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Old Images (cont.)

Simha Torah

Hosheana Raba. Also during that day, the soul would shake for the end of the signing of the good name. Although we didn't wear the white kitls, and no one heard those heartbreaking prayers, and the day seemed to have had some of the excitement of Simha Torah, still it seemed like the synagogues would be filled with all the old Jews and some young children, and everyone would say passages from Psalms. About every two hours they would stop the prayer for a certain period of time, and Shimon Itzha (or Shimon, son of Itzhak) would pass around from one Jew to the next, a basket filled with an apple, and each one would take an apple treat. During the night of Hosheana Raba I would gather all my might and energy so I could ward off any drowsiness since I wanted so eagerly to see that moment where I was told that the heavens would open and the angels would come down, carrying notes for the end of the good signing (Hatima Tova). They would fly to put the notes in the different homes of the people of Israel. It seems like I never could stay awake to reach that moment. I would always be caught in moments of drowsiness and when I would finally awake, I would see that light had come and morning had arrived.

During Simha Torah it seems as though all the Jews of Kurenets were drunk with happiness. Everywhere you saw faces filled with delight. It was the happiness of devotion and the fervor of respect for the Torah. Leibe Masha's would buy attar arait ladaat, and he would transfer some of the passages to his neighbors and comrades who sat on the eastern wall of the synagogue. The synagogue would be filled with young boys and girls who carried flags in their hands. People would be invited to join and everyone would join in the beautiful tunes from the Lubavitch Hasids. The people who would lead the singing would be Pinya the iron goods merchant, Shimon Itzha's, and Moshe the forester. The Jews would gather in circles and start dancing to show their love and devotion to the Torah. Handel, the butcher, would carry a kerchief in his hand, lift it in the air and make round motions with it to encourage everyone to dance with fervor. My very old Rabbi, Itzha Meir, would gather around him all his students and filled with happiness he would yell to us, “Tzon g'dushim!” (A flock of holies!). And we, the children, upon hearing such a reverent description of us coming from our rabbi, had to prove that this description of us was not unwarranted, so we would imitate the sounds of different farm animals like sheep and goats, making loud baas and moos, etc.

Particularly memorable in my psyche was the day of Simha Torah of the year 1913. It could be that it was so memorable for me because it was the last Simha Torah where I truly felt happy. At that point in my life I was already studying Masahet Tuvot and I felt that I was too mature to hold the flag as all the other children did. I stood there listening to how they would give the more respected people of the community the hakafot (a special ceremony), and I heard Reb Yekutiel Meir HA-Cohen (Kramer) was honored with akafa to honor the Torah, and Reb Shimon, son of Reb Itzhak was honored. Then Rav Eliyau son of Rav Pesach (Alperovich), my father, was honored with hakafa for the honor of the Torah. Then all of a sudden… Hakhatan Yaakov ben Rav Eliyau was honored with hakafa for the honor of the Torah.

My mind became confused. Could it be? Could it really be? My father took me in his arms and looked at me, filled with love and said, “Yes, yes my son, they are talking about you.” They didn't give me a big Torah. They took out of the ark a smaller Torah, and I was blessed to be holding it and carrying it around. The eyes of all the other children were centered on me. And who could have imagined my excitement at that moment?

During that holy day, Meir the husband of Leah Etkah (they had the only two-story home in Kurenets) , was the Hatan Torah. My father was the Hatan Beirashit. After the Filah of Musaf, my father asked all of his friends to come to our home for a kiddush. Shimon Itzha's, who was always in a good mood, now was in a state of much multiplied happiness, since he was aided by the large amount of wine he had drank at that point. He shook his fists on the table and yelled to my mother, “Chada, bring all your treasures to the table! Today is the day of Simha Torah!” Then mother would bring wine and all sorts of cakes, sweets, and all other sorts of baked goods. While mother would keep bringing things from the oven, Shimon Itzha sang, “Sesu yehudim, rigdu hasidim. Halalu vehodu leboreh. Paitya yivorksi l'chaim. Svodanya Simha Torah. Nash bokh, adin bokh. Ein keilenu, ein keadonenu. Altira avdia kov der lubavitcher zan laban shotoy agenalenu.” (very roughly interpreted: Sing, Jews! Dance Hasids! Praise and thank the Creator! – then a toast in Russian and in Hebrew: Happy Simha Torah! No one is like our God, our keeper. Don't be fearful, the servants of Yakov, because of the beloved Lubavitcher we will be protected.)

