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Early Years {cont.}

Barnanovichi - New Era

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The house, 17 Sadova St.

Kaplan family In the yard 17 Sadova St. In the window

As the city grew and quickly developed, a large slaughterhouse was built at the other end of town, so we moved in that direction, so that father wouldn't have to walk far, especially in winter. Only when I visited Baranovichi on the way to Palestine in 1932 did I find the family in their own home at 17 Sadova St., with a barn and a nice garden. (On this visit, I was traveling with little Helen, my oldest daughter, and had planned to leave Mom and Helen in Baranovichi while I went to Palestine to build a home. But the Polish police came to the house almost daily to check up on me. When father protested, the policeman said, "To Nasha Polska", meaning, "It's our Poland, and we will come to your house whenever we feel like it." After about three weeks I left, with Mom and Helen.)

Neighbors good and bad!

We didn't stay long in that first apartment, since we had a cruel neighbor who was a blacksmith. The outhouse was close to his fence. He had three sons who worked with him, and their favorite pastime was to watch when my mother went into the outhouse. Then they would shove a red hot iron through the wooden boards and scare the life out of her. In this apartment my mother gave birth to a little girl, who did not live for more than a year.

I remember a neighbor who lived across the street Shlome “Der Porush” Block , and his red-headed wife Chanah. A porush was part of an ascetic group who devoted his life only to Torah and not to worldly matters. His wife made the family living by boiling bones for making candles. They were childless, and it seems that they were very sad over it. They tried everything to have a child. I remember once he brought from the slaughterhouse the male organ of a bull, which was cooked. Shlome drank the broth, but it did not help. My parents were very close to this couple, who eventually moved to Jerusalem when the Turks still ruled there. They settled close to Me'ah Shearim. I visited them in 1922, and slept there for one night. I had slept in their home (the one in Baranovichi) once before, when my little sister died. These people eventually adopted a boy in Jerusalem. In the early 1930's I visited them again. It was a Thursday, and I noticed people moving in and out of the kitchen, talking to Chanah. I finally learned that Chanah had a fund for "matan b'sater", giving charity that is inconspicuous. People who were embarrassed to ask for help would come to her and get a ticket to the grocery for a certain amount of food, according to the size of their family. I made it a habit to send a few dollars for the fund every now and then.

Each town had its own meshugoyim (crazy ones), and we had two. The meshugoyim usually slept in one of the synagogues, on the benches near the stove.

Mendel der Meshugener was a quiet man. People fed him willingly. He wore an old hat and dilapidated clothes. Our other meshugener was Vashke. He was a young man, and some said very learned.

Vashke was vicious. He could swing at you for no reason, and if someone teased him, as happened often, he ran very fast, caught his victim, and beat the hell out of him. He also remembered his enemies. Many boys feared his fists and would walk on the opposite sidewalk to avoid meeting him. His main hangout was in the Big Shul.

Characters Tales Visitors

We also had all kinds of characters in Baranovichi. One claimed that he was a great-grandson of the Vilner Gaon, and told miracles about him. One story was that someone tried to desecrate the Gaon's grave, on which there was a little building. This was the usual practice over the grave of famous people, and was called an "ohel" (tent). To get back to the Gaon, as the man touched the grave, his hand became stiff. He could not bend his hand until he begged forgiveness from the Rabbi in Vilna, and pledged charity.

These kinds of stories were told by overnight guests, and would fascinate the children. A guest cantor or a "magid", after performing in town, had a group of "ba'aleh batim" go and collect money for the guest, usually from the people who belonged to that particular synagogue. But I remember a very famous "magid" who talked in the big synagogue. The place was so jammed with people that one couldn't get in or out. People were hanging on the windows. The collection was made on the spot and a large sum of money was gathered. The "magid" was not only an orator, he hypnotized the audience. Such speakers were very rare.

Once a cantor came to Baranovichi for Shabbat, and naturally he stayed with us. On Friday he asked mother to prepare a whole chicken for him, and said he would pay for it. It sounded strange, but mother did so, and he asked her to place it in the "cahelke", a special place in the oven where he could get to it by himself. He got up early Saturday morning before going to synagogue, and consumed the whole chicken. But he really had a good voice, and it paid him well for all he ate.

