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[Page 305]

The Folklore of Zhetl


The Dzyatlava Folklore

by Baruch Kaplinski

Translated by Yocheved Klausner

Edited by Yael Chaver

The Dzyatlava folklore was rich, but very little of it has been kept in our memory. Yet, even in the few memories that did remain we can discover the wisdom, the sharpness of mind and the sense of humor of our ancestors.

A special kind of humor was expressed in the nicknames. Very few families in the shtetl were called by their official names; almost every Dzyatlaver had a nickname, characteristic of his qualities, his weaknesses and the way the members of the community felt about him or her. The nicknames were taken from the animal or the inanimate world, here are a few of them: Moishe the rooster, Eli the goose, David the turkey, Israel the bird and David the cat. Here are a few nicknames of another nature: Motl–Leib the whip lasher, Arie the Klezmer, Nathan the minister, Leizer the bomb and Ahre'le the porridge–pot.

The Jews residing in the neighboring shtetls were also “privileged” with nicknames: The Lida people were called the Lida drunkards, the Bielice people – the Bielice thieves, the Slonim Jews were referred to as the stupid people of Slonim. So were the Kozloszchina people called goats and the Dworetz people guts (maybe they liked to eat a lot). The Meitchet people were nicknamed “white.” Jews of Dzyatlava also had a nickname – they were called the hooligans. Why? Nobody knows.

A few words about the Dzyatlava sayings and proverbs: they were taken from daily life. When a

Dzyatlaver wanted to say that something was impossible, he said ”when nails bloom,” or “when the cat will fly and lay eggs.”

When he wanted to stress the ridiculous, he would say “he looks like a cat in an apron,” to describe a very small quantity he said “it will be enough for him like a piece of cake for a horse.” A daily laborer would be like “a crow jumping from pig to pig.” These are just a few examples of the cleverness of the Dzyatlava people.

As we said, the Dzyatlava folklore was not preserved, but the little that survived is worth researching.


Reuven Chayatowitz, a common type
The water carrier


[Page 306]

The Dzyatlava Nicknames

Adapted by Baruch Kaplinski

Translated by Yocheved Klausner

Edited by Yael Chaver

In our Lithuanian and Belarus shtetlach, many Jews were not called by their name and surname, but by a nickname. The surname was no more than a formal nuisance, for the “benefit” of the authorities.

In the synagogue, and in the cemetery, a Jew was called by his first name and the name of his father. However, for the daily life and business, it sounded somewhat “heavy” to call a neighbor, for example, R'Yitzhak ben R'Yakov, and since there were many Yitzhaks and Yakovs, people began to distinguish between them by their qualities and weaknesses, by their occupations or by their social status. In most cases, the evaluation of the people was satirical and biting, and we must say that our ancestors in the Lithuanian shtetlach were blessed with a sharp sense of humor.

If a Jew liked tzimes [a sweet dish made of carrots], the popular dish was attached to his name right away, and he was called Moishe the tzimes. I remember in our shtetl there was a very clever Jew, so he was called Mordechai Eli the fox, but less clever people were called: the calf, the goat, the ox, etc.

Often the nickname was fitted to the occupation, and so many Jews in our shtetl carried the names of their means of livelihood: Avraham the Starch–man, Arie the Klezmer, Noah the Old–clothes–dealer, Mote–Leib the Whip–lasher and so on. Other nicknames stressed the character of the people, and so we had: Yashe the strict, Yankel the liar, Shmuel the organized one, Yidel the slow one. The “general wisdom” matched the nickname with a characteristic trait of the person. Very often, a physical feature was the reason behind the nickname, and so the following nicknames were created in Dzyatlava: Hinde the Big, Shlomo the Colt, the Crumb. Sometimes the color of the hair was the reason of the nickname: one very fine and respected lady was called Peshke the Black, and another very honored Jew – Yidel the Yellow.

Nicknames are a folk–creation. In the synagogue, the people at the Mizrach [the seats at the East Wall, reserved for the most honored in the shul] very seldom had nicknames, nor did they participate in their popular creation. But in the “market circles”, on Shabat after the prayers, during the long winter nights, the Amcha [simple folks] expressed their biting sense of humor by inventing appropriate nicknames. It is worth stressing the fact that nicknames were often inherited, sometimes from grandfather to grandson, and so passed from generation to generation.

