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[Page 85]



Rakishok Ė A Reflection

Chief Rabbi Prof. I. Abrahams

Translated by Rabbi Ezra Boyarsky

rok077b.jpg [9 KB] - Hon. Prof. Israel Abrahams
Hon. Prof. Israel Abrahams
[Chief Rabbi of Cape Town]

I was born in Vilna, known throughout the Jewish world as Yerushalayim DíLita Ė the Jerusalem of Lithuania Ė due to the fact that Vilna was the cultural and intellectual center of Lithuanian Jewry. My mother of blessed memory was also born in Vilna, but my father of blessed memory was a full-blooded, thoroughbred, Rakishok native. Reb Zecharya Alter, as he was called, and his father, Reb Avroham, and his uncle, Rabbi Katz, the official Rov (spiritual leader) all hailed from Rakishok. This makes me at least a partial landsman of Rakishok. I feel extremely proud of my family connections and through them with the small Lithuanian shtetl, Rakishok, as though I had actually been born there.

Still, you might well ask, why do you feel such an extra special closeness to this town? Firstly, I must admit that I donít recall anything from “der alter heim” (the old country) Ė neither from Vilna nor from Rakishok. I was only three when my parents with their only son (thatís me), left Russia because of the political disturbances and settled in England. A three-year-old can hardly remember anything except stories his parents related to him which consisted for the most part of nostalgic reminiscences and home-spun tales that suffused a flavor that was uniquely characteristic of Jewish life in Lithuania.

It was these stories that fired my imagination, penetrated deeply into my consciousness, and fleshed out events from long ago, as if I had been an eyewitness to them. For example, I was told that when I was only three I told my grandfather with great excitement on the first day of Pesach that I had already dipped twice (at the seder we dip twice, once celery in salt water and a second time moror, bitter herbs in charoses, a mixture of apples, nuts, and almonds, moistened with wine). When my Stroger grandfather asked me, “What did you dip it in?” I proudly responded, “Matzah in chicken soup!” My grandfather smiled and lovingly pinched Yisroelís cheek ... (again, thatís me).

I recall a host of such stories, but my unbounded love for Rakishok is not based on these tales. My real pride and admiration is for the tiny Lithuanian “shtetele proper.” I actually knew Rakishok and shall never forget her. Once again, you may ask: “How is that possible? You donít remember anything and yet you claim to have intimate knowledge of her. “Yes, my dear friends, this is indeed a riddle and a mystery. And the purpose of my brief article is to uncover the mystery.

My entire youth, from tender childhood till the time I became Rabbi, I was raised in a home that was saturated with traditional Judaism Ė in an atmosphere that was a veritable carbon copy of Rakishok. The moment one crossed the threshold of our home in London, the capital of the British Empire, one was instantly transported to an entirely different world, to the Jewish East European world, the spiritual repository of the Jewish heart and soul. In my parentsí home was reflected, in all its nuances, the life of Rakishok that they had left behind, but only in a physical sense. We spoke Yiddish only, and if perchance an English word slipped through inadvertently, it was “Yiddishized” to such a degree that it was impossible to identify its origin.

Besides the exclusive use of Yiddish, all other aspects of life carried a distinct Rakishok character. The Sabbath Queen occupied center stage and reigned in regal splendor in our home for a full twenty-four hours, from sundown to sundown. The taste of tsholent (a Sabbath dish of meat, potatoes, and vegetables) and the special festival meals that my mother prepared still linger in my mouth. Nor will I ever forget our bookcase that contained all the major Judaic literature: the Talmud, the Shulchan Aruch (the Book of Jewish Codes), the Chabad Tanya and Midrashim. Even conversations on ordinary subjects were laced with Biblical references and scholarly Talmudic discussions.