Mother brought to the table a kugel, and all the guests would excitedly devoured and praised her cooking. Then, out of the blue, Leah Etka's, who was Hatan Beirashit, said to my father, “Reb Eliyau, I must admit that maybe in the Gmara you are more accomplished than I am, but as far as filling the heart with excitement for the Torah, here my ability is greater than yours.” And my father answered him, with his eyelids heavy and his eyes foggy, “In my nature I am not a true hero when it comes to wine drinking, but if you are talking about respecting the Torah, surely I am not going to be in second place.” And Shimon Itzha, when hearing this argument, started yelling, “Let's see now, amongst the three of us who is the true hero!” And the whole vent event ended when the two Hatans and even the third competitor held their heads in their hands and were sighing with exhaustion.

The next day, my father walked around with a pale face and a huge headache. His face was a little embarrassed, but we all knew that it was only for the honor of the Torah that he went overboard.

The Teacher

And here I see you, my little town, one autumn, gloomy and bent from heavy rains and winds. It is as if your homes had huddled together as if fearing some ominous signs. All the holy days have passed, and now came days when the children would fill the time with Torah studies and they would always be running through the streets, holding Gmara books. The children would run to different areas of town, but still it was as if one thin rope went through Myadel Street to the house of Hinda Leah. On one particular day that autumn, all the children, amongst them myself, went to a new cheder. It was a new Rabbi who came to town. His first name was Ben-Zion and his last name Meirovich. His first and last names were very unfamiliar to those of us in our town, a town that didn't use last names. Will he be difficult or will he be easy? Will he beat us as the rest of the melameds used to? Maybe he will beat us even more severely?

As soon as we reached the little house, we started feeling more comfortable. At the entrance stood Hinda Leah, who leased her home to now be a cheder. She was a middle-aged woman of average height, with a face covered by wrinkles, but her blue eyes were very mischievous and happy. With a sweet smile she greeted us, saying, “Bokotov (Good morning), enter children, enter. Does anyone want a glass of milk? Don't be shy. Accept the milk as for your health and for my mitzvah (good deeds).” Hinda Leah, whose dress was very neat and tidy, wore a white apron on top of her dress. Her house itself was meticulously cleaned, and every corner seemed to be shining. Every pot and pan was so clean that could see your image as if you were looking at a mirror.

And here entered the rabbi. As soon as I saw him I breathed a sigh of relief. He was a small person but stood erect and strong. His face was pale with a serious and spiritual expression. His eyebrows were thick and under them there were dark blue eyes that were gave a very piercing look. He had a straight nose that was a little bit wide, and his brown beard was cut neatly and short, unlike the other melameds with long beards. The way he was dressed was very different from the other melameds had dressed. On his head he had a kipa made of velvet. He wore a black jacket that was open, and underneath you could see a sweater. He had a pocket watch with a silver chain. On his feet there were very shiny shoes. After he tested the students and divided them into different classes based on their knowledge, he started explaining to us the method and content of his teachings. Other than Humash and the rest of the Bible and the Gmara, we would also now study grammar according to the Hebrew method devised by Krinsky. We would also learn how to write essays in Hebrew, and from now on the children would have to do homework the way they did it in a regular school.

After he ended telling us what would be the content of the school year, he said to us, “Children, don't call me rabbi, call me teacher. And from this day on we will speak Hebrew.” For some of the children in town, this cheder presented the beginning of their salvation. Weeks passed, and from all the children who attended this cheder, there came not a single cry. There was no hitting or spanking. If someone was not paying attention or had done poorly in his work, the biggest punishment was when our teacher would say with almost closed mouth, “Speak to the trees and the rocks.” But since he said that very quietly and in Hebrew, it seemed as if the sting was taken out of it and it sounded to us more entertaining than punishing.

The street became shining white, frost covered everything. The snow would pile up and the windows would be covered with the flowers of winter frost, and icicles would dangle from the roofs. On that day I walked from a wintry Myadel Street to the cheder. My spirit was excited and yet at the same time very nervous. It was the first of the month and our teacher had a certain system where every first of the month he would test us to see how well we had retained during the month that had passed. Although I sat til late night hours, past midnight, studying, I was still nervous. While I was studying the night before, a few times my mother went down from where she was sleeping and she hugged my head in her warm hands, and looked into my eyes, saying to me, “Go my child, and lie down. The night is very cold and you could get a cold, God forbid.”

