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[Page 52]

Chapters of the way of life of the previous generation

The rabbi was fired because of the fat in the pie – “kugel” in Yiddish
(according to “Ha–Shahar” of 5633 – 1873)

S.P-R

Translated by Sara Mages

About ninety years ago, in the year 5631, lived in the town, among the yeshiva students who studied at the “kollel,” Avraham Zuckerman of Oshmene [Ashmyany]. He married a woman from Olkeniki and moved from the town to Kovno. Apparently, Zuckerman belonged to a group of maskilim in the town, because, from Kovno he sent to Vienna in Austria, to the editor of “Ha–Shahar” [The Dawn], Peretz Smolenskin, an article named “Sacrifices to the dead.” The article was written in a very lofty language, and its content is the dispute that broke out in the town between two “sides.” One of the residents' sides founded a “Chevra Kadisha” [Burial Society] for themselves, in addition to the existing society. The town was in turmoil for a long time and split into two sides. At the same time, the town's rabbi was HaRav, R' Aba Yosef, son of R' Ozer HaCohen Trivsh, brother of R' Hillel David HaCohen Trivsh of Wilki, the editor of the literary collection “Hapisga.” The family tree of the two brothers reached Rashi, whose city of residence was Troyes (Trivsh). The rabbi, R' Aba Yosef, was a Torah scholar and a God–fearing man, and, with that, he was meticulous, well–versed, and virtuous. He was dragged to a dispute between the assertive – the ignorant in town, and the scholars, because of the fat in the pie – “kugel” in Yiddish, or, in the language of the correspondent, “because of the round food eaten for dessert.”

The correspondent in “Ha–Shahar” wrote anonymously the name of the town. He called it “Nakik Avil,” the combination of the letters of Olkeniki [in Hebrew]. He called the assertive, and the homeowners involved in the matter, in borrowed names: Elnatan the scribe and public trustee, Katan the sharp scholar, and Zarmi the drunk, son of Yosef the redhead.

These are the community dignitaries who were among the opponents of the rabbi. Zechri the tyrant was one of the rabbi's in–laws.

When the article appeared in the newspaper “Ha–Shahar,” and later, when the newspaper “Ha–Shahar” arrived in the town in four copies, the people concerned were insulted and shocked because they knew to whom the words were aimed at. The newspaper was read and explained in every home “like the Book of Esther.”

Sometime later, in the year 5634, the same Zuckerman described in “Ha–Shahar” the continuation of the dispute under the name “Quarrelsome feasting.”

In this article he describes the impression his article left in the town. He adds, that his words are correct and the editor's brother, Yehudah Leib Smolenskin, who was staying at his home in Olkeniki, knows the truth of his words and their correct description, and what happened began this way:

There were many societies in town. Every Sabbath, of the Sabbaths the year, was intended for a mitzvah meal of a different society. On the 15th of Kislev, according to tradition, a mitzvah meal was held for “Chevra Kadisha,” and the best was served at this meal. Many of the townspeople envied the assertive, that many of whom were ignorant, and gossiped about their activities. Men of action were found and they established a rival “Chevra Kadisha.” Before the 15th of Kislev the sides reconciled, under the influence of the rabbi and his faction, and decided to hold the mitzvah meal together with those who had recently joined the society. During the preparations for the meal it became known that there was not enough fat for the delicacies, especially for the “kugel” which was fried in fat. They immediately sent a cart owner to Vilna, about fifty kilometers from the town, and he brought the fat. At the time of the meal, as the participants enjoyed themselves, someone remarked that the carter was in such a hurry, and there is doubt as to whether they had been able to salt the fat in Vilna, and unsalted fat is not kosher for eating. The carter was not a member of the congregation and did not participate in the meal. He was already sleeping and they could not rescue anything out of his mouth.

Some of the “uneducated” in the party were angry at the scholars, who raised the question of the fat, because they suspected that they were looking for an excuse, and wanted to deprive them of the delicacies of the meal. The rabbi, R' Aba Yosef, who took part in the meal, ruled that the fat was kosher. He sliced a portion of the “kugel” and ate it. The next day it became known from the carter that, indeed, the fat wasn't salted in Vilna.

