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[Page 289]

Cheders [Schools] and Melamdim [Teachers]

by Aryeh Struzman

Translated by Pamela Russ

Donated by Jeannette Gelman

The cheder consisted of one room in which the melamed lived and taught. The room was divided by the wall of an alcove.

The students called the teacher “Rebbe” and they would help the Rebbetzen [Rebbe's wife] get a bucket of water from Hershel Tuvia's well, from the spring that was always filled with water that streamed from the mountain, as well as from the well on Rozhanko Street near the ziegelnem sod [?].

It was a whole other chapter to dispose of the dirty water. There was no canal system, so the water had to be poured outside, and this was no simple feat because you had to be careful that a policeman shouldn't see you. Truthfully, there was no fear of an official penalty, but this was linked to bribing, that you had to give something into the hands of the policeman.

When we came into the cheder in the mornings, the smell of the bucket with the dirty water that had accumulated all night greeted us, along with …

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… the negel-vasser [water used to rinse hands directly upon awakening in the morning] that they poured from the copper cup that rested on the floor in the middle of the room. This seemed so natural, and no one imagined that this could be any different.

The furniture in the cheder consisted of a regular table made of raw wood that was once white, but little was left of that whiteness. The table was stained with ink, scratched and dented from the children's knives and nails.

Alongside the table were two long benches that would always shake because the legs were never even. One foot was always shorter or longer than the other. Opposite the Rebbe, was a sleeping bench [“cot”] that was banged together from a long chest, and inside were the straw mattresses, sacks filled with hard straw. The top cover was banged together from two or three boards. During the day, the sleeping bench served as a seat for the students, and at night this became a bed for the Rebbe's household family.

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The Rebbe sat at the head on a stool that was often the only seat in the house. Other than that, there was also a trunk, a sort of dark chest encircled with steel ties, in which they kept their clothes and laundry for everyone in the household.

 

Reb Menachem Melamed

Reb Menachem was the son-in-law of Reb Binyomin, the beadle [shamash] of the Beis Medrash. Reb Menachem had his own way of teaching. The weaker students, or those who were not interested in learning, he would keep close to him, so that he could pay more attention to them, so they would not bother the others, and so that they themselves should absorb more easily that which he was teaching them. He demanded that his students learn with a great passion, with a melody that he himself loved very much.

Just as the Rebbe would leave the cheder to go to the store to buy tobacco and cigarette paper to be able to smoke, or to the market to buy some wood to heat the kitchen, it was celebration time for the students. They immediately threw off the heavy yoke and the games began, joyous laughter, and sometimes even fights, where sometimes some of them threw off the shoes from their feet and their shouts reached up to the heart of heaven.

These opportunities came very often. The Rebbe had to go out often during the day to take care of all kinds of things. Sometimes he also had to quickly go into a rich businessman's home to remind him of the tuition fees or ask that for the upcoming term he should send his son to the Rebbe's cheder. The Rebbe also taught the older students. They learned, Gemara, Tosefos, and Maharsha [Talmud and commentaries] and so on. This ignored that we really wanted to play, which for a short few minutes we were able to do as we were freed from the yoke of learning.

Reb Menachem was a great scholar. But it was very difficult for him to earn a livelihood. He would split matches into two or three, which was one of his tricks to save money.

When he became angry at a student …

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… he would stuff his beard into his mouth, grab the table from both sides, lift it up, and bang it onto the floor, all the while shouting: “They are scoundrels!” A great fear would grip the students, but at the same time, they could not restrain themselves from laughter, as they watched the Rebbe's helpless rage that distorted his face.

 

Reb Boruch Bezalel Melamed

An elderly Jew, he would study in the winter evenings until late, and then tired, he would doze off in the middle of his class. His head would drop onto the table, with his yellow gray beard in front. This was a signal that one of the students should take out a small piece of wax from his pocket and stick the beard to the table. When the Rebbe awoke, he felt a sharp pain, but he could never figure out who had done this to him.

