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[Page 118]

The City And Its Inhabitants

 

A Branch to Two Trunks

by Haim Raday (Jerusalem)

(I am a native of Bendery and I belong to two families. One is the Shabtai Berman family and the other is that of Rabbi Shimon Shlomo Wertheim. Both families are worthy of entire books, but this is a shorter version.)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

The two families were quite different with opposing approaches and views about everything– particular and in general. They were even different when it came to Zionism. However, both families were dedicated to the town and contributed to its growth. One gave money and wisdom and the other its intelligence and goodness.

It is difficult to describe Bendery in those days without these two central figures– R. Shabtai Berman (I am his grandson, the son of Moshe) and R. Shloimke Wertheim. The former was an enthusiastic follower of Chabad, wealthy, extremely pious and definite in his Judaism. He would fight for his people even with the authorities. He reminded you of a character in the literature of Mendel Mocher Seforim. This was my grandfather Shabtai Berman. He lived his entire life in Bendery and was an opponent of Zionism. He sent his sons to a Lubavitch yeshiva. He was fortunate to make Aliyah and died in Jerusalem at the age of 96 and was buried in Sanhedria.

On the other hand, my other grandfather, Shloimke, was a scholar and well–versed in world affairs. He was a Torah expert and an authority on all Jewish texts, but he was also worldly. He had five sons. The first, R. Yosele became a Rabbi while the second, R. Leibl was a businessman. The three younger ones – Avremel, Duvid and Srulik were active in Zionist affairs. They graduated from high school and traveled to Odessa to continue their studies. On the way they cut off their ear locks, their beards and “lost” their black hats. The father understood that he could not win and he accepted the new winds of progress in the world.

There is a story about Avremel who was studying in Odessa. He came home to Bendery for Passover and was visited by a friend from Odessa. The latter did not look Jewish since he wore a Russian–type hat. When he knocked on the door, my grandfather opened it. The guest asked “Is this the home of Avraham Solomonovich?”. Grandfather, with his beard and curly ear locks, wearing a long black coat and a fur hat, told him in poor Russian:”Okay, if you call Avremel Avraham, I can understand that. However, since when am I Solomonovich? What's wrong with you? What kind of Solomonovich am I ? Pheh! Since you have already come, you may enter and I will call your Avraham Solomonovich.”

His answer demonstrated his opposition to modernity and a reluctance to accept new terms and trends. However, he tacitly agreed with them. My grandfather, the chief Rabbi, was excited by Zionism and dreamed of Eretz Israel. He organized groups of supporters in Bendery and surrounding area– about 100 families. In spring 1913, on the eve of World War I, he went, on their behalf, to Eretz Israel. He spent a few months there and negotiated with the Sheikh of Ramle (an Arab village then) to purchase some of his land. He then went to Baron de Rothschild in Paris to obtain his support for the settlement of these 100 families. War broke out suddenly and he was obliged to return in a roundabout way home. He had to go through Scandinavia in the north to reach Bendery. He did not complete the negotiations.

On this voyage he was accompanied by a beloved Bendery resident– Shimon Kharker. Upon his return there was a beautiful reception in my grandfather's synagogue. During his speech and his stories about the Holy Land, there was much emphasis, as was customary of all the Jews of Bendery, on food. This is what he said in his colorful Bessarabia Yiddish:”Eretz Israel is a strange land where the poor eat oranges, figs and pomegranates while the rich are obese because they eat too many potatoes”. It must be noted that in those days, potatoes where not easily available in Eretz Israel.

My grandfather Wertheim's house stood in the center of town on Komandantskaya Street (not far from the central church square). It served as a meeting place for brilliant students, emissaries and the grandchildren of this large rabbinic family. In 1910, a huge fire eliminated the house, synagogue, warehouses and a new “modern” building was erected in place. There were also stores attached. During the short period of time until World War I broke out the story was told that not a night would pass without guests there. My grandfather always welcomed strangers with open arms saying:”You can eat as much as you want, but the sleeping arrangements are by a schedule”.

Grandfather was widowed at a relatively young age. My grandmother, Miriam–Rivka, died in childbirth with her umpteenth child. He was left with ten children. He remarried, but it was unsuccessful. He married again, the daughter of the judge of Bendery and this time it worked. She was known as Auntie Bobka. As was true of all rabbinic homes, there was great poverty. The children slept two to a bed and some even on benches or chairs brought in from the synagogue. His salary was paid by the community on a weekly basis every Thursday night. This was the day for slaughtering cattle for the Sabbath. If there was not enough income to pay the taxes and the judges, Auntie Bobka would find a private loan. In her dining room there were many charity boxes (Meir Haness, Modiin Yeshiva, Bridal Fund, and Help for the Needy) which she would fill every week. However, when there was no salary payment she would open these charity boxes and borrow from them. She used to place notes inside acknowledging receipt of a specific sum. When she had money she would repay these loans, even adding to them. R. Meir would receive a dividend.

In contrast to Grandfather Shabtai, grandfather Shloimke did not have succah built. At the end of Yom Kippur he would place a stake in the yard for the succah that leaned on the stairs to the women's auxiliary of the synagogue.

The person who built the succah every year was Zalman Hanger. He was a stout man, very pious who worked as a day laborer all day. One day he injured his finger badly with an axe. He tore off part of his shirt, bandaged his finger, and continued working. Grandfather came out and ordered him to stop working and to go to the hospital. He did not wish to do it since he was a daily laborer and if he stopped working, how would he feed his family? The argument continued, but finally he listened to Grandfather and went to the medic. He had to miss a few days of work and upon his return he refused payment for time missed. Grandfather threatened him that he would take him to the Jewish court. For the sake of peace and to honor the Rabbi, he accepted the money.

*

 

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The Rabbi's Synagogue The “Rabbi's” Synagogue

 

It was built in 1886 by the late sainted Rabbi Itzikel and was renovated in 1936 (50th anniversary). Financial support was given by the Bendery Society of Brooklyn, New York.

There was an elderly woman who lived in my grandfather Shimon–Shlomo's house. No one knew how old she was and why she was there or how she came to Bendery. She became an essential part of the household, but no one knew what she was doing there. After some years, a legend grew about her– that she was widowed and arrived at the Rabbi's house in Bendery. Her surname was unknown and probably not even those close to the rabbi knew it. She was known as Auntie Etel.

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There was a Jewish man in Bendery by the name of Saltonovitch. He was a widower who owned a store selling dishes and other household goods. His store was the first one in the circle at the entrance to town. There were others in town by the name of Saltonovitch and to distinguish him from them he was referred to as “the one from the church square”. One day, Auntie Etel entered the store to buy a glass bowl. She chose one and began to bargain with him. It was a late spring afternoon and Saltonovitch asked her:”Auntie Etel, why do you need this bowl?” She replied:”To eat from it”. Said the man:”Why don't you buy a larger bowl and we will from it together.”

It was a good match.

*

Grandfather Shabtai was very wealthy. It was said that he was not like other millionaires who have thousands of rubles. He really had 1 million rubles in Moscow.

Truthfully, he had many properties. He had a leasing contract good for many years of the Gerbovitzi forest and a large part of the swamps of the Dniester where reeds would grow. When the swamps froze in the winter, the locals would cut down the reeds. The crop was given over to the military and also sold to the residents for use in lighting furnaces.

At the onset of World War I, on a Friday night, there was an exchange of fire between the Romanians trying to conquer Bendery and the retreating Russian army. Bombs fell in the swamps and in the warehouses containing the reeds that had been cut. Everything was burned in the ensuing fire. The town was covered in soot and ashes. When R. Shabtai came back from synagogue he brought some guests home for Kiddush. It turned out that he no longer had to worry about his properties and could spend his time learning Torah and doing good deeds.

Grandmother Charna died in spring 1924 on a Shabbat morning. Grandfather still went to synagogue and made Kiddush upon his return. He ordered the table to be set as always, but forbade singing.

All that day no one, especially the grandchildren, was allowed to shed any tears or even to be sad since it was Shabbat. As soon as Havdalah was completed the wailing and mourning began. The youngest daughter began to sob and to scream: “What shall we do? What shall we do?” Grandfather approached her, slapped her and said: “Why are you asking? If something could have been done, wouldn't I have done it? Everything is in God's hands! God gives and God takes away. May his name be sanctified.”

Grandfather Shimon–Shlomo went to Eretz Israel to establish a new settlement of Bessarabian Jews. He returned to Bendery close to Purim. His impressions of the Holy Land and his enthusiasm for religious Zionism are shown in some of the letters he sent his family and that have been preserved.

When he returned from Eretz Israel there was a reception in his honor in the synagogue. Hundreds of Jews crowded the synagogue while thousands remained outside due to lack of space. My grandfather said the Gomel blessing and praised Eretz Israel.

