Life in the Shtetl of Shnurel
LIFE IN THE SHTETL Of SHNUREL
OF MARY HELLEN HERR BERNHARD
October 24, 1938
By Mary Hellen Herr Bernhard
Wife of Sam Bernhard, and mother
Of Joseph and Ely Bernhard
My dear sons,
I am writing the story of my family and my own life because I want you, my dear children, to read and learn about my childhood life before I arrived in this country to make my home. Also for you to learn about mine and your ancestors whom I have left behind. And most of them are now in a world never to return, as we called it there in my old home, "the eternal world."
I am not sure if I will recall my memories that far back. And I doubt if I will be able to express it in a correct English. I was not fortunate enough to be born here or to come here as a child and obtain the knowledge, so please forgive me for all the errors.
My object is, as I have said above, is to make you acquainted with my family, whom you have never seen. The time will come generations ahead when you will have lost sight of your origin. You will as you read discover many differences in our customs, manners and religion. I hope you will regard these things with love and respect. And let my memories be a family heritage. I hope the good Lord will let me be here long enough, so I can complete my information or my memories.
As far back as I can recollect of my mother’s ancestors is my mother’s grandmother, my great grandmother, and all of that what I will tell you about her and her family is what she informed me when I was still a child.
My great grandmother was born in the year 1785 and was reared in a village called Shnurel in the province of Lithuania, at that time belonging to Russia. She married a man named Samuel Shulatt, of another city. Her name was Minuche (or Minnie). They had six children, four daughters and two sons, one of whom was my grandfather, my mother’s father. Samuel Shulatt came from a scholarly family. Some of them were great doctors. But the most of them were educated in Hebrew literature. Samuel Shulatt was educated to be a rabbi. But he did not prefer to earn his living by teaching the Holy Literature. He believed that the spreading of knowledge of the Torah must be done free, and not to be commercialized.
He made his living by running an old fashioned inn and a traveling store. He handled dry goods and notions. He mostly exchanged some of his goods for country products like eggs, hides and hogs hair of what the best brushes were made and other articles which he shipped in large quantities to the market in Riga, a large port city.
Mr. Samuel was loved and respected by all with whom he associated in business or society, for his honesty, friendliness and practical wisdom. His inn was more a sort of salon where the intelligentsia of that time gathered to discuss their problems. Especially they discussed the learning, sayings and theories of the Bible. And so they were an example of a happy family.
Happiness of men, however, is not everlasting as life itself is not, and the opposite is tragic.
While still a young man Mr. Shulatt took sick and departed from his family and the world forever.
To be left with six small children is enough to break a woman’s spirit. But not Mrs. Minnie Shulatt. She never gave up the ship. I remember her being a small little woman, weighing about one hundred and ten pounds, with a great amount of energy and a master mind. Although she loved her husband, she simply adored him. She realized that after he had gone, mourning would not bring him back. And her responsibility was greater than ever.
So she hitched her little one hundred and ten pounds to the heavy burden, to support and bring up six little ones to adulthood. Including herself there were seven in all to support. That was not so easy. Most of the Jewish people employed a teacher to instruct their children in religion and worldly knowledge, as there were no public schools in Russia at that time, and so did Mrs. Shulatt. She had a teacher hired to teach her children in all branches of knowledge. As I knew her family as grown men and women, I remember them all in perfect health, well educated , with love and respect to God and man.
I always admired her and I honor and respect her memory.
Mrs. Shulatt remained in her inn which had been her home. But she soon found out that her husband drew a very small income from his house as a business. Mrs. Shulatt had stated that her husband ran his home on the order of our forefather Abraham who had his house built with doors in all four sides so men from all directions, hungry and in need, could come to his home and find food and shelter and were welcome as his guests.
Although my great grandmother was a kindhearted woman, with love and mercy for all, she realized that she could not exist with free accommodations and no income. So she tried the second means of income and she was very successful with a heavy pack of dry goods and notions which contained yard goods, handkerchiefs, needles, pins, soap, matches and so on.
The pack was wrapped in burlap tied with straps, so she could have her arms through it. The pack would rest up on her back and her hands could be free to carry a cane in each of them to protect herself from the country farmers’ dogs, as each farmer possessed several large dogs.
Like her husband, she sold her goods and bought their products, and shipped some to Riga.
Believe it or not, she provided well for her family as I have told you above. Her family was well taken care of with a thoughtful attention to each one of them.
There was an old saying that small children are trouble, and as they grow, the trouble grows along with them too.
To marry off four daughters at that time in old Russia gave parents plenty of worry and headache, and Mrs. Shulatt as a widow had to carry the burden alone. A girl could reach to marry a young man according to the amount of money she possessed.
Although Mrs. Shulatt was a good provider, she could not possibly save enough money to provide a dowry for each daughter so they could marry young men their equals. The family standing of the young man had very much to say in choosing one to unite with in marriage.
The girl also had to meet all requirements, including enough money to give them a start in life.
The young man, you must know, had to spend several years in a Yeshivoh (a special school to teach them the philosophy of the Talmud and all concerning religious and Biblical history). And when he reached the age of twenty one, he had to serve in the Russian army or navy for four years. At that time they did not teach the boys a profession while in service as they do now in our U.S. army or navy. So after a young man had spent his youth for the Czar, he did not have much time to prepare for his future life. So the young lady’s father felt it his duty to help the young man, who loved and undertook to provide and protect his daughter for the rest of her life, to give him a start in life. In most of the marriage settlements, the bride’s father promised room and board to the young couple. Perhaps for a year or two. Many fathers went into debt to pay years later. And Mrs. Shulatt had to do likewise.
When her eldest daughter met a young man satisfactory to both families, something serious had to be considered. They had met at a wedding in some nearby town. The young man was not handsome, but possessed all the qualities one requires of a man. There was an old saying that if a man is just a little better looking than the devil, he is handsome. Well, they met and he fell in love at first sight. Naturally that had to be with the consent of both parents.