School Teachers

When I was six, I began school. My teacher, Mr. Kusherovsky, was a tall, bearded man who resembled Herzl. (In later years, I joined the Tz'eirey Zion Party, a socialist Leninist party to the right of the Poalei Zion, of which Mr. Kusherovsky was also a member.) The school was a corner house near the market square. Winter days in that part of the world are short, and by 3:30 P.M. it was dark. The snow would pile up high and remain on the ground most of the winter. Paths were shoveled through the snow, and formed tunnels with high walls on each side. Going home from school one day, I walked hand in hand with a little girl my age who lived near us. Our parents had ordered us to go home together. Of course we got lost, since we couldn't see over the walls of snow. Search parties found us wandering around.

As I grew older, I moved on to a different teacher Mr. Misilevsky and a different school. It was a modern Hebrew school, with subjects such as arithmetic, science, poetry, and composition, all taught in Hebrew. I was later told that it was mostly due to the influence of my oldest brother, Yikutiel, with the sympathy of my father, who decided that I should not go to Cheder, the old-fashioned school where the emphasis was on the study of the Talmud and the language used was Yiddish. Misilevsky and his daughter were excellent teachers, and I made good progress in Hebrew.

As Baranovichi grew, a big Yeshiva was formed as well as a smaller one. The latter was called the "Musar" Yeshivah, and was basically concerned with teaching good morals, mitzvot, and proper prayer. Bachurei yeshivah (Yeshiva students) flocked to Baranovichi. They had to eat and sleep, so they ate "tag" a day here and a day there. Each housewife felt it her duty to adopt a boy or two for one day week, or for a Shabbat. In our house, three boys ate one day a week. Mother wanted only boys who behaved well. Some would even get a few kopecks that day.

I remember a childish prank of mine. The maid used to bring me lunch, consisting of hot cocoa, buttered bread, a soft-boiled egg, and a piece of fruit. During summertime, we would eat outside and one of the girls began teasing me. I ran after her, and rubbed the soft-boiled egg into her hair… shame on me.

The Bailis Trial

I learned to read Yiddish in 1913, during the famous Bailis Trial (Blood Libel Trial which took place in Kiev.). Jews were accused of killing a Christian boy and using his blood in baking Passover matzot. The trial of the accused man, Bailis, took a long time, and his lawyers did their best to defend him while the Czarist regime did all it could to convict him. He was finally freed and moved to America. This trial stirred Jews to the highest degree. If he had been convicted, a series of pogroms would have spread throughout Russia. The radio did not exist then, and the only available information regarding the trial came from the Jewish newspapers, which arrived by train from Warsaw. People waited anxiously at the station to grab the newspaper, especially to read the speeches by the defense. When the papers came to us, my father would gather the family around him and read aloud, telling us each time to remember this trial all our lives. One day I got hold of the Yiddish newspaper, and after a few questions, started to read. All I had to know were a few rules, such as an aleph is an "a" or an "o", a yud is an "i", an ayin is an "e". And that's all there was to it. But my Hebrew from school influenced my whole family. My parents overheard me one night, talking in my sleep in Hebrew. Being ardent Zionists, my father and older brother suggested we try to speak Hebrew at home. I was delighted and it worked for a while, but it was difficult to get along with mother who could not converse in Hebrew, and the experiment failed.

A Big Scare

Once before WWI, I remember a big scare. Near the synagogue was situated a "hekdesh" and a Talmud Torah, and a shack where funeral implements were kept. Naturally we were afraid to pass nearby and see those implements in the shack. The "hekdesh" served as a public place where poor people could sleep overnight. Some sick ones remained there until they died. mother would often send me with a dish of soup or some meat for a sick person. The stench inside was terrible, but I had to go. Then one day mother cleared a bedroom and took an old woman in. Mom tended to her, fed her, and after a while, the woman got sick. Mother would clean and wash her. One day I came home from school, opened the door, and saw the woman on the floor with two candles burning near her head. My shock was great, and I screamed and fled. It later turned out that my brother was to have watched for me to keep me out of the house, since we were Cohanim and as such are not allowed to be in the presence of the dead. But my lookout overlooked me. After the funeral, the house was washed and cleaned and we returned the next day. A woman whose job it was to make the burial shrouds, came and put a needle with white thread left over from the dead woman's shroud, in my lapel, saying that it was a "segulah" (amulet) for a long life.

That particular bedroom remained empty for a long time. Finally brave Rouvke (me) said that he would move in there. My bed was put there, and I must have slept there for two or three nights, when I awoke in the middle of the night screaming and sweating. I said that the woman had come and choked me. And that was the end of my bravery.

