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Kremenets Figures,
Images, and Characters

 

Typical Places, Scenes, and Personalities (Stories)

By Mordekhay Katz (Buenos Aires)

Translated by Tina Lunson

 

Mordekhay Katz

 

A Fair in Kremenets

Today is Wednesday, the weekly fair day in Kremenets.

Beginning very early in the morning, the peasants begin to arrive from up in the hills and from the poor villages, their wagons full–some with grain, some with wood or cows or fruit. They set up their wagons along the entire length of Levinzon Street, which extends from the Great Synagogue right into the old market square. Here and there they are already sawing up the wagonloads of purchased wood; they chop it and throw the pieces down into cellars. The “notions sellers” lay out their stands in the old market square. Not far from them are the stall–sellers, with large packs of trousers and jackets. A little farther on are the hatmakers. The stall–seller girls are already playing their little reed organ, and soon everyone will hear them singing their heartrending love songs up and down Kravetski Street. Calves call, goats bleat, roosters crow–the fair is set up “with both feet on the ground.”

And today the shops and businesses open earlier than usual. The peasants and their wives soon fill them and bargain and buy: a pair of boots, a cap, a jacket, a kerchief, or a dress. There are also iron shops, where you buy cast–iron pots, with cups for grain cuttings used to test how it sounds–a sign of real steel. The narrow shops don't lack for customers either. Today, fresh white rolls and braided breads are literally snatched off the shelves. A few peasants carry huge salted herrings and eat them in the street, from head to tail. Afterward they go to Shlome Vaynshenker's to drink cold kvass.

The bustle grows. The beggars sitting on the ground add to the noisy tumult by singing their long–drawn–out begging songs, accompanied by various scraping instruments.

You can hardly push through the new market square. Here peasant women sit on the ground with dairy products, fruits, and vegetables. Women also come here to buy meat in the butcher shops or an egg for the Sabbath. Suddenly people are running: there is the sound of heavy glass breaking on Sheroka Street across from the market–it's Chayim Karaulnik, who smashed the Tsvik's Bakery display window. Then he takes the baked pastries from the broken display window and calmly stands there eating. Chayim Karaulnik was our local crazy person. He broke display windows, but only bakery ones. After he had eaten up the delicious, fresh baked goods, he would calmly go away. The other crazy people were quiet and peaceful.

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Only Chayim Karaulnik was famous for his rebelliousness. In 1917, he served in the Russian army under Budyonny. He came back from that war in a confused state.

Evening. The day has turned around, with its back to the town. Dispersed, snoring, and dust–covered, it packs itself up for the road. The sun climbs down the town's western mountain and gathers itself to make night. The fair day's tumult is ever quieter. The stall–sellers tie jackets into big packs to carry them home. A last gentile is still haggling with a Jew over the price of a pair of trousers. The Jews slaps the gentile's open hand, which he holds in his. Every time he lets him go up a half zloty, he gives him a slap on the palm of his hand. The gentile pulls away his hand, which is already red from being slapped, but the Jew does not stop and asks, “How much will you give?” The gentile hesitates. The Jew gives him another slap on the palm, and another, until the gentile gives in and adds another zloty. The Jew gives one last slap as if to say “sold.” He wraps the trousers for him, with a “blessing”: “What a tough customer, may he become paralyzed.” The peasants are already traveling the long way home. Some horses are being driven by women because their husbands are lying dead drunk in the wagons. They roamed the taverns all day and drank up the money they had taken in. They lie in the farm wagons and bellow like the calves they brought earlier in the day.

The market becomes gradually quieter. Now it begins to get dark. But here a group of people is surrounding the Jew everyone knows as “Moshe Hipsh” [nice]. Moshe stands at the center of the group and shouts, “Tonight at the hipshe synagogue, a new hipshe cantor will lead services with the hipshe choir.” Everyone smiles.

 

Moshe Hipsh (Tishler/cabinetmaker)

 

The First Bloody Wednesday

Year in, year out, life in Kremenets flowed peacefully along, unassuming and folksy, until … until one Wednesday, when the fair was in full swing and people had, as usual, filled the market, when suddenly there appeared in the sky a host of steel demons that began to sow death and destruction over the town. This was in 1939. The German demons, the Nazis, were not satisfied with just dropping bombs on houses and innocent civilians. They turned around and came back with the planes flying very low and shot defenseless, fleeing people with machine guns. You can't imagine the sad, bloody picture of that Wednesday in the market. Panic, heartrending screams, people and animals lying together in one bloody mass. The burning houses, the hellfire was huge.

This first bloody Wednesday gave notice that the Germans, the greatest world murderers of all time, had arrived in Kremenets. The innocent, murdered victims of that Wednesday were only the beginning of the great annihilation of the Jewish settlement of Kremenets and environs.

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The Old Bathhouse (Fragment)

What Jew doesn't go to the bathhouse on Sabbath eve? We're not talking about rich men, who have their own tubs in their homes. They are few in number. But the majority of Jews in town took a steam bath on the “highest bench” with hard brooms and glowed from the hot steam.

I remember when my father took me to the public bath for the first time and I entered the room, where there were steps up to the ceiling. It was full of hot steam. It made us catch our breath. But the Jews sitting high up on the highest bench shouted down, “Take in the steam!,” and below, Jews ran around with buckets of boiling water and poured it on the glistening wall across from the steps. The hot steam hit the ceiling even harder, as the men sat close together and enjoyed it: “Oy, oy, a mechaye![1]

I have rarely seen hardworking, everyday Jews so carefree and happy. ”Ikhele” Katz expressed it best, in his style, which is singing. In the bath, Ikhel laughed at the whole world. His dramatic tenor thundered down from the highest bench over the whole bathhouse. Together with the clouds of steam, his tenor voice rose to the ceiling above.

In the anteroom right by the entrance, where Jews got undressed and dressed, and while each person drank a glass of soda water before getting dressed, they talked about all the week's news.

 

Yakov the wagon driver drives a group of youth on an excursion

 

Mordekhay–Chayim Yos (Yosel), who sold the soda water with yeriskes (a delicious sweetener) used to sit at the front right by the entrance with a large copper balloon of seltzer water and chat about all the gossip from Kremenets and the surrounding area. He loved to throw in some of his own folk wisdom. Mordekhay–Chayim, who was the cemetery keeper, actually lived on the field neighboring the “house of the dead,” and so had no fear and used to make fun of all the delusions and rumors.

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Once when a rumor spread through Kremenets that a “black woman” was going around at night, Mordekhay–Chayim Yos told the finest rich man in the bathhouse, “You know, the ‘black lady’ came to me one night and asked me to prepare a nice dry plot for you.”

At the bath, all Jews were equal. No one could tell who was poorer or richer. Almost all the Jews used the [familiar] pronoun du–they were like brothers. Often, the bath was overcrowded and there were not enough buckets to wash with. Then people took buckets and poured them over one another, and so racked up a good deed in the middle of the bathhouse.

Of all the interesting conversations, the following one remains with me:

This was right after the Russian Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, when Trotsky was the war commissioner. One Jew said, “If not for Trotsky, Stalin would be nothing at all.” “What do you expect?” a second Jew jumped in, “A Jewish head!” “Ay ay ay,” an old Jew called out, “I just want to live to see what the end will be!” “What are you saying,” the first Jew interrupted, “ Leybele Trotsky will save the entire world, and then the Messiah will come, just as it is written, ‘when all are eligible.'” Sender from the geese suddenly stood up and thundered out over the whole bathhouse, “A fine messiah, Leybele Trotski, a black year on him. As long as some have a lot and some have nothing, the world won't be equal.” “Oh, oh, that's it exactly,” called out the first Jew, “Money must go away, no money!” “What's that?” asked the old man, “How is that possible?” “People will trade,” shouted the first Jew. “For example, a tailor would give an outfit to a shoemaker and would receive a pair of shoes in exchange. And you,” he said, turning to Sender, “if you want to buy a loaf of bread, you'd have to bring a goose.” “So,” shouted Sender, even louder, “and what will you give the gentile with the mustaches who drives the barrels [from outhouses] at night to empty them into the Potek?” Everyone burst out laughing. “You're right, Sender,” said Mordekhay–Chayim Yos, “I would give a lot to ask Leybele Trotsky the same question.”

The bathhouse gradually emptied out, because the Jews, steamed and clean, were hurrying home to welcome the holy Sabbath.

 

Toybe the Kneader

Toybe the kneader was a typical impoverished, wrinkled Jewess. She was not as old as she appeared to be. Her poor life and the constant labor of kneading troughs of bread in wealthier homes had left its stamp on her whole appearance: always embittered and sour. Even if she sometimes smiled a little, it was no more than a dark grimace. Her face was pale and drawn. She didn't have more than two or three teeth in her whole mouth. But that didn't dissuade her from talking, because she certainly loved talking a lot. Just as she was adept at running her hands through the leavened dough in the trough, up and down, so quickly did she “knead” with her mouth. Every story she told had only a beginning, but never an end. She could cleverly “knead” one story into another and make one long saga with continuations; whenever one episode seemed to end, with time the same story was transformed into another. For example:

Once that her younger son, Pesach, who was not ashamed of his father's line of work–Shaye was a water carrier–slipped on the ice one winter as he was pulling the pails up out of the well, and he fell in. At the last moment, he managed to grab the chain that the pail was attached to, and he hung there and shouted for help. And people came and winched him up out of the well and saved him.

Toybe the kneader carried that story from house to house, telling it with a prayerful intonation:

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“Woe and alas to the mother, people had to winch and wind and pull him out.”

The next morning, she was already saying that angels had pulled him out.

Later she said that “no–goodniks” had pushed him into the well and pulled him back out again.

Once, very early, when it was still very dark, Toybe suddenly left her little house in the narrow lane with a loud lamentation. In the quiet of the early morning, her lamentation sounded like a distant, sad singing. It was Toybe the kneader running to the synagogue to plead to God for her older son, Avraham, who was to report that day for military conscription. Wrapped in a shawl, she looked like a black shadow. Only her voice resounded with a prayerful trope: “Woe to the mother, a catastrophe for the mother, they are measuring him, they are weighing him, alas and woe to the mother.”

Later, while kneading the dough, Toybe molded a new story with elaborations about her older son, Avraham, who was conscripted into the cavalry.

Toybe the kneader, innocent soul, why? For what sin did the Nazi persecutors murder you in such a gruesome way, before your time? Why?!

 

Chaye–Freyde the Beadle

Since I first became aware of my surroundings, I remember her: small, thin, her head bent over toward the ground and a drawn, fallen–in face; but adept and touching. We saw her wrapped in two shawls. One was for summer, with long fringes, and the second was a coarse winter one, which really looked more like a cover for a bed than a shawl. She walked fast, hurrying someplace, no time to lose, as though she were carrying out most important business.

Her petticoat was wide and long, longer than her legs, and it dragged on the ground. But the greasy red lining was even longer and stuck out from under her petticoat and swept the street.

“Chaye–Freyde the beadle,” people called her. No one knew her family name, and perhaps she herself didn't either … it wasn't necessary. She had lived enough years on her “territory,” which consisted of the Great Synagogue to the hospital and from there to the corpse–washing house in Shaul Kozeratske's field. She measured out that territory with her feet every day.

 

Chaye–Freyde the Beadle

 

Chaye–Freyde was also known by her occupation, “Chaye–Freyde the beadle,” because she had been the caretaker of the Great Synagogue for many years, though she also watched and washed deceased women before they were taken to the place we do not speak of. But, in any case, she had always worked at the same place and had honestly earned the title “beadle,” although at night, especially the long winter nights, she was a very earnest and precise feather plucker. This was most important when there was a “plucking” before a wedding, when bed linens must be made for the trousseau.