When parents had a good chance to marry off a daughter, there was no excuse. All money problems had to be met.
So Mrs. Shulatt , like other good fathers and mothers, in some way or another raised five hundred rubles and board and room for one year.
At once preparations started for wedding bells to ring in a big way.
To get ready for a wedding at that time, among the Jewish people was no fun. It meant to lay all business aside. The rich or poor about the same. The women’s aid societies had special funds for that purpose, to help the poor brides and their fathers to be able to give them a nice wedding and a trousseau. A wedding celebration lasted about a week.
First came the mother’s party, which was given on the Saturday before the wedding. This party was called "for spiel." I would call it a preview: tables were set with light refreshments -- different kinds of cakes, light wines and all sorts of goodies, whatever each excelled in her specialty in the art of cooking.
This affair was given for young women and especially for the single girls. I suppose this was more of a farewell party to the girls, and a hello to the young married ones. It lasted all day, eating, dancing, playing games, asking riddles, contests and congratulating the bride-elect and the rest of the family. Some of the games were very comical. For instance, when a player lost, he had to give forfeit, some personal possessions like rings or fine handkerchiefs and so forth. This had to be redeemed by doing something funny. She had to kiss the bride or anyone else or say something funny about herself. The worst of them was for a girl to have to say that she was in love with a certain young man. It brought a young girl almost to tears. If not done so, they would have to lose their things they had deposited as a fine, and they would also be marked as not good sports.
They also danced a lot. Square dances, polkas and kasachkes. The last was something like a jig. There were two people dancing, one towards the other, bringing out different figures in their dancing.
The music was furnished by the dancers themselves. They sang a different tune for each dance, as on the Sabbath it is not permitted to play an instrument.
Anyway, that day was always a pleasant memory to all.
While I was telling you about these good women who made it their business to help the poor brides with wedding expenses, I forgot to tell you that it was considered one of the best deeds any organization could do, to help a bride for her wedding, and especially when the bride was an orphan or had no one to help her. You know among our people, it is considered a tragedy for a woman never to marry. To help a girl find her equal in marriage was considered as an assistant to the Lord in Heaven in his great task to keep humanity in existence. Therefore the rabbis often went to the larger cities and wealthier people for collections to help the poor and less fortunate brides.
Those who were more able gave a dinner the evening before the wedding for the poor.
Tables were set with the very best of food and drinks. The bride’s parents and the bride herself waited on them, even those who were able to have all the help they needed, to wait on them. The family considered this an honor and a privilege to serve the unfortunates in person.
The Wedding Day
The groom could not see his bride on their wedding day. Both had to fast on that day until after the wedding ceremony which always occurred at night. And they had to spend that day in prayers and confess in their minds direct to God. We have special prayers for brides and grooms for that day. They are preparing to go to the altar pure and free from sin and hopeful of a happy union, united by God, the government, and the rabbi.
In the afternoon, the bride’s father sent the orchestra to the home of the groom and his family to welcome them with music that was especially arranged for this occasion.
The wedding ceremony always occurred after sundown. All guests gathered in the reception hall, and then the traditional customs began to be carried out.
First the bride’s hair was loosened and combed lightly. Relatives and friends were given the honor of combing the bride’s hair. Then they touched the hair up with a piece of sugar, meaning that her future life should be as sweet as sugar. Then there was a man who specialized in addressing the bride. Telling her what the wedding day meant to her, that it was the crossroads of her life, and at this moment it is being written in Heaven above whether happiness or God forbid misfortune should follow her future life. Therefore, he told her, it was up to her to be placed on the road to happiness.
And the way to it was to open her heart in prayers to God and penitence.
His address was so touching that it brought everyone to tears.
When the bride had no father or mother or neither, then he had a real sad sermon to preach, with memorial prayers to the dead.
The bride took it so much to heart, and having fasted all day, sometimes she could not hold out and fainted, poor thing. In her heart she took an oath to fulfill all duties to God and man.
Then came what was called the Kosher dance. I believe it was meant to cheer up the bride and befriend her. It was in a pure innocence, barely touching her hands. They turned around once or twice in a very slow movement. The older and more religious men would not touch the hands of the bride. They would come in contact by holding one end of a handkerchief and the bride the other end. It may be not to create evil thought amongst them.
There were two married couples who served as matrons of honor, and best men. The groom marched in slowly, his father and mother on each side of him, with the two best men, one on each side of the parents. They marched through two aisles formed of lovely dressed young girls with lighted candles in their hands. The lines of girls started from the bride’s chair until the door.
They marched direct to the beautiful decorated chair where the bride was queenly sitting and the groom covered her face with an opaque silk shawl, because they were not supposed to see one another on that day until they were pronounced husband and wife. Then they led the groom to his room where he remained surrounded by his young friends, until he was led to the altar by his parents.
The parents of the bride and the two matrons of honor marched to the bride. The father placed his hands on his daughter’s head and blessed her while the music played slowly and very impressively. Then the actual ceremony of uniting the two began.
The place where it occurred had to be under the open skies, and the most suitable place was on the front yard of the synagogue. There had been set up a canopy of very fine silk or satin worked in the center with blue metal thread an eight-pointed star, known as the Star of David, with white fringe all around it. The four corners of the cloth were tied with silk cords to blue and white finished posts which were about nine feet high. Two boys and two girls held the four posts, so the top of it formed a blanket between heaven and earth.
The bride with her father and mother at her side and the matrons of honor on each side of the parents marched through the still-standing girls with their lighted candles in their hands. The bride graciously in her full height, gowned in her white dress and long veil, carried a bouquet of white roses. The groom and his party marched out and all the guests followed, while the orchestra played slow and emotional music.
Perhaps they played a Mendelssohn wedding march.
The musicians walked first, playing their wedding march, the bride and her party right behind the music, then the groom and his. Then the crowd. They all marched from the reception hall to the synagogue yard. That was about six or seven blocks apart.