On this trip to Eretz Israel, grandfather was accompanied by his youngest son, Srulik, who stayed to study at the Herzliah High School. When Russian citizens were evacuated he returned to Bendery through Egypt and the Balkans. After his stay in Eretz Israel he spoke Hebrew well and remained a loyal Zionist. He was killed during the Holocaust.

*

In the house of my grandfather R. Shimon–Shlomo there was a Gabbai, not of the synagogue, but only for the Rabbi. His name was R. Nahman and he served as sort of a rabbi. The Wertheim family had been rabbis for generations and only my great–grandfather, R. Itzikel, did not want to serve as a rabbi. He worked as a judge in the Jewish court of our town. My grandfather, R. Shimon–Shlomo continued along this road.

R. Nahman Gabbai was already an old man during my childhood. It is said that he worked for seven years serving three generations. Tradition tells us that he liked a drink. He would pass a keg and would taste from it. He enjoyed life. When the Rabbi discovered the truth he sadly expelled him. After that, R. Itzikel took his place.

R. Nahman was a short and rotund man with a hawk nose and thick eye brows. He had a beard and long ear locks. He was a healthy man and a good–hearted one. He was always happy and liked the old and the young. Unfortunately, he liked his liquor, but he did not know how to control it. Once, at a Purim meal, when the food was tasty and drinks were plentiful, all the wine at the table was finished. Grandfather hinted to R. Nahman to go to the cellar and refill the jugs. R. Nahman took the two jugs and left. Time passed and he did not return.

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Grandfather sent the sexton to see where R. Nahman had gone. A few minutes later, the sexton returned with the jugs and reported that he found R. Nahman lying on top of the barrel sleeping with the hose in his mouth! He obviously had decided to sample the wine and fell asleep.

 

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R. Nahman Gabbai – In the Synagogue of the Wertheim Dynasty

 

Another time Grandfather sent him to Kaushany to buy two barrels of wine– the best in the area. R. Nahman came to the village, went to the kosher vineyard and went down to the large cellar. With a goblet in his hand he tasted from every barrel. He was enjoying life. After his tour he turned to the vineyard owner and praised his product. He believed that the wine in barrel number 16 was the best. He wanted to assure himself by pouring another goblet. It was rumored that there were 120 barrels in the wine cellar.

In his old age, when he was over eighty years old, closer to ninety– R. Nahman became ill and quite weak. He was admitted to the Jewish hospital where he drove everyone crazy. He wanted to know what was wrong with him and they would not tell him. Finally, the doctor told him was suffering from Pleurisy. When he asked what it meant the doctor told him he had water inside his chest. “I have water!” yelled R. Nahman. “May those who pour, headed by Hershel Kunitzer, die! Such scoundrels, criminals, liars! It is their fault that I am sick. It is because they mixed water with their wine!”

There is another story connected to the hospital. As is well–known, Grandfather Shabtai was one of the founders of the hospital and was always involved in its management. He was very pious and impatient and was a tough supervisor. On the other hand, R. Shimon–Shlomo, the town rabbi, was peace–loving and kind. He got along well with people.

In the early 1920s there were many refugees from Russia who arrived in Romania. Among them was Leibl Glantz, the famous cantor (he died in Israel a few years ago). He was young, handsome and single, but he was already well–known as an excellent cantor. Grandfather, influenced by his sons who were members of Zeirei Zion, wanted to invite him to lead services on Shabbat. He needed the income. However, R. Shabtai, his in–law objected to allowing this young beardless fellow to lead the services. Grandfather Shimon –Shlomo replied:”Let's marry him off to Dora Markovna! He will have a wife and a beard”. Dora was the head nurse in the hospital, but she was an old maid and had a beard…

In spite of his hard headedness, R. Shabtai could not help but burst out in laughter upon hearing this original idea. He agreed to allow Leibl Glantz to lead the services that Shabbat. This performance paved the way to his being offered a position as the chief cantor in Kishinev and eventually in America. He made Aliyah after Israel became a state.

There was another man who was nicknamed the Innards Guy, because he dealt in innards. He spent many years enjoying the hospitality of my grandfather, the rabbi. Some say it was twenty years and others think it was thirty and maybe even more. He arrived in Bendery from a village in Volyn where he left a wife and children. He searched for a religious home where he could serve. No one knew how he came to the house of R. Itzikel.

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In any event, he was important in our lives since he was considered part of the family even though he did not have an official position. He lived in a small windowless room near the synagogue. He kept his wares there too. He was sickly and had a deep cough, but he would always appear when help was needed. His talent was to be the tenth man for a minyan. This was always a special honor. Perhaps he did it because he was close to the synagogue entrance.

One day the man disappeared and no one knew what had happened to him. It was rumored that he died in Kishinev and was buried there.

*

There was also Zalman who was a tiny man. He had jet black hair, a thick beard and unusual eyebrows. He was near–sighted, almost blind. He had been born in Bendery, a member of a family that had been there for generations. He was not a successful man and even when he was young he could not even work as a laborer.

At last Zalman was appointed as the sexton in my grandfather's synagogue…


The Last Survivor of the Holy Man's Family

By Leah Steiner (Tel Aviv)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

(To this day, I mourn the loss of my Feigale!)

It happened on the morning of Tisha B'Av 1926: a young woman, slim and pale with coal black eyes, entered the secret police headquarters (Sigurantza). Our town had been previously conquered by the Romanians. She seemed scared and begged the police officer to “arrest me because I killed by aunt”…

However, the police officer did not understand what she was saying and threw her out of the station. She subsequently went to the shore of the Dniester and jumped in the water. Thus ended her short life–it was full of suffering.

*

It was Feigale, the granddaughter of Rabbi Levi Darbrimediker and a great–granddaughter of the Tzadik of Bendery. The elders in town always told wonderful magical tales about the latter. Feigale was born in a Ukrainian village in the house of her maternal grandfather the Rabbi from Tzitzilnik. Her mother died young and Feigale was brought to our town at the age of seven. She lived with her paternal grandfather, Rabbi Levi. I first met her at a Kiddush prepared by her grandmother, Itele the Rebbetzin, in her honor. I recall tables laden with food. The women who were invited, among them my mother, were charmed by this intelligent and knowledgeable young girl. We, the other young girls, were drawn to her because she was attractive, sociable and a lover of games.

When Feigale arrived, her grandfather's “shtiebl” [a small synagogue located in a home] was no longer in fashion. R. Levi was quite elderly and weak and all accommodations in the courtyard meant for visitors were falling apart. They contained broken down furniture and moth–eaten clothing. We played in these areas– hide–and–go–seek, hopscotch, mock weddings, etc. The spiders spun their webs, the geckos climbed the walls and the ceilings, rats peeked through the floors. It seemed as if they all took part in our games.

In the front of the yard was Rabbi Levi's tiny synagogue whose ceiling was sloping and falling. On holidays and Shabbat one could still hear the sounds of prayer and the singing of the followers and their rabbi. On week days we would lock ourselves inside hoping we would not be discovered. There we read the first books translated into Russian – The Prince and the Pauper, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and the works of Tolstoy, Pushkin, Gorky, Dostoyevsky and others. Feigale identified herself with the orphaned and miserable protagonists. She was kind–hearted and would share her last penny and her simple food with the poor. She also prayed and kept fast days.

I remember that on Yom Kippur she was the only girl in the Women's Auxiliary. She fasted and prayed fervently all day. She seemed to be hovering in a pious and pure world. During the Third Meal in the shtiebl she stood near her grandfather. He blessed the wine with reverence and she held the Havdalah candle with her face shining.

Not too long afterwards her grandfather, the beloved rabbi Levi, died. Soon, her grandmother Itele also died and Feigale remained alone with her aunt Sarale, a bed–ridden invalid.

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These two souls earned their livelihood by selling all valuables and jewelry in the house. Feigale graduated from high school and was considered gifted. However, in our town it was not the custom to encourage talent and to award scholarships. She hoped to attend university, but she did not succeed.

Every winter the winds and snow did more damage to the house and they lived among the debris. The invalid was affected by this terrible existence and her piety made her lose her mind. Feigale was a victim of tantrums even though she was loved. The invalid imagined that Feigale was sewing on Rosh Hodesh– when it is forbidden or that she made some dish treif. Perhaps the meat was not soaked long enough or Feigale sold items without telling her. Everything was accompanied by hysterics with Feigale trying to calm her down.

What actually happened on that fateful morning of Tisha B'Av? Who knows? It can be surmised that on this fast day the invalid had a hysterical attack and accused Feigale of all kinds of things. Feigale, on her part, tried to calm her down, as usual. Even now I can almost hear her voice begging: “Stop. Stop. I will lose my mind because of you”. Sometimes I can see her hugging and kissing her aunt and asking her to calm down. All was in vain. Suddenly she saw an item in her hand and she was tempted to scare her by showing it to her. If the aunt would stop her yelling, Feigale could go back to her books.

