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Chapter 4 {Cont.}

Page 95

Volunteer Theater

The young people of Sopotkin looked for redemption and substance to fill up the long winter evenings. They found the satisfaction in organizing a dramatic society. The members of this society put up different shows and presentations in the very spacious Teolin convent. In the vicinity of Teolin many convents were built by the Russian Czar around the Christian house of worship.

For years the relationship between the Jews and the priest was pretty good and he used to rent the hall of the convent for the theater shows. In the later years, with the death of dictator Pilsudoksi, the situation worsened. The anti-Semitism found its way also to Sopotkin. They could not rent anymore the hall in the convent. The town's council allowed them to use the hall which joined the public bath.

They put up the shows: "Hertsl the Aristocrat", "Reyzele the daughter of the Shochet" (religious slaughterer), "Joseph is Sold". Samuel, the Tailor, used to wear a dress and played the role of Potifar's wife and Esther, the queen. Achashveyroshe's hat was made from gold paper, and Mordechai, the righteous, had a beard made from lamb's skin. The tryouts took place in the long winter evenings and filled up the life of the youth.

The entire town was waiting for the big event: the theater performance. Several days before the performance volunteers gathered chairs from private houses, because in the convent hall were no chairs or benches to sit on. There was not any heat in the hall, they were very cold, but the spirit warmed them up.

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sop096.jpg [20 KB]
Dramatic Society of Sopotkin
Standing in the first row (from right to left):
1. Faytl Doktorski, 2. Golda Berkovski, 3. Zlatke Friedman, 4. Batyah Lipski,
5. Rachel Berkovski, 6. Todl Dulski
Sitting second row (from right to left):
1. Samuel Ayzik Levine, 2. Yehuda Leyb Idinski, 3. Reyzl Ivashkovski,
4. Toybe Friedman, 5. Aba Shadzunksi, 6. Tsivyah Dulski
Sitting third row (from right to left):
1. Yekusiel Gezes,, 2. Ben-Zion Zavl Shadzunski, 3. Chaim Ozer Poret

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A big problem was the promptitude. In every meeting or gathering, promptitude was lacking. According to the notice the show was supposed to begin at 8:00 p.m., but it never began on time. Sometimes they opened the curtain at 11:00 p.m. The players knew that the people would not come on time, and the people did not hurry to be present on time in the theater. It was known that Beyle-Sorl is enjoying her ride on a sled and will not miss anything if she comes late.

Winter time the presentation finished after midnight and the crowd walked home in the deep snow about 2 kilometers from the convent to the town.

Later on, when different Zionists movements came to being, the shows were more frequent and more modern.

The decorator and the man who did make up (cosmetics) was Mr. Poret. He was the artist, the painter and the photographer in town. The best actor and stage manager was Ben Zion Zard Shadzunski. From his young age he had artistic talents. When he grew up, he organized a dramatic club of members his age and later on he became an instructor and trainer of young people who had the ability to perform on stage. And so he became a central pillar of the dramatic society in Sopotkin. Thanks to him, every month a new play was put on.

He was very talented, had a strong dramatic power which he could not develop. The town did not have any source of development. He could be one of the great stars in dramatics if possibility would be given to him.

He distinguished himself not only as an actor, he was a fine speaker having a nice sweet voice.

Page 98

Celebrations and Holidays

Wedding Celebrations

Weddings in the town took place in the synagogue square, which served as cultural center and spiritual center. In town were three synagogues: the old worship house – stone building, the new house of worship – wooden building and the ancient synagogue from the 17 century. This was a building in the Japanese style.

The main boss at the weddings was the sexton (shamesh) of the new synagogue – Yosl Aharon, a learned man, a quarrelsome person and a little absent-minded. His helper was Ben David Lipa, a little retarded person.

Yosl Aharon was the emissary for all kinds of celebrations. He used to bring the equipment needed for the chupa (canopy) and with his hoarse voice called out: "Make way for the groom!"

The orchestra was composed of gentiles and the leader was the Pole, Rifka. He played the fiddle and he knew all the Yiddish wedding songs: "Sorele", "Bride and groom -mazel-tov", spoke Yiddish and of course had much pleasure eating "gefilte fish."

The weddings were arranged on Fridays mostly before sunset. In spite that Friday was market day, almost the entire town was gathered in synagogue square.