Arriving, they walked right under the canopy. The rabbi was under there waiting. A cantor with his chorus began to sing selections of some hymns. The rabbi began to read the marriage contract that had been worked out. Then the groom placed a silver or gold ring on her second finger next to the thumb on the left hand, saying like this: By placing this ring on your finger, it shall unite us, and I promise to give you my love and my shelter, and I take you as my wife, according to the rules of Moses and the children of Israel
Then the rabbi reads a prayer over a glass of wine. The prayer is worded thanking the Lord for ruling the world with His wisdom and letting grow all our bread to eat and fruit for our wine to drink. Then the rabbi lets the bride raise her veil off her face, so she would be able to taste the wine. It was then, when she broke her fast for the day, and the groom was allowed to see his bride. The groom also drank some of the wine. The glass and the rest of the wine was put on the floor and he stepped on it and broke it into small pieces. Perhaps it meant that he broke away from all that concerned his single life. Another reason is that a Jewish person must never forget the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and we were robbed of our homeland. So, in his greatest joy one must have a symbol of sadness in his heart. And the breaking of the glass with the wine in it reminded him of the broken life of his people and that there was no happiness complete.
Now they were pronounced as husband and wife.
The march back to the place where the wedding reception occurred was a lively one. The musicians walked ahead playing lively numbers, the bride and groom together with their parents after them. The crowd happily sang along with the music. They jubilated joyously through the streets, until they reached the place of the reception.
Right on the threshold had been placed gold chains or jewels for the bride and groom to step over them, indicating that the surplus of wealth would be so great, enough so they could step over gold. When inside they were all placed around tables. Pitchers of water and towels were carried around for the guests to wash their hands. The rabbi then recited a special prayer while cutting a special large home baked plaited bread, and passed some around to everyone. They all said a prayer thanking God for having the grain to grow for our bread they ate.
The rabbi then blessed the young couple and the eating began. Liquors, wines, fish, baked chicken, dressing, pickles, different kinds of sweets like strudel cakes and other specialties that Jewish women in Russia had in their art of cooking.
While eating, presents for the couple would be given. There were dishes, sterling silver spoons and knives, silver wine cups, linens and money. It was according to one’s ability.
After eating, there were after the meal prayers of thanks, and really, there was enough for something to be thankful to the Lord for, after all of what was on the table.
The real dancing then began: quadrilles, polkas, kasachkas, mazurkas, lansheys, and many others. The bride and groom danced along with the guests. The older men enjoyed themselves in their own way, drinking toasts to one another, discussing different sayings of the wise men and prophets, congratulating the family, dancing with one another in their own style. And they found so many other ways to express their joy and good wishes. They all left late in the night.
The next morning the out-of-town gusts were served breakfast and noon meals by the bride’s mother. The orchestra came to play morning greetings to the young couple and all guests.
About two o’clock, the guests, including the young couple, gathered in the reception hall. Almost every one of the little town’s people came. Most of them were wearing afternoon clothes.
The orchestra played lively dance music. All the dances of that time had been carried out. Every one felt in a holiday mood.
Light refreshments were served.
They all left about sundown.
The following Saturday morning, the bride was led by her mother, mother-in-law, and the matrons of honor, to the synagogue, where services were held. The bride was dressed in her very best. In the winter, most brides wore a long fur cape or coat. The fur had been worn inside of the garment, with a fur collar. The outside was covered with a good cloth. I remember that as a young child with the neighborhood children, I stood for hours so we could see the bride. In the synagogue, all worshippers were invited to the home of the bride for refreshments. In that afternoon, the rabbi and some of the notables of the elder men were invited for the last affair, and that was called the seven blessings. The day had ended and so did end the complete wedding celebration.
However, Mrs. Shulatt’s worries were not over. She had one more in the family to take care of. One could not expect of a young man who had spent his life in a Yeshivo (Talmudical student) to break into business all at once, but with his intelligence, when he once got the idea and some practical experience, he proved to be a successful businessman, and later on, this young man secured a place in business and in social life.
Some of his descendents are in this country. I know some of them in Baltimore and in Philadelphia are very prominent people.
Mrs. Shulatt went on with her work. She had many more duties to fulfill. One of her sons was married to a very fine girl from a very prominent family. I still remember their home in a little town called Puselat, now belonging to Lithuania. His name was David Shulatt. His home was considered to be almost one of the prettiest ones in their town. While the ordinary houses were without floors, the earth was just hardened and made smooth.
And as there were no paved streets there was plenty of mud, and the so-called earth floors were covered in fresh mud in rainy days so the poor women had to use a shovel to clean it out. The roof was covered with tightly rolled bundles of straw. The walls were built out of unfinished logs, and the cracks were filled with moss as there it is so bitter cold in the winter therefore they had to use logs that formed heavy walls and when a brick home was erected, three layers of bricks had to be built.
David Shulatt’s house had a floor out of lumber, and the walls were papered. The house was furnished with massive hand carved furniture. A large silver candelabra standing on the commode one could not help but notice, a large chest of books (most of them Hebrew religious) stood proudly against the walls. The kitchen walls were hung around with copper cooking vessels and brass trays and some sort of brass dish pans, that were used for cooking preserves of different berries and fruit, there was a shelf full of shiny brass and copper implements like mortar and pestle for pounding black pepper, nuts, and so on. But for making barley, there was used a large size mortar made out of wood. They also had copper cups and saucers, and water pitchers, copper flower pots with flowers planted in them. All plants are about the same as they are here. The cactus was widely spread over there. It was believed that to boil its leaves into a syrup would mend the lacerated lungs of tubercular people.
I see I am off the subject, but I felt an urge to put this on paper and here I did.
Coming back to Mr. David Shulatt’s house and his family, I know he made a nice living by buying and selling country products like his mother, only instead of walking like she did, he owned a horse and buggy and a large wagon to haul his products to Riga.