The rabbi's opponents took advantage of the matter. They announced in public that the rabbi himself ate non–kosher food and fed the non–kosher food to the diners. A quarrel flared up in town, as A. Zuckerman describes it: “and the whole town was angry and said: the members of the society ate non–kosher food and the rabbi at their lead. The anger burnt in the spirit of the townspeople, who were not considered members of society, like a fire of steel burning in cut up thorns”…

The “side,” which opposed the rabbi, brought a man who once studied in a yeshiva in town and was actually engaged in teaching, and crowned him a second rabbi.

The conflict reached the point where one of the rabbi's opponents received kiddushin for his daughter from the rival rabbi. The rabbi, R' Aba Yosef, invalidated the kiddushin, and re–blessed the young couple.

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The town's elders of a generation ago, who still lived under the shocking impression of those days, told, that one of the rabbi's opponents who ran to the rabbi in Beit HaMidrash to slap his cheek, fell and broke his leg. Others recounted, that one of the rabbi's opponents and enemy, removed the Jews from Beit HaMidrash as the rabbi was about to lead the prayers on the day of his “yahrzeit,” saying, the one who feeds non–kosher food is not permitted to pray with us in the same minyan. The elders added, with a shudder and sigh, that all the family members of this man, who insulted the rabbi and made his life miserable, died and he remained alone. They saw it as punishment from Heaven for their misdeeds against the rabbi.

The dispute broke out, crossed the town's boundaries, and moved to the courts and the authority because of the slanders and plots of the sides. The quarrel, and the controversy, increased with the imprisonment of one of the rabbi's opponents on the charge that he had stolen from one of the supporters of the rabbi, R' Aba Yosef.

Also the rabbis of Lita, and the Geonim [geniuses] of the generation, were included in this dispute, and the matter reach R' Yitzchak Elchanan the Gaon of Kovno. The Gaon ruled that the fat was kosher for eating. The author of the article in “Ha–Shahar” tells, that the rabbi, R' Aba Yosef, preached at Beit HaMidrash in Kovno in the presence of rabbis, and his words were accepted with willingness and understanding. Even this ruling was not sufficient until R' Aba brought the verdict from all the Geonim of the generation, and placed it on a table in the synagogue so that the community would see and judge.

Apparently, the rabbi's opponents saw that they exaggerated beyond the reasonable, made peace with him and asked for his forgiveness.

The rabbi, who was tired of the controversy, gave up the position of rabbinate in the town and left it. He spent the rest of his life at the shoemakers' “Rimarskekloiz , teaching and studying. He died in a strange incident. On one of the Sabbaths he sat and studied. With the movements of his body, as he was studying, he dropped a burning kerosene lamp on the Gemara. After this incident he fell ill, was confined to his bed and never got up.

 

A wedding in the cemetery

It was in the days when the plague raged in the cities of Lita and its towns. Death reaped right and left, and there was no house where there was no dead. All hope was lost, and the townspeople, and their spokesmen on all sides, have done everything to stop the dance of death. For a whole day they fasted and said Psalms, blew shofars by burning black candles, “fell” into the Holy Ark, measured the graves, and the plague has not stopped killing people.

The “well informed” decided to perform a “real action” to stop the plague, what did they do?

This is how the correspondent, our acquaintance, Avraham Zuckerman, describes the act in “Ha–Shahar” of 5634 – 1874:

“When the bad disease prevailed in that town, they not only held a wedding at the cemetery for a lame guy and a deaf girl with a hump, with kleizmer, feast and joy, the leaders, and elders, of “Chevra Kadisha” buried a slaughtered chicken in the cemetery and the elders of the society, three in number, slept at night on the burial site, roasted the gizzard and ate it.

The rabbi did not object so that he would not be suspected, God forbid, of being a heretic, but the plague did not do so, it showed everyone that it was a complete skeptic and did not believe in such virtues and remedies, and continued to kill many.”

This is how they fought the plague in Olkeniki ninety years ago.