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Then she would sit down on a small stool, surrounded by an arrangement of large earthen bowls, while a large soup pot full of goose feathers not yet plucked of their down sat on the floor, and she put down from the plucked feathers into the pots around her. Later she would take it from the pots to put into the mattress ticking.

Chaye–Freyde would pluck away, especially during the long nights of Tevet and Shevat, by the light of a small kerosene lamp, plucking so long, until her short, red, swollen little fingers were stilled in the sieve and didn't move. Her head would gradually fall on her hands, so she took a sweet “downy” nap until it was broad daylight.

Chaye–Freyde would always complain, “I have many jobs to do, but few blessings.”

Chaye–Freyde was also one of those who had multiple occupations. Perhaps that's why she was always tired and used to lament that her feet didn't serve her well.

“Just look,” she would say, “I serve the whole world, both the living and the dead, and my one pair of no–good feet will not serve me.”

“Dear Alte,” she lamented to my mother, “just tell me, how I am alive? Just look how my heart leaps like a thief's; it just loves to dance around. Yesterday Mordekhay Yosel's daughter died, just a young sapling, a healthy specimen. When they brought her for washing, I thought to myself, which is the corpse, and which is alive?”

Almost every morning, she went to the Jewish hospital to complain to “Doktorzshe Polantshekhe” (Dr. Polanska) as she called her. For every question asked about prescriptions, the doctor answered simply, as a beginning to her reply, “How old are you?” Chaye–Freyde would answer, “Why do you need to know? I have enough.” She was apparently afraid of a “good eye.”

From the hospital, she usually came to my mother with a complaint that her stomach pained her. She would accept a couple of potatoes in their jackets or a glass of something hot, then send a petition to the Master of the Universe: “Dear God, I ask you please, just let me live through the summer.” God seemed always to grant her wishes. But when winter came, Chaye–Freyde sent another petition to the Master: “Dear God, just through the winter, and that's it!” This way, each year she fooled God into a summer and a winter. Healthy people died, and she washed them, buried them, and went on complaining.

One fine summer day, one of Chaye–Freyde's daughters arrived from America to take her mother back with her.

“Mama,” the daughter said, “it will be fine and good with me. I'm rich. You won't have to run around, you can live out your years in comfort. You should come back to America with me.”

Chaye–Freyde wrapped herself in her two shawls and ran to my mother:

“I had a fine how–do–you–do today, dear Alte. What do you think? My daughter came from America to find me. She came to get me. What I dreamed of last night and every night, may it go into my enemies' heads. And who will wash the women? And such a big synagogue, may there be no evil eye, who will care for it? Besides that, I have some stomach disease, may you never know it. I don't know if I'm alive or dead. Alte dear, what would I do in a strange land, my stomach just gives a leap, and where will I go to find the Potek?”

In the end, Chaye–Freyde's daughter went back to America by herself, and Chaye–Freyde went on being “Chaye–Freyde the beadle.”

The years raced by, and Chaye–Freyde also ran, never having any time. Ten years went by, and Chaye–Freyde did not age or lose her drive, since she had no time, there were so many women to take care of and so many young women to prepare weddings for.

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And “if necessary,” a chicken cannot also be a cow, and a duck is also a person, and they need to be plucked. And if “Sore the short” brought a turkey to the Frishbergs or a “hoderke” to the Palteraks for the Sabbath, who would they take it to for slaughter, and would they pluck it and singe it themselves? Of course, it would be Chaye–Freyde! How could she think about getting old? Because she had no strength for getting old.

But once Chaye–Freyde came running to my mother, very worried. Her small face was even more cuddled into her two shawls, and instead of “good morning,” she simply blurted out the matter:

“Alte dearest, listen! They're calling me now, I'll have to say my farewells … listen to this story about what can happen to Chaye–Freyde.” It was before the Days of Awe, around the time of the penitential prayers. The congregation was preparing for a circumcision. For every occasion, Chaye–Freyde came early to the synagogue to light the lamps and prepare prayer books for the women. But this time she was really early, she had gotten up too early, even before the rooster had crowed, so the dead who pray in the synagogue at night had not gone back to their rest. Chaye–Freyde entered into the middle of their goings–on. The dead danced around and acted crazy. Chaye–Freyde recognized them all: Buntsye the grandmother; Babtsi the card dealer as if she were alive, in every detail, with all the blemishes on her face and the big wart on her nose. And there was Toybe “the kneader,” who spoke both fire and water. And suddenly someone ran up to her–oy, a shock, it was Gitel from the poorhouse! Gitel the lame, who always walked with crutches, but now she was hopping around like a bird. “Gitel,” said Chaye–Freyde, “may we live and be well, why are you running from one table to another? Why are you all acting so foolish?” Gitel gave a snort of laughter that echoed over the synagogue. “Kha kha kha! Foolish you say, Chaye–Freyde; we're playing, come join us, you'll see. We're playing “ya–za–kvotshekea.” And again, “kha–kha–kha!” “Oy, woe is me,” Chaye–Freyde was shocked. “Let me just put on a light.” Suddenly there was a light from below, from the men's section of the synagogue, a flame two stories high! Chaye–Freyde was even more frightened, and she ran out into the courtyard. Some Jewish woman came up to her and asked, “Why are you running, Chaye–Freyde? Are you surprised that the light was so high?” And she stuck out her tongue at her, you hear? No one should even see that, it was over the entire synagogue courtyard. Chaye–Freyde “hightailed it” and ran, until … until she fell off the little bench and broke a big pot of feathers.

My mother laughed heartily at Chaye–Freyde's original dream. But Chaye–Freyde asked her sadly, “What do you say, Alte? It's a sign that I am being called, ha?”

My mother interpreted her dream as good: if you break pots, it's a sign that there will be joy among the Jews. But Chaye–Freyde could not be calmed down. Only after she was served a bowl of broth with barley and mushrooms made with a roux was Chaye–Freyde completely at rest. Her fallen face and her wrinkled cheeks took on a rosy glow. She quietly pushed the bowl aside and croaked,

“You hear, Alte dear, that all life is a dream and a person is not more than a pot of feathers. A mere knock in a pot and it's over–it becomes a skull.”

 

Chayim–Pinchas the Water Carrier

Very early, while night still lies on the roofs and throws a dark–blue shine over the town, you could still meet Chayim–Pinchas the water carrier with his son Shlome, striding over the streets, with vapor rising from their bodies. They go quickly, almost running. First the father and after him the son. Their Hungarian shoes, with nails, echo in the quiet of the early morning.

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They carry the yoke for the wooden pails on only one shoulder each. So harnessed together, puffing like a train, they chat very nicely, sometimes heatedly. They use hand signals and they shout. All the while, Chayim–Pinchas does not turn around to his son, but only strives forward.

Chayim–Pinchas is already over 50, of medium height, with a straight back, sharp shoulders, and a blonde, pointed beard like a brush on his long, somewhat drawn face. His blue eyes express both mildness and energy. On his head he wears a kashket–a cap with a bill, pushed back a little. He walks with momentum and never allows his son to go in front of him. “Not on my life will you go before me.”

Shlome was just in his 30s, young and healthy, and from time to time he played with his father, racing ahead and leaving his father behind. Then Chayim–Pinchas gathered all his reserve strength, chasing him and delivering a scolding: “See how it goes, in the ground with you, you have no time, ha? I'll read ahead!”

Shlome then feels like the victor, and seeing a dog run by, calls out triumphantly, “Oy, daddy! Look at that big dog, even bigger than you!”

Chayim–Pinchas, red with anger, shouts back, “There may already be a demon in your father!”

When Chayim–Pinchas and his son were going through Poor Street, the son stood up very tall. From Mount Bona you could look over to Mountain of the Cross, and from there to the “Virgin” and Vidomka mountains–the four mountains that were chained and locked together like a belt around the town, which lay in the valley. Poor people were already in the street, taking cows to the slaughter in the abattoir. One was dragging an ox by the horns, another was carrying a lazy calf on his shoulders; a third had curled a goat's tail into his hand and was pushing it with all his might. Noach the kosher butcher was driving a large, white cow. He himself was a fat as a cow, with a big belly. As he walked, he rolled like a big barrel. They used to say that he was convinced that people would give him the “evil eye,” and as a remedy he used to wear his underpants backwards. When Chayim–Pinchas saw how Noach dragged the cow and she tore away from him, he shouted, “Noach, the cow doesn't want to go to the slaughterhouse. You probably forgot to put your pants on backwards today!”

Pushing their way through Butcher Street, Chayim–Pinchas the water carrier and his son stayed more to the center of town, avoiding the narrow street that led to the Potek. “Potek” was what people called the small stream of water at the foot of Mount Bona, on one side of town. The manure and garbage from the town were dumped there. In time, it became a town privy. Although it was an open place, men and women ran “to the Potek” because there were no toilets in the small streets where the poor lived. As Chayim–Pinchas and his son cut across Potek Lane, every day like clockwork, they encountered Avrahamele Kirshner. If Avrahamele Kirshner was hurrying in torment, Chayim–Pinchas knew it was still early because Avrahamele Kirshner was just running to go in the Potek.

Inside Shlome's shirt lies a piece of black rye bread. From time to time, he pinches off a bit and puts it in his mouth. Chayim–Pinchas does not like to eat so early. He would drink a “cup.” He is reminded that the new cantor at the Great Synagogue drinks very little at happy events. “What kind of cantor is he?” thinks Chayim–Pinchas. He thinks that when Yoel Zinger was cantor, he would say this about a glass of whisky: “One is none, and two is almost one.” But Shlome believes more in eating than in drinking. As soon as he gets up, he wants something to eat. He even asked the doctor, Meir Litvak, about it. The doctor told him that it wasn't an illness.

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Rather, it shows that the stomach is working well, and he may even eat a piece of dry bread on an empty stomach.

Chayim–Pinchas came from a large family of water carriers. His father, his grandfather, his brothers–all water carriers–were known by the nickname “the Kadushkes.” Why they were called this is not known. There were several versions of the story. One version goes like this:

It was said that Chayim–Pinchas's grandfather once explained to a gentile, a neighbor, the reason he went to synagogue. In three words he explained the whole matter. He told him in the gentile language: “Nada tantsovat kadusha,” that is, one dances the kedusha in synagogue. From then on, people in town called him “Kadushka.” The nickname went from generation to generation.

I remember Chayim–Pinchas's old mother, who was known by the name “the old Kadushkakhe.” She went around to the houses asking for charity. When she went to a young wife, she would ask for more of a donation. She would add, “Give, give, daughter, your mother has given, too.” Jokers in the town made a triple joke out of that.

Chayim–Pinchas brought one daughter and one son into the world. The daughter he married off, and Shlome, his son, shared his same fate, in suffering and in joy. They were concerned the whole week with providing fresh spring water to the town's housewives. Even when it rained, it snowed, or the frost was bitter. But when the Sabbath came, Chayim–Pinchas dressed up in his grey–checkered suit, put on highly polished boots, and walked majestically on Sheroka Street as though he were the richest man in town, or perhaps like Ovadies, the owner of the big town mill. The jacket was unbuttoned and open wide in order show the checkered vest with the two watches, one gold and the other silver. His son Shlome walked behind him, and every time asked him ironically, “Mister Ovadies, what time is it?”

Chayim–Pinchas beamed with pride and answered his son with a question: “Which watch would you like to know from? The gold or the silver?”

So it went, year in, year out. The years were speeding along, and Chayim–Pinchas and Shlome were speeding after them. They never complained about their difficult livelihood; rather, among the other water carriers, they were the champions. The other water carriers were old, bent–over Jews. Who could compare to Chayim–Pinchas?

But once something happened that struck Chayim–Pinchas to the depths of his soul. It literally broke him. This happened one evening when Chayim–Pinchas and his son were hurrying to the small well carrying the last load of water. They ran into Chayim–Leyzer Lempel with a big belly, who called out to them in a hoarse voice: “Go slowly, don't run, Chayim–Pinchas. You'll soon have to throw your pails into the Potek, because the magistrate wants to do here as they do in America, where people can tap water from the walls, everyone inside their own homes.”