The Jews used to come to welcome the bride and groom very neatly dressed and clean after using the public bath.

All of them arranged themselves in long lines with color candles in their hands.

Rifka and his orchestra entertained the people with happy songs waiting for the groom. After the bride swallowed from the cup of wine, which Yosl Aharon gave her, she began approaching her house at the sound of trumpets and drums. At the entrance of her home stood her relatives and friends with color candles in their hands. At the door a big bride’s cake was waiting for her high above the gathered guests.

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But before she could enter, some professional jesters took hold on the cake, cut it in pieces and in one short time, the cake was gone. The jesters could be seen at every wedding in town.

On Shabbat all the relatives by marriage were honored with "Aliyot" coming up to the Torah and to say blessings over the Torah and at the same time pledge some money for charity ("Tsedaka"). After the services on Shabbat the guests were gathered in the bride’s home for light refreshments. At the conclusion of Shabbat a big party was arranged in the bride's home.

The High Holidays – (Yamim Nora'im)

The life in the town had different expressions and different appearances according to the Jewish holidays.

The days of "Selichot" (prayers said during the days preceding the High Holidays and on fast days) were the days of the big common help. On those days many poor Jews with their families used to arrive in Sopotkin because they knew that somebody would surely care for them. Avraham, the Carpenter, put up a whole house to the disposition of the unfortunate poor Jews. Some of them expressed their appreciation and thanks to his righteous wife who supplied them with oil for Passover which she prepared, or all kinds of medicine which she made ready for her fellow Jews. They thanked her saying: "May we never have to use it." Her drugs were: spirillum (bacterium) for perspiration and black berries as a measure against constipation, etc.

It was a special custom of receiving poor people into everyone’s house. Every Jew in town who respected himself used to invite a poor Jew for the Shabbat meal.

With this beautiful custom distinguished himself the Jew, Liptchak. He was compared to our father Abraham who was well known as "Machis Orchim" (the one who always invites guests). At his table sat a number of poor Jews. In order to feed them all, many pots of food had to be prepared.

The atmosphere of the High Holidays was not only of common help, it was also introspection and spiritual stocktaking. The holiday atmosphere reached its climax on Yom Kippur in the time of "Neila Service" (closing service). Thrill went through the hearts during the hearty prayers of the Rabbi in the new synagogue. This was a hearty, wonderful prayer. Everyone felt that the gates of heaven opened for the prayers and supplications. Who could stand against the supplications of the Rabbi, which came out from heart and entered the heart of every Jew.

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His words were like an electric stream that hit all gathered in the house of worship. Their eyes were covered with tears and a silent cry went up, up to heaven.

The Holiday of Succoth

The town was surrounded with forests and the branches of fir trees were the best for "Sechach" (cover the succah). The very pious Jews began to build the succah in the evening after Yom Kippur was over. After the succah was built from different kinds of material, the decoration of the succah wall came next.

The rich people, who owned their homes, built their succah when the foundation of the house was put up. They built the house with a part of the roof which could be opened when Succot came. It was only the problem to get some branches from the woods and cover the top of the succah.  The rest was the children's job to decorate the walls of the succah with all kinds of pictures.

Happiness and joy came into every Jewish home with the arrival of the Holiday of Succot. It was a very happy festival.

Page 101

Chapter 5

From the Characters of the Past

Page 103

The Peoples' Teachers

Moshe Dunski – Teacher and ink manufacturer

Moshe Dunski was a teacher for children ages six. He taught the children the alphabet, reading and writing. The school year lasted one year and after the year the pupils were replaced with other six year old children. He could not make a living from only teaching, so he had additional work: manufacturing ink. Therefore his fingers were always black and dirty.

Mordechay-Yitschak Filbinski – Teacher and social worker

In Filbinski's "Cheder" (school) the students learned from eight in the morning until eight in the evening. Mordechay Yitschak distinguished himself not only as a teacher but also as a good social worker who helped people in need. He founded by himself a fund for "Gemilut Chasadim" (act of kindness) and every Friday he did his holy work: he walked from house to house, collected penny to penny in order to help the poor needy people by giving them loans without interest.

Every Friday he used to go from house to house to collect donations and to get back the loans which he gave before. He used to give loans after he got a deposit or security like a watch, a chain, etc.