 

In recent generations
From the days of self–defense
(from childhood memories)

It was on somber and sad days, in the days of fears of 1905. At that time we lived in an isolated house in the forest, in the abandoned factory. The forest terrorized our house and its inhabitants. In the nearby town, and neighboring villages, it was secretly reported that groups of bandits, called “anarchists,” wandering in the forests, attacking peaceful settlements, taking their property and dividing it. In those days the orders were changed in our home, we did not speak aloud and did not go for a walk in the forest. In the evenings we sat silently next to mother, without a sound or a flicker of an eyelid. Father worked in the factory in the nearby town and walked back home late in the evening.

One Sabbath, young people and adults from the nearby town, gathered in our “summer” house. They entered, one by one, through the faded fence and quietly sat in the spacious hall. My father went to the stove, climbed on a bench in front of the assembled, and took out various weapons from a hidden door in the chimney. The weapons passed from hand to hand, everyone tried to quickly open the bolt, pull the trigger and do all the correct movements. There were large and small weapons, shiny and dark, and also wooden handles with springs and an iron block at their ends.

Every night, before we went to bed, father took down the shotgun that hung in the bedroom. He went to the window, opened the hatch, inserted the tip of the barrel into it, pulled the trigger and fired into the open space. This shot was meant to inform the villagers that he had a firearm in his hands. When we undressed and went to sleep, father put by the entrance door, not in front of us, an ax that mother used in the kitchen for splitting wood for heating.


[Page 54]

Hadarim” in the town

Shlomo Karpowich

Translated by Sara Mages

The heder of R' Feive the slaughterer

I remember how my father z”l gathered the children around him and told them about his native village. We, the children, were enchanted by every story, until the landscape of the village was engraved in our imagination. When I visited the village before I immigrated to Israel, I saw that the village was built exactly as I described it in my imagination.

I hope that our children will read the Olkeniki book and it will be engraved in their memory and imagination, the way our parents' stories were etched in our memory. Therefore, this book will be an eternal flame in memory of our town, and in memory of our loved ones, may their memory blessed.

*

My impressions of the “Hadarim,” in which I spent the days of my childhood in our town, are etched in my memory to this day. My mother z”l accompanied me to the heder on the first day of school. My teacher, Ortzik Avner's that his private home served as a heder for teaching little boys, welcomed me warmly and invited me to sit at his table. The rest of the boys sat next to me on the floor and played various games. The rabbi opened before me a folded alphabet sheet. He said the letters of the alphabet aloud, and I repeated after him. Suddenly, a slight knock, a penny fell on the table from above. The rabbi explained to me that it was God's angel who brought the penny down for me, so that I would be a good student. I was horrified and very impressed by the angel and the penny… I studied at Ortzik Avner's heder for only one year, and did not have the time to learn to read properly. On that year, 5672 (1912), “heder Metukan” [reformed heder] was established in the town. I moved to study at this reformed heder, which was similar in its structure, and way of study, to an elementary school in our time. The studies in “heder Metukan” lasted from eight in the morning to two in the afternoon. In the heder we spent all hours of the day, from early morning to sunset in the summer, and until nine in the evening in the winter. A number of teachers, from the graduates of the courses in Grodno, taught various subjects. In the summer we left for a walk in the field and in the forest. In this way the teacher brought us closer to nature. To this day I remember the pleasant experiences we had in our studies and during our vacation. It's a shame that I only enjoyed this pleasure for a very short time because the town was not yet mature enough to maintain a modern school.

R' Avraham Mende, the zealous rabbi, took advantage of his position in Beit HaMidrash, and preached from the pulpit against “heder Metukan.” According to his words, it was a dangerous heder that would lead the children to assimilation. Many parents were impressed by his words and were ready to destroy the progressive school. R' Mende z”l took upon himself the role of educating Jewish children without any compensation, just to save the young generation from assimilation. He went from house to house and gathered all the boys whose parents agreed to give them to him. Most of the town's boys moved to R' Mende, and “heder Metukan” was closed. Eight years later, after the First World War, “Tarbut” school was opened and later “Chorev” school.

In the heder of R' Avraham Mende, the boys were educated according to the old method. We arrived at the rabbi's house early in the morning and left late at night. We were cut off from home, from nature and children's games. To this day I remember that we used to mention the period of our studies in “heder Metukan” with longings.