Our friends Sara Avseyewitz, Pesia Mayevski and Mordechai Dunyetz collected about one hundred and fifty Dzyatlava nicknames and we tried to arrange them by subject. Nicknames from the animal world


Here are a few examples:

Reuven the hen, Moishe'ke the kogut[1], Eli the duck, David the turkey, Lea the little chicken, Israel the bird, Pinye the beetle, Khane the partridge, Yosl the swallow (would fly like a swallow), David the kitten, Israel the mouse, Yosef the dog (or the fool), the goat, Rachel the calf, Khaye the cow, Mechl the he–goat, Hilye the wild boar, Moishe'ke the ox, Efraim the colt (he liked horses), Boruch the mare, Aharon–Leizer the animal, Mordechai–Eli the fox, Moishe the swan, Itche the herring (was very thin). We have here an entire zoological park – all the animals, birds and fowl, which Dzyatlava Jews knew and attached to people.


This section translated by Yael Chaver

Nicknames by occupation

Leib the Mayor, Moishe the doctor, Zhame the postman, Noah the rags–dealer, Avreml the starch dealer, Arye the Klezmer, The cobbler, Alter the estate–owner (he was a very poor man), Ayzhik the constable, Mote–Leib the whip–lasher, Berl the spinner (would spin winnings at the lottery), Yosl the painter, Pinye the groats–soup, the children–maker (he made children's shoes), the poor–man (was rich but always complained that he was poor…).


Nicknames by personal qualities

Of the collected nicknames, 19 represent human qualities: Yechiel the demon (a capable man), Devor'ke the Cossack (an Eshet Chayil [“woman of valor”]), Shiye the severe (was stubborn), Yankel the liar, Itchke the bomb, Shmuel the practical, Yudel slow (was speaking slowly), Chana the new one, Zelik the butter, Tewwel the scoundrel, Motel the worthless, Shifra the gourmand, Sonia the big, Shmuel speaker through the nose, Zlote the fat, Herzl the tiny, Yosl the clown.

[Page 307]

Nicknames by personalities

Some Jews of Dzyatlava liked to discuss world politics; these were nicknamed Chamberlain; Benes; Halifax. Other nicknames were: Mordechai the Kaiser (he handled himself with dignity); Note the minister; Niomke the Haman; the god (?as the best tailor); the Angel of Death (he was as thin as Death); Shepsl the philosopher; Petlura.

Now, many years later, it is difficult to establish under what conditions a Jew was nicknamed Haman. As far as I remember, that person was a fine man.


Nicknames by other nationalities

Shmuel the Pole; the Turk; Alter the gypsy; Khane the gentile girl; Dovid the gentile.


Nicknames by hair color

Peshke the black; Yudel the yellow.


Nicknames by articles of clothing

Rokhl–Leah the trousers (she wore long pants, which were visible under her skirt); Keyle the kaftan; Moishke the silk underpants.


Nicknames by kinds of food

Moishe–Aaron the round loaf; Hirshl the little apple; Hertzl the chicken fat; Meir the raw pancake; Khayim the bread roll; Avreml the tea essence.


Nicknames by objects

Reuve the barrel; Itche the pot of kasha; Berl the wagon shaft; Avreml the goblet; Pinke the drum; Alte the radio; Sholem the smithy; Efroyke the cradle.


Nicknames by family relationships

Alter the mother; Itche the little son; Rishe the grandmother.


Nicknames by natural forces

Yankl the thunder; Khayim the earth (he would often curse, “I'll see you in the ground.”)


Nicknames by place of residence

The kleyzlnik (he lived in the kloyz [small synagogue]); Sonia from the tavern; Yoysef from Zarzecze.


Various nicknames

Meir dandelion; Yankl Khananya; Shimen the gadget; Yosl the rural policeman; Rokhl the eyeglasses; Shiye the proposed match; Moishke the scum; Arl the vulinke; Hertzl the drishtsh; Moishe the doctor; Khayim–Leyb the shirt; Yudel skridlav; Dovid mukhasran; Mulye the idol; Yisroel the pasekh; Khanye the mucus; Yehoshue the hayduk [highway robber?]; Henekh the young lady; Khaye the pit.

The nicknames we have listed in our work are only a fraction of all the Dzyatlava nicknames. But they are characteristic of the popular creativity of our parents in the Lithuanian–Belorussian shtetls, remarkably pointed and sharp. We ask forgiveness of those townspeople whose nicknames we have listed. In no way did we want to offend them. Our mission was to delineate Dzyatlava with all its quirks, as it was and as we remember it.