When his oldest son was grown and married, he was with his father in business. He went to Riga to dispose of their goods and buy goods for the stores. So one time, the young son had started out to Riga and on the way somewhere in the woods, the horses got frightened and turned over the heavy loaded wagon on the poor unfortunate young man. He was found dead some time later. He left a wife and three little girls.
Mr. David Shulatt had been the father of two sons and two daughters, so one can imagine how much they trembled over their three children they had left. They were thankful to the Lord for their children’s welfare. But it seemed that God’s anger was poured out on the unfortunate parents.
As it happened with Job in ancient times, David’s three children died of the terrible disease smallpox, and later his home burned, and his poor wife, like the historical wife of Job, could not be as brave and outstanding in her belief when her heart was bleeding. You cannot blame a poor mother who loses all of her children in one year. The mother is suffering for them since the time of their existence, therefore it is natural that Mrs. David Shulatt took her tragedy so hard that she fell into a melancholy and despairing mood.
But just as it happened with the historical Job, he regained his health and the Lord blessed him with sons and daughters and wealth, it almost so happened with this family. Mrs. David Shulatt gave birth to a daughter, although she was not young anymore. They called their daughter Alta, which means old, and some time later she gave birth to another daughter and they called her Leah, after mother Leah the wife of Jacob. Those two girls grew up and married fine young men and had families of their own and they lived comfortably until the world war. Then I received pitiful letters from them, and I have sent to them several packages and money. I think that Alta and her family are in Africa where they have relatives, and Leah and her family are in Palestine.
Perhaps it is necessary to remind you that David Shulatt was the son of Mrs. Menuche Shulatt. Her other son, whose name was Pesach, was the father of my mother and three other daughters and three sons, but one of them he lost as I will tell you later in my story. One of my mother’s sisters lived here in Little Rock, the late Mrs. N. Harris and her husband and family, whom you, my children, know very well. And you also know the families of the other sisters of my mother, some of their children reside in Philadelphia, some in Washington and some in Baltimore and in Virginia. There is one brother of my mother in Lithuania in the city of Linkave. He served in the world’s war while he already had his wife and three children. He has been gassed in action and remained a sick man. We are getting very pitiful letters from him and we help him all we can.
Now back to Mrs. Minnie Shulatt. She went on with her work and was able to help her other three daughters with enough money so they could marry men of their equal.
She also helped her sons to secure a start in life.
When her sons and daughters were married and they had children old enough to be married, then Grandma Shulatt helped every one of her grandchildren with a certain amount of money as a wedding gift. But in reality she contributed generously to help with their dowries, and at that time she was close to a hundred years old. Although she was loved and respected by my grandfather and his family and he would have been glad to care for her, Mrs. Minnie Shulatt preferred to work, and she went on working until almost the last. She lived until she was one hundred eight years old. She had married great grandchildren at her death bed. She was surrounded by her sons, daughters, their families, her grandchildren and great grandchildren.
I remember her funeral as being a very impressive one. However Jewish rules do not permit elaborate rites at funerals. As soon as one died, the body was placed upon three long straw on the floor. The reason, I think, is to receive punishment while in this world, so one would come to the eternal world purified. Members of the sacred society are with the dying person. The rabbi is reading prayers of confession. The sick is repeating as much as possible. All prayers are directed to God only and only to him.
The dead had to be dressed in linen. Even the thread that was used for sewing had to be linen. It was designed in loose long robes. The reason for the linen, is that it comes direct from the mother earth, and it is what we say earth to earth. The same sacred committee were making the eternal clothes, as we called them. After the body had been dressed it was placed in a coffin made of very simple boards. Then the rabbi delivered a sermon. The family was permitted to see the body. One had to be worthy with good deeds to the Lord and to the people all through his life so their body could be brought into the synagogue. The rabbi was very careful in his statements regarding the life of the departed. His good deeds could not be exaggerated, neither could the epitaph on a monument.
The coffin was carried by men to the cemetery. In the smaller towns the cemeteries were not very far out, though I think it was around ten blocks. The rabbi made a cut into the lapel of the coats of the mourners, a symbol of the bereavement in the family. The sons of the dead repeated the Kadish, the prayer for the dead. That was at the cemetery by the open grave. The mourners had to remain until the grave was covered. I think it meant for them to see the end of man, and there was an old saying that what the earth had covered must be forgotten. And with heavy hearts the family witnessed until the last and the earth had covered that what had been hers, the body. So it wouldn’t be so hard to forget.
Coming home from the cemetery the family was supposed to remain at home for seven days in mourning. They must not sit on chairs but on low stools or boxes. The first meal must consist of hard boiled eggs slightly dipped in ashes, milk or coffee. The eggs and ashes are a symbol of mourning. Kadish is supposed to be said every day during the seven days. The men are supposed to come to the house for prayers. Ten men are required for a quorum which is called a minyan. After the seven days, the sons had to attend services at the synagogue daily for one long year to read the Kadish. Then it had to be observed the memorial day of the dead every year and the Kadish had to be repeated by the sons.
If a child had been born in the family, the child had been named after the departed. But positively not named after one while one is alive. You, my dear son Ely, are named after your father’s father. His Hebrew name was Eliyahu. And you, Joseph Daniel, are named after one of my cousins, Daniel, and your father’s uncle. The object to name after one is dead is to restore one’s name forever. We have several Minnies in our family named after our dear old beloved great grandmother.
And so the curtains fell and closed the most interesting life’s drama. Where a most noble character played the principle part in it. She was one hundred and eight when she departed.
As we have that old saying, the dead must be forgotten and the world continue marching on.
My dear old grandfather remained in the house where he was born, as he stayed with his mother until her death.
He also ran his house courteously and unselfishly. His house was open for all needy ones.
I believe that I have told you above that his mother’s home was in a village and there were plenty of passers by, most of them peddlers who used to leave their homes in nearby towns on Monday and return to their homes and family on Friday for the Sabbath. And during weekdays (or nights, rather) they slept in inns or in hospitable homes where there were friendly hosts who gave them shelter and comfort in their homes.