*

After two “periods” – a school year – with R' Mende, a rabbi was invited from the nearby town of Eišiškes, and he taught us under the supervision of the same R' Mende z”l.

From this heder I moved to study, with R' Feive the slaughterer, the Gemara and “Shever–Be” – Twenty Four [Scriptures] – Prophets and the Writings.

If it happened, that a hole was found in the lung of a slaughtered animal, and it was necessary to turn to the local rabbi with a “question,” we spent the whole day doing nothing.

The heder curriculum was as follows: four days a week we learned new material and on

[Page 55]

the fifth day we repeated what we had learned during the week. Thursday was test day, the Day of Judgment, and for that reason we studied a lot the day before because we were afraid of failure. R' Feive was a meticulous Jew and strict with every word. On Thursday, as mentioned, we got up early in the morning and came to the heder to study and repeat the Torah from the entire week. When the rabbi returned from the synagogue he took off his overcoat, turned to the cupboard, took out the “kanchik,” a stick with leather straps tied to it that he only used on Thursdays, sat at the head of the table and began his lesson.

The Rebbetzin, Tova z”l, was kindhearted. On Thursday she hurried to cook and clean the house. She used to come and sit next to R' Feive, and when a boy failed and R' Feive, her husband, was excited and lifted the straps on a boy, she stopped him and the poor boy was saved from the rabbi's strong arm. The boys were grateful and thought of her as a redeeming angel in times of trouble.

I studied in R' Feive's heder until the end of the First World War. In 1918, when “Tarbut” school was founded in our town, most of the town's teachers were concentrated in the school and additional modern teachers were added to them, and with that ended the period of the heder in our town.


R' Zelig the melamed and his heder

S.P-R

Translated by Sara Mages

More than fifty years have passed since my father wrapped me in a prayer shawl and carried me in his arms to the heder of R' Zelig the melamed [teacher]. The sound of his hoarse voice still echoes in my ears, though his sharp facial features are slightly blurred. His image is before my eyes as it was. Here is R. Zelig, short, slightly bent, with a long beard and thick sidelocks, and thick and tangled eyebrows above his deep eyes.

In addition to the teaching profession he also produced candles for the Sabbath and the holidays, and, for this reason, he was called in town, R' Zelig the candles maker. His “laboratory” was set up in the cellar under the room where we studied. Only a small barred window, without a windowpane, was fixed to the ceiling of the cellar that faced the courtyard. Through this window we peeked into the dark cellar. In the cellar were boilers, pots, and wicks arranged on special sticks for immersion in the hot fat.

In the days, when the rabbi heated the boiler and melted the fat, the pupils enjoyed an extra vacation and helped the Rebbetzin to remove the fat from the intestines of sheep that the butchers had brought to the corridor. Also, the arrangement of the large and small candles into packaged made us happy. There was a lot of work after the High Holidays when the rabbi began to prepare an inventory of Chanukah candles. Next to the room where we studied was a small kitchen. The kitchen walls were lined with “Hazman,” the newspapers that the rabbi's son, the maskil, Shmuel Izekov, read before his departure for Zhmerynka to teach Jewish children there.

Shmuel Izekov, who signed his name Shmuel A and B, published, decades ago, a Hebrew dictionary together with the teacher Pradkin. In the years before the war he was the principal of “Torat Emet” in Vilna.

We, the heder boys, knew all the secrets of the kitchen by the smells that filled it and the room next to it where we studied. Between the kitchen and the room was a dark corner, the place of the stove's “hot bench.” On winter evenings we gathered in this corner and told tales about demons and spirits, thieves and robbers, and all that the imagination had conjured up.

The sick Rebbetzin coughed all day and the rabbi, even though he had two professions, barely supported his family.

The rabbi strictly observed the walk to Beit HaMidrash. Therefore, during the short winter days we had about an hour between Mincha and Ma'ariv to sit together and tell stories. We had a great interest in the setup of the candles and the oil–lamp in the lanterns that lit our way when we returned home from the heder. The boys had lanterns of various sizes and shapes. The newest among them withstood a gust of wind. During spring and summer we spent many hours playing games. The common games were: buttons, pits, target shooting with a slingshot, and more.

