and the fat was rendered to be saved for Passover. Right after the New Year's Day for Trees (khamisho'ser-bishvat),  people began to worry that the mill be kosher and began to get ready the utensils for baking the Passover unleavened bread (matses 'matzas'). Nowadays there are factories for baking unleavened bread, but in those days the Jews in the towns and villages had to provide for themselves, often each group baking its own matzas.
The Jews of Semyatitsh took pains not to eat any unleavened bread that did not come from a bakery which was kosher for Passover. Matza-baking (dos bakn matses) remains in my memory, since as a child I often helped out in preparing the unleavened bread for baking. Specially filtered water had to be readied, and the water for the matzas had to be mayim shelonu, water which had been kept overnight in our home. We therefore had to remember to draw water from the well a day earlier, at night.
Passover was not an easy holiday and it took a lot of work to ready the home for it. We began studying the relevant laws a month before Passover; the battle against leaven (khomets) had begun. More than any other holiday, Passover is governed by dietary laws (kashres). The last days before Passover all homes in Semyatitsh were busy cleaning and koshering. The house was cleaned, the utensils were made kosher, and the main effort was to destroy the leaven. After everything had been cleaned and cleared in the last days before the holiday, on the night before the eve of the holiday Father fulfilled the commandment of Searching for the Leaven (bedikes-khomets). The war against the leaven didn't end there. The following morning, after eating the last meal that contained leaven, the commandment to burn the leaven was carried out with great solemnity. Householders and youngsters used to gather in an open space and there burn the leaven.
When I studied at the yeshiva in Sokolov, I was introduced to ethical works (muser-sforim) which mention the leaven of the heart, lust and the inclination to evil. That is the secret so teach the Kabbalists of burning the base instincts. Jews must approach the holiday of freedom not only with scoured utensils but with cleansed and purified hearts. Our parents were far from being such impractical and idle people (batlonim) as a lot of "enlightened" (oyfgekleyrte) persons, who had broken with orthodox Judaism (frumer yidishkayt), used to like to think in order to mock tradition. They failed to see the deep purposes and truths hidden in all these old customs, ceremonies and traditions.
Chapter 13 Footnotes:
The night of the seyder in particular brings Passover to my mind. On that night Father was king and Mother was queen. As I grew older, the queen image of Mother on the night of the seyder revealed itself more sharply. The beauty of the seyder-night was boundless and it was celebrated with pure joy. On that night you left your daily routine and became immersed in ancient Jewish history, in the story of the Exodus from Egypt, with the great dream of deliverance. I was strongly taken by the figure of Elijah the Prophet (elyo'hu hano'vi), for whom the door of the house was opened at reciting the passage that began, "Pour out your anger " (shfoykh khamosekho). I see our home vividly before my eyes, the candles in the candlestick burning with holiday brightness, the swinging lamp (henglomp) over the festively set table, Father at the head of the table in a white linen robe (kitl) and behind his back, on both sides, the reclining couch (heseyv-bet) of two large cushions. Father sat leaning (ongeshpart), nestled in an expanse of softness, and one could sense how great were his pleasure and his pride (nakhes) in his wife and children.
The great enjoyment of a Jewish king on the seyder night is to sit in a reclining position (zitsn mesubin) on soft white cushions. Mother, although she did not sit leaning on cushions, nonetheless glowed like a true queen. She sat relaxed and beaming, taking in with her kind eyes the entire table and the faces of all the family. Unfortunately, she was not lucky enough to enjoy for long the children she so loved. I was eleven years old when Mother became ill and died.
The seyder-night was marked in every Jewish home in Semyatitsh. No matter how small and how poor a family was, it conducted its own seyder at its own table. This is what made everyone feel a part of world Jewry. On the same night all Jews celebrated the holiday of deliverance and held a seyder as a religious service. It is important that we remind ourselves from time to time how our parents prepared for Passover, Father with his devotion to the Passover ceremony, Mother with her outstretched arms, her radiance, her warmth over the seyder. Like a lovely queen she warmed everyone with her glow, a true Jewish queen whose power lay in her goodness.
