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An excerpt from
Kitaigorod: A Profile of a Jewish Shtetl in the Ukraine
by Steven Lapidus, © 2000
A Thesis in The Department of Religion Presented in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements
For the Degree of Master of Arts at Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada; April 2000
Part 1 | Part2
I will write about the joy we felt in my shtetl, Kitaigorod, when a rabbi, z”l, a Guter Yid, as we used to say in the olden days, would come on one shabbes and stay the entire week. I come from my shtetl, Kitaigorod, where I was born in the year 1894. Sixty years ago, when I lived there, it was not a very large shtetl. It was a shtetl like all the other shtetlach in the Ushitza district of the Podolia gubernia of the Ukraine, not far, about 18 verst from the large city of Kamenets-Podolosk.
Some 250 Jewish families lived in my shtetl Kitaigorod. As well, in the shtetl, there were all the aspects of Judaism necessary for a Jewish community. There were four mikvaos and a large wooden synagogue, that was cold since there was no source of heat. All the workers of the shtetl prayed there, even in winter, in the great cold. On the side of the synagogue there was a little synagogue which had an oven, and people would go in there and warm up In the little synagogue, both summer and winter, the first service began shabbes morning at six o'clock.
Besides the large synagogue, there were three other synagogues with sections where women prayed. There was a kloiz referred to as the Sadigerer kloiz, and which was also called Benyumin?s kloiz. As well, there was the Husiatiner kloiz with a women’s section, which was also called Yitzchok-Leib’s kloiz, and another synagogue, the Zinkover kloiz which also had a women’s section. There were two rabbis. There were teachers who studied a folio of Gemara (Talmud) with Tosefos and Bartenura with the older students. There were also teachers who studied Gemara along with a chapter of Mishna, Psalms and verses from Isaiah and Jeremiah. As well, there were teachers who taught young boys chumash with Rashi’s commentaries along with the translation of some prayers. As well there were primary teachers who taught the children who were just beginning cheder. They were taught the alef-bais (alphabet) as well as to say the Modeh Ani (prayer upon awakening), as well as to make a blessing over various foods. There were three shochetim, of whom some slaughtered chicken and fowl and some slaughtered cattle, very pious Jews.
There were also shammashim (synagogue sextons), and cantors, singers and good ba?alei-tefilos (prayer leaders). There was a Talmud Torah with good teachers and lehavdil a bathhouse with an attendant who was always available because he lived in the attached apartment. So far I have written about the spiritual needs of the shtetl.
And now I will speak of the occupations people held in order to make a living. There were grain merchants and shopkeepers, dealers in dry goods, furnishing goods, grocery store owners and middlemen who used to buy leather. As well, there were shop-owners who used to go to the fairs in different shtetlach, because from our weekly Sunday fair (Tuesday was market day) it was difficult for many shopkeepers to make a living, therefore during the week, they would go to fairs in different shtetlach. As well, there were businessmen and butchers who would go to the neighbouring villages around our shtetl to buy an animal, a pelt, eggs or other foods. As well, there were various workers, such as tailors, shoe-makers, carpenters, glaziers, tinsmiths, blacksmiths, smiths, bread-bakers, bagel-makers and wagon-drivers who would travel daily to Kamenets. There were store-owners who would travel to buy merchandise for their stores; and even water-carriers, because it was difficult to bring water from the well.
And this was the way of many Jews who used to deal in produce. Many of them used to send their fruit to Kamenets. And many used to sit in their stalls and sell various fruit, by the pound, to the Jews in the shtetl. As well, there was no lack of Jews who were idle. This is how the people of the shtetl Kitarod lived, made weddings, had children and grandchildren and all were content with their lot.
I am considering how to write of my youthful recollections of the time when a rebbe came to visit and the joy that was felt in the shtetl. Several rebbes used to come to our shtetl and in one year three or four might come. Rabbi Yechiel-ne, z”l, from the city of Krilovitz used to come to our shtetl as well as Reb Yisroel-ne, z”l, from the town of Medzibodzh. Reb Pinchas’l, z”l, from the town of Zinkov would also come and sometimes he was accompanied by his brother Reb Moshele of Zinkov. Since Reb Pinchas’l had a lot of chasidim who were interested in bringing him to visit, he came once a year, more regularly than any of the other rebbes.
I will list the Zinkover chasidim who worked to bring the rebbe, Reb Pinchas’l to Kitaigorod: Chaim Baruch Reizler, Ze’ev Kleitmann, Meir Shtillvasser, Mordechai Beirish, Chaim Cohen, Yosef Mortchik, Ozer Shtecher, Kalman Melamed, Nachman Mailmann, Isser Einbinder – they are all with the True One, may they rest in peace. These several chasidim would contact the rebbe, Reb Pinchas’l. They used to write to him to determine the shabbes on which he would visit. He used to arrive on Friday morning and would leave the following Thursday for his home in Zinkov. He would always come on a shabbes in the summertime, either before or after Shavuos.