I remember while visiting there at times, that my grandfather gave up his bed and pillow to visitors. The evening and breakfast meals were gladly furnished.
I cannot say that the frequent visitors were absolutely without benefit to the host and family. I mean the fun and liveliness it brought in a lonely village home. The coming of strangers broke the lonely and monotonous country life. The evening meal went on in a very lively manner.
Sitting around the long homemade table, on long benches, the table covered with a homespun and woven tablecloth, spoons for everyday use were wooden ones, but were kept very clean. They were scrubbed with hay and sand and washed with hot water, and were put to dry and bleach against the sun. Bread had been baked at home, from meal where the corn grain had been ground in a hand mill where the grain had been ground between two round stones, or a so-called at that time modern windmill. Meats, they would have mostly of their own raised cattle or chickens which they had to take to a city to have it killed by a rabbi according to the Jewish law, fresh potatoes from their own garden, honey or molasses. All of those things decorated a very cheerful table. The family were amused by the visitors as they told them comical incidents that happened to them, jokes or discussions in general. Some of them could sing as a cantor, and when one sang, all joined in a choir. And all of this created a holiday spirit.
My grandfather also had the community worship in his home. The Torah in the ark was in a room that was never used except for worship as a synagogue.
There were several Jewish families scattered in nearby places. I used to love to be with my grandparents for the holidays. There was a holy spiritual atmosphere, with soul pleasing rejoicing. As I have mentioned before, the place of the community worship was located in my grandfather’s house. So on the mornings of Jewish holidays, the men would gather here for the morning prayers. After the prayers were over, refreshments were served. Then they went home.
The afternoon was the time for the young folks to take in the fun in their own way. All goodies were prepared in the neighboring Jewish homes. There were about six Jewish families. They all had grown sons and daughters, so we all got together and we visited nearby neighbors. We had to walk two or three American miles, but walking was fun, with a jolly crowd of young people passing the time joking and having running contests. In some places there were small creeks to cross, so then it gave the boys their chance to show their heroism. They had to remove their shoes, roll up their trousers, and carry the blushing girls on their backs across the water. Sometimes it happened that one while jumping across with his beloved burden on his back, both fell into the water. But even that created fun and laughter.
We always received a warm welcome at all the homes we visited. I can still taste all the good things there were to eat made out of homemade cheese, cream and butter, a sort of cheese pie and the best coffee rolls, cakes and other things it is hard to remember and describe. We spent our time in dancing, playing games and eating. Each holiday had its traditional food and games.
Suppose it was Passover. We ate matza and all other things being made out of matza meal. And the games were played with walnuts. Six in each one’s plate. One started by taking five out of her or his plate and put one of each other player’s plate. When one struck an even number in placing the last nut, he won the pile. There was another way of playing with walnuts.
Each one would put one nut on the floor, beginning at the doorsill lengthwise into the room. Then they rolled a small iron ball against the nuts. If one struck the second nut he won two nuts. If the third three nuts if one hit the last nut he took all the nuts on the floor.
The holiday of Purim is a special Jewish holiday when the Jewish people are celebrating the victory over Haman by Mordechai and his niece the queen Esther and all the Jewish Nation.
At this holiday the Jewish people used to send presents to the poor, and exchange presents with one another. While I am writing about Purim, I am thinking of the history behind it when Haman had made complaints to the king about the Jewish people. He claimed they had too many holidays. At that time God said, "You, Haman, it will not be very long to wait and my people will have another holiday to celebrate. It will be called Purim. The Jewish people will be celebrating your downfall." I am just wondering what we will call the next holiday when our suffering people will get to celebrate the downfall of the world’s greatest enemy Hitler. But what is in a name. I only wish for this great hope to be realized very soon, amen.
The holiday Hanukah commemorates the time of the Maccabees and their victory over the mighty king of Syria Antiochus Epiphanies. Mattathias, an old man but with great love for his god, his nation and Jerusalem, his homeland, where the Jewish Temple was located, with his five sons and a few faithful Jewish young men, all were ready to sacrifice their lives to protect the Jewish Temple and religion. With a prayer on their lips and faith to God in Heaven, they met the strong Syrian army and they were victorious. Candles were lit in all the Jewish homes in Jerusalem, illuminating for receiving the homecoming heroes. So on Hannukah we light candles for eight days. The first day we light one, the next day two, and so on until the eighth candle was lit.
The children attended school for just half a day. I remember the children in their half day’s vacation used to make a form out of wood (or carve, rather) and pour hot tin in it. It came out sort of a spinner, something like a top. With the Hebrew initials N.G.H.S. which mean "a great miracle happened there. "
The children passed their time during those days in spinning for buttons or pennies. (The other was not too often, as the children did not have too many pennies.) We also visited friends, and special dishes were served, pancakes made out of potatoes and meal. That was one of the dishes that I can remember. Perhaps at that time it was a luxurious dish, and gifts were given to the rabbis and to the poor.
Succot (or Succas) is the feast of harvest. When the Jewish people while in their homeland took in their crops, their figs and oranges and grapes. Then they rested.
A room was erected especially for this holiday. The room was called Succa. The roof was covered with holly. The walls were decorated with fruit, like pretty red apples, pears, bunches of grapes and fresh bunches of cherries. With that green holly roof it made a beautiful room.
During the eight days of Succas the family and guests ate in the Succa. The table was set with the very best one possessed. On the way home from the synagogue, men always brought along men guests. (I say men, because women are exempted from attending services as often as men because their duties as wife and mother were considered as even greater indeed as to attend the synagogue. Perhaps it was for their own benefit, the men, I mean. This way they found an excellent meal coming home with their guests.) As it always has been, Mother Eva prepared and her Adam ate it,
Well, the men guests were invited for refreshments that were served in the succa. The last day of Succas was called Simchas Torah. Men were supposed to have finished reading the five books of Moses and they felt that they had a right to be merry. Drunkenness was not a habit among the Jewish people. However on that day, men allowed themselves to take a drink or two. Naturally with the different cakes that were brought by the women. Children with flags and burning candles attached would march around the bima singing prayers to God in Hebrew, thanking him for all He had given us.