Meir Schreiber – Tutor and pedagogue

A shrunken Jew, crowning with a sparse and thin beard, was considered the best teacher in town. He accepted to his "Cheder" children ages five and above. They used to sit around a long table on which the book "Reshit Daat" (The Beginner) was situated. This was the Hebrew alphabet book with nice drawings and pictures. His method of teaching was: He used to read in a loud voice – "Komats Alef! (O)", "Komats Bet v (BO)", "Komats Giml # (GO)". All the pupils had to repeat after him in a loud voice.

Page 104

He used to write in every students notebook the letters with a pencil, and the student had to trace the letters with a pen. The learning lasted until eight in the evening. The older children returned home and in their hand holding lanterns made out of paper and in the middle was a burning candle.

With the end of World War I, Rabbi’s Meir's "Cheder" (school) was the best in town. He was a man with much knowledge in "Talmud" and most of his time he devoted in teaching "Gemarah". In addition, he taught Hebrew and "Tanach" (Prophets).

He had his own teaching methods and special pedagogue means to make his teaching profession more successful. He knew very well how to tell fables and stories and his students gave the utmost attention to him.

He became famous among his pupils, thanks to his story about the "Tevat Hadibur – Box of Speech". And here is the essence of the story: In every person there is a "Box of Speech" an he must watch over the box all the time. He has to try hard not to squander and not to spend the treasures of the speech hidden in his box. If the person made the box empty before time, the person would become dumb. The children believed every word which came from their beloved teacher, Reb Meir.

Chaim Hirsh Yelin – Tutor and teacher

He was the founder of the modern school, "Hacheder Hametukan." This school opened after the First World War came to an end. Yelin himself was the educator, principal and teacher for all subjects. He distinguished himself in teaching Hebrew grammar and Tanach (prophets). He saw in teaching a holy mission and devoted to it with all his heart and soul. In his school the youth got knowledge. He was the first real teacher in town.

Page 105

Image of Ordinary People

Todres – People's man, happy with his portion of life

He was perpetual and strong just like the foundation of the old synagogue. His body was solid and made with no forbearance. He never let a tear come down from his eyes and he never became excited from any tragic event. It appeared that his age did not leave any mark on his face and body. His beard was split in the middle, here and there was seen gray hair. Summer and winter he wore fisherman-boots which went up over the knees. His caftan (kapote) was gray on Shabbat as well as on weekdays. He almost never changed his outfit.

Water carrier

In the beginning he was a water-carrier. A central well was in town in the middle of the market place. The water from that well had a special taste. Many were those who preferred its water. He supplied water to most of the Jewish families in Sopotkin. It was very hard work, especially in the winter time. He did his work with happiness and kindness to the satisfaction of his many customers.

Gravedigger and undertaker

In the course of time he found himself a new profession – gravedigger and undertaker. He did his job with all his devotion, heart and with complete faith. He saw in his job as a caretaker the fulfillment of a holy "Mitzvah" (commandment), the commandment of arranging a funeral according to our religion with all its details which are written in our holy Torah. He used to get up very early in the morning and very often in the middle of the night. In the long winter nights, in freezing weather, in deep snow were heard the steps of Todres making his long and hard way over the mountain outside the town, to the new cemetery.

As soon as he approached the cemetery, he felt he was in his own home. He knew and recognized every corner and every lot ("Karka") in the cemetery. Despite the fact that everything was covered with snow and ice he could find the resting place of every deceased Jew.

Page 106

And this is how he used to do his job as gravedigger: First of all he removed the snow and ice, dug four feet in the ground and prepared the grave. When his work was done, he used to take out from his pocket a bottle of whisky or spirit and drank, but he never was drunk.

As he finished his work at night, winter or summer, in a rain or snow, he entered the grave and waited there until morning. According to the customs, it is forbidden to leave an empty grave.

Nobody from the burial society ("Chevra Kaddisha") could compete or take his place. Todres was the only one in his profession.

Todres fulfilled the "Mitzvah" (commandment): "Sleeping on Shabbat is a pleasure". He did not sleep at home but in a room of the old synagogue. The room was call "Kloyz" (sort of a chapel) where the Jews prayed during the weekdays. There were kept all the burial articles. As a blanket he used the cover which was used to cover up the deceased before the funeral. He folded it and used it as pillow. And this way Todres fulfilled the "Mitzvah" of sleeping on Shabbat.