Supposedly Chayim–Pinchas laughed, but in his heart a question began to gnaw. “And maybe it will really be? Maybe Chayim–Leyzer with the big belly is right?” One “Americaniets,” Chayim–Pinchas recalled, had actually said that there were absolutely no water carriers in America, that people tapped water from the walls. That thought made him very sad. The whole way home, Shlome argued with his father that such a thing was not possible in Kremenets:

“They will sooner tap water from Chayim–Leyzer's big belly that from the walls.”

But Chayim–Pinchas remained depressed.

When they arrived home, it was already dark outside. But inside the house it was light. The samovar was boiling on the table.

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Chayim–Pinchas's wife served kasha with broth, and she talked about how that day she had bought a rooster for the Sabbath that was “as big as a bear.” She had tied the rooster to the bed by one foot and given him a plate of water to drink so he could adjust a little until Friday, when she would take him to the slaughterer.

After supper, sitting around the table with the second glass of tea, Chayim–Pinchas fell half asleep. It seemed he was in America. He went around with his full pails, but where he should pour the water, he did not find a barrel. Suddenly a woman came in, someone he supposedly knew. She laughed and spoke with a coarse, hoarse voice like Chayim–Leyzer's. “Chayim–Pinchas,” she asked, “why did you come here with the pails? Just look!”

And she turned a big faucet on the wall. It began to gush a stream of water that sprayed him from head to foot. Chayim–Pinchas quickly shook himself and stood up.

“Go to sleep, Chayim–Pinchas,” said his wife. “The bed is all ready.”

Chayim–Pinchas looked around sleepily. He remembered the dream and spat. “Tfoo! It won't be! I had a rascally dream.”

He scratched his head and went to bed. But he spat out once more, “Tfoo! How can water from the wall taste! A black year on America! Tfoo!

 

Old–Age Home and Its Administrators

 


Translation Editor's Note:

  1. Mechaye literally means something that has brought you back from death to life–that is, something refreshing. Return


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Kremenets Nicknames

By Heynekh Kesler (New York)

Translated by Tina Lunson

 

A. The “Herd” B. Additions to the First Name C. Various Nicknames
Ayzik di Ki (cow) R' Avraham Pipik (bellybutton) Beztolk
Yankel di shof (sheep) Avraham Tsitske (understand) Bizem Keshene (vest pocket)
Fayvish Kelvales (calf's) Avraham Shpring–in–Bet (jump–in–bed) Bashkeyer
Yuresh mit der Kie (with the cow) Ayzik Pare (steam) Bilitshikhe
Yankel Tsap (goat) Ayizik Shlisale (middleman) Broyt mit Shmalts (bread with goose fat)
Shime'le Pastukh (shepherd) Idel Tsap (pigtail) Groysekhe (bragger)
Kive (Akiva) Leviten (whale Aharon mit di Gleklakh (with the bells) Der Malakh (the angel)
Fertel Of (quarter chicken) Berel Choygel The Choymer
Rachel fun di Genz (from the geese) Basi di Moyd (girl) Di Terkinye (the Turkish woman)
Mayzele (little mouse) Duvid'l Korol (coral) Vizale
Avraham–Yoel Tshizshik (finch) Duvid Vas (what) Varnitshke
  Duvid Parkh (scab) Father Poish
  Hersh Shkravalnik Todi Bode
  Hersh–Mendel Amalek Tsherire Haroshi
  Heynekh Kapota (coat) Tap Teyglekh (pot dumplings)
  Heynekh mit der Blat (with the paper) Trentel
  Hinde di Sorvern (waitress) Tsherindik
  Zelig Oder (vein) Tarashtshekhe
  Zalmenishke Malakh Hamavet (angel of death)
  Chaskel Balebos (homeowner) Spasiba za Torah (Thank You for Torah)
  Chayim Dzhinshik Pitsieritsye
  Chaykel of Kremenits Papalik
  Yoel Kishke (gut) Pontshekhe (doughnut)
  Yoel fun der Leyvent ( linen seller) Tsikorye (chicory)
  Yosi Ditina (kid [Ukrainian]) Koyolterlekhe
  Yashke Ponimayesh (understand)  
  Yekl Shkalik (bottle)  
  Yankel der Langer (long)  
  Yankel Zaverekhe (snowstorm)  
  Yankel Bortsh  
  Yankel Plokht (twist)  
  Libe di Grobe (fat)  
  Leybenov Atiets (priest)  
  Leybish Spodek (tall fur hat)  
  Leyzer Draykop (head twister [swindler])  
  Leyzer der Gendreyter (crazy)  
  Mendel funem Plats (from the market)  
  Moti Kashe (porridge)  
  Muni Zhmenye (handful)  
  Moshe Hipsh (nice)  
  Moshe Shibeye (wheel)  
  Moshe Kadushke (barrel)  
  Moshe Kadoynik  
  Moshe Povitinye (spiderweb)  
  Moshe Kraf (lump; evil person)  
  Natan Soldat (soldier)  
  Pinye Pitsyatsye  
  Fishke General  
  Pesye Milkhike (dairy)  
  Kalman di Mame (mommy)  
  Shaye Tyutye  
  Shimele Pastukh (shepherd)  
  Simche Gorgl (throat)  
  Shlome Sondi's  
  Shaul Kozeratske  

 


[Page 305]

Characters, Folklore, and Lifestyles in Kremenets

By H. Hoykhgelernter (New York)

Translated by Tina Lunson

 

Mendele the Beadle

Mendele had a small, wizened little body. His low little house on Butcher Street had only one window, through which a sunbeam stole during the summer. Mendele himself rarely stayed in the house, only to eat warm meals and to sleep at night. Otherwise he was generally busy in his synagogue.

Early every morning when Mendele had to cross the synagogue threshold, he first knocked three times on the right–hand door and then laid his three middle fingers–making the shape of the letter shin–against the bare left wall, kissed the shaday, and said aloud the words “Be greeted, you honorable ones.” This was as an apology to the souls that had been floating inside and saying their prayers all night, an announcement to them that they should go back where they came from. Only then did Mendele let himself into the synagogue, accompanied by the words “How goodly are your tents, Yakov, and your dwellings oh Yisrael!”

Mendele had his own corner in the synagogue, at the end near the steps. A long table stood there, where “regular folks” prayed, and Mendele was usually among them. Only once a year, on Yom Kippur, was it difficult at the everyday folk's table. Along the whole length of the table he placed long narrow baskets of red–gold sand, into which he set large yellow wax candles, which each person brought to him. Those “soul lights” burned constantly from evening to evening. There was only a narrow border remaining around the table on which to lay the prayer books for the Days of Awe.

One such night after Kol Nidre, when the entire congregation had gone home, Mendele sat down for a while to rest his feet. Sitting by himself, resting his head, he fell into a deep sleep. It was as though he heard the water being poured over hands, as before the blessing by the kohanim. He felt as if he were fainting, but they did not revive him. He wanted to lift his head, but he could not. He wanted to open his eyes, but it was as if someone was holding them closed. He prayed with the spirits. The little bells from the open doors of the ark rang in his ears. He heard people laying the Torah scroll on the desk, and a voice called someone up to read. He was seized with trembling out of fear that they would call his name, Menachem–Mendel, up to the Torah. But suddenly it started to become quiet, and Mendele dreamed as he did any other night. The souls perceived the first withdrawal of night with the first bit of red morning sun. They flew out to their rest. A deep sigh awoke his thoughts. His right hand slid out from beneath his head and fell off the end of the table, he opened his eyes, and his gaze fell on the leaping flames of the soul–candles. His confused thoughts were still sunk in the nightmares, and he sighed heavily.

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He looked over to the outdoors, to the cemetery where the redeemers of the living lay. Once, long ago, during the plague, a groom and bride had died on their wedding day. They were buried together on that spot. There was no longer any trace of them. Their gravestones were sunken into the ground. Apparently, thought Mendele, they were so alarmed in the night that they flew over his head; they probably want justice for their graves. And in the morning, when the congregation came to the synagogue, Mendele, with trembling lips and stumbling words, told them about the souls' visitation that Yom Kippur night. The congregants felt their bodies shudder and said that they must appease the souls by digging out the sunken gravestones that were overgrown with grass.

 

Leybeshekhe the Grave Whisperer

Every day, Leybeshekhe the Grave Whisperer clearly demonstrated her claim that she could demand and sometimes convince the dead to follow her wishes. She was of medium build with a wide, pudgy body, with a lot of wrinkles on her full face. She usually covered the deep creases on her wide forehead with a headscarf, or with a thick woolen shawl in the winter, pulled around over her ears and tied with a bow at the throat. Always warmly dressed, and with a thick, short pole that served as her walking stick, she looked like a village peasant woman. In her children's eyes, she was like someone “here” who knew all about what was happening in “the world to come.”

When she showed up at someone's house, the children would cower in a corner, hardly able to glance at her. If Leybeshekhe just drank a glass of warm tea, she started to tell about her chats with the dead, as if with the living, who were saved from suffering after death, who can now accomplish everything that is asked of them there above. And she was friendly with the dead and spoke to them as to the living. If someone went to an ancestor's grave to apologize on a yahrtzeit day, or in a time of trouble, Leybeshekhe would accompany them to the grave, knock on the gravestone with her stick as if to awaken the corpse, call the dead by name, and tell them who had come to visit. Meanwhile she told them everything that was happening with the family.

She had a different prayer book for a yahrtzeit day. She argued with more eloquence, as if the dead might arise with a better soul, closer to the seat of glory, while she apologized to the living and wanted the soul to make up its mind to help its survivors on earth; she wanted them to think about how their own think of them today. She dealt very definitively with a soul when an orphan came on a wedding day to invite the dead to the ceremony. Then the bride or the groom stood with head leaning on the gravestone, quietly weeping. Leybeshekhe then asked the soul why it did not merit walking its child to the wedding canopy.

“Chaye, or Mr. Moshe, your child has come to invite you to the wedding. Give a congratulations, that he may go happily to the canopy and give birth to a name after you, and bless them there in heaven, with good fortune and success.”

Later, when later Leybeshekhe came home and related what she had achieved that day, her children and relatives perked up mouth and ear and were even envious that she spoke with the dead, who heard her and obeyed her.

When Leybeshekhe came to call during the first seven days after a death to comfort he mourners, the household literally felt as if the soul were floating around in the house. Then she told what she had done by the fresh grave that day. Everyone felt that although the body lay in the cold ground, the soul was warming itself in the house. She, the soul, heard all that was said about her. She also cried during the Kaddish recital in the house for her departed self. She, the soul, floated behind the white cloth that was draped across the mirror and reflected herself there among the living who sat on low little benches and talked about her, or they thought about her and felt her in their hearts.

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The “grave Jewess,” as people called Leybeshekhe, had the merit to come to her own final rest in America, in a cemetery in Chicago.

 

Ite the Women's Prayer Leader

All the wives of the ritual slaughterers were referred to with an ancestral name–the shoychetke. So Mendele's wife was Brokhe the shoychetke; Rachel–Leye the shoychetke. But Tsadok the ritual slaughterer's wife, Ite, had her own name: the women's prayer leader. By trade she was a milliner. But her daughter Reyzel actually ran the workshop. Ite only found the customers. No one could wiggle out of her hands and resist giving her an order. The highest–society Christians didn't trust their work to anyone else. Avraham Kuntsekhe's daughter, who had a workshop for new underwear, the finest, could not compete with Ite. Ite herself often accompanied Christian customers to choose fabric at her relative Yankel Kremenetski's linen and cloth shop and helped the customer choose the merchandise. Indeed, Ite quickly had the merchandise wrapped up on the spot and carried the wrapped package home under her arm.