Her gentle hand that always comforted the invalid now became a weapon. Afterwards there was no one left to hug and to kiss and from whom to beg forgiveness.


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Reminiscences of My Father's House

By Mordechai Sever (Tel Aviv)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

“When I reminisce about the good times, I must mention, the ritual slaughterer, Rabbi Moshe Sever, who is still with us. He collected the sayings of our sages of blessed memory and published them. We still use this literature and I thank him in the name of all those who read his words.”

(From a speech made by the third president of the State of Israel, Sh. Z. Shazar on the 23rd day of Av in 1963 in Zichron Yaakov, on his “Voyage of Reminiscences”.

 

Bendery– capital on the Dniester

Our town on the Dniester was beautiful. It had a Turkish name– Bendery. It was a capital district town in Bessarabia, Russia. The town was surrounded by mountains and hills and had many fruit orchards, vineyards and forests. During harvest time there was much work, bustle and hustle, selling of produce and its transport. However, in times of blight and drought many Jewish residents were in dire economic conditions. They even suffered from the cold in the winter. Originally, the tsarist authorities did not allow them to live a healthy and economic life. In addition, during the rainy season there were unbelievable puddles and swamps in the streets. People would earn their living by transporting passers–by from one side of the street to the other. They used carts or carried them on their backs.

Nearly half the population of the town was Jewish. The community was independent in nature and was well organized. There were 14 synagogues and there were many members of the clergy and public leaders, Hassidim and Mitnagdim, many educational and cultural institutions, a Hebrew–Yiddish–Russian library and even a Hebrew High School. The school was one of the first to exist in the Diaspora and was founded in 1912 by the late Dr. Schwartzman. The school held many activities of the youth movements, sports groups and drama clubs (in Yiddish and Russian). There was also the Hazamir choir that was founded during World War I. It performed in Jewish communities on the other side of the Dniester. There were also presentations to collect money for charities such as “Help for the Sick”, “Clothes for the Poor”, etc. and for any people who were in need.

With the help of R. Yitzhak Nissenboim, a wealthy man in town, and others, a hospital and Seniors Residence were erected. There were also Jewish bath houses. Due to this foresight there was a strong Jewish community. Russian newspapers, edited by Jews, were published and they wrote about the community. They were even read in the rest of the world. The newspapers also attracted talented writers and poets who gave their opinions about ongoing events. Commerce, small industry, flour mills, printing houses, tea houses and saloons were all in the hands of Jewish residents. They mostly served the farmers in the area.

 

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The Dniester River

 

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This was Bendery on the eve of World War I. My father was born there and received his education for most of his young years. He established a family when he married my mother Rachel who was always a big help to him.

 

David had a Violin…

My father served as a ritual slaughterer although he was ordained as a rabbi. It turns out that he even served as a rabbi and ritual slaughterer in Bolgrod two years earlier. My paternal grandfather, R. Israel, the ritual slaughterer in Bendery, became ill and was told by doctors to quickly change climates. He made Aliyah in 1907 and his position became available. He recommended that my father take his place and that he would send my grandfather some money to help him in Eretz Israel. From that time on everyone gave my father the nickname, Rav Moshele Shohet. I was thus referred to as Motel, the son of Moshele the shohet.

I remember that my father was upset about the fact that because his father had many children he, my father, did not receive the best education. He had to acquire his education on his own and he became a teacher. He married my mother, Rachel, the daughter of Rabbi Matityahu Morgenstern, president of the Beit Din in Bolgrod. Together they reached a ripe old age and had many children, grandchildren and great–grandchildren. His greatest success was the publication of his book “A Collection of Sayings”. He reached great heights with its success. The book contained 100, 000 sayings of our sages. My mother created a wonderful, peaceful home in our modest residence in Zichron Yaakov. I will add some reminiscences about my father's life as I remember them from my childhood.

I can see my late father studying Gmara late at night, bent over his desk with a dim gaslight and chanting. I used to wake up in my crib, listen to his pleasant chanting and fall asleep again.

When I grew up I understood in a deeper way certain Psalms such as “I will thank you at midnight” and the wonderful fable about the “violin that hung over King David's bed and which the midnight wind would play by itself. David would then study Torah until dawn”. I noticed again my father's tunes and I thought of him as blended in with the King David as it they were one.

 

Father – for me legend and reality

My father was determined to give me, his oldest son, whatever he missed in his childhood. He taught me Torah and good deeds and all the tradition acquired from his father. I do not remember being taught the letters by any rabbi. When I entered Heder I already knew the Hebrew alphabet. In addition, my father told me many stories and legends from our ancient culture. The characters of Adam, Eve and the snake; Nimrod, Noah and his Ark; our patriarchs and matriarchs; the selling of Joseph; Exodus from Egypt; heroes of Israel and its Kings; the Temple and its destruction; the Maccabees; the exile and the prophecy of the resurrection and the coming of the Messiah – all these were etched in my young brain. Later, I knew about the lives of important figures in Jewish tradition such as Rabbi Akiva, Hillel, and Rabbi Hanania Ben Dossa. I also learned all the legends about them.

My father also raised me to follow practical mitzvoth– to join him in synagogue, to bless the food, to pray Shema in the evenings, to wear tzitzit, etc. In spite of all this he did not hesitate to bring home Hebrew school texts which included simple drawings. They were edited by Yaakov Fichman and Luboshitzky. I also remember grammar books, parts A and B by Shatzky.

One time my father surprised me by singing songs in Hebrew which had a definite nationalistic hue. I understood their content. I remember words from the song “Once There Was a King” which saddened me:”My lover has left me”. This was a reference to God and the Jewish people who were likened to a groom and a bride. Another song was the well–known lullaby “Lie down and sleep, my dear son” by Luboshitzky.*

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This is how my father introduced me to the “familial tragedy” of God and the people of Israel. I suffered greatly from this discord. I listened carefully to all the prophecies and speeches by our sages.

It is possible that my father heard these songs when he visited Zionist circles in our town. The Hazamir choir would perform often and sang in Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian. One time my father made me very happy by sending me his own illustrations of birds and other animals, houses and trees. I was lying in hospital inflicted with Scarlet Fever.

 

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Moshe Sever – Teaching Torah to his son Shabtai

 

*I am grateful to the musicologist and folklorist, R. Moshe Bik. He provided me with the lyrics of these songs. I discovered that the words “My lover has left me” come from the poem “Noisy Dove” by Meir Halevy. Here are three of them:

“Oh, how I fly!
I only wander,
From rock to rock,
Oh I descend…

My lover has left me
When he was angry at me
Where will he lead me
I feel so dejected…

Have pity on me– the deserted one,
Bring back my lover,
Return my rock
And I will go under your wings!

 

Embarrassing questions, imagined deprivations and “inventions of childhood”

At the age for attending Heder my father first sent me to a private tutor by the name of Shalom Tsap. To this day I do not know if it was his real name or if it was nickname because of his goatee (Tsap in Yiddish means goat). In his Heder there were also girls. His assistant would carry us home on his back during the rainy season and over the puddles.

While I was absorbing legends and folk stories from my father I also became aware over time of other issues. How is it possible for everyone, while reciting the Shema, to say “Michael is on my right and Gabriel on my left”. There could only be one Michael and one Gabriel in the world! How can it be that they stand next to all of us?

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Another question related to the legend that all the Egyptians drowned in Red Sea and no one was left behind. However, another legend speaks of Pharaoh who remained alive to see the miracles performed by God.

I used to ask my father these questions, but I was afraid to ask them of my teachers. They would consider me a heretic and would punish me. Another classmate did ask how it was possible that the waters parted for the Israelites when they left Egypt and he was told by the angry rabbi:”Don't you see!” When I began to study Gmara I was given additional material to study by myself. When I asked the teacher the meaning of the word “seducing”, he banged on the table and yelled: “You always ask things you do not need to know”. When he did not want to answer embarrassing questions posed by his pupils he would rage against them saying:”You are just stubborn”. In this way we created an atmosphere of, games, jokes and word games. I still remember one of them following the order of the Hebrew alphabet in a mixture of Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian.

My father had democratic views and he chose to send me to Talmud Torah where needy pupils attended. Many of them would come to school hungry. I remember that my good friend was Skolnik. He was an orphan and lived with his grandfather, the bath attendant in the steam bath. Sometimes he would join us for a meal in our house. Once, when warm clothes and winter boots were distributed, I was passed over. I was angry about this exclusion. It was only as I became older that I understood that I had been wrong since I did not need those items, but other children did.