Helper to the Shamesh (Sexton)

His profession as a gravedigger and caretaker did not give him enough to make a living. He looked for an additional job and he became the helper and deputy to the old sexton in the old synagogue – Moshe. He did only the hard work in the synagogue and did not dare to do the "delicate" piece of work like: inviting guests to a wedding, announcing the beginning of the services, inviting worshipers to go up to the Torah ("Aliyah"), etc.

His work was limited to supply drinking water, lighting a fire in the stoves winter time, and washing the floor. He kept the very old synagogue very clean, much cleaner than the other two synagogues. He carried out his function as the helper and deputy of Moshe, the Shamesh (sexton) with love and devotion.

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The old Shamesh, Moshe, was just the complete opposite of Todres. He knew how to use and to get knowledge from books. He also served as a tutor ("Melamed") of little children. He was known for his beautiful handwriting. Most of the women, who did not know how to write well, came to Moshe the sexton with a request to write letters to their relatives who immigrated to different foreign countries. The style of the letters was almost identical. In every letter he presented a sad story, how poor they are here, how much they suffer, how hard it is to make a living here, and how miserable they are. And every letter had the same song at the end: "May we all hear the same thing from your mouth" (Yiddish: "Dos zelbe fun ayeh tsu hern.")

Hashamash – The Sexton

One beautiful day the town of Sopotkin became a burning boiler, a predicament. The Sexton's daughter converted to Christianity and married one of the young Poles, the machinist in the flour-mill that was working with the power of steam.

The town could not restrain itself because of the shame and Moshe, the Shamesh, was forced to resign from his position as the main sexton. Todres inherited his place and despite a large opposition of some worshipers of the old synagogue, he got the job and served the synagogue with all his might very faithfully.

Despite the fact that he became the main Shamesh, he continued to do the dirty work with the same devotion as before. He used to get up early in the morning, before one can distinguish between blue and white, filled the washbasin with water, kindled the ovens in winter and together with all this, he had time to wake up the worshipers on the High Holidays for the first "minyan" (early service).

He did not have to knock on the window shutters. The Jews who were used to praying at the early "minyan" woke themselves at the sound of Todres' boots.

He remained in the synagogue very late, waiting until every one left the house of worship, those who came to learn and those who came late to warm their bodies at the warm oven.

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One of this kind of people was Yankl-Pinye the "Cantonist"[1]. He always had a lot of stories to tell from the past days of the czar of Russia, and about the Russia-Japan war. He told stories about the faraway East and about the many miracles and wonders that happened to him in the time of his wandering as a soldier in the czar's army.

He was snatched in Sopotkin at his very young age together with Aryey, the Smith's father, and they both served in the czar's army for twenty-five years.

Todres never had the audacity to chase out Yankl-Pinye from the synagogue as he often did the other late sitters.

At last when Yankl-Pinye finished telling this story in order to tell more of his adventures the next evening and the following days, Todres gave out a loud sigh and with one exhalation he blew out the synagogal lectern. He respected and honored very much the Torah Scrolls and behaved toward them like a mother behaved to her infant. He was always very careful not to hold the Torah too close to his chest with his strong arms.

He had a fantastic memory. Just as he remembered the burial place of each and everyone for three generations, the same way he remembered the memorial day ("Yortzeit") of everyone in the town. He always reminded every family of the "Yortzeit" in advance, and lit a memorial candle in the synagogue.

Among others, his duty was to wind up the big clock which was hanging high up near the ceiling in the old synagogue. Something was very common between Todres and the clock. The clock, just like Todres, never stood still, never was too fast and never too slow, always on time. He always operated with hours and not with seconds. For example, if somebody asked Todres the time, Todres answered, "A little bit to six or "a little bit after six."

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Todres – The Person

Todres lived at the end of the "New Street". He had a wife and one son, almost an "intelligent". Todres' profession – shoemaker. His wife was a strong woman – the boss in the house. He handed over to her every penny that he earned. The food which she prepared was very far from good and tasty. He was satisfied with a bowl of soup and a loaf of bread straight from the oven. On his way from the bakery to his house he would eat up almost the entire loaf, bringing only a small part with him.

  1. The name "cantonistim" or "snatchers" were Jewish children in Russia in the first half of the 19th century who were snatched from their home by Jewish emissaries from the czar. The unfortunate Jewish children were brought to the homes of Russian peasants. After they grew up they were taken to the Russian army where they served 25 years. Return

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