And just so, Ite also used her energy for charity, to which she was devoted every day of the week. She took care of the needy in their homes and the broken old “vessels” on the creaky beds in the old–age home. When Ite appeared in the street on Friday with a basket and a pack, every Jewish housewife knew what kind of challah to give her. Ite had certain houses where they had prepared a cooked broth with meat in it.

Before the old–age home had its own support group, which was concerned with everyone, Ite had her own elderly, whom she herself took care of.

When Ite showed up on the iron steps that led to Yankel Kremenetski's fabric shop, the employees gave the news to the woman, Sore, that Ite was here. The same thing happened in Hertsi Frishberg's shoemaking shop; his wife, Dvore, took part in the good deed of charity every Friday.

If the Jewish judge announced that a woman may also be occupied with ritual slaughter, Ite would certainly be more occupied than her husband, Tsadok the slaughterer. He, poor thing, went “with the butter side down.” He had a pitfall, an ox that was not kosher, and from then on, the butchers would not allow him to slaughter their animals. Ite was the “woman of valor” for making a living, too. She had a family of two daughters and three sons. Not one was qualified to take their father's place. Simple, even dull as regards the fine points. Ite was the scholar, too. In fact, they called her “Ite the women's prayer leader.”

Every Sabbath morning, in summer and even in winter when the women's synagogue in the Great Synagogue was cold, she read the Torah portion of the week aloud for her women from the Tsene–urene. With her sharp eye and ear, Ite was also able to recognize who let a tear fall. She would later take those women aside, listen to them talk of their bitterness, smooth here a wrinkle, there a woe. She was especially strong in devoting herself to help outfit a bride for the wedding canopy. In that case, it was hard for her not to give everything she wanted to. The fabric dealer Yankel, her own relative, was in on this, in her pocket. Yankel did not dare refuse her. And as for sewing, Ite herself was the expert.

That is how Ite used her days and nights of the week and her Sabbaths.

 

Moshe the Book Peddler

The diminutive Moshe had a shriveled body. In a woven basket in his right hand, he held small books on which he reared a whole town of men, women, girls, adults, and cheder boys.

Moshe's basket held Jewishness of all kinds: Pentateuch volumes, prayer books, blessing books, ritual fringed garments, leather straps for phylacteries, ritual fringes, braided–wax candles for Havdalah, copies of Psalm 121 for those in childbirth confinement, Simchat Torah flags, penitential prayers, and even round bones to quiet nursing babies who are cutting teeth.

[Page 308]

In particular, he had mezuzahs for doorposts of every size, Hanukkah lamps, and myrtle woven from thin strips of palm leaves.

The little prayer books cost many children a lot of tears. Bloody tears were shed when Moshe would take out a brand–new one to show, bound in colorful covers and the letters in gold, but it was too expensive.

Moshe also had a wife, but no one knew her except perhaps the butcher's wife. In any case, when a bride's family wanted to give a fine knitted–silk shawl from Austria for the groom's sermon on the eve of a wedding, then one went off to Moshe's wife in their attic home to look at the merchandise, or perhaps to strike a bargain. Moshe's wife demonstrated expertise in getting the smuggled silk Austrian shawls brought to her from Radzivilov, the Russian–Austrian border town, for the rich ladies to wear when they went to the synagogue on the Sabbath. She did not have her own name. Moshe the bookseller's woman, people called her. Her own husband called her “she.”

Moshe never appeared on the street until early afternoon. Before then he spent the whole morning in the Turiysk Synagogue, staying there even after he had prayed with the first minyan, until noon when all the minyanim had observed their yahrtzeits. Peysi the blind beadle knew that after each minyan, when Hasidim liked to taste a little cup of whisky and eat egg cookies, if only to say the blessing for “various foods,” that he must also have Moshe the book peddler in mind, whom the yahrtzeit leader called an “elite soul” for the deceased. Only after he had recited all the “benedictions” did Moshe go to his attic home, eat what “she” had prepared, grab a nap, and then go out on the street and deal in “Jewishness” for God's children. He would start on Butcher Street. He knew for sure that he had a few regular clients there who borrowed letter–writing texts for girls, or even one of Shomer's storybooks, which lay in the deepest part of the basket, under a “no evil eye” coverlet. He went into Chayim Braun's shop to take home some “rented” books to read and return on the designated day, because if not, one had to pay for another whole week of keeping the book, which not all Kremenets girls were prepared to do. For Moshe, anyway, if you kept a book longer, it was not a bad thing. People did not have to pay. Rather, Moshe would suggest that they take another book, too, and return them both the next week. From Butcher Street, Moshe changed direction and went right to the Butchers' Synagogue, where the butchers would sit and rest after working in the market. Some took a nap, some listened to and enjoyed as Shlome the ritual slaughterer, who had become blind, studied a page of Talmud by heart with his grandson Leyb and at the same time prepared him in the ways of ritual slaughter. Moshe did not leave there empty. This and that, but someone always needed a bundle of fresh fringes when they worked with bloody hands all day, from flaying the hides to washing the intestines of the slaughtered “items.” Nu, and a fresh yarmulke for the Sabbath? Moshe carried two types of yarmulkes: velvet ones, completely round, which drew to a point toward heaven, and four–cornered silk ones. The first were only for Hasidim and others who followed their example; the second were for the more enlightened, those who studied grammar and interpreted the Pentateuch according to the master of language, Ibn Ezra. Today, the provocative young men who wore only jackets or, in the best case, frock coats with a “German” split in the back–they considered the silk yarmulkes that covered only half of the head proper. Regular fellows wore such a yarmulke at home, which only seemed to cover the head. And Moshe sold a lot of the yarmulkes.

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In the end, the silk yarmulkes outsold the velvet ones, which were used only by select individuals.

And just as happened with the velvet yarmulkes, Moshe's little storybooks had a similar end. In his old age, Moshe suddenly realized that the merit of storybooks had run out. As if by the swipe of a hand, the “socialists” had taken away the young Jewish men and kosher young women. The Jewish youth stopped delighting in storybooks. Another Moshe appeared, not Moshe the book peddler but Moshe Feldman, he was called; and not with a basket on his arm but an actual shop. A perverse world in which he didn't take merchandise to the customer, but rather one went to him, in the shop. Today, the merchandise itself. No more thin little storybooks with colorful names on the front, but really big, thick books on excellent white paper, with thick covers, bound in secure spines. Even Moshe's letter writers had lost their currency. Just books with strange gentile names, novels, and sketches. Indeed, Moshe mocked the new world with the saying “Crazy geese, crazy cracklings.”

 

Shlome Shmoytefon

Why Shlome the butcher was destined to have such a nickname, and what it should mean, it's not possible to say. He was a little taller than a short person, thin as a straw, and bent over. Shlome usually moved like quicksilver; he never walked but floated with his whole body, so his hat on his little head was always pushed to the back. Shlome didn't talk, just whispered. His wife, Ite, was the head of the butcher shop, the one who spoke with the housewives. Shlome's work in the butcher shop was only cutting the meat.

Of their two sons, Aharon and Berel, Aharon became a cabinetmaker. He was a copy of his father, but his clever eyes were inherited from his mother, Ite. He was a very good cabinetmaker. Especially–he said about himself–he was very accomplished in varnishing finished furniture. Like his father, the son rarely spoke either, even when he was drawn into the group of Bundist cabinetmakers who gathered on the Sabbath after the meal. For years Aharon did not acquire the stamp of a strong cabinetmaker. But once, when he had to present himself to the police the “gang” was envious of him. When the military commission considered the little cabinetmaker, they asked him how old he was and sent him home to grow up. Aharon could not get enough of Moshe the book peddler, who was a sort of traveling library of storybooks.

Aharon's father didn't need to concern himself with going to the fair to buy a “piece” (a cow, a calf). His second son, Berel, did that and didn't want any other skill but butchering. The Butchers' Synagogue was like his home during the day, through the old ritual slaughterer. In his old age, Shlome the slaughterer had gone blind. He lived right across from the Butchers' Synagogue and now no longer went to pray at his old place, which was a few streets away. He spent the whole week at the Butchers' Synagogue. He did not only pray there but also studied by heart with his grandson Leyb, a child of his son Yokel the ritual slaughterer. One could hear Shlome the slaughterer's iron voice clearly, so the Butchers' Synagogue was elevated. One could always hear a page of Talmud being studied, or a chapter of Pentateuch with Rashi.

Shlome Shmoytefon no longer even went home to take a nap after lunch, but napped leaning on his reading desk. He was waiting for the moment when Shlome the ritual slaughterer came with his grandson to study Torah.

Since then, Shlome Shmoytefon's world had become richer. He got pleasure not only from the Sabbath days, from overhearing how Avrahamtse the teacher studied Ethics of the Fathers with his students, but he also took in the conversation of Torah and wisdom all week.

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No one ever used the curse word ‘butcher's blood” against him. It seemed as though he lived in another world, in his own quiet world.

 

Moshe Hipsh

This particular nickname for Moshe the porter was a justly earned one. One pronounced the word hipsh [nice] with a special tone of love for the person. He was of medium height but had a wide body that swayed between two loosely hanging arms like a kind of scale, giving him the appearance of a massive person with the strength of an oak. Moshe never walked on the sidewalk but walked in the street, both summer on the paving stones and winter on the piled–high bed of snow that was compacted by the sleighs. It seemed as though the whole right of way was his, and the wagons and sleighs had to cede the way.

Like all porters, Moshe was usually standing at his main place near the flour and iron goods shops, which were at the entrance to the market square. Moshe's place was near Basye the flour dealer's shop, neighboring the shops of Tsadok the ritual slaughterer's son, Moshe Yaspe, and Lemel the grocer, whose shops were at the corner of the main street, so that everyone knew where to find Moshe. There the shopkeepers–who, just like Moshe, were on the lookout for customers–spent a fine time together outdoors telling stories and playing jokes, and Moshe Hipsh was the driver of such conversations. He had a lot to say, because Moshe had another occasional livelihood as a broker.

Once such odd job was at the auctions for selling princely horses on a corner of the street where Moshe would stand. Tsadok the slaughterer's son, Binyamin Yaspe, conducted those auctions. Both his tenor voice and his flowing Russian and Ukrainian made him familiar to the princes, and he became the seller of their horses. Moshe Hipsh held the horse to be sold by the halter. When Binyamin called out the price and gave the word “Who bids more?,” Moshe slapped the belly of the horse and someone said, “What a fine horse,” so as to warm the interest of the buyers, and then Binyamin called out, “Considerable, considerable, who bids more?” Binyamin's talk was directed at the representatives of the dragoon unit officers who rode horses every afternoon. Their main competitors were the Beznoski brothers, especially Ezra Beznoski, who had his own pair of phaetons with horses, and the driver was his own son Fayvish; he hired some gentiles for the job, who learned to speak Yiddish well through their driving of the phaetons.

In the two weeks leading up to Passover, Moshe practiced his second line of work. He was charged with getting the matzas home to the householders. He had to have enough strength to carry a matza basket two meters long and one meter wide, woven of soft but thick twigs loaded with more than a hundred pounds of matza right from the oven, and transport them so that none would break along the way. He used the upper part of his shoulder as a kind of bridge on which the central part of the basket rested. With his right arm, Moshe made a sort of support foot for one end, and the other hand served to grasp his fingers into the other end of the basket. When he carried that basket through the street, burdened with its heavy load, he was so bent over with the weight that you could hardly see his head. Both children and adults used to call out to him, “hipshe, that's a lot of brown–baked matza!” Moshe did not make a fuss about his labor, as he was always cheerful with people. His great treasure was his fortune in possessing a quiet humor that shone through from his devilishly clever eyes, as if they were always saying, I hear the world as a tomcat hears it … [not much at all]….