True, good food and wine were served at the seyder table, but most important were the Haggada (hagode) and the hymns and rituals connected to it. The solemnity of the seyder began with the questions of the youngest in the family: "Why is this night different from all other nights of the year?" Father's reply and the tune in which he began to read the Haggada's description of the dramatic course of Jewish history made you feel you were taking part in the great drama of deliverance.
In later years, when I was already conducting the seyder in my own home, I would reflect on the introductory text to the seyder, which is in Aramaic, the vernacular of the Talmudic period: "This is the bread of affliction, which our ancestors ate in the Land of Egypt. Whoever is hungry let him come and eat; whoever is needy let him come and sit at the seyder table. Today we are here; next year in the Land of Israel. Today we are slaves; next year free people." I am sure that in the period when this "Ha lakhma anya" text was composed, the words were no empty phrases. In those days the seyder was held with doors open and any needy person could come and seat himself at a table. Bound up with this was the belief that a disguised Elijah the Prophet might appear in the form of an unknown guest or stranger. The figure of Elijah the Prophet always stimulated my imagination. As a child I saw him in many different ways. I saw him on Friday night in the besmedresh in the person of a pauper who stood waiting for a householder to invite him home as a Sabbath guest. I saw him in the guise of a watercarrier and in many other figures of poor and devout Jews, suffering and silent.
In my imagination, Elijah did not appear alone, but was often in the company of the concealed Thirty-six Righteous Men (lamed-vovnikes), disguised beggars and blind men who saw further and deeper than the seeing. I always envisioned him on a mission to help some Jew, a pauper with faith, a quiet Jew who recited Psalms (tilim-yid). To me Elijah the Prophet was not simply a miracle worker (bal-moyfes). He always looked for righteousness and justice. Always poorly dressed, sometimes with a sack on his back or a bundle in his hand, bowed down, quiet, but beneath his bent form he carried an inner resolve, a great sense of purpose. I always saw Elijah the Prophet's mission as one of bringing consolation and kindness (treyst un guts) to people, of helping the poor solve their problems. On the seyder night I saw him as a messenger of redemption (di geule), practically a relative of the messiah.
The search for the ransom matza (afikoymen 'afikomon') has remained in my memory of childhood. Upon sitting down to the seyder table, the middle matza is broken into two halves, one of which is the afikomon that is put aside until the end of the meal. As a child I did not think about the meaning of the word afikomon. Only later when I was at the training farm and learned a bit of Hebrew did I learn that the word is derived from Greek and, according to the opinion of some scholars, designates the invited guest at the seyder feast. And so the ceremony of the afikomon became clear to me: the seyder, according to an ancient custom, was conducted with open doors, the hungry and needy being invited to the table. However, there were guests who could not arrive in time; for them, a half of a matza and a portion of the meal were put aside from the beginning. The broken-off matza is therefore called afikomon, whose meaning is 'for the guest.' 
Chapter 14 Footnotes:
The Counting of the Omer began on the second day of Passover and continued until the Feast of Weeks (shvues).  During the counting days there was no bathing in the river or cutting the hair. For years now I have known that there were reasons for these expressions of mourning, but life has taught me to see the custom of counting the days between Passover and Pentecost as an effort to conserve the individual's time. By counting days, man learned to use his time and thus we can see time calculation as an aspect of the ancient Jewish practice of Counting the Omer until the completion of forty-nine days, seven weeks, following which we celebrate the Feast of Weeks, Shevuot.
In any case, in Semyatitsh there were no celebrations during the days of Counting the Omer. In kheyder we were taught that in the period between Passover and Pentecost, thousands of Rabbi Akiba's students died. The reason the Talmud gives for this is that they did not respect one another. The period of the Counting of the Omer was thus declared one of mourning. The thirty-third day of the Counting of the Omer was an exception. The tragedy was suspended on that day, and therefore it was held permissible to hold weddings and celebrate a bit. Father used to talk to me about the character of this day, about events in Jewish history. He explained that both the memorial days and the thirty-third day of the Counting of the Omer are related to Bar-Kokhba's revolt against the hated Roman rulers.