The chasidim of the shtetl would reserve an inn (lodging) and a servant to bake and cook for the whole week. The lodging chosen was almost always the Gershonke. The owner was named Gershon and the inn was named after him. This was a very beautiful house with two separate wings connected by a long corridor. They would reserve half of the house for the rebbe’s visit. He would leave Zinkov on Thursday in a carriage with two gabbaim (aides), and they would stop and spend the night somewhere along the way, and then continue onto the shtetl on Friday morning. The rebbe would send a driver on horseback to announce his arrival.
At this point, the Zinkover chasidim of the shtetl went out in two covered carriages to greet the rebbe. Once he arrived in the shtetl, it didn’t take long for things to become lively. The Jews would go to the inn to greet and welcome the rebbe. After candle-lighting, all of the Jews who were going to synagogue, would go to the lodging and escort the rebbe to synagogue. As soon as he appeared at the door of the house a melee began among those waiting to wish him a sholem aleichem (“Peace be unto you”) as everyone tried to be the first. Don?t ask what kind of confusion reigned in the large synagogue for the Friday night services. All the Jews had already accepted the shabbes and were now in the street. The entire community came out to see the rebbe: all the women, their daughters and small children. They went into Rav Berele Lerner?s, o”h, house since the latter’s house was near the synagogue. The Rav came outside and wished the rebbe peace and they went into the synagogue with the entire crowd. In our shtetl, there were some good singers and a good ba?al tefillah, Leibush Shpeitler, o”h, who was as well, a Zinkover chasid. We selected him to lead the Friday night services – that was something to hear – and thus we completed the services. Since the crowd was large, we made a pathway for the rebbe and he personally wished everyone a Gut Shabbes (Good Sabbath). Then we accompanied him back to the inn. Then the people went home to make Kiddush and to eat.
Afterwards, many people went to the inn and accompanied the rebbe to his tish. This tish took place in Benyumin?s kloiz since it was a large place. They had set out large covered tables and the chasidim sat down around the tables. The kloiz was so full of people that there remained only place to stand. The rebbe began singing Sholem Aleichem and then made Kiddush. Despite the large number of people in the kloiz, it was so quiet that one could hear a pin drop. Once the rebbe had eaten, the gabbaim shared small pieces of challa with all who were sitting at the tish and thus the chasidim all grabbed shirayim. Afterwards, the rebbe distributed a glass of beer to everyone present. Since all of the people had come from their houses after having eaten and but not having bentsched, the rebbe bentsched mezumen. Afterwards, we began singing – chasidim and chazanim – Yossele chazan and Leibushel chazan. We danced with such zeal that if the rebbe hadn’t stopped us, we would have danced until the next day. Afterwards, the rebbe and his two attendants returned to the lodging for the night.
On shabbes morning, the rebbe prayed in the Zinkover kloiz. After services, there was a large kiddush. Every chasid had donated some liquor and sent his child to bring kugel and other food. There was no fear that the food wouldn’t be kosher, since at the rabbi’s and at the shochet’s and at the wagon-driver’s and at the water-carrier’s, all was kosher. Because in the old country, everyone was pious, whether man or woman. The rebbe ate shabbes lunch alone at the inn. On shabbes evening, the rebbe conducted shalosh seudos in the same kloiz where he led the tish on Friday night. Shalosh seudos was an event with a lot of singing and not very much food, but did we sing! Afterward, everyone prayed the evening service. The rebbe made havdalah and we sang hamavdil with a beautiful melody. At around 11 o’clock at night, provisions were brought to the inn in order to hold a melaveh malka and there we enjoyed singing and dancing until late in the night. During the weekdays, chasidim gathered at the lodging with their wives and children to see the rebbe, to receive a blessing from him for health and livelihood along with a coin. The rebbe gave money and a drink of liquor to those chasidim who had waited all day at the lodging hoping for him to appear and give them his blessings.
We held morning and evening services at the lodging all that week. The people would stay late in the night, eating and drinking, since for everyone in the shtetl, whether a chasid of the rebbe or not, it was a joyful week with eating, drinking, singing and dancing. So it went until Thursday. In the morning, we prayed and ate a small snack with the rebbe and his two aides. We packed up all the rebbe’s belongings and gave them to the driver who had stayed around the whole week. The rebbe then came outside with his two gabbaim, preparing to leave while the entire shtetl stood outside – everyone – old and young, men and women and children.
