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Culture and Education


The First Library in Turiysk

by Mordechai Eliezer Perl

Translated by Yael Chaver

Donated by Rebeca Bialik Gilad

A rumor spread in the town that the modernizing young folks were about to establish a library. In fact, it was not very long until a library was created. Several dozen books were assembled, and one could borrow a book for a few kopecks.[1] By this time, it bothered no one. Girls and boys enjoyed reading works of fiction, and the reaction in town was, “Good for them! – anything is better than idleness.”

However, the following then occurred. One winter evening, a Talmud teacher came into the bes medresh and reported that, while he was resting after the midday meal, he overheard one student telling another a story about a boy and a girl, so rich in foul language that one's hair stood on end. He got up from the bench where he had been lying down, went over to the storyteller, and asked, “Where did you hear this tale?” The boy told him that his older sister was borrowing books from the library, and he had read this story in one of those books… The teacher concluded, “A boy who is steeped in foul language is no longer capable of studying Talmud and commentaries… it's either me, or them!”

Soon afterwards, a boy who had just graduated from cheder to bes-medresh and was poring over a volume of Talmud was hiding a secular book underneath it and reading. It proved to be a book by a free-thinker, about God and his Messiah.[2]

Both these events stirred up the community. “So, they are corrupting our children!” Reb Zelig Sass and Reb Berish Bal-takhles (Librakh), both impetuous men, decided that something needed to be done. They announced, one Saturday morning after prayers, that there would be a discussion of the library that day before the afternoon prayer. Reb Berish stepped up to the bimah that afternoon and began speaking:

“Fellow Jews! We send our children to cheder. Though we earn a poor living, we scrimp and pay the melamed's salary. We want our children to remain Jews!
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Yet now there is a library which causes our children, boys and girls alike, to stray from the path of Jewishness.”

“Not true!” one of the library's founders yelled, “our way is good.”
A general outcry arose: “Impudent! Impudent! Impudent! How dare he say that! Throw him out! Out of this holy place!” A few minutes later, he and his friends were outside.

As they stood on the street, the outcasts continued to shout: “We'll show them, the bench-warmers! We'll publish reports in the newspapers, and they'll be ashamed to show themselves outdoors…” The “libraryists” suspected that the Bes-medresh folks had agitated against them.

Two weeks later, there was another uproar in the town. This happened to fall on Purim. The newspaper Undzer Lebn arrived from Warsaw; its humor and satire page included a letter about the Turiysk library, with the following comment from the editors: “Spinoza resurrected in Turiysk.” The writer reports that the young progressives of Turiysk have taken Spinoza as their example and have initiated a fight against fanaticism. They have concluded that each generation has its own preacher; thus, they were the Spinozas of their generation. Unfortunately, the bes-medresh students started agitating against them, just as Spinoza had been attacked. This led to the progressive young men being cast out of the synagogue. They lamented their sad fate in the following poem.[3]

“We progressives, / who have suffered much / wish to free our town / and breathe new life into it.

“Spinoza, the philosopher / whose wisdom is boundless / was our model / yet we were kicked out.

“The bes-medresh-dwellers, barbarians, / who never court pretty women / thought that we / practice 'free love' / and campaigned / to have us thrown out of the bes-medresh…”

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The lament ends with a beseeching prayer to Enlightenment:

“Oh, you, Enlightenment, bright one! / You beautiful, splendid one! / It's time you illuminated our town too / Let them benefit/ from worldly knowledge / and not suffer / for lack of bread.”
It was signed by a name from the haftoyre.[4]

Although it was Purim, the community had totally forgotten about Haman. People talked only about Spinoza and his heirs in Turiysk. Everyone was sure that the library's founders were responsible. They were greeted on the street with a “Hello, Spinoza!” or “Blessed be God, who resurrects the dead!” There was a real Purim atmosphere in Turiysk.[5]

But who had really sent the letter to the newspaper? The library's founders bickered among themselves. They suspected each other of having written the letter on his own initiative. Each of them swore that he knew nothing about it.

“So who, after all, wrote in our name, and made us a laughing-stock throughout the world?” they asked.

“You know what I think?” one of them finally had a flash of inspiration. “I think… it was the bes-medresh guys! It's their prank!”

“It was they who took aim at us… and they certainly hit us!”

They decided that one of them would go to Warsaw, visit the editorial office, and explain everything. They did so the very next day. The progressive young man appeared before the editor, told him that the letter was not their doing, and complained about all the problems it had caused them.
“What are your demands?” the editor asked. “Should I deny everything?”

“No. Almost everything in the letter is true, but the style is meant to mock us. After all, you printed it in the 'Humor and Satire' section. And, in fact, the whole town is laughing at us.”

“I regret it very much. What can I do for you now?”

“Publish a note saying that the letter was not sent by the library's founders.”

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“But where does it say that you sent it? It is not signed by you.”

“The entire town says so,” replied the delegate, confused and embarrassed.

“Unfortunately, I cannot carry out your request. After all, we cannot issue a denial about what people say in your town. We ourselves did not see who wrote it. So sorry…”

Afterwards, the library folks avenged themselves on the bes-medresh guys: they obtained a photograph of a bes-medresh student, and re-photographed it together with a photograph of a shiksa.[6]
“Now do you see, Jews of Turiysk, who the bes-medresh students are!...”


Tarbut kindergarten in Turiysk[7]


School class with teacher


Translator's Footnotes
  1. Kopecks were the smallest denomination of coin. Return
  2. There is no further information about this book. Return
  3. I was unable to produce a rhymed translation, to mirror the original Yiddish text. Return
  4. Haftoyrah is the term for a pre-set biblical passage read out in synagogue after the weekly Torah reading. The readings are from the final two sections of the Bible: Prophets and Hagiographa. Return
  5. Purim, the holiday in which the deliverance of the Jews as told in the Book of Esther, is traditionally a time for merriment and light-heartedness, including play-acting. Return
  6. Shiksa denotes a non-Jewish woman, and carries a pejorative implication. Return
  7. Tarbut was a comprehensive network of secular Hebrew-language schools and other educational activities in Eastern Europe that was active mainly in the interwar period. Return


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