Judging by material standards, we were admittedly poor, but on a scale of yiras shomayim (piety) and Torah scholarship, my parents were considered wealthy. For the type of person of my fatherís provincial background who was versed in the various branches of Hasidism and Cabalah (a Jewish mystical philosophy), the problem of earning a living in England posed an insurmountable challenge. My parents had little concern for their own welfare, but for their sonís future they had very ambitious plans. In order for their dreams to come true, no sacrifice was too great to have him study in a yeshiva, later in a university, and finally in a rabbinical college where he received smicha--rabbinical ordination. To fully appreciate my parentsí joy on this auspicious occasion, one had to be a Rakishoker oneself.

I recall the letter that I received from Rabbi Katz, my great uncle, at the time of my ordination. I also remember the last letter I received from him here in Cape Town. At that time he was over ninety. Shortly after, he passed away and was spared the unspeakable suffering and cruelties perpetuated against our people at the hands of the eternally cursed Nazi beasts. Not long after his demise, his flock which he tended with loving care for so many years, died a martyrís death along with six million of our sainted brothers and sisters during the Holocaust, by far the worst national catastrophe that has befallen the Jewish people in its two thousand year Disasporan existence. Thus ended in fire, blood, and tears the one thousand year chapter of East European Jewry, one of the most fruitful and productive in Jewish history.

Alas, our beloved shtetl is no more, and now belongs to the centuries, but the sweet memories of her will linger on in the hearts and minds of the Rakishker surviving landsleit wherever they may be. Yes, she surely will be remembered as long as the Jewish people do not forget the role the artless Lithuanian small towns played in shaping the collective personality of Eastern European Jewry.

Sisters and Brothers, cherish this Yizkor Book, published by the Rakishker Landsmanshaft, which serves as an everlasting memorial for those who have passed on, but at the same time creates a linkage between them and future generations. And let the world know that Lo Nutcka Hashal shelet Ė that the chain of Jewish tradition remains unbroken and is ever strong.


rok077c.jpg [34 KB] - The "Yavneh" School in Rokiskis
The Bet-Sefer “Yavneh” in Rokiskis
[Hebrew Primary School]

[Pages 88-91]

Childhood Joys

by Rachmiel Feldman

Translated by Ken Frieden

rok088a.jpg [10 KB] - Rachmiel Feldman
Rachmiel Feldman

Rachmiel (Richard) Feldman was born in Skopishok (Skapiskis) in 1897 and, as a young child, moved to Rokiskis. Arrived in Johannesburg in 1910. Attended the Jewish Government school. From 1912-1924 he was active in the South African Assistance Fund for those injured in the war. Together with M. A. Pinkus, he founded the Poalei-Zion (Jewish Socialist Society, later called the Labour Zionist Organization). Visited the Land of Israel in 1924 and in 1928 he visited the Soviet Union as chairman of the South African colonization fund in support of the Yiddish colonization movement in the Ukraine and Crimea.
His activity in the Poalei-Zion movement brought him closer to Yiddish. He gave speeches and wrote articles and stories. In 1935 he published Shvarts und vays (Black and White), a book of stories about South Africa, and in 1945 he published Troyers (Mourners).
He was active in the Jewish Literary Union and helped found the South African Yiddish Cultural Federation.
After 1939 he participated actively in the local political life as a member of the South African Labour Party; after 1943 he represented the Labour Party in the Transvaal Provincial Council. He contributed diverse articles to the English language press in South Africa.
[R. Feldman died in 1968.]

There are people who remember well their youthful years, remember their childhood and their experiences, remember the adults and the friends with whom they studied and played.

I'm not one of those “rememberers.” My memories of childhood are few in number and foggy.

Perhaps that is because the new way of life in Johannesberg very quickly eclipsed the experiences in Rokiskis; and also because the new homeland accepted me so maternally and warmly, and the transition was painless and without longing.

When a tree is transplanted, its success depends on how young the tree is, how deep its roots have grown, and the quality of the soil into which it is transplanted.

My roots in Lithuanian soil were not deep.

When I was 10 years old, the conflict arose between the cheder, the Jewish school, and the Russian school. It was a mixture of languages—Yiddish at home and in the street, Hebrew in the Jewish school and on the printed page, Russian among the intelligentsia, and Lithuanian at the marketplace and in the village.