Folk types


Translator's footnote
  1. I could not find kogut in any dictionary (Yiddish, Russian, Polish) or in the Yiddish thesaurus. The closest I found is Russian “kogot” which translates as “claw, talon”, which didn't seem to be the name of any animal. Return

[Page 308]

Dzyatlava folklore

by Avraham Iventzki, may his memory be for a blessing

Translated by Yocheved Klausner

Edited by Yael Chaver

Nicknames were extremely common in Dzyatlava. Following are a few:

Moshke the child–maker: a cobbler, who made only childrens' shoes. By the way, he was blessed with many children.
Hersh the beard: a simple Jew, a painter with a long, broad, gray beard.
Zeydke the mother. Yosl the fisher [or pee–er]
Hertzl the grandmother,because he often mentioned his grandmother.
Hertzl the little girl: because he was bashful
Arele the pot kasha. Leyzer the bomb.
Khayim the ox.
Berl chicken–fat.
Khayim–Leyzer the hole: when he was called to the Torah in synagogue as a bridegroom, his bride asked from the women's section whether he could see her through the hole, to which he replied “yes.”
The idle government supplier.
The ox.
The cholent pot.
The filthy wagon–greaser
King David
The barley–soup.
Vove with the mustaches
The snout
Shimen the billy–goat
The chicken
Moyshe the billy–goat.
The klish [?]
David the turkey
The wagon–shaft.
The badgers.
The fatty woman.
The skuralapes [?]
Khane the new

Nicknames derived from surrounding towns

Lida folks.
Bielice thieves
Slonim fools
Kaulaishtshin goats.
Dworetz stuffed derma.
Meitchet sour milk.

Folk proverbs

“He is Shmaya–makes–a–living” – he buys everything.
“Guests at his wedding are the kids' Hertzl, the brat's Yosl” –i.e., low–class folk.
“Poor man, sip chicken broth.”
“Kiss Abe the yellow, you'll want more.”
“He too is not one of the two for a three kopeck/ruble coin/note.” [??]
“Here's a lazy person for you.”
“[…] busy all over again”
“He is a poor man with a sack full of stains.”
“A story without end, a pitcher without a lid” [rhymes in the original]
“Lived it up as though in Odessa, slept as though in Kaulaishtshin.
“Lost as though in a goose hole.”
“May you explode like a mountain.”
“But he too is not Yoshke the fool.” [possibly alluding to Jesus, who was often referred to by the nickname “Yoshke”]
“A cat flew over the roof and laid an egg.”
“When nails bloom.”
“It means as much to him as a sweet cake does to a horse.”
“He is as smart as a fish scale among people.”
“He looks like a cat in an apron.”
“For me, that's like a leap from Holovli to Zelva”–[ names of two villages in the Dzyatlava environs].
“He looks like a king commanding a battalion [a Biblical term for God], like a dog among nettles.”
“Kiss a bear under his tail.”
“An employee is like a crow who jumps from one pig to another.”
“Don't worry, you'll hold on till the new potato crop.”
“A yeshiva student is like a potato, you can make him into anything.”


“[May you be buried] with your head in the ground, with your feet in the church.”


Several Belorussian folk–sayings were commonly used in Dzyatlava, and thanks to their popularity can be included in Yiddish folklore. Here are some:[ I could not locate these sayings in the original]
Zavali darahu – a person who reserves a spot, doesn't use it himself and prevents others from using it.
Svaya sherimyazhka nye tshazhka: one's own shereminke is not hard.
Harsh pamiar (worse than death): no mind to lose.
Nye dai bokh muzhiku fanat bit.
Maya dyela tyelitsha – fadyeu da u khliyev: my business is calf–like: after eating – into the barn. This phrase is applied to an uncouth person, who is indifferent to everything.

Local expressions

s'iz tut mir vey” instead of “s'tut mir vey” – it hurts me. [This is an inversion of the Yiddish syntax used for this expression]
Izdzhek: mockery
Iron–smart: very smart.
Bizkl: a diminutive of biz, until.
Kanaste: young girl, young woman.
“Friday afternoon, inkwell”: a fool.


On Simchas–Toyre the cantor chants Ein Ke–Eloheynu in Yiddish, and the community repeats it in the original Hebrew.
On the eve of Yom–Kippur and Hoshana–Rabba, it was the custom to eat small cakes steeped in honey (according to Pinkes–Yekapa).


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