In any event, the thirty-third day of the Counting of the Omer, Lag beomer (legboymer), was observed in Semyatitsh as a symbol of military heroism. After prayers, kheyder-boys ran off to the woods armed with wooden swords. Later, the scouts of the Zionist youth organizations held parades of a military nature on that day. In this manner Lag beomer became a holiday of heroism. There was no kheyder on that day, but the day before the melamed talked about legends bound up with Lag beomer. On the next day he continued for part of the time and then together we went into the woods.
Chapter 15 Footnotes:
Right after Lag beomer, the arrival of Shevuot (shvues) was already felt in the shtetl, especially by us kheyder-boys. The melamed had already started teaching us the Pentecostal hymn "Akdomut" (akdomes) and the Book of Ruth. The words of the hymn are in Aramaic but the melamed translated them into Yiddish. The special melody with which the hymn is sung appealed to me and to the other pupils and by the time Shevuot arrived we knew the hymn by heart.  It was a lot easier to learn the Book of Ruth, whose story fascinated us. We identified with the Jewish family which, because of the famine raging in the Land of Israel in those days of the Judges, was exiled to a strange country. Elimelekh and his wife, Naomi, and their two sons, Makhlon and Khilyon, left their homeland and settled in the fields of Moab. The story is so poignant and moving that one wants to retell it.
In the kheyder we already felt the beauty of the story, which teaches how great the merit is of those who join the Jewish people with all their heart. As children we were mainly gripped by Ruth, the great convert to Judaism, but as I got older I understood that Naomi is no less a heroine and her role no less important than Ruth's. I always saw the Book of Ruth as an eternal work and the problems of Naomi and Ruth as present in our own day. The story of Ruth teaches us that Jews must earn respect for their people and their faith by force of their deeds. The Book of Ruth taught me one other thing: even when a Jew's fate is hard and bitter, he must not fall into despair. If he does not buckle, does not lose the content of his life, but continues to do good deeds, to help people in need, there is always hope that a better life will open to him.
The idyll of the Book of Ruth penetrated the shtetl. Father and Mother, the pillars of the Jewish family, were in their various ways satisfied. They understood that they should feel fortunate and proud in their Jewishness. Life was filled with spiritual meaning, with a piety which encompassed the entire soul. Father and Mother saw education as their finest aim: the strengthening of their children's Jewishness to last a lifetime. In our family, feeling at home with Jewishness (dos aynlebn zikh in yidishkkeyt) was just as important as learning. The lively (zaftiker 'juicy') Jewish life style which I so fully and organically digested and which has remained precious and sacred to me my entire life grew out of the observance of Jewish customs (yidishe minhogim).
Chapter 16 Footnotes:
All that I have said above regarding the Jewish holidays was intended to show how my character was formed in childhood and youth, but no less important an influence on my formation were the Jewish mourning days, the three weeks from the Seventeenth Day of Tammuz until the Ninth Day of Ab (ti'shebov). During this time all celebrations were cancelled. My father and the melamed in kheyder used to explain the meaning of the days of mourning. Central to what they said was that grief was one of God's greatest gifts to humanity. That sounds paradoxical, but it is a fact. Grief, which my father talked to me about, has always been bound up with hope and faith. Mourning helped to preserve the memory of everything that is near and dear to us. Mourning for our parents and ancestors was battle against forgetting, battle against the merciless fate which robs us of what we hold dearest. Generations of Jews throughout the ages have fought this battle with dignity (German Würde) and stubbornness.
True, I came to understand all this when I grew a bit older and reflected on the meaning of the days of mourning, which ended with the national memorial day, the Ninth of Ab. The latter, which was so piously observed in the shtetl, claimed my attention from childhood. Every celebration, a circumcision (bris) or Redemption of the First-Born (pidyen-haben) excepted, was put off to another date. Parties connected to the birth of a child were not cancelled: mourning was not allowed to disturb the rejoicing in a new generation, one which assured the continued existence of the Jewish people.