As a boy I saw no farther than the shtetl and practical matters. One did not yet think about what one would want to see and what one would want to do.

And yet, and yet, sparks flicker in my memory and light up my childhood years in Rokiskis.

For a long time I have yearned for the joy of the four seasons in Lithuania, with the pleasures of summer and winter, spring and fall. And in general, I have longed for the cornfields that were near our cheder—Moshe of Meshtzansk's cheder—and for the forests that surrounded Rokiskis.

My first written works in English were stimulated by yearning for the Lithuanian fields and forests and for the snow-white winters.

Until this day, when I see large green apples, I recall the early mornings in the late summer in the courtyard of Zalman Nahman, where they would pack apples into crates for export. The smell of the apples woke us up before sunrise, and Zalman Nahman would joke with us about getting out of bed so early.


Even while eating a large, juicy plum, I recall how we used to steal plums from peasant orchards—and how we just barely escaped with our lives and ran away from an angry peasant who was chasing us.

rok088b.jpg [30 KB] - The town square
Independence was celebrated in the town square

The smell of milk that has been freshly milked is the same everywhere, but in me it always calls forth memories of the Count's courtyard (dem grafs hoyf), where we used to go in the summer to get milk that had just been milked. It was a kind of journey to a land of Lords and palaces.

A small selection of flowers and plants grew in and around Rokiskis. In Johannesburg the number of different flowers is vast; and yet to this day I feel closer to the daisy, the nasturtium, and the blue cornflowers than to the beautiful rose, the splendid gladiola, and the exotic strelitzia.

In Swaziland, when I see black children bathing in a stream, and I hear their joyous cries, I recall the joy of bathing in the small “Prudel .” At that time it was an uncommon delight for me, and I was satisfied only after running a few times into it and around the meadow that bordered on the small “Prudel”—in which I once almost drowned.

And when I see a lantern, it recalls the winter nights in the cheder, and the joy of coming home with my own lantern, which rivaled the brightness of the moon and the snowy surroundings.

The joy of the holidays in Rokiskis is unforgettable.

The new year would start on Passover, not on Rosh Hashana, because then the world would be filled with brightness and warmth. By Passover the mud had almost dried, and the trees would clothe themselves again in green.

Who can measure the excitement of the day when our matzah was baked in “Pardiad”—cutting the dough, making punctures in the matzahs, and then the procession home from “Pardiad” with the matzahs.

And that's how it was every holiday, each with its special joy. My holiday would be a bit disturbed because I was the third of three boys in the family, and I always received an older brother's handed-down suit of clothes instead of a new one.

The only gloomy and difficult days I remember are the most tragic—the days when we expected a pogrom in Rokiskis.

There were widespread rumors of pogroms in neighboring towns, and when the “news” arrived that pogromniks were very near and could be expected the next day in Rokiskis, mother decided to leave the shtetl. But where could we go?

For the time being, mother decided to go to the depot—at least we could be near a train station.

There were no carriages to hire. It was as if everything in the shtetl had died out.

For an entire evening we packed, and everyone had prepared a package of the most necessary things.

Very early we went on our way. We didn't go by the main road, because there we could have met the pogromniks. Hence we walked on side streets and through fields. I remember that the path was slippery, and it stretched out endlessly before us.

Zalman Mote Ber's, the father of my aunt Malka Feldman, who lived at the depot, received us in a friendly manner, and in his house we felt safer.

Late at night a storm-wind blew on a broken shutter, and it knocked so strangely and restlessly that we thought that the pogromniks had already arrived.

That time we came through with just a scare. But years later, under Hitler's rule, the Germans—with the help of Lithuanian hooligans—carried out the pogrom that annihilated the Jews of Rokiskis and of all Lithuania.

* * *

Today I see a Rokiskis where every stone and bit of earth in the shtetl is wet with Jewish blood, and one wants to curse the fields that soaked up the blood of our murdered brothers and sisters.