My father allowed me to draw, to write, to construct, to play with the insides of old watches and to listen to and imitate singing on the gramophone. I recall one trick I played when I “built”, in our courtyard, a sort–of gramophone. I hid under a crate and placed a kettle on top of it. I then instructed my younger brother to throw a stone inside and then I would begin to sing. The neighbors and the non–Jewish water carrier were amazed to hear singing coming from the “gramophone crate”. It was the lullaby “Quietly fall asleep my dear child…”

*A Luboshitzky poem speaks about the same topic in allegorical way. Here are a few stanzas from his lullaby:

Lie down, fall asleep, my dear son,
Listen to the poem;
In days gone by in faraway places
There was a city

Your ancestors
Lived there once
They lived a happy life–
In those places.

But, the ancestors, because of their good life
Left the teachings of God
And the sunshine of their success
Became thick shadows.

When God was angry with them
He exiled them from the city
Lie down, fall asleep, my dear son
Listen to the poem.

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Father speaks about H.N. Bialik and our relationships

I created a magic place on the tall wooden fence and used a hammer to hang an old clock, barrel rings, used kettles and pots, horseshoes, torn boots, etc. Suddenly, a torrent of rain threatened my “kingdom”. I stood in front of it not knowing what to do. My father called to me urgently: “Motele, come quickly to see what beautiful books I received from Bialik in Odessa.” I thought there would be illustrations in these books, but I was disappointed. I found two books beautifully bound in black. It was Haagadah (the fable) by H.N. Bialik and Kh. Rebnitzky. The books did not appeal to me at all. Later my father told me who the writers were. He added that Bialik writes beautiful poetry and that he even gets paid for them…

I asked my father how much he paid for these books. My father replied that he paid nothing since the books were gifts from the authors.

I discovered that my father found an error in the commentary on the topic “Tzedaka collectors” in the book. He wrote to them and, in return, the authors sent him a thank you letter indicating that they would correct the matter in the next edition. This story is told in I. Kh. Rebnitzky's book “David and his writers” which was published by “Dvir” in Eretz Israel.

My father's attitude to the descendants of Yeshayahu Halevy Horvitz who wrote the book “Holy Tables of the Decalogue” did not leave an impression on me. When I arrived in Eretz Israel in 1923 my paternal grandmother Mindel told me that she had been born in Tiberias. Her father was R. Shabtai–Shepsil Horvitz who had been the town rabbi there. He eventually moved to Russia and was a rabbi in Kilia in Bessarabia. Shabtai–Shepsil was one of the sons of Yeshayahu Halevy (he lived 300 years ago). It is not known whether my grandfather was the last in this dynasty of Tiberias or not. What we do know is that most of those in the Horvitz family revere his descendants as saints. His book dealt in 613 mitzvoth according to their order of mention in the Torah and as seen in the Kabala. It had a great influence on the religious Jews. Many researchers tried to verify the family tree of this rabbi, but there are gaps in our knowledge.

 

My father wants an improved world

My father was a philanthropist and was ready to help others. He was follower of the Rabbi from Sadigura and of Hillel. He knew how to respect every person and was careful not to insult anyone, young or old. He believed that one should honor one's friends. He always looked to make life easier for the unfortunate and the sick. He also published articles in Hebrew and Russian press in other countries. He would explain, using diagrams and statistics, the importance of his proposals to rebuild our people by establishing funds, e.g. to help poor brides or pensions for the elderly. His proposal was mentioned in an article in the publication “Pensions” in July 1965. My father's words are cited in the advice to members to think ahead of the time when they can no longer work. They would have a regular pension legally and would not have to depend on donations. He also dedicated himself to Welcoming Visitors, Talmud Torah and other loan funds. In Zichron Yaakov he worked hard to establish proper records in the cemetery while still looking after old gravestones of farmers and laborers from Aliyah B who died of old age or from malaria. Often their relatives in their original country did not know where they were buried.

He was demanding, but he was also an achiever. In my childhood, I remember that he would be the last to leave the synagogue after Friday night services in case there was a visitor who did not have a place to eat. He dedicated himself to host Jewish soldiers who passed through our town with the Russian army. He also cared for Jewish refugees from Ukraine after the revolution and the riots. I was a young child still when I helped him to distribute food to a hundred guests sitting at tables in our old synagogue.

One Shabbat he cried bitterly when he went to the courtyard of the Sadigura followers with a letter from Ukraine in his hand. One of the refugees read the letter. In it there was a description of the horrible deeds performed by the rioters from the armies of Danikin, Petlura, Makhano and others. May their memory be erased! They cruelly murdered men, women, old people and even children and babies.

 

Signs of the times and events in the war

It is most likely that my father hoped to see me as a qualified teacher like him and he always praised me as “one with a good head on his shoulders”. He insisted that I stay with a class learning Talmud with top teachers who came from Poland or Lithuania. However, the times intervened. We received newspapers and books in Yiddish and Hebrew – Hatzfira, Hamodia, Hafsaga, Our Time and Jewish Library published by I. L. Peretz, etc.

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The Hebrew High School opened and my childhood friend entered it. Father did not want to separate us and even my mother wanted me to study in the Hebrew High School. It was a difficult decision to place the son of the ritual slaughterer in the school. Eventually, my friend's father influenced my father to enroll me in the Jewish school where there were no classes on Shabbat. There was even teaching in Bible and Hebrew in addition to secular studies.

After a long deliberation, my father allowed me to enter under certain conditions. My friend and I would have to continue religious studies after school, to pray in the synagogue on a daily basis and to follow all mitzvoth. We agreed and managed to keep the bargain at the beginning…

One winter night, before dawn, when I was 10–11 years old, I went to the first Minyan at the synagogue. The dark skies were strewn with shining stars and I was a mere small dot in the field of snow covering the street. Suddenly I thought I saw a tall devil with horns on each side of the head. He approached me and I was frozen in place out of fear… I then realized it was only a tall and robust woman carrying two milk jugs and a yoke on her shoulders. When I recovered, I heard her asking me, in Russian, of course, “Where are you going, little boy?” I was able to reply: “To synagogue, to pray.” The woman was impressed and said upon leaving: “Very nice, little boy, pray to God!”

I must admit my transgressions. I did not always keep my promise. My father was of two opinions: he was happy that I was receiving a general education in a Jewish, not Russian, high school, but he was afraid–and for good reason–that I would be further away from religious studies and the following of practices as I had been taught at home. It was true, my studies occupied more of my time and I did not have the opportunity to learn Mishna on a daily basis. My father would teach me Talmud and sometimes I studied by myself. However, my head did not enjoy the different topics discussed. Eventually, due to lack of time, I prayed by myself at home before I went to school. The agreement was not fulfilled. My father suffered as a result. He was a patient and gentle person and he tried to influence me with kindness. Once when we were walking on the street he asked me:”Tell me, Motele, when I die, will you go to synagogue every day to say Kaddish?” I was shocked by this question and since I wished to make him feel better I replied:”Yes”. His response was:”Why do you care if I am alive?” He was smiling in triumph and I could add nothing.

Another collision took place when I prepared “business cards” and stamped all my books with my name in Romanian (during the conquest of Bessarabia by the Romanians in 1918). Instead of Mordehai Sverdlik I put Max Sverdlik… My father once opened one of these books and, with sarcasm, asked “Who is this Max Sverdlik?” I will hit this Max”. We both laughed and the incident was over.

 

My father's work and reputation in Eretz Israel

Many years have passed since 1923 when my father made Aliyah with his family following the wishes of his father. I came six months earlier as a “licensed electrician”. This occupation gave me a permit to make Aliyah according to the regulations of the Mandate. I was still under age then. My father took the position of ritual slaughterer in Zichron Yaakov from my grandfather. The latter continued to sit as chairman of the judicial courts in Zichron Yaakov and its vicinity. After a few months of working in the construction of a children's institute in Shfeya and in the paving of the road there, I went to Haifa to seek another position. There was much unemployment in those days. There was not enough work and the laborers suffered the shame of hunger and the need to receive charity. Many people left the country and some workers committed suicide. There were many articles written begging people not to give up. I began to work on the railroad. There were a few Jews among a multitude of Arabs and Egyptians.

We were five children at home, but only three sons remained. We doubled and tripled the number of descendants and our parents enjoyed grandchildren and great–grandchildren. The happiest was my father who had lived a hard life. He continued to do charitable work, helping the needy, receiving visitors, adding to the library in the synagogue and even rebinding the prayer books, writing a log at the Hevra Kaddisha and even in writing articles. He wrote about topics such “The synagogue as a community building”, “The need to draft girls in the army” etc.