The custom of not holding weddings during the three memorial weeks was understandable. In Semyatitsh a wedding was an important event not only for the family, but for the entire circle of acquaintances (bakante). Moreover, it was an important source of livelihood for musicians (klezmer/klezmorim) and masters-of-ceremony (batkhonim). These days were doubly tragic for the latter, whereas musicians, for whom it was simply a matter of work rather than celebration, could play for non-Jews in this period.
Mourning in the shtetl did not lead to confusion or helpless despair. I underline this, for it relates to the fine traits and higher qualities of the Jews of Semyatitsh. Rejoicing, no matter how great, never led to licentiousness, since Jews never agreed with the principle of "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we will die." There was deep belief in the Jewish future; people lived for the morrow. And thus mourning, too, was not confused, but optimistic.
In all times, Jews in the shtetl connected the life of today with the life of tomorrow, of future generations. Joyful days, like mourning days, were weapons in the struggle for existence, with hope for salvation, release from problems of the present. If a fast day, even a day of mourning like the Ninth of Ab, fell on the Sabbath, it was postponed. This has been so in all times and in all the Diaspora. The Sabbath remains the Sabbath and the day of mourning is postponed for a day.
From earliest childhood I had the feeling that with the arrival of the Ninth of Ab, the faces of the Jews of Semyatitsh turned mournful. For the entire nine days no one bathed in the river, took a haircut, or ate meat. The very strict abstained from eating freshly-picked fruit. Among the pious on the night of the Ninth of Ab, tables were left uncovered and benches were overturned. Before leaving for the besmedresh, Father used to gather us at home and explain that the Western Wall (koysl-maaro'vi) in the Land of Israel was the sole remnant of the Temple and that Jews from every country of the Jewish dispersion were standing there at that moment. They were praying and weeping. I thought immediately of what we had learned in kheyder about our Mother Rachel, regarding whose weeping it is written, "A voice is heard in Ramah Rachel weeping for her children." (67]
On the night of the Ninth of Ab and the next day as well, only the Book of Job, the Book of Lamentations and those sections of the Book of Jeremiah dealing with exile and destruction were read in the besmedresh. In the "Khaye-odem" besmedresh and other prayer-houses, the curtain (poroykhes) of the Holy Ark was removed. People removed their shoes and walked about in their stocking feet. The besmedresh was filled with the grief of generations of Jews weeping for the desolation of the Temple two thousand years ago. On the night of the Ninth of Ab it was darker in the besmedresh than usual. The large lamps were unlit and the worshipers sat on overturned benches, praying and reciting laments on the destruction of Jerusalem (kines) in the light of small flickering candles.
Thus I recall the days of mourning from my early childhood till my late youth. Jewish hearts started to fill with sorrow from the beginning of the reading of the Book of Lamentations. "How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations" [Lamentations 1:1] are words that have always echoed in my ears. The women's section of the besmedresh was full of weeping women. They fasted all day just like the men and their cries pierced the heavens. This is how, for generations, our mothers and grandmothers wept. After prayers the following morning, Jews went to the cemetery. They wore slippers (shtekshikh) or rubber galoshes and at the graves of holy Jews they renewed their weeping. They were united with past generations, recited chapters from the Book of Psalms and lit memorial candles (neshome-likhtlekh). On that day I used to visit the grave of my mother, who had died so young. I saw Jews sitting by graves for hours, telling stories of the meritorious acts of the departed.
In the distant cities and lands where I was destined to travel in later years, I often thought about the days of mourning observed by Jews wherever they have lived. I understood mourning as refusal to make peace with the Destruction (khurbm) of the Temple, with the loss of our state. Mourning contains a kind of declaration that the Temple lives on in every Jew, that its memory, honor and holiness are preserved. Secular Jews have insufficiently appreciated the meaning of Jewish mourning. I believe that thanks to mourning Jews have kept closer together, and perhaps it has helped them to be more moral and more courteous than their non-Jewish neighbors.