And yet, and yet one remembers the childhood joys, because it is a part of us and of our past.


rok088c.jpg [30 KB] - A painterly view of a Rokiskis scene
A painterly view of a Rokiskis scene,
with the Count's dwelling in the background

[Pages 92-98]

My Father's Nigun (Melody)

by Shlomo Rubin

Translated by Kenneth B. Frieden

Many episodes and images have remained in my memory from my childhood years in Rakishok. They become especially vivid now, when I must publish them for my fellow landslayt from Rakishok.

My father, Aharon Nathan, was neither a cantor nor a musician, but now and then he would lead the afternoon or evening prayers from the bimah. He had no higher aspirations, because he had no education beyond the heder, and at a very young age he had to hitch himself up to the wagon of life.

Yiddish literature was still in its infancy, and seldom did a literary work from the wide world reach us in the shtetl. For this reason, it may be that my father's only reading was Psalms.

I remember how my father used to get up very early, in the winter nights, and boil the little samovar that held 12 cups of water. He would drink tea and read the Psalms with such a touching melody that engraved itself deep inside me.

Regardless of the fact that early-morning sleep was always so sweet and pleasant to me, my father's melody awakened me, and I wanted my father to stretch out his melody into the late morning.

It is too bad that, in those times, there were no collectors of musical folklore in the shtetl. They would have immortalized my father's Psalms melody, and it would have enriched our folk music.

He sang Shabbat songs with the same feeling and abandon—melodies, which I later heard in many homes. To this day it is a mystery to me: where did my father inherit all of these melodies and musical prayer-motifs? I believe that, in other circumstances, he would have been a distinctive Jewish musician.


Good Qualities or Pride

My father was a needy person and always went around looking for acts of kindness. Still, when someone else came to borrow from him, he didn't refuse anyone, and he was willing to go around half of the shtetl to get a loan for another person.

My mother used to reproach him because of this behavior, saying that he did it out of pride or arrogance. My father did not accept her complaints, because he argued that it was better that people looked at him as a rich man than as a pauper—because if they considered him a pauper, it would no longer be possible for him to continue his small fish trade.


rok093a.jpg [10 KB] - Aaron Nissen Rubin
Aaron Nissen Rubin
[The socialist fish salesman – he kept good fish for the poor
and gave bad fish to the rich – A. Jermyn]

My Father—a Socialist

Friday evening my father had dealings with rich and poor women, who would come to him to buy fish. In these sales he showed his socialist sense of justice.

If a rich woman came to his fish cart to buy the very best carp or pike for Shabbat, he took it out of her hands and placed it under the straw mat, saying that it had already been bought. He would put aside the better fish for poorer women. If he didn't have anyone who wanted the better fish among the poorer buyers, he brought the fish home and would resentfully tell mother about how the well-off women had real nerve: they wanted to buy the best fish. His argument was that poor people also have to eat good fish.

He often engaged in such socialist dealings, also in connection with the young progressive movement that had started among us in the shtetl in 1905.

I remember how, in 1905, a young man was arrested for progressive, revolutionary activity. He came to Rakishok from another city. My father did everything possible to get him out of the policeman's hands. A similar case occurred with a Jewish student, for whom the police were searching in the shtetl in order to arrest him. He was accused of being a revolutionary. The student hid that night at Leah the Tailor's workshop and I disguised him with a beard. My father got a wagon and secretly sent him out of the shtetl in the depths of the night.


My Father's Tears

Every one of us from the earlier generation knows how a synagogue in a small Jewish shtetl looked during the prayers for the Days of Awe. The piety and awe before the Master of the Universe was unimaginable. During prayers, the sighs and groans, tears and cries before the Master of the Universe, resounded in the synagogue—before the God of Judgment. From the women's section we heard crying from every tone and octave.

But it seems to me that no one cried like my father. One felt that it was torn from the deepest cells in his heart—the pain that had collected in him during an entire year. As after a big storm, the lament and bitterness burst out of him, overflowing the boundaries of his “I.” He would break into such a strong gush of tears that my pen is incapable of describing it. The cantor would interrupt his devout outcries for a while and wait until my father calmed down, just as he would wait during prayers while the rabbi or another respectable person continued the Standing Benediction.