The Rebbe stood upon his carriage and blessed all the Jews in the town with health, beneficence and success and to be relieved of all misfortune while he waved his hand over the people and said goodbye. The driver then prodded the horse, and whosoever was able, followed the carriage as far as the nearest village. Some chasidim accompanied their rebbe, Reb Pinchas’l, z”l, home to Zinkov. And all the people in the shtetl wished each other a Leiben ibur yahr (another year of life) and that all should live to enjoy another joyful week, when the rebbe will come visit on a shabbes again. All of the above events happened before the First World War.
In my shtetl, Kitaigorod, Podolia gubernia, there was a Jew whom we called Shloime der Krist – Shloime the Christian. This did not mean, Heaven Forbid, that he was an irreligious man; on the contrary, he was indeed someone who lived a holy life. I, myself, do not remember why he was called by such a nickname and no one ever explained the reason to me. Like myself, many others did not know when he had received the nickname, “The Christian.” He had been about fifteen years old when his father, Yankel, the village shammes left for the town of Dinovitz, some thirty verst from us. There, he gave his son to the Dinovitzer musical band to be a drummer. The Dinovitzer musicians were renowned for their playing in the whole Podolia gubernia. They would come to our shtetl to play at weddings.
Shloime once came to Kitarod with a few members of his band to play at a wedding and wore a hat with a shiny visor. Sixty years ago in our small shtetlach, we were so religious in those early years that it was a sin for Shloime the town shammes to have a son wear a hat with a shiny visor, and therefore he was given the nickname, Shloime der Krist. His father, Yankel the shammes, was also the bathhouse attendant of the town bath and lived there all his years.
After his father Yankel died, Shloime quit playing music and also became the town shammes. Soon after, he in fact married a Kitaigorodeh woman. She was a daughter of Sarah-ne and Moishe Chezkiel?s. She was a widow all her life (sic) and used to sit on a stool and sold fruit. The daughter whom Shloime married was named Miriam – and we called her the martzitzyeh (the market-sitter). He had two children with her, a son named Sholem Mendel, and a daughter whose name I do not remember. However, several years after the marriage, he divorced her and the martzitzyeh and her two children were supported by her mother, Sarah-ne, who sold various fruit. She used to prepare cocoa and sell it. She always had a samovar with fresh cocoa. Since his divorce, Der Shloime had had many jobs, but little success. He was shammes, a bathhouse attendant, a shoemaker, a water-fetcher, and a choir member under Yosseleh the chazan. He also worked at the Chevra Kadisha and as a village constable in the Jewish town of Stara Ushitza (Yishitze).
Despite all of his jobs, he, his wife and children could have died of hunger ten times a day. The reason for this was that since then he had taken another bride from a shtetl not far from us called Smotrich, and had several children with her. But she was an ill woman, no one should speak of such things – she was mentally ill, even staying in an insane asylum in the city of Vinnitsa on a few occasions. She used to go there for short periods and then come back. After a few years, she became ill again and was sent back to Vinnitsa. You can only imagine what kind of home life they had. The children used to walk around naked, barefoot, hungry, and tired. We, in the town, did not spare them anything since their father, Der Shloime, was not himself a great bargain. He was a man of many trades, but few blessings. As well, he liked to drink.
In our shtetl, there was a woman named Miriam Tuviah’s. She was an outstanding baker. One could smell her bread throughout the entire shtetl. She would bake loaves of challa, cookies, kasha pancakes with poppy seeds, which everyone loved , and a lot of other good things. And with all that, she would sell a glass of liquor which we could get in the winter to warm up. And you could even get a good and tasty stew which had a nice piece of meat in it, or chicken with good helzel or with a chicken thigh.
Shloime was such a successful wage-earner that he used to have a saying. When he left a wedding or a bris (circumcision and the celebration of it), since he was still the town shammes, the parents would ask him if he made any money at the celebration. He used to, answer, “I am bringing more back home than I brought to the celebration.” But he brought nothing home. He would bring everything to the baker, Miriam Tuviah’s, since he was a respected guest there. He had already brought the a bit of liquor with what to eat, which I have already listed. And even if we wanted to eat knishes or varenikes (dumplings), we could get them there, but ....., well, you already understand what I mean. Nothing was left over for the family so the town rabbi with another townsperson grabbed Shloime the shammes – everyone already knew that he could be found at the baker’s, Miriam Tuviah’s.
This is how a man lived his life, married twice, brought two children into the world who suffered with problems and misery. And during the First World War, he took himself from our shtetl Kitarod, and went to another town, not far from us, Zbanitz. I cannot say how he lived there. Only when the war ended did Der Shloime, o”h, die a natural death, and was in fact brought to burial in the Zbanitzer cemetery and no one knew whatever happened to his family.
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