 

Moshe Surovski

The older generation of tailor workers used to mention Moshe's name with respect.

[Page 311]

Moshe's place in life should have been in cultural work. Even as a boy at home, he wrote poems from time to time. In 1904, he made his debut in the Petersburg journal Strekoza with his poem about the Russo–Japanese War. Later, when the situation of the slavish sweatshops in America affected him, he also appeared in the columns of the Forward. His story “Without Ears” enchanted the reader. He had the ability to provide the reader with a social–psychological theme in a humoristic style. But he was destined to harness his hands not to the pen but to sewing clothing.

On his father's side, he stemmed from the Bialystok Suraskis, who were part of the ancestors of the town. Merchants from Bialystok–including Shimon Suraski–came to Kremenets to buy wood. Shimon sought a suitable match for his son. Iser Fingerhut had a very accomplished daughter, Vilye. Thus the Bialystok line was betrothed to the Kremenets line, Shimon's son Yosef became Iser Fingerhut's live–in son–in–law. But Yosef did not stay under his father–in–law's roof for long. Iser was often out of the country, especially in Austria, and took it for granted that his son–in–law Yosef, with his knowledge of languages, could stand on his own two feet. Iser was connected to the Russian authorities. He was given a position in a government institution, the customs house in Radzivilov at the Austrian border. Besides a good salary–30 rubles a month–he had a free apartment. Although the salary was quite substantial for those days, he had a real benefit in his sideline. For customs officers, who were barely educated, the Jew Yosef, with his command of Russian and German, was a real bargain. He had the workers dressed up in official uniforms with the symbol of the czar's crown, complete with a sword on the left side. Yosef also dealt very humanely with that troop, who were in charge of the entry of merchandise from Austria. Yosef also brought his father to Radzivilov in very short order, where he completely devoted himself to the community's needs. He built a study hall, where he taught simple Jews.

A band of five children arrived. Our Moshe was the fourth son. The children were reared in comfort. But that was so for only a few years. The hard, bitter years soon began for Jews: they were driven from the villages, they were forcibly cleared from state positions, and Moshe's father was among the victims. But as an expert bookkeeper, Yosef established himself with a manufacturer in Lodz at a salary of 100 rubles a month. Then he set up a business for his wife and children, who had returned to Kremenets, where he shipped them all kinds of textile merchandise.

But this happiness was soon destroyed. Moshe's father left this world due to a serious lung inflammation. Moshe, barely seven years old, was orphaned. Only after his father's death did Moshe truly recognize his father. He finally saw the bookcases filled with holy books. Besides the Bible, which he already knew from studying with his rabbi, he “discovered” a Zohar, a Guide for the Perplexed, and other holy books, plus Hebrew journals and Russian books. His mother, furthermore, told him about his father's desire that the children be taught in the regular government school as well as in a traditional cheder. The mother directed the children along that path. His private tutor, Tovye Fridel, who prepared Moshe for the entrance exams, had already recognized his special abilities and prepared him to enter the third grade. The school director–the apostate Grigori Aleksandrovitsh Poli–assigned him to help three dull students in his class. Moshe graduated from the school at the age of 12 and continued studying on his own, mainly by reading a lot. Even while their father was alive, Moshe's older brother Pinchas had settled in Lodz. His father had obtained a position for him there with a manufacturer. Moshe began to think about his own goals and also about ways to help his mother.

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He went to his brother in Lodz, where he found work as a packer and errand boy at a manufacturing facility. While running errands, he often passed a bookstore with a display window. He was tempted to buy a book, but his pockets were empty. At his job, when he was finished packing, he used to decorate the addresses of the packages with artistic script. The bookkeeper noticed this and, seeing someone very useful to him, took him into his department. He was soon using Moshe as an assistant to inscribe customers into the account book. As they worked together, Moshe improved his German skills. He was already quite at home in Russian, and Moshe quickly became the lead writer of customer correspondence in both languages. Once Moshe became more established, he brought his mother to him. Once when Moshe was visiting him, the bookkeeper noticed his weakness for books. The bookkeeper gave him the address of a private lending library, and Moshe began to swallow up the printed word enthusiastically.

While joking around on a swing, Moshe fell off and began to lose his hearing. Once his mother was in Lodz, she remarked about it and took him to a doctor. Until then, Moshe had kept it from his mother, not wanting to trouble her with it, but now it was already too late to improve his hearing. And he would have to give up the idea of studying further.

Around that time, Moshe became a Bundist. Meanwhile, the Russo–Japanese War had broken out, and Moshe was completely patriotic for Russia. He even printed a patriotic poem in the journal Strekoza for victory over Japan. But the revolution carried the young enthusiast on her wings. After the failure of the revolution, Moshe left for America.

Among the Kremenets immigrants, Moshe was one of the few intellectuals. He well remembered the time in Lodz when he had first sought out the taste of earning money for himself. He was haunted by a vision that, if his father were still alive, Moshe would certainly be wearing a student's uniform. His father was an enlightened and worldly person, always dressed in elegant clothes, his face absent a beard but sporting a pointed French goatee, which gave him the appearance of an aristocrat. In the new country, Moshe tried working with his pen in a trade shop and later in a bank, today the Bankers' Trust Company. But he could not last long in that place. Moshe became a presser.

“Where there is Torah, there is wisdom,” was the phrase used about Moshe in the workshop. He was also devoted to books. He even studied on his free evenings and became a notary. Even though Moshe was a worker, he thought first and was always concerned about his mother in the old home, and only then about himself. In the shop, he saw the subjugation of the worker not only by the boss. Two people hired out all the pressing work from the boss, and they dictated the workers' pay; they literally bathed in their sweat. Moshe could not bear it. He began to chat with each person separately, secretly, about putting a stop to it. His talk made it around to the two main people, and that began a hard life for Moshe in the shop. One of them came at him with his fists raised and screamed, “If you, deaf dog, want to be a gentile and not close your mouth, I'll break your bones; if you don't like America, go back to where you came from!” He cost Moshe years off his life. He drove Moshe to complete his work even faster. When work was slow, Moshe was the first victim to be laid off. The sole luck that kept him in work was that he had “golden hands.”

Moshe took an active part in the struggle of all lockouts and strikes, collaborating in strike committees.

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Because of his intelligence and other qualifications, Moshe held a high position in the workers' movement. But he was hindered by his deafness. And so he had another ambition–to be involved with the printed word. And he did print essays in the Forward. With the help of fellow members of the pressing union (Local Number 60), Moshe put together a library. The library was like a second home for Moshe. The moment he put his pressing iron down, he went straight to the library, so that when workers came, they would not have to wait. The library was gradually transformed into a kind of school. They organized frequent lectures about literature and politics. Everything was at Moshe's initiative. About that library, which was located in the heart of the garment district in New York, M. Birnboym has written that the walls themselves signaled that the place was different. Looking down from the walls were portraits of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Morris Hilkvid. There was no lack of Yiddish folksiness, either. There were Yiddish posters from “Yiddle with the Fiddle, Berl with the Bass”[1] and “On the Hearth, a Fire Burns.” Birnboym wrote, “The head, the soul, of the library is Moshe Surovski, or as the pressers call him, Moshe the deaf. True, he hears very poorly, and so he has a feeling heart and a light–filled soul. He cares for each book like the eyes in his head. The Yiddish book is especially dear and beloved to him. A literat himself, his story ‘A Man without Ears' made a powerful impression on the reader a few years back. He comes from Kremenets, the town where the father of the Enlightenment, Itschak Ber Levinzon, is from.”

 

The Founding of the Kremenets Landsmanshaft in New York
(according to an account by B. Barshap)

Shmuel Pak settled in America at the end of the 19th century, quite likely against his father's will. He was reared in a religious home. His father, Yitschak Pak, was a man burdened with many children. Besides daughters, he brought a total of nine sons into the world. He made a living selling quilted jackets for peasants at the fairs. Shmuel was the most accomplished of all the children. His father took care to teach him Torah. As he grew up and became an accomplished young man, his father wanted no less that that his Shmuel should be an expert in Jewish law. The son, however, was planted in another world, because meanwhile he had read Yitschak Ber Levinzon's books. He quickly came to like the thought of Torah and to respect the idea that, along with knowing Torah, one must know a trade. So one day, he and two of his brothers, Yosel and Srul (Yisrael) fled “here,” to America.

With their feet on American soil, the brothers, like all immigrants of that time, felt very lonely and tried their luck in a sweatshop, working with a needle 12 hours a day. They were even happy with that, because for the first time in their lives they enjoyed the taste of having their own money in their pockets and not having to give it all to their father.

Shmuel Pak, with his “good head,” could not live just for tomorrow in his new home either. After work, he took his brothers along to gatherings. Shmuel's good head dwelled on the Torah of the Social Democrats. The ideas of justice and fairness, coupled with the worth of work and wages, captivated him, and he became a member of the DeLeon Party. But Shmuel did not approach the matter as a “don't trade your tatters for rags,” as we said in Kremenets, that his hard toil would benefit his boss, a complete stranger. He considered and acted. One day he went out on his own and became a craftsman for himself. Although it felt disagreeable to him, his mind overcame it, and he hired workers. And Shmuel's position was strengthened. But he felt that using workers weakened his ideals. One day he decided that it was better for him to remain a purist in his convictions, and he liquidated the workshop. Among the new immigrants were some from Kremenets.

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Shmuel remembered well the taste of loneliness when he himself had arrived in America. He very much wanted to help, to warm the new arrivals. But since he had liquidated the workshop, he was at loose ends. He was often hungry. When he did earn some money, he got by on bread and cheese. And he suffered over the fact that he, the “older” arrival, couldn't be of service to his guests from home. He couldn't overcome the feeling that he himself had received kindness from a stranger, so he borrowed money from a mutual society fund to welcome newly arrived Kremenetsers. Shmuel became a rag dealer. He kept a few cents for bread and cheese, and the rest he spent paying debts for Kremenetsers.

The colony of Kremenetsers kept growing. Shmuel and Shimon Bernshteyn, Mordekhay the dry–goods man's son, organized the Kremenetsers into their own group under the name “House of Abraham.” They set weekly dues at 10 cents per person. But the group's days were numbered, though the desire to stay together was not lost. One Kremenetser, Y. Mints, a coppersmith back home, put himself forward with his smooth tongue. He even developed a taste for speaking on the street corners of New York. He attempted to renew the organization. But again, it didn't last because of the dues. They had the intellectual spirit of pride, but the dues weren't paid.

Around that time, between 1903 and 1905, Shmuel Pak disappeared from sight. It turned out later that that very stalwart advocate for easing the way for another in his loneliness and want left this world as lonely and lost as anyone. A gravesite had not even been secured for him because no one had paid for a permanent place of rest. When Y. Mints and the carpenter Bene Barshap learned about this, it broke their hearts. They realized the meaning of that death, that a person shouldn't have to pay with his own life. Shmuel's lonely death caused a stir among the Kremenetsers, and the “Kremenets Voliner Benevolent Society” was founded and existed for more than 40 years.

 

Kremenets Folklore

The Ansky Expedition in Kremenets

As in every provincial town in the Pale of Settlement in czarist Russia, young people in Kremenets lived, for the most part, a traditional religious life at the beginning of the current century. Except for a small percentage of children, perhaps a couple of hundred, who studied in general state or private schools, the majority went through a cheder; poor children, a Talmud–Torah.

After the Czernowitz Conference (celebrating Yiddish culture in 1908), Kremenets youth gained fresh wings for spreading Yiddish culture. They also organized illegal courses for young people and an illegal school for children. Supporters of the illegal school consisted of Duvid Roykhel, Yeshaye Belohuz, Yasha Broytman, M. Biberman, Henekh Gelernt, Barukh Barshap, the sisters Feyge and Mindel (seamstresses), and Gutye Aksel, Fishel the porter's daughter. But that didn't work for long, as the school was discovered and had to be moved to the kitchen of Avraham the butcher, Feyge and Mindel's father. The classes took place at night, when the parents were busy at the slaughterhouse. But while both sisters, who were Bundists, kept an eye out for Kalman Finkel, the police's Jewish helper (“Kalman with the wen under his eye”), he observed the house and himself said cheerfully that he knew what people were doing there at night.