Until today, I wonder where my father acquired such strong religiosity and fear of God. He wasn't one to put on a big show of piety. His behavior was secular: he cut his beard short and never went to a religious study session. He didn't even know the meaning of the Hebrew prayers. In order to understand the meaning, he would have to look at the Yiddish translation of a Torah, a Tanakh, or a prayer book. His belief and awe before the Throne of Glory was, presumably, deeply engraved in his heart.


The Slap

I delivered the first and last slap of my life in my youth. This happened because of the following event.

In 1912-13, a teacher came to our town Rakishok. I don't recall his name. It seems to me that later he became a well-known poet. In Rakishok this teacher was already writing poems, which he used to read aloud to us. Incidentally, I hardly understood the meaning of his writings. Still, he assured us that these were poetic creations that would someday be published.

Thanks to his initiative and the assistance of Shmuel Leyb Matizon, the teacher Yosl Stein, Khonen Meler, and yours truly, a library was created in the shtetl—which at the time was illegal. The library was located in a side street, in an attic room, and young boys and girls zealously read the works of Mendele, Sholem Aleichem, I. L. Peretz, D. Frishman, and Sholem Asch.

We would also come to know young authors—thanks to the journal The Jewish World, which appeared at Kletzkin's publishing house. For us, the writer and poet “Der Nister” was a mysterious type, and we used to discuss his works among ourselves for a long time.

There were lots of readers then, and one didn't do it to show off, but rather there was a powerful hunger for Yiddish books, which gave us great intellectual pleasure.

We, the readers of the library, would get together at the shop of Feygetshke Yakum Meyers. We bought beans, lemonade, and chocolate there, and meanwhile we carried on heated discussions about the books we read.


rok093b.jpg [16 KB] - Feigetczke
Ikus Mayers Abramovitz

Feygetshke was a quiet and contemplative girl. One of her friends once became upset because she wasn't given a book. In her excitement she said: “I'm going to report you to the police….” We were all terrified by her words. Quickly we moved the library to another apartment.

It was a winter night. While I was carrying part of the books from the library, I met the girl who had threatened to report us to the police. I became very excited and gave her a flaming slap to the cheek.


Revolutionary Youth

The reign of terror by the Czarist police was so far-reaching, that one had to use great caution even reading a book or discussing it.

In those years I belonged to the group called “Malienkaya Grupe Sotzialistov Revolutzionarov” (Youth Group for Socialist Revolutionaries). On Shabbat we, the youth, would come together at the house of Sheyne the teacher. She was a teacher of writing and reading Yiddish. She also sold lemonade and beans. We paid her on Shabbat and she gave us change.

She was tall, with gray hair. She gave lessons about Socialism and gave advice on how to conspire to carry out the revolutionary activities. She inspired us and gave us to understand that we were the first people [literally, “swallows”] to spread socialism on the Jewish street.

It seemed to us that Sheyne the teacher came from another planet. With taste and confidence she read aloud to us Sholem Aleichem's “Uncle Pinie and Aunt Reyze.” While doing this she explained every word and sentence and praised Sholem Aleichem's story as a great work of political propaganda, directed against the Russo-Japanese War in 1904.

A new world opened up to us. Her commentaries made clear to us that writers don't just write, but that every writer and poet has his intentions and ideas. We came to understand that we, as readers, had to penetrate every word and line the author had written.

To this day, Sheyne the teacher is an enigmatic type: who was she and where did she come from to our shtetl?


The Itinerant Preacher

As to every Jewish shtetl in Lithuania, there also came to us, in Rakishok, itinerant preachers. For the most part they traveled on foot, and now and then, along the way, they hitched a ride with either a Jewish or a non-Jewish coach.

They held their sermons during the day on Saturday, and in rare cases also on Sunday. Small announcements or flyers would be stuck to the doors of the houses and synagogues, after this fashion: “Tomorrow a Preacher [maggid] will Deliver a Sermon.”