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I must admit that in the 1920s I never imagined that my father collected sayings by marking them in his texts. Suddenly, I heard rumors that something important was taking place in my father's lab and that he collected many sayings. He had not yet finished his mission. Dr. Yomtov Levinsky and G. Kersel were preparing their first publication called “Folk Lore”, and they invited my father to send articles to “Folk Lore” and “Words of the Week”. They said that my father's collection was greater than that of Bialik and Rebnitzky who had about 2,500 articles. He even had more items than K.A. Perla (7000) and Rabbi Aaron Hayman in London (30 000). Rabbi Hayman visited my father's house in Zichron Yaakov in 1937. After two weeks he was quite impressed that my father had a collection of 100,000 articles and sayings. Rabbi Hayman was prepared to help him to publish this collection. Unfortunately, 12 days after his visit with my father, Rabbi Hayman passed away. The dreams aroused by him in my father did not come to fruition.

 

Rabbi I.L. Maimon encourages publication

In the course of time my father's work became known by sages, rabbis and writers who began to visit him in his house in Zichron Yaakov, These were Rabbi. I. L. Fishman (Maimon), chief rabbi A.A. Herzog, Rabbi Amiel, Rabbi Prof. Simcha Assaf, minister David Remez and Sh. Z. Shazar, our former president, author David Zakai, the linguist Yitzhak Avineri, and others. All the visitors saw the great work my father had done and were quite impressed. They began to publicize his work in various articles. My father also received letters from within the country and outside it from rabbis, authors, scholars, linguists and others who would consult him on the origins of sayings. My father replied to all quickly and with pleasure.

Rabbi I. L. Maimon suggested my father copy his collection on cards so that a book could be published by topic, not in alphabetical order. The Rav Kook institute negotiated with my father (I took part in it). It felt that my father, due to his advanced age, would not be able to prepare his book for publication. A qualified editor was hired– A. Darom. This was done with the help of Yitzhak Raphael.

In 1961–62 three volumes of my father's book were published, In addition, dozens of articles full of praise could be read in the press. The book was well received not only in our country, but also in America and Europe. It became a best seller and was recommended by professors to their students as a text. When I visited the Soviet Union in 1966 I presented myself to Chief Rabbi Levin in Moscow. He recognized me as the son of the author of the collection and told me he had a copy of this important book. My father began to organize the book alphabetically according to the beginning of each part and he succeeded in achieving two thirds of the job. He did not complete it and died on 9 Sivan 1967 at the age of 86. This is what we put on his gravestone:

Rabbi Moshe, son of Israel, Sever (Sverdlik), Ritual slaughterer
May his name be inscribed in the Book of Life
A man of Torah, he was honest and a servant of God and a lover of his creatures.
Author of “The Collections of Sayings”

 

Municipality of Petach Tikva memorializes his life's work in its library

A year after my father's death, my friend (who was like a brother to me), Eliezer Roey, the director of the municipal library in Petach Tikva, began to speak to me. He told me that in the library there will be a section named after the late Reuven Katz and he wanted our family to donate to it our father's book collection. It would be called the “Section for the Sages of Our People” named after Rabbi Moshe Sever, z”l.

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There was no equivalent library in Zichron Yaakov that could house his collection. In the Petach Tikva area there are numerous Yeshivas and Bar Ilan University and we felt it was logical that such a collection would be used by their students. This would have pleased my father. So it came to be and the “Section for the Sages of Our People” named after my father, was established.

With the placement of his collection at the municipal library in Petach Tikva the adage “Torah returns to its home” was achieved.


A Childhood Affront

By Leah Bat Chaya and Bezalel

Translated by Ala Gamulka

In memory of my mother, may she rest in peace.

My mother was a righteous woman and followed all the commandments, whether big or small. There was no Eruv* in our town so she was not in the habit of carrying on Shabbat on her way to synagogue. It was my responsibility to carry since I was still little. I especially enjoyed the task in the winters.

We used to leave the house in the morning when there was a blanket of white, pure snow on the streets. Every miserable shack, every misshapen fence, every muddy pile and every stinking trench disappeared as if by magic when covered in white. There were no footsteps coming from the marketplace and drunks did not lie in front of the saloons. The business owners were dressed in white garments and were on their way to services. The calm of Shabbat was felt everywhere. Sparrows jumped over chimneys singing happily. I held my mother's soft and warm hand and I was happy.

When we came close to the synagogue we would meet the wives of the wealthy members of the community. They sat in the women's auxiliary covered in magnificent shawls. These shawls were made of black quilted velvet and decorated with expensive fur. I often put my hand on the velvet and carefully touched it so that its owner would not notice. I was thrilled to my fingers and I wished my mother would have such a shawl. My heart ached looking at her bald fur, but my dream never came true. This was true of many childhood dreams.

One Shabbat, as we were leaving synagogue, my mother turned to me and said:” Leah'le, I promised Tzirel, the wife of Shlomo Gabbai, to send you to her tomorrow. She wants to give us some pickles.” I was uncomfortable with this task and I thought to myself:”Why take pickles? We have our own.” I did not dare say no to mother.

The next afternoon my mother dressed me in my coat–its sleeves were too short– and her scarf was wrapped on my head. She placed a large clay pot in my hands. I did not need to look in the mirror to know that I looked ridiculous in my outfit. I reluctantly made my way to the house of Shlomo Gabbai. Upon arrival, I stood for a long time in front of the glass door. I peeked in hoping I would not run into any of the children. My hopes were dashed. As soon as I rang the door bell I heard wild skipping from the upper floor. In front of me stood “the red –headed one”, the only son of R.Shlomo. He did not open the door, but he looked me over from top to bottom through the glass. His green eyes were mocking and he burst out in wild laughter. The dog near him also began to bark loudly. I was afraid he would send the dog to attack me. I saw myself fighting him off, my clothes in shreds and my arms bitten and scratched. I wanted to run for my life. At that moment, the maid, a kind old woman, appeared and let me inside. She told the boy off. She did cross herself several times and moved her head to and fro. I saw pity in her eyes. She gave me the pickles and sent me home.

When I left home there was still light outside, but when I returned there were stars in the sky and lights could be seen in windows. I walked alone on the snowy path and snowflakes were swirling around me.

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This time they did not amuse me. I was sad and I felt the mocking green eyes all the way home.

I blamed the round clay pot with the pickles for all of this. I was almost ready to get rid of it and telling my mother that it fell and broke. I thought better of it by telling myself that I could not fool my mother and cause her grief. She did send me, but she probably had no choice as she could not refuse the wife of Shlomo Gabbai. She is probably now worried about me. I rushed home.

When I went to bed that night, after the Shema prayer recited nightly– I added my own “When I grow up I do not wish to be a cantor, to wear a poor fur like my mother. When I am a mother myself I will not send my child to Gabbai's wife to get pickles or anything else.”

* Eruv– a rabbinic rule that allows people to carry on Shabbat further than 90 paces from their home.


My Father Reb Bezalel,
the Cantor and the Talner Synagogue

By Leah Bat Chaya and Bezalel

Translated by Ala Gamulka

In memory of my father, z”l

The ancient house of learning of the Talner Hassidim has disappeared from our town Bendery and is no longer there, as happened to all the other houses of worship. My father toiled there for thirty five years as the leader of services. For me it was part of my childhood memories. There are many memories that I have from those days. I visualize the old building with its thick walls. It was a fort for the Talner Hassidim and my father was one of them. There was a long glass enclosed entrance way and it was cooler there in the summers because it was surrounded by nut trees. On Shabbat and Holidays young boys would climb the trees, collect nuts and put them in their pockets. R. Yosele, the old sexton, would come out dressed in his faded Talit and yell at them:”You are defiling Shabbat!” His goatee would shake and his eyes were full of fire, but the boys would just scatter.

I was always anxious for the Holy Ark to be opened for the Torah to be read. I loved to look at the Torah scrolls covered in colorful silk and velvet. The covers were embroidered and had silver crowns. Where are these scrolls? Where are the people? Where is our community?

*

I recall the eve of Tisha B'Av when people sat on the floor mourning and without shoes. They would read the Scroll of Lamentations in candlelight. I still hear my father's voice:”How did the city sit so alone…” His keening had all the emotions of the fear of the annihilation. I was a young child and I could imagine our temple going up in flames. I mourned with all the others. I also remember Yom Kippur: the congregation was wearing white kitels and prayer shawls. The fear of the day of judgement was seen on their faces. The memorial candles and the light fixtures cast a shadow on them. In the quiet my father begged God:”Forgive the sins of these people”, “Forgive us, absolve us, and pardon us”. You could hear sobbing from the women's auxiliary.

*

My father knew how to mourn the destruction of the temple, to ask for forgiveness on Yom Kippur, the day of judgement. However, he also knew how to rejoice on Simchat Torah and to infect the crowd with his joy. “Please God, Help Us!”– His voice would envelop us while he held the Torah scroll. His face would shine and the congregants joined him in encircling the synagogue. Even we, the children, danced and sang holding flags topped with apples and lit candles.