The Buck “Kaziony”

I recall that there were many goats in the town. A large buck was named Kaziony, which means "belonging to the government". He roamed the streets freely. If he managed to get into a garden it meant ruin. He was powerful. Brave boys would grab him by the horns and ride him. But woe to you if he caught you from behind without your noticing him. Your behind was a perfect target for his horns. This buck was once maneuvered into the Big Shul, where he was driven crazy for hours, chasing and being chased around the central Bimah.


Erev Yom Kippur, thousands of chickens were slaughtered for "kapparot" (atonement for sins). At least one was needed per person. The two Shochetim of the town, sometimes with an assistant, became partners for the day. It was announced that all kapparot would be slaughtered near the two synagogues the main and the artisan synagogues at a large empty lot. In order to facilitate and expedite matters, tickets were sold in advance. A paid ticket was given for the number of kapparot to be slaughtered. I went to the store to buy paper for the tickets, and came back with two rolls of toilet paper, which I had never seen before. They served well, since it was perforated, and easy to tear off. All we had to do was number and stamp it, and with this document each customer went to the shochet. No forgeries were possible, since no one possessed such paper!

On the day of Yom Kippur, father sat in the first row near the Ark, facing the worshippers. A heavy layer of hay was spread on the floor, since everyone took his shoes off on that holy day. At Minha (intermediate worship service), about 1:00 P.M., a half dozen plates for different charities were set out at the entrance to the synagogue. One box was covered, and called "secret donation" where each one put in according to his conscience. This was intended for those who were in need, but were ashamed to ask for help publicly. All other plates were open, and watchful eyes knew exactly what each one put into the plates.

The place was lit up very brightly by lux lamps kerosene under pressure and each person brought candles, and hundreds of them burned at one time. Some candles were heavy, and a meter tall, and burned well into the next night. Some people did not go home, but studied and said "tehillim" (psalms) throughout the night. But we kids had a good time. We got a supply of food and goodies to take with us to Shul, and running around in the hay was a lot of fun.

Sukkut came, and with it cold rain, frost, and snow. To help build the Sukkah was a lot of fun. The "s'chach", branches of a pine tree, gave off a good scent, and the farmers brought them in, wagonloads of them from the forests surrounding Baranovichi. But very seldom could we enjoy sitting in the Sukkah unless we wore coats. I remember my brother Yankel preparing a nice set of holders for the lulav, with two green twigs on either side, made from the leaves of the lulav. It was something very special, woven together, and he was very good at it.

On Simchat Torah, frost covered the ground, but the cold was offset by our collecting the "s'chach" from the Sukkot, and gathering it into one place, in high piles, the higher the better. Then we set fire to the piles. As the flames jumped into the sky, the circle around the fire had to retreat fast, very fast… and it seemed there was no trace of snow or cold. I remember how we celebrated Simchat Torah while father was still in the Artisan Shul. Everything from the aliyot to hakafot (walking a circle holding a Torah) were sold in auction style every Shabbat, by the Shamash, who had a childish voice. He would usually start low, with 5 or 10 groschen (half a kopeck) and go up to a gilden (15 kopecks). But important events, such as hakafot Simchat Torah, brought in even rubles, especially the first two or three hakafot. Father, who led the procession, did not have to pay. The custom on Simchat Torah was that the Gabai (elected officers of the synagogue) invited the congregation to their houses. Of course not everyone came, but a couple of dozen people, who knew them well, would come. It was a mitzvah to drink and eat. One year, it was our turn as well to be hosts, after the Gabai. Mother was known as a kugel and stuffed derma specialist, especially the heavy part called "kutznitze". Naturally mother prepared everything well, including tzimmes, cakes, etc. And when the whole group marched into the house, wine and vodka were served, and then the hot dishes. But when mother opened the oven, she found it empty! While we had been in synagogue, someone had played a trick. They had removed all the pots and put them in the neighbor's oven. The pots were, of course, returned and refreshments were served. The Shamash, a poor man, went to all the merry events, and when he got to our house, he was a bit drunk. But he said, L'Chayim! And wanted to sit down. Just then, something told me to pull the chair away from him. He wore a heavy "peltze", sheepskin-lined. The poor man rolled over, and I still feel sorry for the stupid joke I played on him.