In Wlodowa, the Jewish children studied only in the cheders, the parents did not want to send them to the public school because they did not want them to sit without a head covering. Once a week, a teacher would come, an inspector of sorts, whose job it was to inspect whether the portrait of the Russian Czar Nikolai was hanging on the wall, if the cheder was clean, whether the students knew and learned the names of the Czar and Czarina, and then he would teach a few Russian words from a book.

Many times, a Jew would come with him, someone from Wlodowa, by the name of Eli Shreiber.

 

Eli Shreiber-Rosenblum

Many years have passed with so many life experiences, challenges and pains, but the figure of Eli Shreiber stands as if alive in front of my eyes.

He had a tall and straight figure, yellow beard, and wore a black jacket and round, Jewish hat. His shoes were always shiny, and he would always walk with a stick in his hands. He was an intelligent person, of the first enlightened people of those times.

In the marketplace, not far from Purozhinski's pharmacy …

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… there was a street that cut through that stretched to Jadko Street. There, in Moishe Mesh's house, Eli Shreiber had at that time, as it was called, the modern school.

The school was several rooms, in which there were several tables, footstools with holes into which to place the ink bottles, and shelves for notebooks and writing tools.

Every hour or two the students would change, separated into classes according to their knowledge. Eli Shreiber taught to speak and write Russian, math, calligraphy. Understandably, all these lessons were conducted in Yiddish.

At that time, there were already many Jews in Wlodowa who saw the need for knowing how to read and write Russian. But a large portion did not yet send their children to school. My father was one of those who recognized the importance of teaching the children to write Yiddish and Russian.

You just say it, so. Writing! To write Russian. I mean, writing something more than just a Russian address was in the category of miraculous in those times. My father was greatly admired for his beautiful handwriting. A real calligrapher! He knew how to write Russian, knew the rules of Russian spelling, and also knew the Latin alphabet.

Eli Shreiber would take a Russian reader in his hand, seat us on the benches around the table, turn our heads slightly to the side so that it would be comfortable to write, and then abruptly ask us: “Are you ready, children?” We all answered in unison that we were ready, and he said: “So, children, now write. But nicely and neatly.”

In any case, that “command” worked. It motivated us to be able to read and write, and in many instances, actually more than that.

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Shabbath, in Eli Shreiber's House

Shabbath morning, after reviewing the Torah portion of the week, finishing a cup of coffee, my father went right away to put on his jacket, and I was ready, carrying my father's talis under my arm, and together we went to Rozhanka Street, across from the ------ (?) to the house of Shmuel Gedalya, where Eli Shreiber lived on the second floor. In one room of the two-roomed apartment we gathered every Shabbath and Yom Tov [Jewish holiday] to pray. Among these who came were: Shmerl Barenholcz, Benny Barenholcz, Feigelson, whom I knew was a fine leader of the prayers [Baal Tefila], reader of the Torah portion [Baal Kriah], with a nice voice for singing, and all the while he was in an exceptional mood. Those Shabbaths, when I came there with my father to pray, are etched in my memory.

In Eli's house, there was the Zionist newspapers: “Die Welt” [The World], “Hatzefira” [The Dawn], “Hashachar” [The Morning], and all kinds of other journals.

We would sing the Friday night and Shabbath prayers with Zionist melodies. Before they would read the Torah, they would pledge monies for the Keren Kayemet [Jewish National Fund].

Particularly lively was the holiday of Simchas Torah, when the children would climb onto the tables, on the benches, sing and clap with their little hands, or squeeze into their parents' dancing.

With a longing that tugged at the heart, they sang “Al Eim Haderech” [On the Mother Road, a song about returning to Israel] and many other songs, with passion, with warm yearning for the land of our Fathers. This collective singing always ended with Hatikva and then each person wished the other “Leshana Haba'a Be'Yerushalayim [“Next year in Jerusalem”].

When we came home from Eli Shreiber's minyan [praying session], in everyone's heart there was this feeling that soon, soon, soon, the salvation for the Jewish People and their homeland was near.

 

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