For the most part the boys studied with R' Zelig two to three years, four to six “periods,” until they knew how to read and go through the weekly portion in the Chumash and Nevi'im Rishonim.

After three years the students finished the heder of R' Zelig, and entered the heder of Yisrael Yakov, or Ishia of Krynki, or R' Feive the slaughterer.


[Page 57]

My Birthplace Olkeniki[1]

Translated by Jerrold Landau

I cannot forget my hometown, where I spent 20 years of my youth until I left it, exchanging it for the national homeland of the Land of Israel.

I cannot forget the experiences of childhood. I recall the streaming river that was the center of childhood play, and the bathing that was accompanied by the noise and shouts of children engaged in mischief. How great was the joy, and how many possibilities opened up for us children when the shipment of wood passed through the river on the way to large cities overseas. No shipment passed through without us having fun by jumping from log to log across the river, accompanied by dipping ourselves into the water.

The forest of the city - I also cannot forget. The thick, gigantic trees seemed to cover the face of the sky. There was no path upon which we did not tread. At first, the forest was a puzzle for us, but later we solved the puzzle and exposed it with all of its mystery and beauty. We spent many beautiful, pleasant hours there.

The convalescent home located in the forest was also a gathering point in our town. It took in many character types, including students, Yeshiva students, and merchants who preferred to leave the life of the noisy, single minded city for a period of time, and to relax in the bosom of the comforting nature of our town.

Behold, another idyllic picture comes before our eyes. The townsfolk are sitting on their porches in the light of the full moon, listening to the sounds of the singing of the Jewish youth bursting forth from the heart of the forest, and instilling pride in the hearts. There was indeed a strong basis for pride amongst the residents of the city.

I will make note of several main themes that typified the youth of Olkeniki.

The cultural level of the youth was higher than that of neighboring towns. Aside from the foreign languages spoken in the town, including Lithuanian, Russian, and Polish, most of the youth were fluent in Hebrew and were able to sing and tell stories in Hebrew. The large library of the city served as a center for reading and study of the Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew languages. The theater that was established through the efforts of the townsfolk was successful, even in the nearby towns. This also added to the cultural level.

The cultural life of the Hebrew youth was concentrated primarily in the Young Zion movement. That movement drew the spirit of the youth toward love of the Land of Israel, and instilled the desire to make aliya and settle in the Land.

Indeed, when the news arrived after the Balfour Declaration that aliya to the Land was permitted, we four friends - Yaakov Ozranski, Hillel Dan, Yehoshua Dan, and Avraham Menachemowicz - decided to be among the pioneers of the city, to leave our family, friends, relatives and home in order to actualize the pioneering vision. At that time, we were only 19 or 20 years old, without any profession, still dependent on our maternal home. However, we were of strong spirit in order to overcome all the many obstacles and impediments that stood in our path.

At that time, the war between Poland and Lithuania was in full force, and we had to leave our house without the accompaniment of “drums and dances”, and cross the border in secrecy; with our only possessions being the sack over our backs and the strong will in our hearts to leave Poland and arrive in Kovno, the capital of Lithuania, and from there to move onward to the Land of Israel.

I recall that day when I told my parents, “Behold, your son is among the first for Zion.” My mother of blessed memory asked a motherly question to her son, “Tell me, my son, are there not others older and stronger than you who should go first, and you can then follow after them?” Even though the pain of leaving behind that which is dearest to a person - I decided to not think about emotions, and to set out.

I have to thank my parents of blessed memory for giving their assent to the journey which I was undertaking, even though none of us knew if we would ever see each other again.

Thus did the period of my childhood and youth in my town Olkeniki conclude, and the new, difficult era of my life begin. This was a period of great obstacles, ???, and searching for new ways of life in a new homeland, the Land of Israel.

Now, when I bring to memory my far-off town, how greatly does my soul mourn that they did not merit to make aliya to the Land of Israel, and that the majority of them were murdered in cold blood by the filthy hands of the impure murderers, who still live among us and enjoy good.

Vengeance shouts out, “Is there one person who will hear my outcry?” All of them are lost, and are no longer…

Yaakov Agami - Ozranski

 

Translator's Footnote
  1. Modern name is Valkininkai, Lithuania Return

 

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