*

On summer mornings my father would stand deep in prayer with his Talit covering him. I was a little girl and I tried to catch the sun rays coming through the trees in the yard. A visitor arrived in the synagogue and sat down to rest. Father finished his praying, folded his Talit and turned to the visitor: “How do you do? Where are you from?” He would invite the visitor to his home and sometimes the guest would stay for weeks. Mother would take care of all his needs. The guest would go with him to Friday night services. You would hear “Shalom Aleichem” and happy chants. The house was full light and happiness as we welcomed the Shabbat…

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*

One winter day you could see, through the windows of the synagogue, the garden deep in snow. Ahrale the eccentric, assistant to Yosele the sexton, brought in a bundle of firewood donated by a congregant. My father is surrounded by the congregants ready for evening prayers. Each one has a tale of woe. One says that the wind blew out his roof during the night while another tells about the snow that broke his ceiling. The milkman's cow is ailing while the wagon driver's horse died. The porter's house is full of insects and there is no bread or firewood. Young boys are not attending classes because they do not have any shoes to wear. As they are telling their sad stories a woman burst in asking R. Betzalel to pray for her daughter who is giving birth. Another woman, dressed in black, brought her young child and asks my father to teach him to say Kaddish for his father. A widow comes in tears because her only son who was providing for her was taken into the army instead of the son of a wealthy man who bribed the authorities. “Where is justice?”

*

It is no wonder that my father continues to pray and to worry about his congregants. I see him sitting among his people, pale and skinny and trying to strengthen them. He is so burdened by these needs and is almost ready to give up. Soon he goes out again to visit the wealthy congregants and to ask them to help the less fortunate.

*

There were many joyous events in which he participated. Some congregants had many children and he often was the Godfather at their Brit. He organized wedding ceremonies for young couples who could not afford them. One would hear his melodious voice officiating at the ceremony. Everyone recognized his lovely voice.


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Memory Fragments of Days Gone By

By Katya Shay (Fein) Haifa

Translated by Ala Gamulka

A. A gallery of families

I often recall the streets of my town: Harozinskaya (many stores), Constantinovskaya, Nikolayevskaya, Alexandrovskaya, Sergeyevskaya, Pavlovskaya and Kaushanskaya. I think of the people, members of families, who are no longer with us– either dead or scattered in many countries.

I shall describe a gallery of families – a socio–economic slice of our town: Dubossarsky (bakeries), Yanishevsky (tailor), Yanishevsky (store owner), Lvovsky (owner of the cinema and the perfume store), Immes, Rabinovitch, Shaposnick, Gutov, Goldberg, Sirota, Tilis, Berman, Dr. Kipnis, Lavonsky, Kamelis, Poronchik, Sverdlik, Burs, Figler, Shitman, Kleitman and Kreimerman –(clothing stores),the Nissenboim family whose son became the director of Hadassah hospital in Haifa, Krasnov (pharmacy owner), Fishbein, Dr. Petrov, Drahelis, Avraham Zigberman (Zhabotinsky's body guard when he visited Bendery), his father, the teacher, Seltzer, Feffer, Fein, Shneirson, Goldfarb, Krassnolov, Hersh Kogan, Israel Blank, Kh. Fustman, Rivlin, Natanzon, Mulman (pharmacy owner), Makhelis, Doliner and Piny the cantor (Misonzshnik).

My parents were supporters of the school and were also active in helping the needy. They helped to establish the community kitchen. Our home was always open and everyone who came was cordially received.

I remember with reverence Dr. Zvi Schwartzman, the principal of the Hebrew High School. He was a dear man with a dynamic personality. He knew how to instill knowledge and how to inspire us. His sons, Dr. Yaakov and Boris inherited the aristocratic traits of Dr. Schwartzman and his dear wife.

 

B. Collections for Eretz Israel

There were many good and generous Jews in our town. They volunteered for every good cause be it the synagogue or the Hebrew High School. Dr. Vilensky and Haim Greenberg came to town as emissaries from Eretz Israel and my mother collected gold jewelry as donations.

 

C. The Rich Poet

Mr. Bentzion Pastelnikov, a Hebrew teacher composed poetry in Yiddish on sad topics. The poetry was mostly about Jewish life, pogroms and the suffering of ordinary people. Avraham, the tailor, would recite the poems with excitement and even Zina Pastelnikov joined in.

 

D. The New Synagogue is opened with a gold key

I remember the inauguration of the new synagogue on Mikhailovsky Street. It was a gala occasion and all residents came to watch the opening with a gold key.

 

E. A War of Ideologies

Much has been said about the youth movements in my time. I will only recall the constant war of ideologies between Hashomer Hatzair and Zeirei Zion. I was a counselor in Maccabi having been trained by Monia Feldman from Kishinev. We had many activities for Eretz Israel, among them balls where money was collected.

 

F. Bendery Residents in Public Life

Bendery was, indeed, a small town, but it produced many highly educated people. They were creative and motivated and were successful in many fields of activities. In spite of all the differences of opinion and approaches, our community was united. We were very proud of this fact.

It is necessary to mention our residents who had important positions in Eretz Israel and in the Diaspora. These are Attorney Yosef Kushner (he was also a member of the Knesset);

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Shlomo Klavenski– secretary of the Dental Technicians; Pinhas Bendersky – a director of the post office; David Pisterov– active in the union in Petach Tikva; the members of the family of the late David Wertheim who was also active in the Histadrut and in Zeirei Zion in Russia and the United States.; Avraham Wertheim who was head of labor relations in the Histadrut ; the late Rabbi Yosef Wertheim; Pnina Wertheim, z”l, head nurse in Hadassah; Yentel the Kindergarten teacher; Haya, my brother, Dr. Fein's wife; Reuven Schrybman (Shariv) active in Histadrut; Haim Radi of the Berman family, secretary general in the Foreign Ministry; Ruth (Rassia)Berman, an officer in the army; Batya Shteiner, a Kindergarten teacher while still in Bendery and who continued her work in Eretz Israel; Sh. Zahoval, z”l, an actor in the Ohel theatre; my brothers Dr. Yitzhak Fein and Yasha Fein (secretary of the organization of Bendery Residents in the United States); Yosef Fein in Argentina; my sister Donya Fein, married to Professor Orlinsky; Pola Berman in Uruguay; Dubossarsky and Lerner in France. We, the women, worked diligently in all aspects of public life– Organization of Working Mothers, WIZO, etc.

 

G. I Made Aliyah

I left Bendery at a young age. I lived in Czernowitz for two years and after much effort I succeeded in being accepted at the university. I was refused at first because I was Jewish and I had to pass complicated tests. My pride in my people propelled me to prove that we, too, could succeed. I am proud that I was able to prove myself to the non–Jews. At the first opportunity I made Aliyah when I received a visa.

Many years have passed since, but I remember with longing and appreciation all those people. I only mentioned some of them above. I will never forget those wonderful days…


My Father's House – Open To All

By Abba Sapir (Shaposnick) Tel Aviv

Translated by Ala Gamulka

R. Abba Shaposnick (Sapir) was born in Bendery in 1897. He was the son of R. Yosef and Sima–the youngest of 10 children.

Interviewed by I. Haviv

I studied in the private house of learning founded, by my late father, on Sergeyevskaya Street. I was in a group of students and among them were Leibl, son of Haim, Immes, the sons of Shmuel–Abba Sudit, Pinhas Shaposnick and others.

Our teacher, Rabbi Hershel Tulchiner, came from Poland. He taught many students, some even were ordained as Rabbis– R. Avremel Kunitzer, Rabbi Mordehai Yatom, son of Zeidel the ritual slaughterer. Prior to that class I had studied with Rabbi Baruch Kolker.

When I grew up I dealt in business. In 1921 I moved to Galatz. I married my good wife, the daughter of Rabbi Shimon Halevy Gottesman. I was the director of the Jewish community in Galatz for over 20 years and I was one of the founders of Mizrahi and Hapoel Hamizrahi. We made Aliyah in 1944.

Until my move to Galatz I had been involved in all aspects of Jewish life in Bendery:

  1. Help for the Sick. Its chairman was the pharmacist Isaac Mulman. The members of the committee were Dr. Khain, Shmishelevitz, Moshe Doliner and others. The purpose of this institution was to provide medical help to all who needed it. The doctors attached were: Ranoman, Vunderbar, Bondarov, etc. Those who were sick also received financial help for buying medications and for living expenses.
  2. Clothing for the Needy. This institution provided clothing and shoes for children who attended the Talmud Torah. Funds were organized by the committee whose members were Yoel Vodoboz, Shimon Averbuch, David Wertheim and I. Before the formation of this institution there was a similar group and its members were Immes, Fustan, Israel Blank, Hirsh Kogan and I.
*

My father's house was always open to visiting rabbis. They would come from Rakhamistriovka, Talne, Feshken, Bahush, Agut, etc.