Chanukah was the season of latkes, cards, and Chanukah gelt. Naturally the kids knew all about getting, but not giving. We had a visitor from some small town who always brought something nice a fat chicken, a large jar of cream. He came for one Chanukah, and gave me a whole ruble, a big silver thing with the face of the Czar on it. Well, my parents had to get it away from me, since I didn't know what to do with such a thing, except to play with it and keep it in my pocket. And what would I be if I lost it? They tried all sorts of ways to get the ruble away from me. I held out until after Chanukah, when I was told that the ruble would get me a new pair of shoes. And that was the end of my fortune.

Purim was a joyous holiday. The biggest fun was not the "grager" (noisemaker), but the "shooting". And here is how it worked: You got a key somewhere, the larger the better. The key had to have a hole in it. You took matches, filled the top of the key with sulfur from the matches, and then found a nail that fit and rubbed the point down flat. You tied a string to the head of the nail, inserted the point end into the key, and swung it against the wall. The sulfur would explode with a large sound. This was repeated until the key blew up. It was not easy to obtain the right kind of key, and many locks were left keyless after each Purim. But this wasn't all. Purim also meant "mishloah manot" sending gifts to one another, and sending gifts to the poor, as it is written in the Megilah. Kids were running around with covered platters. Some got paid for the job, or were given a nice hamentash (poppy seed cake). The platters were loaded according to the friendship, or the prestige of the giver. I remember a 5-ruble piece being sent to someone.

Pesach followed Purim, and by then it was springtime. Pesach was the season in which the children played at rolling nuts, usually the smaller ones like hazel nuts. The older boys played with walnuts. The same man who gave me the ruble once gave me a large paper bag full of walnuts. We would make a little hole in the ground and try to roll and hit the lined up nuts into the hole. The winner won all the nuts.

Preparations for Pesach started right after Purim, especially if the weather warmed up a bit. The storm windows were removed, and often some new paint or new wallpaper set the holiday atmosphere. But the really busy season started a week or ten days before Pesach. Baking matzoh was a project in itself. Although the matzot were baked in several places, some places were favorites. For instance, where the Rabbi baked his, an inspection of the place was made: oven, tools, water barrels, cleanliness; all was microscopically checked. Then a staff of volunteers was organized. Those that knew how, rolled out the dough, usually women and girls. "Redling" (perforation of the matzah with a special tool) - this was a favorite job. Then the round matzot were handed to the baker, who put three or four on one paddle, and with a swift movement, unloaded them in the oven. When the matzot were ready, they had to be removed in time, before they burned or the edges folded under, rendering them unkosher. Bakers were paid for their work, but all the helpers were volunteers. The jobs were popular since it gave the boys and girls an opportunity to meet and flirt.

Finally, Erev Pesach came. The house was spick and span. The matzot were brought in a large, white linen tablecloth and put away in a secure place. Now came the time to prepare matzoh meal for kneidlach, and farfel for soup. The "stupe" a hollowed out log of wood was taken down from the attic. Matzoh was put into the hole, and the stupe was banged on with a wooden stick until flour formed in the bottom, while the small pieces were used as farfel. Pesadikeh cake was delicious, and chremzlach triangular small cakes fried in deep oil were a favorite.

The dishes, glassware and silverware all had to be "kashered", and that was quite a job. After a good cleaning, some of the pots were fired, and knives were stuck back and forth in the earth until they shone. Some of the pots were made of copper, soldered white on the inside. These were re-soldered for Pesach. A small hole was dug in the ground and the silverware put there. The hole was filled with boiling water and red hot stones placed in the water. New glassware and silverware were subjected to "t'vilah" in the well (put into a pail an dipped several times into the well). All books were taken outside for airing and leafed through to make sure no bread crumbs remained in them. During the year, things were put into the attic instead of being thrown away. Erev Pesach was the time to get rid of these unnecessary things.

With Pesach over, we kids looked forward to Lag B'Omer. We went into the woods, shooting clumsy arrows, but we had a lot of fun. Then came Tisha B'Av, the memorial day for the destruction of the Temple. By then it was late July, and we collected sticky round balls. These were brown seed balls covered with thorns from the castor trees. We would pick handfuls and throw them at one another. They stick to your clothing, and the girls would get them in their hair and run home terrified for help to remove them. The really bad boys would aim for the beards of the Chasidim, who were not favorites in Baranovichi, the town being mostly "Mitnagdim."

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