On that afternoon, the wife of the synagogue president had tables set right in the synagogue, with fine tablecloths, refreshments on silver trays and young girls dressed in their very best came to the synagogue. They opened the ark with reverence and with fear, and read a prayer that was especially composed for that occasion. Afterwards they sat at the table, enjoyed refreshments and then went to make room for others, a sort of open house. And so it ended the beautiful holiday Succas.
The holiday of Shavuoth comes in the early part of June. It is the celebration to commemorate the receiving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. It is a two day holiday. It was observed by attending services at the synagogue, reading in the Torah, and the holiday spirit with good food, good homemade bread, fish, and chicken noodle soup, cakes and so on. At that time it was considered a luxury to eat white bread or chicken or a piece of cake. A joke was among the people, when they saw one buying a white roll or cake, they asked who was sick.
Many of the Jewish women had to make a strenuous effort to buy better food for the Sabbath or holidays. However the poor as well as the rich forget their everyday worries on these days. They completely dedicated themselves to serve God with prayers and a complete rest.
Young girls and boys had their fun on that day by taking walks in the woods or assembled somewhere in a home where they danced, played games or just dreamed. Just about the moon and the stars. And perhaps it slipped unknown to themselves, but well known to all, silent eye language that tells more than words among young people.
Well, I see that I am far away from my story about my grandparents, so I am returning back to them.
My grandfather was not a rich man but they lived comfortably. They owned some land where they raised corn, oats and hay and they also had a lovely garden where they had potatoes, onions, carrots, radishes and so many other vegetables that I can not think of right now. They had two or three milk cows, a good horse, a large number of chickens, and then he used to buy eggs and all kinds of grains like corn, wheat, oats and another kind of grain that I would not know how to call it here. It was used for making grits or meal. For all of this my grandfather owned a sort of storage house. Inside it was arranged in compartments to keep the different grains separated.
My grandfather was a very religious man. I remember he used to get out of bed about three o’clock in the morning and wash his hands and face as one must not touch a Bible or food before washing. The he would study the Bible, the books of the prophets, or one of the wise men which teaches law, cleanliness, morals, honesty and even the moral side of family life. When he grew older and being tired from a hard day’s work, it was hard for him to get up at that early hour of the night. I remember him murmuring to himself that he was so awfully tired to get up. But suddenly he would jump out of bed and say to himself, "No, I shall not be too lazy to serve the Lord. I must run and feel like a young deer, and learn the Lord’s words."
Soon he was clad, and soon his voice was heard with the specifically Talmudic melody. First came the Psalms by King David. Then he studied Talmud, which includes law, morals, and the art of living. About five in the morning he would do his morning prayers, then feed his horse, cows and chickens, and then he ate breakfast, as there is a saying somewhere in our moral teachings that one must first feed his livestock as they cannot ask for food, nor can they help themselves. Then off for the day’s work. He would also recite Psalms by heart while driving, as most Jewish men memorized the book of Psalms.
What a glorious time it was at that period of time for the suffering and persecuted Jewish people. The faith and hope in God in heaven helped them to bear the evil that had been done to them, and it is still continuing to this day. Quotations of Psalms has been, and is the expression of complaints and at the same time hope that the day will come that he will answer their prayers. The Jews believed that whatever happened to him was God’s will to it, and they always thanked Him. A sarcastic saying was among the more skeptical people that if a Jew breaks a leg or an arm, he is thanking the Lord for not breaking the other leg or arm. So in their greatest sorrows they found happiness in their faith.
My grandfather was considered a good businessman. He was honest in dealing with people. He knew how to buy goods and how to sell. The gentiles called him Rabbi, and they highly respected him.
My grandmother’s name was Zepha. She was a very good looking woman in her young days. Her father was a rabbi and a very wise man. People came to him for advice in problems they could not solve themselves.
I am not familiar in which way they have met. But I know they were a loving couple. I remember him watching her like a mother over her only child. When her eyesight failed her, he sewed on buttons on his clothes and on hers too. Several times during the night he would come to her bed to see if she was covered, and so many other things that showed his devotion to her. And also she, my grandmother, would always be a devoted partner to him in everything that came along in life.
In America young people usually arrange their own love affairs, and I can say that most of them are experts on that. But at that time in Russia, the girls were timid and they had to meet the young man through a professional matchmaker who had a list of the young people in the surrounding villages and towns. As most of the little towns were about two or three Russian miles apart, that would be about fourteen to twenty-seven American miles. Without railroad connections, these matchmakers kept lists of girls, boys and widows, in what social standing, how much money they had, how good looking they were, and how much education they possessed, and according to his understanding he matched them up. But sometimes there were terribly unequally mated, especially it was the case with the poor intelligent young men (I mean the boys who had spent their lives in the Talmudical schools). They were seeking a start in life, and the name and protection of a rich man. So it happened that when a wealthy man was blessed with a daughter who was homely, stupid and not attractive in any way, the father just had to visit the Talmudical School and investigate for one of the brightest young men. Then he made the bargain with him for two or three year’s room and board, and sometimes the father would take such a boy into his business. Some of these young men became great rabbis or great businessmen.
However, they remained with their wives whom they had never loved.
Among the Russian peasants, they had their own way of matchmaking. It was this way: At a certain time of the year, I believe it usually occurred between Christmas and New Y ears. Now, if a young man had an eye on a certain young lady, he would ask a friend to his aid to become his matchmaker. Both dressed in gay colored clothes, hand-knitted long hanging shawls and sashes in the brightest mixed colors, with long shiny boots. Then they dressed a pair of horses with fancy outfits, shiny bells around the harness, a comfortable sleigh and a warm cover.