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My late father was the chairman of the Mishna society. Every Hanukah there was a siyum (ending) for those studying Mishna. There was always a meal involved. All the rabbis and scholars in Bendery took part.

Leybele Blank (from the family of Alter Blank)– owner of the flour mill and one who considered himself “Free”, wanted to become a member of the Mishna society. He was not accepted. One time when the Rabbi from Rakhamistriovka was visiting us, Leybele asked him for a recommendation to the Mishna society since his own father was a member of that dynasty. Leybele was thus accepted as a member of the Mishna society and always took part in these annual events.

In Bendery there was an owner of a modern flour mill by the name of Hershke Firshtenberg. He was once told that one of his guards allowed flour to be removed without an official permission from the office. When the guard was caught, he was brought to the office. He was a Jewish man with a large family and he was petrified. He was certain that he would lose his job.

As he entered the office he was quite surprised that instead of being reprimanded, the owner–Firshtenberg– asked about his family and how much he was earning. When the owner heard that his salary was quite low he told him:”From now on you will receive a raise and you will not need to repeat your deeds”.


Ordinary Folk Caught in Reality

By Yehiel Efrati (Haifa)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

My father, Yosef Mendel Eidelman, (nicknamed Yehiel, son of Berel the Hazan) was a wine merchant on Harozinskaya Street. Since he dealt in wholesale he was not permitted to sell to individuals. In spite of this prohibition, we did sell to individuals in the saloon. Often, Jews would come in to drink a glass of wine. In this fashion I was able to meet several people that I wish to mention.

 

A. Skaymaka

I do not remember his name, but he was nicknamed Skaymaka (chair in Russian). Whenever he heard this nickname he would be very angry with those who used it.

He earned his living by selling animal skins. He used to leave his house early in the morning and travel to the villages where he bought animal skins from the farmers. He sold the skins to leather merchants in town. He wandered daily in the villages, dressed as one of the farmers. He did return home in the evenings.

When he came home he would wear his Shabbat clothes, put on a tie (he did not have a beard) and buy a fresh loaf of bread and a salami. He came in to the saloon and ordered a litre of red wine and enjoyed his meal. Since he had no teeth he could not chew the crust. When he finished his meal he would pack away the crust and leave.

He was not a scholar and perhaps he did not even know how to read a newspaper, but he was keen on politics and loved to discuss it. Since he had to rise early he was worried that perhaps he put on his Tfilin earlier than permissible. (He obviously was unaware of the law in Shulchan Aruch, 10, 2 which states the proper rules). He was honest, simple and earned his own living.

 

B. The Righteous Convert – the chimney cleaner

In our town there was a righteous convert, a chimney cleaner. He was called Avraham, the chimney cleaner. He would come to our saloon between jobs and would drink a litre of wine. He was interested in philosophy and the world. He listened to my opinions even though I was only a high school student.

He was a simple man who always had a smile on his face. He worshipped scholars and listened carefully to what they were saying. He was impressed by everything new. He could neither read nor write and always needed other people in order to learn. He discovered new things on a daily basis and was always enthusiastic about everything he learned.

 

C. Dreaming about Aliyah

On Sergeyevskaya Street, near our house, there was a shoemaker whose name I do not remember. Everyone called him “the old shoemaker”. He owned his house and he saw himself as one of the town leaders. However, in spite of his wishes, he still remained a craftsman and not a town leader.*

[Page 136]

I was still a young boy when I would sit in his shop where he worked with his son. I admired the quickness of his work. He, too, was interested in politics, especially anything connected to the Jewish people in their wanderings and Eretz Israel. He truly aspired to make Aliyah, but he did not achieve the dream since he was afraid to travel by boat and thought he could reach his destination by land.

*Leader in Bendery– see remark 15 at end of article by P. Bendersky


Road of Suffering

By Leah Steiner (Tel Aviv)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

…this is what my friend told me: I grew up in my grandmother's house in a Ukrainian village called Cherny. When I was six, she died and my maternal uncle in Bendery took me in. My aunt and uncle had a nice house and a large grocery store, but they were unkind and miserly. I came to them in the winter. When they left for work in the morning they would lock me in and I had to sit most days looking out the window like a prisoner. I finally had the courage to ask my uncle to send me to a Heder (I had attended a Heder in my village for two semesters). My uncle did not even lift his eyes from his filthy ledger and replied angrily:”In our town girls do not study in a Heder and it is too late to send you to a public school”. A few days later I begged him:”I really want to learn! I want to get out of the house!”

One morning when he left for work he took me with him without saying a word. We trudged through snow for a long time and my limbs froze. When we reached the church square I saw the crosses on the golden domes sparkling in the sun. I shut my eyes in order not to sin. Suddenly, my uncle pulled me into the yard from which was heard a school bell. Children, accompanied by their teachers, were coming out of the school next to the church. I was scared about where he was taking me. My uncle called out to a teacher who was his customer – “Vasily Vasilevich!” He handed me over to the teacher together with a gift of a large cone of sugar (this is how sugar was produced). I did not know any Russian and I could not understand the lessons. I was truly afraid. I returned to the store, full of customers, after a few classes.

Inside the store there were peasants wearing their large furs and the women covered in colorful sweaters. My aunt, behind the counter, was busy serving the customers. My uncle watched the customers' bags to make certain they did not steal. I went down to the cellar and I sat in a corner. I was so upset. This was my first day in school. I did learn, but I was insulted many times. During recess the other children would encircle me and mock me mercilessly. I was like a small and helpless animal caught in a trap. I began to advance in my studies and the other children discovered that I could help them. They stopped their mocking and approached me for help in math, to copy my homework and to whisper the answer to them when they were called up to the blackboard.

I was a young child, but much of the household work was given to me by my aunt. I could do my homework or read a book only in the evenings when I had to use the weak street light in front of the house – to save on kerosene. The lack of love and warmth at home caused me to seek them in school. I wanted to be close to my non–Jewish schoolmates and to be like them. To receive attention from the nice priest I attended his religion classes even though I was not obliged to do so. The crosses and the church bells no longer scared me and my longing for my wonderful grandmother and the Heder of Moshe–Kalman subsided. I distanced myself a little from my origins.

An incident occurred which brought my back to my past. This is what happened: our teacher, the daughter of the priest, was a young woman that I really liked. She prepared us for the end of year party. Since I was an excellent student I was asked to recite the poem “Road of Suffering” which describes the crucifying of Jesus.

[Page 137]

I identified with his suffering and I recited the poem with great emotion – my tears were flowing. I saw myself on stage – the audience applauding and everyone praising me. I could not wait for this great moment in my life. The evening of the party an inspector came to the school and he cancelled my performance. He shouted to my teacher”Nadezhda Petrovna. What is with you? She is Jewish!” This is after he looked me up and down with evil eyes.

For many days I remembered his voice saying “She is Jewish!” Then I found the answer – “I am Jewish and so I will remain!”

*

My friend succeeded in her studies and she graduated from university with distinction. She worked hard for her livelihood. She continued her Hebrew studies and eventually she became an excellent teacher in Hebrew schools in the Diaspora. She continued to do so in Eretz Israel and was quite beloved by her pupils. She also taught Braille and was able to help her students on their “Road of Suffering”.


My Bendery

By Leah Steiner (Tel Aviv)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

When I say “my Bendery” I do not mean the Russian capital city or the Jewish community in it. I refer to my childhood home, the streets and laneways called “the Jewish streets”. In the center was the street named after the ancient Turkish fort and at its end the square with the Russian Orthodox Church. My earliest memories are of the many fires around our home that would be lit on warm summer nights. I remember being taken outside in my father's arms and watching the fires. There were flames and much smoke and Jews carrying pails of water and women and children crying. The usual reason for these fires was that one of the owners wanted to improve the look of our street by setting his humble abode on fire. He used the insurance money to build a new home…

When spring came and the snow melted the streets were full of black mud. It was difficult to walk there even with good boots. In summer every wagon would send a cloud of dust. Our yards were plain without any sign of greenery. We would sneak a look into the yards of our non–Jewish neighbors where there were fruit trees growing. No one could touch these fruit!

In our neighborhood we had the owners of saloons, small groceries, craftsmen and religious personnel. We had many houses of worship and study. These would be filled to capacity on Shabbat and Holidays. On Yom Kippur the voices of those praying were so loud that I imagined that their voices and the sound of the shofar would reach the homes of the wealthy members of the community.

There were many Heders in our neighborhood and one could hear the sound of the young pupils as they repeated their lessons and the older ones translating Torah pages into Yiddish. On the other hand, we also had many saloons in the area. Many Jews earned their living from them.