Although I was known as having an excellent memory and I retained everything that I studied, but who is smart enough to know beforehand what sorts of land mines the teacher would put on the road for me? I entered the cheder and the floor was just washed and the room was filled with life-saving warmth. There were smells of kamon and fresh bread filling the air. There were already some boys sitting with dark faces that seemed filled with fear of the day of judgment. At that point, the teacher had already tested some of the children and there were a few who failed. I sat there and my eyes wandered about the room, and then my eyes fell on Hinda Leah. She sat on a chair near the wall of the furnace and by her feet stood a white kitten who was dotted by black spots and he licked with his pink tongue milk from a plate. The cat finished licking and his face had a pleading expression. He started quiet meowing, as if saying, “My lady Hinda Leah who is full of mercy, please let me sit on your lap.” Hinda Leah said, “ Sit already, you wild one! Sit here and be quiet. The children are busying themselves with the Torah.” So the cat sat on her lap and Hinda Leah petted him. He closed his eyes and looked so content. And I, watching the cat, felt almost hypnotized. My head fell, and my eyelids got heavy, as if I was about to fall asleep. I was so tired from studying until the late hours. I was awakened by the elbow of my friend Berl Garfinkel, the son of Fega the daughter of Henia.

Berl was the best student in the entire cheder. He was pale and skinny, and had small eyes that were full of excitement. His neck was very long and narrow. He was a quiet boy and very God-fearing. “Yankel,” he said as he pushed me. “ The teacher.”

As if I was sprinkled with cold water, I woke up from my sleep and I heard someone saying, “Stand in front of the teacher.”

I stood in front and answered the questions about grammar, “Rahatz, Rahatzta, Rahatzt, Rahatzu, Rahatztem, Rahatzten.” He washed, you washed (male), you washed (female), they washed, you (plural) washed (male), you (plural) washed (female). His questions pierced me as if they were arrows from a very competent archer's bow.

“Shvanach, shvana. Hey ashelah, vehey hayadia. Vav hamehapeach, meatid, leavar…” and other obscure questions in Hebrew grammar.

My memory that was already very clear now came to my assistance. It didn't betray me and I stood in honorable standing in this stormy test and answered all the questions. The face of the teacher lit up with pride and contentment. A big smile filled up his face. His dark blue eyes sprinkled and were filled with warmth and affection. He was so filled with excitement and happiness that he started rubbing his hands and words of praise and exaltation came out of his mouth. “Very good, very good!” he said. “You are truly outstanding! Who will give it that all my students can be like you?”

It seemed that from that day on there was some kind of union established between my teacher and I. It was a union of friendship and care that I still feel until today. He was not just a teacher, he was my friend. In his presence, difficult days became pleasant. What he taught me filled us with excitement and made us wait with great anticipation for the next lesson. The way I looked at him was with a mix of admiration and love. To me he was like the big Cohen who came to the holy ark, and his abundance of patience made him like a father who has only one son. He was never tired of explaining and making things clear to us. When he wanted us to learn about things that were very theoretical and on a high level, he would use simple words to bring it down to our level. Things that were very deep he would bring to the surface with simple expressions, and even very complicated passages from the sea of the Talmud or from the gardens of the Bible became clear and attainable for us. What was especially amazing was his revolutionary attempt for that time (the beginning of the 1900s) to have designated hours to talk with the students about the history of the nation and about things that were happening at the time, as well as conversations about well known personalities in Judaism. Sometimes when we were busy with a Talmudic passage like Zeh babekado, xeh nabekorto, Venishbar kado shel zeh bekorto shel zeh. The tune of the gmara would be filling the room, flowing from one wall to the other. Zeh babekado, zeh nabekorto, venishbar kado shel zeh bekorto shel zeh…

And we just finished reading it and the teacher said, “Children, now close your books and I will tell you a chapter from the history of our nation.” Outside there would be frost, and if the door would open a white cloud of steam would appear. We inside were so pleased with the warmth, and the blustering wind would be heard howling from the chimney. We sat there with great anticipation. Even Hinda Leah, the owner of the apartment, sat there filled with anticipation. And now the teacher would start speaking Yiddish so all the children would understand. He opened for us large, rolled scrolls with the history of the Jewish nation, about geniuses and tzadiks that in older days were filled with modesty and good deeds. They were filled with holiness and dedication. It was as if they became alive in front of us. Images of Yehudah, Hannesi, Harambam, and Rashi came to us, all well known Hasidic Jews. He would read poems and we would sit very close to one another and it was as if our hearts would be in the east, while we were far in the west.

While we talked like this it seemed all that split us as students and teacher would disappear and we became a group of comrades that had one vision that captured everyone's hearts. Tales of the heroes of Israel and the Jewish daughters who were brought to Rome as hostages and were thrown to the lions in the Colosseum in front of thousands of spectators. And here, caught in the jaws of the lions, met once again the bride and the groom. The wonder of the meeting of their spirits was stronger than the pain of their tortures and death, and here their pure souls left the world with light and love. In a deep, shaky voice, accompanied by the quiet cry of Hinda Leah, the teacher would conclude his story with the passage, “The pleasant and the beloved, together in their lives and in their death.”