With a force they would drive in the yard of the intended farmhouse. Soon a shrill barking of the farmer’s dogs was heard. And in the homes where there were young girls, visitors of that kind were expected.
No! They did not ring the doorbells nor did they knock. They came right in and heavily shook hands and became friends.
The purpose of their visit was well understood. And soon out came home brew, vodka (whisky), homemade sauerkraut, ham, homemade rye, bread, fruit which they raised in their orchards. The bride-to-be was all dressed up in a red or combined bright colors out of homespun and woven wool material dress. Her light flaxen hair was parted in the middle, with two long braids hanging down usually below her waistline. On her feet she would wear sandals which they made at home out of unfinished leather in which they punched holes in long strips of leather and strung some strings in it which helped to keep them on their feet. And believe me, they were pictures of health with natural rosy cheeks and strong muscles.
All of them together ate and drank to capacity, and in that way they closed the holy deal of matrimony. An everlasting deal, as there were no divorces as the majority of them were Catholics.
I have a funny habit of always getting off the subject, so I will return to my beloved grandparents with whom I used to love to spend most of my time. As it was so beautiful there in the summer and so much contentment in the winters. When their daughters were all married and away, I was a very welcome guest over there.
I remember that I took sick once while being there, and when my mother found out she walked about two Russian miles, that is about 28 American miles. I was so sick that time with a high fever that all of my hair fell out. There were no doctors in the vicinity, so I was left to the care of my mother with her home remedies and to the faith in the Lord above. And thanks to God and my mother I got well and am still here to tell you all of this. But miracles don’t always happen. An eighteen-year-old son of my grandparents took sick. That was several years before I did. I believe he had typhoid fever. They believed over there in the country that it was not good to drink water for one who was sick with fever. So the poor boy was an unfortunate victim of ignorance.
When in a burning fever he got out of bed at night to seek water, he dropped dead. Many of the people of that period lost their lives before their time. In my time there was one doctor in my town. He was an old man when I was still a child. He was considered one of the best doctors in the State. He was a rich landowner and a very kindhearted man. In most cases he did not charge at all, and even furnished his own medicine. And there where he charged for his visit, it was no more than fifteen to twenty-five kopeks (or cents) but he never asked for it. It was put into his hand in a way as they would be giving it to him as a donation. And they did not want to hurt his pride.
He had a daughter who was a hunchback. She was small in size, but with a great heart. She never married. She dedicated her time and efforts to her father and to the needy. She was a university graduate, and like her father a doctor and a chemist. She worked hand in hand with her great father. She used to visit the poor sick, just as a friend and bring them the food which they had to have and comfort them in many ways. She was awfully fond of babies.
Many times she took the poor sick babies in her home and nursed them back to health.
This doctor and his daughter used to visit the sick in the little villages in his horse and buggy or sleigh, but not every sick person was fortunate enough to get him when one needed a doctor because the doctor would be somewhere in another direction of two miles away and that was quite a distance. However the people, not knowing any better, they were happy in their belief that if God wanted one to get well, there could happen a miracle and a positive cure would some way come from the heavens.
Back to my grandparents. They had their youngest son Jacob, the one I have told you is still in Lithuania. He is about my age. When he was born in that little village, he was brought into this world by an ordinary peasant woman, not by a doctor. So it happened that the birth of this child was not recorded, unknown to him and his parents. I am sure that you all know that all young men at the age of twenty-one were drafted for the army if physically qualified. Notification was being sent to those that the government books had shown that their time had come.
When Jacob reached that said age and did not receive a notice to report, he was sure that he was exempted, because he was the only single son who was living with his old parents, and supported them. But when the next year he still was not called, then he reported himself voluntarily.
As he was tall and strong, he was found qualified for the army. He was placed in the cavalry. They were called Draguner, or dragons. He was sent with his regiment to Siberia and he served four years.
However that did not quiet the judiciary of that time’s Russian government. They had put a three hundred ruble fine on my poor grandfather. Every now and then an officer would come and confiscate the few household goods like wooden homemade tables, benches, cooking vessels and so on.
I remember once while I was there, such officers came to my grandparents and started their noble work. A young girl cousin of mine was there at that time. She invited them to the table. Vodka, homemade whole wheat bread and herring was served. Our guests forgot their duties. They absorbed the quart bottle of vodka, and they left not knowing what they came for. I could prove in many ways the injustice and corruption in the old Russian government.
Well, I think this is about as much as I know that could be of any special interest about the lives of my grandparents. It seems to me that I have heard that my grandfather became paralyzed and my grandmother became blind. Their lives ended with the beginning of the World War.
As much as I know of my mother’s childhood is that she was very pretty and industrious. She kept house for the family, she served and washed for them, and she helped her father in his business.
My father was a teacher of religion and worldly knowledge there. He taught the children of the surrounding Jewish families. He had room and board with my grandparents. He taught their children, including my mother. As you see, it was quite natural for them to fall in love. My mother was the oldest of the children, and as I have said above my mother was a very good looking and attractive girl. She was tall and slender, fair smooth complexion, normal delicate features, black curly hair and blue eyes. She was very pleasant and had good common sense, a good manager with a fair education. As in that period of time, so many people in Russia were illiterate. There were no public schools and not every father in the country could keep a teacher for his children.
After my parents married they lived with my grandparents for a certain length of time, and things went on like before. My father went on teaching the community children and my mother took care of the household.
Before I go on with the further developments of my parents’ live, I must give you a short outline of the life of my father and his family. I think it is necessary to know the family of my father and the way they had arranged his life for the future.
My father was born in a city called Zager, several miles away from our city in a state in which most of the people spoke German. It belonged to Russia at that time.
My father came from a rabbinical family. His father and father’s father were rabbis.
At that time the greatest wish of parents was to see their son a rabbi, to learn and study the philosophy of religion and all the knowledge required to become a rabbi and leader amongst the Jewish people.