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So they migrated again, this time to a kind of attic room at Moshe Kadushke the water carrier's house. All this was in the winter. In the summer, they gathered in a wood on Mount Vidomka. The same thing happened with the courses for adult workers. And the same for the library, which was operated by Zionist youth.

The youthful “culture bearers” were engaged in the work in a romantic way. In 1910, A. Litvin (a merchant) introduced a new zest into the romanticism. At the time, he was devoted to collecting folklore, and thanks to his visit to Kremenets, the topic of folksong became a very popular. In fact, the Manusovitsh brothers were fervently devoted to folk music. Sender Rozental, a barber, used to accompany the singing on a mandolin. Through them, all the Russified youth became folksy. A literary jubilee for Mendele Mokher Sforim was celebrated at P. Veytser's house. During visits by A. Litvin and later Noach Prilutski, the town became known by the nickname “New Moon Kremenets,” and then another, “Palestine in Kremenets,” and these names spread to Petersburg. There the great Jewish magnate Baron Gintsburg founded and sustained the “Jewish Ethnographic Society” with a high–level course in ethnography to educate a cadre of collectors and researchers.

With the close collaboration of M. Shternberg, the well–known researcher in Siberian research and later director of the Asiatic Museum in Petersburg, that Society, headed by Sh. Ansky, published the first volume of the excellent series “Man.” Then the famous Ansky Expedition was organized.

In July 1912, young Kremenets intellectuals reestablished themselves with a brand–new style of folkish–ness. Yiddish language stopped being just a national–political sign; it became the people's soul and character. All customs and lifestyles, stories, legends, invocations for a “good eye,” putting garlic on gravestones, tossing a stone behind you when you meet a priest on the road, tacking Psalm 121 above the bed of a woman in childbirth, schoolchildren reciting prayers at the bed of a woman who has given birth, cracking eggs over the face of a child who has been frightened, and so on–everything Jews in Kremenets used in their lives–became a symbol of a higher cultural value in young people's minds. And Jewish ornamentation on the letters in a book or Torah scroll, utensils, or gravestones, or drawings on Hanukkah notes, gained a special national importance in young people's eyes.

Sh. Ansky arrived in Kremenets with his two fellow travelers on the expedition: B. Kiselgof, a teacher from the reformed Talmud–Torah in Petersburg who collected Jewish wordless melodies and folksongs, having them sung into a phonograph; and Y. Yudovin, Ansky's relative from Vitebsk, an artist specializing in Jewish ornamentation, who photographed everything. It was on a Friday. The guests were to stay in Moshe Melamed's hotel. Through Melamed, Ansky invited Duvid Roykhel and Henekh Gelernt to call on him. Melamed was apparently surprised by the guests who came all the way from Petersburg and spoke to him in Yiddish: “Some strange Jews have arrived. In the hotel register, they wrote that they're from Petersburg. They haven't even managed to wash up from such a long journey, and they already asked me to call you….”

Sh. Ansky answered very warmly, “Aleykhem sholem.” Meanwhile, Duvid Roykhel arrived. From a second room, Ansky's assistants B. Kiselgof and Y. Yudovin entered the room. The Manusovitsh brothers, Asher and Sender, and Chinke Barshap came in. Then Ansky began to explain the goal of his visit. But he was interrupted by a knock on the door: the hotel owner announced that the chief of police and his officers wanted to question the guests. Rattled, he asked the guest to leave. Ansky went out and dealt with the police, and that group made a hasty retreat.

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Deep in their conversation, they barely noticed the Friday evening sunset approaching. Ansky went to the window and with envy looked over at the Jews dressed for the Sabbath, walking to the study halls. A streak of love suffused his face. He asked Yudovin to put out his cigarette.

The news about the mysterious Jewish “messengers” from the minister in Petersburg spread like a whirlwind through the town. On Friday evening the streets were usually full of young people, but this time they were all stationed near the hotel and peeking through the windows. They were envious of the group of privileged people who went freely into the hotel. This time, that privileged group came with Sender Rozental, the barber, and Yashe Roytman, Shlome the baker's son. Both had to wait in the hotel. They already knew that Ansky had discussed with the proprietor that he would take them to the Hasidic kloyz on Sabbath morning; and the proprietor was off to Peysi the blind, the beadle, to ask him if the guest could visit the kloyz on Sabbath morning. Ansky further inquired about the customs in the kloyz and details about Hasidic customs. He was very surprised about the peace among the Hasidim, since Turiysk, Stolin, Ruzhyn, Husiatyn, and Chernobyl Hasidim prayed there, and since they all prayed in one and the same style–with the exception of the Radzins, who had their own shtibl and wore blue threads in their four–cornered garments. Ansky was not surprised that Enlightened people prayed with them there. After a short diversion, the young folks went for a walk to Mount Bona with Kiselgof and Yudovin. When he met them, Ansky said, “Good Sabbath,” and his co–workers remarked they should conduct themselves appropriately, meaning they should not smoke or speak Russian–that is, behave Jewishly.

Ansky spent that Sabbath among the Hasidim. Peysi the beadle brought him into the kloyz. Hands reached out to him as a “good Jew” to wish him welcome. Nachman the cantor and scribe had already prepared a prayer shawl with a silver collar for him. He was given a seat by the eastern wall, between the Petrikov Rabbi Senderovitsh and Bentsion Hofman. the great storyteller. He was called up to read the Torah for the second aliya. When they finished the additional service, Peysi the beadle had already prepared the big table near the oven for Kiddush, with a snow–white cloth over the green velvet one. Besides all the prayers, Shlome Alinke's–the old teacher with one blind eye who scolded everyone with his basso, always angry–sounding voice–expressed the opinion that their guest was a Satan in disguise. For Ansky, that Sabbath opened the door to all sorts of community functionaries from whom he could get folklore and musical treasures. And the people did not oppose the anthropological survey performed on them. It was easy for him to acquire two very old copper chandeliers from the Great Synagogue wardens, which were transferred to the Ethnological Museum in Petersburg. The Koteburger cantor sang many Hasidic songs and prayers for recording, and there was an especially beautiful melody from Cantor Mateus Kop. Ansky spent hours with them. And the cantor from the Kazatske Study Hall was not left out, contributing two melodies.

Ansky sponsored nightly tables at the Great Synagogue. He pumped stories from Mendel the beadle, as he did with Yosel–Chayim Henekh's (Fridman) in the Hasidic kloyz. Through them, he learned about old graves and gravestones in the cemeteries, which he would put to powerful use. Yosel told a joke about Itsik Ber Levinzon's supposed dream about the angel who receives the dead in the world to come and his accusing complaints about a Hasidic rabbi in the next world, and how the angel overcame even a Litvak who had specified in his will that after his death he be buried with his face down, in case the angel was a ridiculer when he came to ask the corpse its name. That story circulated from Levinzon's mouth all around Kremenets, intended to mock the Hasidim.

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While Ansky was busy collecting among the Hasidim, the young people were working in a different area. They collected and recorded folksongs, bringing folksingers in to sing into a phonograph. They filled whole handwritten notebooks with folk stories. From then on, the Jewish folksong became greatly respected, and Yiddish song was strongly cultivated. Russified names for Jewish youth became unacceptable. For that detail, one used the Yiddish proverb, he does not want to see the devil because he doesn't want to recite the Shema [prayer confessing Jewish faith].

Very delicately, Ansky sought rabbinical permission to dig out old gravestones. This was during a conversation with Jews in the Great Synagogue, when he said that the MaHaRaL of Prague's graves lay in the old cemetery. This was a great revelation of ancestry for his listeners. With Mordekhay Chayim Yosel from the Pallbearers' Society as a guide, they went off to the cemetery in search of old graves and sunken gravestones. Ansky was an expert at finding such signs. Mordekhay led us through overgrown, coiled–together thorns, and after a while Ansky caught a glimpse of a place where there must be old graves. He stopped by a grave not far from Y. B. Levinzon's and alluded to digging out a gravestone. Mordekhay quickly started in with his spade. But Ansky stopped him, and started digging himself, to show him how careful one must be in digging. And a miracle happened: they found a stone for Rabbi Shimshon, the MaHaRaL's brother, and several others. It turned out that the vivid inscription was completely preserved. Yudovin quickly photographed that stone and others. He was inspired by the ornamentation. And Rabbi Shimshon's sister was found there. At the entrance to the cemetery, a kind of enclosure built around the casket of the saint Rabbi Mordekhayle was filled with little folded notes that Jews had thrown in while visiting their family's graves. The enclosure included a built–out prayer room, where each corpse brought to the cemetery was placed until it could be given “its justice.” The enclosure and the graves inside and around it were photographed, too.

From then on, the young people, who used to spend their illegal gatherings on Tisha B'Av near Y. B. Levinzon's grave, no longer stepped on the enclosures around the neighboring graves or sit on the wooden steps that led up to the old enclosure.

Sh. Ansky had to endure a difficult “lesson” when he wanted to drive to Vishnevets. He necessarily wanted to go with his accompanier, the writer of these lines, to arrange for a phaeton. He intended to have a look at the Jewish wagon drivers who used to sit on the front steps of Duvid Zeygermakher's house.

We left town when the day had cooled off. The phaeton drivers spoke to their horses: “Go on, mischievous ones, go and work up a steam, then you can take to your heels.”

Evening began to fall. At the end of the downhill, there appeared a solitary little house on a wide, bare plain. The horses suddenly moved more slowly as they neared the town. The driver, approaching the inn, jumped down from the coachbox and shouted that he had brought important guests from Petersburg. In the blink of an eye, the whole town came running. One, a short man, pushed his way through to welcome Ansky. This was Berger, the teacher from the Russian Crown School, introducing himself and inviting the guests to his house for the night. A whole procession followed the guests and accompanied the teacher to the synagogue. The teacher, who had meanwhile disappeared someplace, came back with a notebook in his hand and showed Ansky his picture, explaining that he taught the poem under the picture to his students.

A dried–up little Jew in a long greasy smock interrupted the acquaintances' conversation; this was–as people called him–Avrahamtse the Second Cantor. He had come to wish peace and invite the guests to the afternoon and evening services in the old synagogue.

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Ansky thanked him warmly, and everyone went with him to the synagogue. Even the outside appearance of the synagogue gave witness that it was as old as the town itself. From the scraping, heavy wooden door at the entrance of the vestibule there arose an ancientness, as from the old gates of the onetime “castles” of the Graf Wisniowiecki's time. One had to bend over at the entrance of the vestibule as in a cellar. The side walls were buckled from the heavy weight on them from the old patchwork shingle roof, and only the eastern wall was straight. The smoky glasses of the lamps darkened the flickering flames inside. Grayness and darkness came from those praying.

While the congregation was praying, Ansky suggested to his party that he invite Avrahamtse back to the guesthouse after the service. Meanwhile, he scanned the eastern wall with his eyes. This would later demonstrate his tremendous sense as an expert researcher. After prayers, Ansky treated the congregation to whisky and snacks. Meanwhile, he knew that the eastern wall had been rebuilt years before and that “some” old stone, a holy relic, had been built into it.