Sometimes he would tell stories of the martyrs and others who were killed for their religious beliefs. He would see the children who stopped reading and were reduced to short, shallow breaths, their eyes filled with tears, and he would add, “ My dear, you must bless yourself and God that we do not live in such bloody times. The flames of the Inquisition were extinguished and will never again be rekindled…”

And who could ever imagine that the times to come would bring a dark Inquisition that would pass by this little room here on Myadel Street. The entire holy community of Kurenets, old, babies, women and children, and amongst them our old teacher, would pass by this room to be taken to their last moments.


– Years passed and I experienced many, many hardships – the first World War with all its horrors and disasters – my beloved sister Rochaleh passed away we did all that possible to save her from the death sentence – to no avail. We brought her the best specialists we could find and then my father called three rabbis and this Beit Din of the Living brought their words as a scroll that was signed by witnesses that my father transfers all the years of his life to his daughter Rochaleh. In the synagogue, another name was added to her name, the name Chaia, which means “alive”. Fathered hired minyans of Jewish people and they sat days and nights saying passages from Psalms. We went to all the graves of our relatives in the cemetery, and we cried and begged them that they should ask for pity for her in front of the Chair of the Holy. But her fate was not to be changed…

Not many days passed, and next to the fresh grave of my sister Rochaleh, another mound was created. The grave of our wonderful, beloved mother. A bundle of tears choked my throat when I announced in a pitiful, hoarse voice, bitter passages of farewell. “Yit gadal, viyit kadash, shmaya raba…"

A year passed, and in one gray, wintry day, I stood in shock in the cemetery and in horrible fear I saw how Meir Raphael from Chevre Kaddisha (a burial society) put dust on the eyes of my father and covered the grave…

The shining face of our home forever changed – poverty, starvation, being orphaned, and dark depression. At that point there were many epidemics spreading in town, and there was widespread poverty. Our house, which usually was quite lively and had many visitors, now became very desolate. Only a few of my friends still came, amongst them Velvel the son of Basha, and Meir [Gurevich, grandfather of the translator] the son of Frada. Only they would come to visit, and very few of the adults would enter.

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Meir Gurevich, friend of the author

But there was one adult who didn't forget me and visited me often. Now, so many years later, when I write these passages, I will see in my spiritual eyes how the door opens and in a cloud of white frost, my former teacher enters the home. His jacket is old and tattered, and his face is red from the cold. He looks at me with his eyes filled care and love and while he rubs his hands to warm himself, he says, “Ah, ah, how cold it is! It is so cold that it is a true Siberia! Yankeleh you must make some tea so that we can warm our dry bones.”

I immediately prepared tea and a few pastries made from wheat flour. The pastries were hard, so we sat there dipping them in the tea, and while we drank the tea we started the conversation that many times would last until the very late hours. We discussed many, many subjects, amongst them issues of daily survival, and sometimes lofty subjects like the Kabbalah, Hasidic history, the Enlightenment movement, the Chibat Zion, or literary questions of classical books, conversations and also debates, but all done with love and in a very sophisticated manner. And this, our fresh conversation, helped me a lot to assuage my loneliness and forget my bitter fate…

All of a sudden, like the stories of the 1001 Nights fairy tales, it happened. One morning, a Jew wearing a straw hat and a shiny checkered jacket, with shoes with sharp points, entered our home and asked if this was where the orphans of Eliyau son of Pesach lived. When we confirmed it he said that he had visas for us to go to the US. [Many years before, the oldest sister left the home for America without the permission of her father, though she did receive help from her mother – information from the daughter of Yakov Alpert.] Our house became like a main train station. There was lots of activity, people came to advise us. Amongst them was a native of our town, Motl Leib Kuperstock, a chubby, jovial Jew with a short, neatly groomed beard. He helped me to arrange and tie my belongings. We used heavy rope to neatly tie the pillows and the linens and the covers, and while we were doing this he told me stories about America, the Land of Plenty, where he had lived for a few years. He said, “There I didn't eat any simple fish that we call here yazga, or the dish we call zatzirka. There they will serve on the table pies filled with roasted meat. There I would eat bowls filled to the top with cheese and dip them in sour cream.”