The drunkenness caused many fights which sometimes brought the police. One could hear their whistles and screams and the store owners would quickly close their shops. The mothers would collect their children from the yard and lock the gates. We had to be very quiet – not to make any sound. We would think to ourselves–what is the purpose? We were also uninvited guests at many Jewish and non–Jewish weddings. We loved the Klezmer music, especially Avremel the fiddler. He was short, but an expert musician.

[Page 138]

When he placed his fiddle under his unkempt beard and brought down his bow the sounds were sad and happy and touched our hearts.

Another source of enjoyment was the Dniester. In the heat of summer mothers would go to the river with their children. We loved to splash in the cool water, to watch the women doing laundry on the stones and singing Ukrainian melodies.

Wagon drivers and water carriers would come inside the river with their animals. Some would swim and others would float on the water. We were jealous of the good swimmers and we followed them. At times it seemed that they would disappear and perhaps drown, but soon we would see them come up again. At times there was a riverboat carrying children like us (for us it was but a dream).

*

One harsh winter day when the street was covered with snow shining in the sun, the coming of Christmas was felt in town. The villagers arrived in hordes to attend church services and they carried crosses. They were led by the fat priest wearing a golden tunic with his long braid trailing on his back.

I recall that in spite of the fear of looking at the crosses, how could we not sneak a peek? Sometimes it was also Hanukah time and our holiday took second place. Our shutters would be closed and the door bolted with an iron stick. They were in their church, but we were fearful and tense. The church bells rang at midnight as if to warn us of a massacre. Our household was prepared and even, I, a young child, would not fall asleep until my eyes closed on their own. I had frightening nightmares. In the morning I would wake up and all was well– our house stood and we were all alive. The night passed quietly and the peasants returned home without touching us. We then relit our candles and talked of the miracles of the Maccabees…

 

ben138.jpg
The End of Michaelovsky Street Near The Dniester

 


[Page 139]

Yehiel the Cobbler Teaches Me Zionism

By Leah Steiner (Tel Aviv)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

Hilikel (Yehiel) the cobbler – that was his nickname because he was short. His workshop was located near our house in a broken down shack with a leaky roof. Inside there was a low table with his tools, two stools and a few wooden cases used for sitting. A rusty iron furnace stood there winter and summer. The walls were covered with faded posters depicting gentlemen, fancy ladies and smiling children showing off their elegant shoes. Yehiel hung up these posters, not as a decoration, but as protection from rain and wind that would come in through the boards. There was a pile of old shoes and faded boots near the main wall. On that wall he hung a picture of Dr. Herzl surrounded by a collection of old “shekels” that he was able to afford with his few pennies.

His shoe shop served as a sort of club for all craftsmen who could neither read nor write. When one of them entered, Yehiel would stop his work. In the winter he would feed the furnace with some of these old shoes to make it warmer for his guest. He would then take out a batch of crumpled newspapers, read and explain the politics of those days. He would even add a dose of Zionism.

The shoe shop drew us, the children, although the blacksmith's shop was more enticing. However, the blacksmith, black with ashes, did not allow us to come nearer and we could only watch, from afar, the magical bellows which went up and down and heated the embers. It had black edges with white eyes which beat down on the heated iron pieces. They seemed to be imaginary creatures.

On the other hand, Yehiel welcomed us as beloved guests. As he worked he would tell us stories about wars, robbers and princes. The stories engaged our imagination. We were also thankful that he repaired our old shoes and sewed new ones for the holidays.

On a nasty day it was pleasant to sit in Yehiel's shoe shop with the furnace blazing and he, bent on his work table, making holes in the sole and quickly putting in the nails he had kept in his mouth. His anvil would jump in his sinewy hand. When the work was completed he would polish the sole with his crooked and blackened thumb and would hum: “Let us return to our homeland…”

One day he asked me, pointing to the picture on the wall, “Do you know who this man is?” He did not wait for my reply and he said:”It is Dr. Theodore Herzl!” and he continued:”He is like Moshe Rabenu for the Jews. He is prepared to remove us from among these cursed people who attack us. He wanted to bring us to our homeland. However, like Moshe, he was unable to complete his mission and he died”. He then added: “He said ‘If you wish it, it is not a legend.' If the Jews will wish it we can make it on our own.” I asked, “How will we reach Eretz Israel and the Messiah has not yet come?” Yehiel smiled and replied kindly: “We will get there without the Messiah. We can rent ships and go on the high seas from Odessa to Constantinople and from there we will come to Jaffa a few days later”.

I imagined these huge ships with all residents of the Jewish streets, young and old, my family and I. I shivered with happiness. Yehiel continued his story of the wonderful land where oranges, figs, dates, almonds, raisins and other fruit that we only taste on Tu B'Shvat are grown. The children of Israel are brave; they are heroes like the Maccabees. They know no fear!

As I am sitting enthralled with his words, the door opened and his spouse, Feiga–Etel, came in wrapped up in her thin sweater. She was shivering with the cold.

Yehiel stopped his tale, took a faded boot from the pile and hit it with his hammer as if angry because his wife interrupted his dream…

She sat quietly for some time and then she opened her toothless mouth and turned to me with a sneer:”He is telling you the story of his Palestine where the herds are fed dates, figs and oranges. He wastes his time on nonsense and does not worry about earning a living.” I left the shack remembering her words. I was embarrassed.

It is evening. We can see, through the frosted windows of our saloon, the drunks on the street with smoke surrounding them. You can also smell sweat, vomit and spirits. Someone is playing a harmonica and singing in a drunken voice. Yehiel is sitting in a corner and continues to build his dreams about Basel where the World Zionist Congress was held, about halls decorated with crystal chandeliers, Herzl speaking, his face shining. The Messiah! King of Israel!

[Page 140]

Maybe we are already in our promised land, far from the Diaspora, far from this low life, far from the bitter Feiga–Etel, far from this cursed saloon. He then sings:”we will return to our homeland…”

Unfortunately, Yehiel, as others of our residents, did not reach the Promised Land. They all believed in redemption and loved Israel with all their hearts. They were all massacred or lost on route. Yehiel died as he was fleeing.

May their memory be among all the sainted members of our town.

 

ben140.jpg
In the Bendery Train Station– saying goodbye to those making Aliyah
(Lieder family)

 


[Page 141]

The Intellectual Gentleman

(On D.A. Natanzon)

By Leah Bat Haya

Translated by Ala Gamulka

My late father was a pious man. He seriously followed the saying: “Anyone who teaches his daughter Torah it is as if he taught her prayers” (Sota, c, d). A tutor taught me to read Hebrew and how to pray. I learned to read Russian later, in secret. I used to borrow books from my friends who attended school and could get library books in the Pushkinskaya.

I loved reading and I longed to go to the library by myself. However, one had to give a deposit of two rubles and I did not have them. I found a solution. Our neighbor, a simple and poor tailor had a son who attended public high school. He was very proud of his son. I also saw him as an intellectual. I sought his advice. He told me about David Abramovich Natanzon, the editor of the newspaper “Southern Corner” published in Russian in our town. He was also a member of the board of the Pushkinskaya library. It was possible to obtain books from the library with his signature, without a deposit. The boys also told me that he and others had used this signature and he said he would recommend me to Natanzon.

The next day I put on my Shabbat clothes and I went out. I was quite shy and it was not easy to go on streets I had never been on before and to present myself to a stranger. I was petrified, but when I got there I was enthralled by the beautiful houses which seemed to me like palaces. At first I saw tiled stairs and a lot of greenery. It was a beautiful spring day. The acacia trees were flowering and their scent almost drugged me. It was so quiet there. I compared it to our area, the Jewish streets where there were only miserable houses. I stood in front of a two–story house and I counted the stairs, but I did not dare go up. My courage deserted me and I was ready to run back home. At that moment I saw the library. There was a large sign with gold letters. It said: PUSHKINSKAYA. I forced myself to go up the stairs and to enter the building.

 

ben141.jpg
A street in Bendery in the shade of the Acacia trees

 

[Page 142]

Natanzon was sitting at a large desk and reading some papers. He did not seem to feel my entrance. I waited for some time and then he turned to me and gave me a warm smile through his gold–rimmed glasses. It was as if he had been waiting for me. His smile encouraged and embarrassed me at the same time. I could only greet him in Russian. All the words I had rehearsed on the way deserted me. He understood why I was there. He invited me to sit down, asked my name, signed the request and wished me good luck.

Since that day the rich library became my source of treasures of the greatest Russian writers: Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, etc. I was thus propelled to continue my studies in order to progress.

This is what I know about my benefactor: he was one of the most beautiful personalities in our town. In addition to editing the newspaper, he was also a leading member of the Jewish community. Sadly, he was young when he died – only thirty–nine years old.

This article is a memorial to our intellectual town resident, a special person who wished to light the way for others, especially for us, the needy children. He did a lot for us.

May his memory be blessed!

 

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