Jews preserved in themselves a natural aversion to brutality and bloodthirstiness. The days of mourning remind us how much and how heavily Jews suffered from the cruelty of our enemies. Thus I came to the conclusion that the culture of observing mourning purified us morally. During the days of mourning, Jews became stronger in their hope of messianic deliverance, and found comfort in the vision of a future when peace would reign throughout the world. I have come to know many peoples and countries in the course of my life, but nowhere, in no land, among no people have I seen the observance of days of mourning which are also days of joy and hope. For generations, mourning was our mode of resistance, our protest against human savagery and the cruelty of nature. In the midst of grief we believed the time would come when what enemies brutally destroyed would be rebuilt.
In my memories I often return to the deep meaning of mourning which I learned from that wonderful chapter in the Book of Psalms, "By the waters of Babylon," which we sang in the besmedresh and also studied in kheyder. It tells of how after Jerusalem fell and the land was laid waste, a part of the population was led into captivity in Babylon. In my child's imagination I visualized the captives walking, exhausted and dejected, from Jerusalem to Babylon. Many fell by the way and the remnant arrived in the strange land, a strange world. There by the waters of Babylon the victorious captors tried to make merry at their expense and prodded them to sing songs of Zion. When, after World War Two, I learned what Jews had gone through in the Shoa, how the German Hitlerites had baited them to sing Jewish songs while cruelly humiliating them, the images became interchanged with those of the exiled Jews in Babylon.
Then occurred the miracle: the unfortunate and helpless prisoners showed moral bravery and refused to let themselves be terrorized by the enemy. They did not sing the songs of Zion, but continued in their grief. I believe that this image and the words from this Psalm remained deeply engraved in the minds of all Jewish boys in Semyatitsh as in mine. The Jews continued to mourn and swore not to forget Jerusalem, not to forget the national catastrophe and to recall the Destruction of the Temple at every celebration. Then the expelled Jews sang a new song, a song of longing, of faith and stubbornness. This song, the words and the melody with which I often heard it sung, are etched in my memory.
I have translated it into plain Yiddish and in this form I wish it to be recorded in my memoirs: "Ba di taykhn fun bovl, dort zenen mir gezesn un geveynt, ven mir hobn zikh dermont in tsien. Oyf di verbes, vos oyf zey hobn mir ufgehongn undzere harfes, vorem dortn hobn undzere fanger farlangt fun undz verter fun gezang, un undzere payniker -- freylekhkayt, ober vi zoln mir zingen dos gezang fun got oyf fremder erd? Oyb ikh vel dikh fargesn, yerusholaim, zol mayn rekhte hant mikh fargesn, zol tsugeklept vern mayn tsung tsu mayn gumen, oyb ikh vel dikh nisht gedenken, oyb ikh vel nisht dermonen yerusholaim oyf mayn hekhster simkhe ." 
With that song those helpless prisoners going into exile initiated the great Jewish martyr's struggle of a people which has been defeated on the battlefield by a powerful enemy, but has by no means capitulated morally. The words of "By the waters of Babylon" (al naharoys bovl) and the melody with which the song was sung are permanently inscribed in my memory. They remind me of the brave stubbornness of our ancestors long ago in Babylon. This great ancient song of longing by the waters of Babylon has remained in the spirit of the Jewish people and of every Jew, helping in times of trial, giving hope of better days to come.
Days of consolation follow those of national sorrow. The Sabbath following the Ninth of Ab is known as "Comfort ye" Sabbath (shabos nakhamu)  and in the succeeding Sabbaths between the Ninth of Ab and the Jewish New Year (rosheshone), as well, are read the prophecies of solace, consolation and encouragement.  This is the Jewish approach to the eternal problems of person and world. The days of mourning and its symbols are not only reminders to Jews of the Destruction of the Temple, but also arms in the war of existence. Isaiah the Prophet expresses the Jewish belief in the favorable conclusion of the days of mourning: "And it shall come to pass in the end of days . And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, And their spears into pruning hooks; Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, Neither shall they learn war any more."  With "Nakhamu" Sabbath Jews began to strengthen their will, especially the youth, the young pioneers (khalutsim) who had begun to become active in Semyatitsh and I among them.
Chapter 18 Footnotes:
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