Men and women would come in and out. Here my mother's velvet jacket was sold, her dresses and jacket were sold, among them her green vest that I loved so much to see her wear. Towels, underwear, plates and kitchen utensils, all sold very fast. There were only three things that I refused to sell. One was the shabbat tzordot that belonged to my father. This I will give to our neighbor, the best friend of my father, Yekutiel Meir Kramer. Their friendship was so deep that shortly after father died, when Yekutiel Meir had the wedding of his daughter, everyone saw that amongst the chairs standing at the head table, there was one chair that was empty. When people asked why the chair was empty at the best table, he explained, “This is the chair for Eliyau, son of Pesach, of blessed memory, that was my soul friend. I am sure that his soul is hovering around this room to see me in this happy day… And this chair is for him alone.”

The second thing that I kept was the tfillim of father. The person who wrote this tfillim was a god-fearing Jew, a very honest man. The man wrote them while he was fasting and dipping, and now they were inside a black velvet pouch that had embroidered on it a Jewish star. This container appeared to me as if it was mourning the person who owned them and loved them as his soul.

The third thing that I kept was my father's books, which were contained in a small black bookcase. Those two things I would give to my teacher, my friend. I took the books, amongst them Mousar books that had shiny, silky bookmarks that my mother had put there so she would know the last page she had read. They were Gmara books and Midrash books, and their pages were yellow from all the years. They were dotted with wax stains, witness to the nights spent studying by candlelight. All of these I neatly put in a big tablecloth that was embroidered with blue flowers, and like this, with two loads, the books and the tfillim, I stood in front of my teacher.

“Moreh,” [teacher] I said to him as I was formerly called him, “I wish you will accept from me as a memory these books and the tfillim of my father, and also this little bookcase…”

For one minute he stood before me, quietly, as if he was trying to contain the internal excitement he was feeling, and then he lifted his wet eyes and looked at me and said, “I am very thankful and I am very appreciative with you Yankeleh… but still I think it would be better if you gave the books to the synagogue so that Jews will be able to learn from them. The bookcase, I hink, would best serve the minyan of Tiff Eret Bachurim that Israel Mikhail the shohet established. There it could be used as a pillar in front of the holy ark, and it would also be a memorial to the soul of your father, a very honest Jew who searched the truth, was always chasing justice, and very involved in public charity, and not to receive any awards.

“The books Kav Hayashar and Menorat Hama'or I will take for my wife Pela. Also, I will take from you the tfillim and Machzor of Yom Kippur…”

I accepted the advice of my teacher and did as he suggested…

The horses are harnessed and in the carriage the entire luggage followed, some in bundles, some in suitcases. I Was dressed in my travel clothes. Standing in my home, saying goodbye to all the corners in the house where a Jewish family grew until it was cut by the storm of the days. I entered our factory, our business of making sodas and other beverages. It seemed to me like the copper containers and the copper tools were whistling to me. They were calling me by name and begging me not to leave. “ Where are you going, Yankel? Where? Stay here, don't leave us. We will take care of your earnings as we took care of your father. Stay here and marry the girl you love, and we will be your shelter and your protector…”

The house is filled with relatives, neighbors, and friends. Many kissed me and blessed me with happiness and good luck. My eyes kept running through the room, looking for the one who was not there, my old teacher. But without a doubt I knew he would come to say goodbye… And here he came to me, in his hands he took my hands and looked straight into my eyes and said things about the spirit, the Torah, and belief in God, the strongest fortress that will guide me and preserve me during times of depression and sadness. He told me that treasures of gold and silver would not bring me any security. I must remember the passage that I had learned, “Hashlech al adonai yehavha, vehu yekalkelka… [Put your trust in God and he will protect you and take care of your needs.] And you remember, my dear, that in God is the key to happiness.” He held my head in his hands. I felt his tears in my cheek. He kissed me a fatherly kiss and then I heard his last words that were aid with a shaky voice, “ Yevarchecha, adonai, veyish mercha….” [God will bless you and keep an eye on you]

… Tell me, a flying flock, where am I going…? Tell me, the waves of the sea, where will my spirit sail to…?

The iron train cars passed swiftly through the dark nights… A ship tosses at the heart of the sea… Huge metropolises, Towers of Babel colored in multiple lights, filled with life and energy, passed around me… Years… years… years… And amongst all this, still alive and will be alive as the day it happened, the picture of the farewell and the blessing that was accompanied by a tear and a shake, “Yevarchecha, adonai, veyish mercha…Yevarchecha, adonai, veyish mercha… Yevarchecha, adonai, veyish mercha…”

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Family members of Yaakov Alpert's beloved teacher,
Ben Zion Meirovich

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