A sermon was successful if it was held in a simple, folksy style, which was familiar to the average person. Almost no one would tolerate moralistic speeches.

I remember a tall, thin preacher, with a small beard and a big nose. He was vivacious, with shining eyes, and definitely no weakling. It was a wonder to me that he had become a preacher.

I loved preachers' sermons, even when I became older and had very little to do with the House of Study. I especially liked to hear the preacher mentioned above. His sermons were ornamented stories that had a moral. The following story of his is, to this day, engraved in my mind.

Once an old landowner passed the property of a young landowner. He was astounded to see the young landowner holding a stick in his hand and hitting a white hen, because in all his life he had never seen such a thing as punishing a hen. He knew that people hit cats, dogs, but not hens.

On account of this, the old landowner went to the young landowner and asked him: What happened with your hen? What was her transgression? To this he received the answer: “Don't you see that the hen is muddy? For a half hour already, she has been sitting and rolling in the sand, and so I wanted to knock the dust off her.”

From this the preacher drew the following moral of the story, in his own particular melody: “This white, innocent hen, dear people, is like your innocent children. All of God's creatures pick up dust, and just as with the hen there comes a time when she feels the dust on her and shakes it off, so it is with your innocent children. For as long as they are young, they crawl around in sand and dust. When they become older and bigger, they shake off this dust—that is, the wildness, which they had taken on. You, dear friends, have seen this reality for yourselves. A boy is wild, like a really impudent lad, and suddenly you are surprised to see that he is becoming a complete person, with respect. Therefore, dear friends, you will not get rid of the 'dust' by beating your children. You must not act like the young landowner. A time will come when your children will themselves cast off the bad manners and behaviors.”


The “Banker”

In Rakishok there were extremely poor people among the Jewish population. It sometimes happened that an established man or woman did not have the possibility of giving alms to a poor man, not even a groschen [a small denominator coin].

In those times there was a Jewish man who thought up a way to help poor people, who were dragging themselves from one city to the next and begging door-to-door. He made a stamp and small pieces of cardboard. Equivalent to every coin was a cardboard piece of a different size and shape. The stamp bore the name of a charitable organization or another name.

These stamped cardboard pieces were given to poor people, who redeemed them in the poorhouse, five for a kopeck, or sold them to market women, four for a kopeck. Every Jewish woman could, in this way, distribute the four pieces among four poor people.

There was also a “Banker” who bought these pieces, and this became a source of income for him.


Gloomy Thoughts

Often I am disturbed by dark thoughts, thoughts about the problem of animals and human beings. These thoughts were nourished by reflexes from childhood years in the city of my birth, Rakishok.

I remember how, at the end of the winter, the snow melted and in some places bits of earth started to show. In the shtetl one could already get around without a sled, but outside the shtetl, traveling to the train station, one still had to use a sled, when the snow barely covered the earth.

Once I saw a sled arrive from the side of the church. The two horses were dragging the sled with all of their might. From overexertion they were almost lying on the ground. After that sled there was a yellow Jewish coachman with his miserable horse. The wretched horse dragged the sled with all of his might and the coachman helped him pull it. Despite all of the exertions of the horse and the coachman, the sled didn't budge. It remained a short distance from a snowy area.

That coachman and horse wanted to reach that showy patch. But the sled wouldn't move. The coachman went into a rage and tried hitting his exhausted horse. He hit him mercilessly with his whip. He begged him with entreaties and yelled with load curses. The coachman hit him incessantly, but it didn't help. A white steam rose from the horse and finally the horse fell in its harness. Then the coachman hit him angrily and the whip handle struck the horse's head, from which flowed a stream of blood, which colored the earth.

I was then a little boy and didn't have the courage to stand up for the mute creature. With me were also adults who watched this and were silent.

When I became older and had already seen many horrors in life, there always hovered before me the image of that miserable horse, which sowed in me the first seeds of pessimism.


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