At Berger the teacher's house, the table was covered with small plates of food. Ansky himself served the guests with tea from the samovar on the table. There was a conversation about the Jews' life. It soon came out that the person who had come with Avrahamtse was the town “demon.” That was the wedding jester, a merry pauper. At a wink from Ansky, whisky and herring and egg cookies were brought, and fresh tea for the samovar. From Avrahamtse he gleaned whole wells of stories, and his assistant wrote ceaselessly. The wedding jester's stories were fantastic talk about dark powers that flutter around the groom and bride on the night before their wedding; about witches with long braided black hair, whose impurities were washed away in the ritual immersion of the wedding day. Rabbi Avrahamtse, further, told of remedies from Rabbi Leyb Sore's well, near the town, from which they used to draw healing water for ailing Jews, may God help us. The Jews' position was even strengthened by the prince when the water saved his daughter who was near death, when no doctor could help her; only the water from the well saved her. At a certain moment, the recorder's body began to shudder when Avrahamtse's mouth began to spew hordes of demons and various spirits that used to shriek in the chimneys of the ruins on a particular winter night, where there would be a ritual circumcision in the morning.

A strange fire burned on Ansky's pale face. Avrahamtse told the story with such magical power that one literally saw the “un–good ones”… for a witness to the truthfulness … of this, he called out a name of a still–living elder of over 100 years old, whom the group visited the next morning.

Late in the night, after snacking with a little whisky, the wedding jester laid out his lexicon of an established language with demons. Avrahamtse, again, did not let him expand; and he intended to begin a new discussion about the synagogue eastern wall. Now the experienced Ansky began to probe until he learned from Avrahamtse that the only remnant of the old synagogue was the vestibule. He followed this up with the idea of examining the walls of the vestibule. And so it was: in the morning, he literally felt letters with his fingers in one of the vestibule wall cornerstones. Ansky himself fussed over the wall until he could get it out of the plastered wall. According to Avrahamtse, they would have sealed such a stone into the eastern wall. But it was clear that it would be no mean task to get the stone out. The authorities gave their permission on the condition that he must not dig out the entire wall. And Ansky literally produced a wonder. Like a wizard, he felt along the wall, and after a while paused at a corner and said, It is right here.

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Like an exacting surgeon, he followed the line with the sharp edge of a screwdriver in his right hand. After a short time, Ansky's face shone as he held the stone in his hand like a gemstone. After cleaning the stone with a chemical wash, the letters rose up out of it, and hinted at a shaday and Ephraim. A hefty contribution was donated to the synagogue, and Ansky acquired both stones for the museum in Petersburg. On this trip, he had also bought a pair of copper hanging candelabras with a peacock engraved on the base.

Avrahamtse was a treasure trove for Ansky. He chose his words very carefully when talking with Avrahamtse, so as not to lose his trust. He created an obstacle for himself when he incautiously asked Avrahamtse about higher education. He asked the question on the way to the cemetery, as to whether he knew of a gravestone for Yitschak Ber Levinzon's wife. His sarcastic reply: “You mean that Kremenets arrogant heretic, may his bones ….” Ansky wiped the whole thing away with a sharp word, “I know how today's insolent young ‘princes' love to chatter.” And he directed the conversation to the cemetery, which was an old one. Then Avrahamtse went back to his role as repeater of legends.

“There should be some graves there from those who were at the meetings of the Council of Four Lands or the Jaroslav fair.” He himself believed that it was not a dishonor to the dead if one were to dig out the sunken stones to find out who.

At the cemetery, Avrahamtse led us to the old gravestones, overgrown with moss. Digging around in a certain place, Ansky tried to divert Avrahamtse's glance to a farther–away place, where he went off to search. At that grave, he did indeed find one of Levinzon's poems about his wife. The ornamentation was of two hands over lit candles. Later, after leaving the cemetery, and without Avrahamtse, he returned with the photographer and photographed a number of gravestones.

Finally, it is worth relating why Ansky chose Vishnevets from among all the little towns around Kremenets.

Until the 18th century, that town was known for the art palace built by the head of the Wisniowiecki family. The “castle” of Jeremi Wisniowiecki, who dominated large stretches of Poltava, Chernigov, Podolia, and Volhynia, was particularly famous. He cruelly suppressed the Pravoslavic church. He was one of the most horrible oppressors of the Ukrainians and one reason for the outbreak of the bloody Khmelnitski Rebellion.

Prince Wisniowiecki's Vishnevets “castle” was known for its museum–quality antiques and paintings by greatly respected artists. When the Crimean Tatars occupied Vishnevets, they destroyed the museum. Later, when the Turks took the town after them, they destroyed the whole castle. It was later reconstructed by Jan Sobieski.

 

On Old Jewish Customs

Shavuot

With the arrival of the month of May, the town was bewitched by a lust for life. The surrounding green mountains, the ambient perfume of flowers carried on the mild spring breezes, elevated everyone's mood.

By Shavuot eve, the neighbors, non–Jews, filled the market with wagons of various vegetables. Besides the curly crown–heads of thick piles of “lilacs,” they supplied the Jewish holiday homes with green bulrushes that were spread on the scrubbed floors.

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Children would play in the gathered leaves, singing and whistling various tunes. Young Jewish women hung flowers from the brightly polished sconces on the walls. Observant fathers adorned the windowpanes with bittercress leaves. A green rope curled down from the ceiling with garlands of flowers hanging from it.

The Torah–reading desks in the synagogues were adorned with green canopy poles hung from above by a wreath woven from many kinds of flowers. The floors were strewn with green bulrushes. Polished sconces on the limed walls, the brass candelabra on the ceiling, the candelabra on the cantor's stand–everything reinforced the beaming charm of young life.

Among the Hasidic Jews, Mendele Shochet excelled with his particular custom of characterizing the Sea of Reeds crossing before the giving of the gift of Torah. Before dawn on the first day of the holiday, he set up a pail of water under the garlands in his home; he put a beggar's pack–the symbol of the escape from Egypt–on his right shoulder, and so was prepared to split the sea (to go around the pail of water).

Children especially liked how “great” it was two weeks before Shavuot eve. Cheder took on a different flavor for them. Away went the teacher's stern style; the fear of the rabbi vanished. Everything in the cheder sang. Children studied the Book of Ruth with special zest. They could sense the smell of the wheat Ruth had gathered in the harvested fields ….

Jewish Kremenets sang during Shavuot time–young people in the hills; older people in the study halls; children in the cheder, the home, and the streets.

 

Lag Ba–omer

This day was filled with suspense in the children's world. They felt doubly privileged in that month because of May Day, when the czar was crowned and the land had to designate the day for celebrations. The town's main street had to be illuminated. That evening, each house had to light tin cups of oil on both sides of the street. That's where the children came in. They set out the cups at the edges of the sidewalks, filled them with oil, drew out the wicks, and lit them at dusk. They fussed over the illuminations and guarded them. That night, the street teemed with children's noise and happiness.

The day before Lag Ba–omer, mothers had to prepare clay holders for their cheder boys to mold into holders to set little stearin candles into, or to roll out flat wheels to pour oil into. The children went around to all the shops collecting candles and oil. Then they took the collected items to the synagogues and study halls, where they set the little holders in the windows and put the oil or candles into them. Each child provided for his father's place of prayer.

In the morning, the children could not leave their mothers' kitchen, home, or shop until they saw that she had hard–cooked the fresh eggs they had bought and the thimble–sized bagel was strung on a string and the big jug filled with kvass. They ran enthusiastically at breakneck speed to the cheder, where the teaching assistants waited with colorful bows and arrows. The mothers themselves accompanied the children into the cheder and carefully carried the paper bags with the eggs, bagel, and kvass jugs. They were separated from the children when they were placed in rows, with the rabbi at the front, followed by the assistants, and they all marched like soldiers to the Vidomka. There they lay on the grass and unpacked their “provisions.” The rabbi told the story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Soon afterward the children awoke, as if from a dream, and fiercely shot off their “weapons.”

 

Tisha B'Av

On Tisha B'Av, every Jewish house in Kremenets took on an atmosphere of hidden grief.

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The ritual slaughterers and butchers were without any work for all of the “nine days.” The four Jewish tavern owners, who usually made their profit for the entire week on a Sunday, also had a rest. Children carried the grief into Jewish houses. They had to study Lamentations the whole week, with a special trope. During that week, the children played war. The game was a purely Jewish one. They called it “send.” They arranged themselves in two rows, one across from the other. One person from each group was chosen to be a king, who stood at the right end of the row. The distance between them was about 15 paces, which no one was allowed to step into. The “army leaders” had sticks in their hands. All the “soldiers” were already lined up for war. The “eldest” called out “Send” to his opponents–that is, send yours first. Then the first one called in return, My side is weaker than yours, so you have to send first. The answer was, My side is even weaker than yours, so you have to send first. Then the war began. The soldier who was sent out threw himself with impetus against the clasped–together hands of the other side, trying to break through the line. The other side clasped their hands together tighter so that the soldier from the first side could not break the hands apart. But he did break through a pair of hands, and both soldiers were taken into his army as prisoners. So went the war game.

This atmosphere was helped along by the elementary teachers' assistants, who had carved little swords from wood, which they sold to the children. As over the years they had become experts at it and had come up with various engravings, especially for the sword handles.

Widespread among the children was the custom of collecting sticky “bozshikes” and black nuts, which they tied together with thread and threw with full force onto someone's shoulder. Older children also played with a small plant, which was put under the collar of someone's shirt and “bit” their body.

Fasting on the eve of Tisha B'Av was as sacred as on Yom Kippur. That night brought no light into the houses. You went to synagogue in coarse hemp shoes or galoshes. People also wore worn–out clothes, or men dressed as women.

Most women stayed home and, sitting on footstools, read the Tsene–urene.

Leybeshekhe “the grave whisperer”–who throughout the year took greetings from the living to their departed on their yahrtzeits–went in the morning and knocked on each gravestone with her stick and promised the dead that their family was coming to ask forgiveness. If an orphan girl was to get married after Tisha B'Av, Leybeshekhe would ask forgiveness in her name and invite them to the wedding.

In the years after the 1905 Revolution, two worlds met in the cemetery: groups of Jewish workers and intellectuals met there and carried out their forbidden “exchange” meetings.

The gathering place was around Yitschak Ber Levinson's gravestone and that of Berish Feldman, who committed suicide after the collapse of the 1905 Revolution.

From then on, two generations met there.

 

Sukkot and Simchat Torah

The first thing after Yom Kippur was the blessing of the moon, when Jews who had a house with a corridor with a roof flap would open it after Yom Kippur and take down last year's dried–out greenery. They were preparing for Sukkot. Others would busy themselves in the morning with preparation for the framework and boards for building the sukkah outdoors or in the courtyard. And the neighbors who would eat in the sukkah helped out. The children were very involved in the project.

Cleaning the walls was a special good deed for the girls. Kremenetser gentiles who knew what Jews must do for holidays and Sukkot began bringing in wagonloads of green boughs. The joy of Sukkot was mostly brought into the houses and streets by the children. Gentiles also brought large sacks of Italian nuts. The children played a game with nuts, and they did not yet have the reading of Lamentations in their heads.

On the day of Sukkot eve, people were completely engaged in study. They had to decorate the sukkah with the prettiest fall flowers and take the hanging lamps from the walls of the house out to the sukkah.

Women and girls did not eat in the sukkah. They did benefit from the commandment by serving the dishes in the sukkah and listening to the Kiddush recited by their husbands and fathers. Preparing the table and cleaning the sukkah was their commandment.

Jewish Kremenets had the taste of a holiday on the interim days of Sukkot, too. Those in the flour trade did not work and took the holiday to the streets. Those days, they lived in the streets, strolling. In the evening, they often allowed themselves to go to the “illusion” (cinema) or visit friends.

The elementary teachers were very busy on those days, going around to collect tuition and set the children up for the next term or take in new pupils. Their assistants were absorbed in making flags for Simchat Torah. The assistants also had to teach the children to weave rings from the long slender leaves of the lulav. On the eve of Hoshana Rabbah, they had to weave the rings so that they would be like the straps of the hand phylacteries. All the houses were engaged in this. But the beadle himself made the rings for around the lulav. He also delivered them to the houses along with the esrog.