So at the age of five a boy was sent to a religious school (cheider) where the child spent his youth from seven in the morning till eight at night. And when older, the boys were sent to a Yeshivo (rabbinical school) where great rabbis supervised them and they adapted the character, morality and ability of leadership.
The practical part of life, however, was strange to them, as their minds and thoughts were filled with the mysterious affairs of the heavens.
And so my father was brought up spending his youth in the cheider rooms (Hebrew School) and Yeshivo (Hebrew college) from eight in the morning till eight at night. So you can understand that he had no time to even observe the business world.
One of my father’s brothers was a schochet and teacher in a Jewish congregation . So once it happened that while he was to kill a large ox, the animal kicked him in the chest and killed my uncle instantly. I am sure his life could have been spared if they had modern improved slaughter houses as we have here in America.
A sister of my father was married to a very wealthy man. I have never known them. But I have met her two daughters. They live in Brooklyn, New York. One of them was married to a cantor. She was very beautiful at the time when I saw her about twenty-five years ago in Brooklyn, New York. Her name was Mary Wolosaf. The other daughter of my late aunt was also in Brooklyn and was married to a small businessman.
My father’s father was dead when my father married my mother. My father’s mother came to visit us when I was still a child and I barely remember her. I do not know anything of her life and habits.
Oh yes! My father had also a brother who lived in Dublin, Ireland. He was a rabbi.
I corresponded with him for several years. My uncle and one of his daughters were to visit us in Little Rock. But I lost trace of them during the Irish British Revolution.
Now back to my parents. After they were with my grandparents a few weeks, my ambitious and energetic grandfather decided that there was no future for my father to remain a Hebrew teacher. It was a poor man’s profession, he stated.
So, he talked my father into starting the business of buying and selling.
So my grandfather gave a horse and wagon and a sum of money to my father and told him to start out for himself on his own hook, as they say, and to take good care of his horse.
That was not so easy for one like my father who, as I have told you above, only knew how to deal with heavenly affairs. I am sure he did not know how to care for a horse, as my father himself used to tell in a humorous was years later, that he fed his horse oats out of the palm of his hand, and hay he measured with a bucket (he must have been afraid to overfeed the poor animal and would suffer from an overloaded stomach and indigestion). One morning he found his horse dead. The poor thing simply starved to death.
I do not know how my father had made out with his business. I don’t remember him talking about it. I am sure, however, that he was not successful because he went back to teaching and remained a teacher for the rest of his life.
You may think that I am exaggerating when you will read all about what I will tell, about my father. But I have promised myself to tell all I know and nothing but the truth.
My father was a very talented man. He could design and draw patterns for embroidering. I remember that the girls from our town used to come to my father for designs for their embroidery work, and he did that very artistically. There were no ready patterns for stamping in little towns like ours. He could do the prettiest wood carving. I remember that he carved a plateau that represented the front of the Hebrew Temple of King Solomon’s time, in Jerusalem. I am sure it would be considered a masterpiece by those who knew to judge art. He could design patterns for dresses with taste and chic. Many of times he designed patterns for dressmakers. He could paint very colorful paintings of landscapes, trees, animals and many other things.
He could cut designs in tombstones by hand with a sharp steel instrument. I remember that during the time between seasons of spring and fall, and fall and spring there was a vacation for the schools. At that time my father used to sit on a little low stool. He wore large eyeglasses to protect his eyes form stone splinters, and with a small steel instrument he engraved inscriptions and it was perfect. He then painted the whole stone black, and then he gilded the letters with gold. It surely was one effective piece of work and for all of this he would get five to seven rubles. He usually made three of them in between seasons. The extra money was very much needed.
I remember we were a family of seven, and the income was so blooming little. My father was considered one of the best teachers. Besides teaching the Hebrew knowledge, he also taught worldly knowledge, Russian, German, mathematics, and so on. He taught a child for a five month season for from five to ten rubles. Those who paid ten were children in advanced classes and of more wealthy parents. The majority paid five. Many of them were so poor that they were not able to pay even that miserable sum. For those children, tuitions were paid by the Jewish Community, as every Jew has an obligation to fulfill to pay to an educational fund which was called Talmud Torah (the teachings of the Torah) to the children of Israel.
In a little town as we lived in, they could count the number of school age children on their fingers, so you know what a struggle a poor teacher had. The most my father ever could earn in a five-month season was about a hundred twenty five rubles. Seven of us had to live five months on that miserable sum. We could allow ourselves very little luxuries. But we were healthy, with natural rosy cheeks and good stomachs. I suppose the simplest way of living is the healthiest.
I am not through telling you all the qualities of my father. He could fix a watch or clock. He could cut men’s hair. He got five kopeks (five cents) per head.
His personality, ability and his knowledge in Talmud made him suitable to lead a community in prayers and worship. So during the holidays of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah he would be the official representative between the community and God above. He was a cantor. His hearty and pleasing voice appealed and impressed the worshippers and inspired them for true confessions and prayers. He also blew the trumpet (shofar). In fact, he was combined with all religious affairs. He also had a tendency of writing articles, and he wrote short stories and articles in papers and magazines very successfully (in Hebrew).
However, nobody and nothing can be completely faultless, and as I have promised to tell all of what I know and the truth. So: I must tell you also the faults of my father. Namely he had a terrible temper. His temper would often go to the extreme and breaking dishes or throwing chairs were not excluded. He did not spare anybody. It may have been the king, as they say. If there was anything he had to tell or give his opinion, even if it was the opposite of what others thought, as long as he felt that he was right. The least wrong of man would make him extremely nervous. I have one excuse for him: the strenuous work he did. To be confined in a small classroom and to have to control a large number of children of different dispositions kept his nerves in a strenuous mood. And because of all of this my mother was not very happy in her marriage. She was a calm and straight thinking person. She was far from being happy as she never knew when his angry outburst would happen. Yet she loved him sincerely and admired him.
We as children knew his word had to be obeyed, as a command. He would punish us for the least wrong we did. However we admired him. We were very sure that he was always right and