Jews called the whole week of Sukkot the week of Simchat Torah. It felt more elevated than Passover, filled with various commandments and a light playfulness. In Kremenets, kith and kin were joyful through Jewishness.

 

Jews Celebrate a Wedding

Celebrating a wedding was not just putting up a wedding canopy and saying, “You are sacredly bound together.” The children called that kind of wedding “a gentile hitch.” For a real Jewish wedding, the whole Jewish street, poor and rich, rejoiced for a whole week after the wedding day.

The week before the wedding, the in–laws' house was already in a holiday mood. They sewed clothes for the groom and bride; the servants began baking all sorts of dishes for the first reader; it teemed with guests, relatives, and neighbors. The next day, Sabbath morning, the same folks met the groom–in his new wedding suit–to accompany him from home to the synagogue. Even little children felt happy, because they got to carry prepared Turkish nuts to the women's section and throw them at the groom after maftir. Adults did not have to carry anything, since it is forbidden on the Sabbath. All the people in synagogue seemed different. The cantor solemnly sang “and when the ark rested.” When they called the groom up for maftir, everyone listened to his blessings. The women in the women's section especially listened in suspense for the end of the second blessing so as not to miss throwing nuts on the groom.

Right after the service, the householders approached the groom and in–laws to offer congratulations. The beadle helped the groom put on his overcoat for the first time. The congregation followed all the in–laws and the groom to celebrate with “honey cake and whisky,” which would last for several hours. Well–to–do in–laws held a festive last meal of the Sabbath, lasting until late at night, in the groom's home. For the “full week” in the bride's house, musicians were playing, and the bride's girlfriends danced. Hersh the musician and his group, made up of his sons Moshe on fiddle, Yankel on trumpet, and Mekhel on bass, merrily played a sher, a quadrille. The mothers beamed with pride and wished the bride's friends, “God willing, it will soon be your wedding.”

The doors to the groom's and bride's homes were never closed during the wedding week. There were constant preparations for the wedding day and wedding dinner. Hinde the servant worked from early morning to late at night, baking and cooking.

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Who could chat about the wedding day when they had to make golden broth for the groom and bride to have after their fast?

On the wedding day, the houses were full of noise and anticipation. The bride, after the ritual bath, is separated from the others. Her friends help dress her, up to putting on the wedding dress. The house looks as though it has been cleaned for the Sabbath. Her friends put the veil over the bride. Hersh the musician now comes in with his whole group, dancing and with a drum. He plays a sher, a polka, a Brugz dance. This time, the in–laws dance, too. The dances are interrupted when a courier arrives to say that the groom is being taken to the veiling of the bride. This is when they go to the door, welcome the groom, and play a special wedding tune.

With measured steps, between the guides and the male in–laws, the groom is led to the bride; he lowers the veil over her eyes and retreats. Then the bride is seated on her “throne.” The jester, accompanied by the fiddler, begins to seat the bride, singing “Bride, weep,” and the female in–laws–young women–wipe their eyes. This goes on until they are told that the groom is being led to the wedding canopy. Then they begin to prepare the bride with her entourage, the in–laws with large white candles in their hands.

All wedding canopies are set up in the Great Synagogue courtyard.

When the bride is finally standing beside the groom, the in–laws, burning candles in their hands, walk around the couple seven times. The rabbi performs the marriage ceremony. The groom and bride take a sip from the special wedding cup, the groom breaks the glass, and all present shout together “mazal tov, mazal tov, mazal tov!” three times according to the formula that a thing is not made from one piece.

After the ceremony, the couple is taken through a second exit from the synagogue courtyard (as is also done with a corpse) and led out to the main street. A herald from the group runs ahead, announcing that they are bringing the couple back. The musicians are outside the wedding house, bringing the couple in with music. One of the female in–laws grabs the specially baked, yellow saffron braided bread from the hands of a watchman and dances in front of the couple in reverse, until they enter the house. The couple is separated to have a bite of food after their long fast. And the male in–laws dance.

A wedding canopy was never set up at night or twilight. When a wedding took place on a Friday, the wedding dinner took place on Sabbath night, right after Havdalah. But for the Friday evening meals, there had to be a quorum of guests for the Sabbath blessings. At the wedding dinner, when everyone was seated around the tables, people–this time just young people–danced between one course and the next. Among Hasidic scholars, the groom gave a talk on the topics of the day.

The jester was then given his full role. After the feast, after grace after meals and the seven blessings, the playing–out of the presentation of wedding gifts began. The jester addressed each person, calling him out to present the gift. The male in–laws were called up first, then the couple's families, then the guests. Mainly, they gave silver, and the more well–to–do gave objects, as well as gold items for Jewishness and of value.

The wedding dinner went on until late into the night; people danced with hands on shoulders as on Simchat Torah, flat–out with the groom and bride until they slipped away from the crowd. Then the guests began to go home.

No one could stop talking about the wedding for a whole week. The Hasidim celebrated the seven blessings for a whole week with a quorum at the table.

Gentile neighbors would stand for hours around the windows, unable to leave because of their curiosity about looking at the particular way of celebrating a Jewish wedding.

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The Watch–Night after Childbirth

Once a mother had successfully delivered a child, she would lie in confinement for eight days. The bed was hung with white sheets. At the front, on the end of the hanging sheet, was pinned the special psalm [121] for a woman in childbirth. If the newborn was a male, on the first Sabbath evening after dinner the father observed a welcoming of the son ceremony for close friends, when they ate peas and long beans and drank a glass of tea, then recited the Shema, a remedy to drive away any evil spirits lurking near the child. The night when the circumcision is celebrated is the watch–night. The danger from evil spirits is great just then. The elementary teacher and his assistant bring his pupils to the confined woman's house during the afternoon prayers, line them up at the bedside, and all the children recited Psalm 121 aloud by heart and also shout out “May God drive out the devil” three times. After that, everyone recites the Shema in a loud voice. The servants have baked little cakes for the circumcision as well as special sweet cookies for the children; each child is given candies and a little cake with raisins and almonds as he leaves.

It happened that some five viorsts from Kremenets, the devil–who wanted to suffocate the child on the watch–night–did reach one of the mothers on the farms; the mother fought with all her strength against the destroyer. The devil hid in a wagon driver and wanted to drive the father and the ritual circumciser off the road as they were riding to the farms to celebrate the circumcision in the morning. It was a winter night. Outside it was snowing; the horse and sled had just left town and were going up the hill that led to the farms when a strong wind came up and blew up a blizzard of snow that obstructed the father's eyes. The circumciser, Rabbi Mendele Shochet, who was wrapped up in a heavy fur coat and a thick woolen shawl over his head and shoulders, had fallen into a deep, heavy sleep. Only the father was awake; he held the horse's reins in his hands. But he did not know where to steer the wagon. After a while, he opened his eyes and saw a sled a little way off. He drove and drove, using the whip to urge the horse toward the other sled. He heard the whip singing from the other sled, driving the horse on. He heard the sound from there–Vio, vio–and sometimes a whistle from the swishing of the whip. Anyway, he had no choice. He horse was running after it, toward that sled. After a while, it occurred to the father that something was wrong, it was taking too long, he should already have been at home, but there was no end to the journey. He wanted to stop the horse, but, as it goes with the devil, the horse no longer obeyed him. They went along as though they were heading someplace else.

He called out to the circumciser, Rabbi Mendele, Rabbi Mendele! He wanted him to solve this puzzle. As a youth, he used to travel this road in the summer, and now, suddenly, such a strange convolution. He wanted to consult the rabbi, who was a master of Kabbalah, on what to do. But no voice and no hearing. Rebi Mendele did not answer.

Something that was not good had also happened to the rabbi. He had never in his life fallen into such a deep and heavy sleep.

Worried and now overtaken by fear, he asked himself: Where is the night watchman? But it seemed that he only heard a merry shout, as from the lot in the other sled, like many whips swishing. A thought flitted through his mind: perhaps it was “the stopped German with long whips”? So he rallied the strength to drive the horse. As if at God's command, the horses did not go into the white nether land. Maybe–he thought–they want to go their own way, they know the road well. Then he fell asleep from his weariness. After a while, he began to dream that he was tossing as if in a fever, and just then he heard a scream from the confined mother, who cried out in despair, “My child! Let go, let go of my child!”

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His body shuddered at this horrible dream, but he was like clay; he could not move to push the “not–good one” away from the mother. He finally perceived that his horse was standing still and Rabbi Mendele was calling to him and asking, “Where are we, where have we wandered off to? It's already daylight.” And after a deep sigh, he shook himself and woke up. The horses were standing in one place, not moving. He crawled down from the sled, looked around, and in a moment realized that the horses were stopped in the middle of the road where there was usually a small hill, but because of the depth of the snow, it was no longer visible; from there to the farms was a total of a half–hour's drive. He took up the reins in his hands again and turned the horses in the direction that he wanted.

After a heavy sigh, he commented to R' Mendele that it was the first time in his life that he had had such a difficult journey, plus such a difficult dream during his doze, and the biggest surprise was that the horses almost always went home by themselves, but today, as if they were under a spell, they got lost.

“Of course, of course. You don't know why it is called a watch–night. That's when they have the power and she, the Other Side, does not want to allow the commandment of circumcision, or bringing the newborn into the holy covenant.”

And being so involved in their conversation, they did not notice that a supernatural transport had delivered them, and the horses now stood in front of the newborn's house, where the whole household was gathered around the family.

When Moshe Yosel, the child's grandfather, realized before praying that they had spent the whole night wandering around, he added that it was known that such trials as theirs often happen around the hills where they had been lost. In truth, they probably drove around and around the same hill the whole time. It is the trial of circuitry, circuitry that the devil wants only to drive the person into his net. So during the watch–night, one must be awake and busy oneself with words of truth. Whoever studies, whoever recites a chapter of psalms–“The Almighty destroys Satan”–over the confined woman's bed, it is a remedy for her, too; she should not be tested in a difficult trial.

When the confined woman later recounted the difficult dream she had had during the night, it was clear to everyone what had gone on along the road; this time, they really celebrated the circumcision with great joy and hope, and with they sang a melody for “and wake up my life” with great intent.

All this was related over a glass of tea in the home of Mendele Shochet and his son Leybele, and the Jew from the farms, R' Moshe–Yosel.

 

Kremenets Songs

The song we are printing here was taken form Noach Prilutski's Yiddish Folk Songs (no. 53). The song was recorded by Simche Levin in Kremenets. The author of these lines himself recalls the old Sabbath gentile Mariana, who took the candlesticks from the table every Sabbath morning and heated the stove in the winter. Every morning after handwashing, she would help the boys recite the blessing. Apparently, this song was born in the mouth of this Kremenets maid in a Jewish house.

God has told us to get up early
and wash our hands.
And recite the “I thank you”[2]
and recite the “I thank you.”
And put on prayer shawl and phylacteries–
and begin “How lovely,”
and “the Blessed One spoke” to kiss, to kiss,
and “Blessed be He” to bow down, bow down,
and the Shema to call out, call out,
and Shema to call out, call out.
and the “18 blessings” to stand up, stand up–
and the “18 blessings” to stand up, stand up.
And “Our duty” to spit out, spit out,
And “Our duty” to spit out, spit out.
and go home, go home,
go home, go home.
And a little whisky drink up, drink up,
a little whisky drink up, drink up,
and then to bed to sleep.

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Entrance to the Old Fortress on Mount Bona

 

Translation Editor's Note:

  1. “Yiddle with the Fiddle, Berl with the Bass” [Yidl mitn fidl un Berl mitn bas] and “On the Hearth, a Fire Burns” [Oyfn pripetchik brent a fayerl] are Yiddish songs. Return
  2. The phrases in quotations refer to parts of the traditional morning prayers. Return

 

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