By Bernard Gershon Richards
(Reprinted by permission of Paula Eisenstein Baker, Houston)
Bernard Gershon Richards (1877-1971), U.S- journalist, widely active in Jewish affairs. Born Dov-Gershon Rabinovich in Keidan (Kėdainiai), Lithuania, Richards was taken to the U.S. in 1886. He began his journalistic career as a reporter on the Boston Post, and wrote for several Boston and New York papers, as well as for Yiddish and other Jewish journals, including The American Hebrew and The New Palestine. He also edited the magazine New Era. From 1906 to 1911 Richards served as secretary of the Jewish Community of New York City, an organization designed to further the cause of Judaism, and in 1915 helped found the American Jewish Congress, of which he was executive director until 1932. At the end of World War I he was a member of the American Jewish delegation to the Versailles Peace Conference. He also founded the Jewish Information Bureau of Greater New York (1932) and the American Jewish Institute, N.Y. (1942) to further adult education. He was director of both these institutions. He was also a member of the Zionist Organization of America, and his revised edition of I. Cohen’s The Zionist Movement (1946) included a supplementary chapter of his own on Zionism in the U.S. His other books were The Discourses of Keidansky (1903), and Organizing American Jewry (1947). His papers are in the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, N.Y. (Encyclopedia Judaica)
My first childhood recollections go back to early mornings in my grandfather’s house at the end of Smilger Gas in the Lithuanian town of Keidan. I remember fearfully cold mornings when the windows were covered with ornate designs wrought by the frost, allowing but little daylight to enter the dim stoob 1, or living room. It was lit up only by a smoky kerosene lamp, sometimes augmented by candles and burning balonas, or faggots, stuck into crevices of the huge brick oven. I recall the crunching of the snow and ice under the creaking wheels of the peasant wagons passing our front door on their way to the market to dispose of their products. After a while the blazing fire in the stove would add illumination and warmth and cheer to the room.
My maternal grandfather, Yakov Herz Sirk – everybody called him Herz Yankel – usually rose with the first signs of dawn. Often he got up ahead of the dawn. “I work fast, I eat fast, I sleep fast,” he would say. He loved company and conversation so much that whichever grandson was staying with him at the time was roused from his sleep soon after the fire was lighted and the morning activities begun. His method of waking the household was to walk through all the rooms and call out, “Get up, kinder – it’s six, seven, eight, nine o’clock! Get up, kinder.” Or he would announce to my grandmother that it was high time to get up and start household affairs going because “der betler is schein in zibetn dorf! (the itinerant beggar has already reached his seventh village!).”
For the visiting little grandson to climb down from the high warm sleeping perch built into the oven, to dress and wash and hurry through the morning prayers, the incentive was the privilege of participating in all the early household operations. There was wood chopping, there were odd repair jobs around the house, butter churning, preparations for cheese making, to say nothing of feeding the cow and the chickens and perhaps a goose or a couple of ducks. If the domestic animals – including the all-wise Spitzka, the dog – had been increased in numbers by the arrival of a new-born calf, then the barn back of the house was the special center of attraction.
My grandfather was not satisfied with the regular arrangement for the pasture of his cow in summertime. A Polish peasant boy would come every morning, assemble all the “Jewish cows” from our street in a vacant field, and then drive them all to a field “up the hill,” a distant and nebulous spot. At the close of the day the boy would bring them back to the border of the town: then, ready to be milked and fed, the animals would come plodding through the streets and find their respective homes and barns. My grandfather, however, must needs get in an hour of pre-official pasture. When it was still dark he would take the cow out and give her a special treat of some high, sweet, luscious grass, in a spot near the town that only he knew how to find.
In all the household chores, multiplied by the restless energy of my grandfather, the six-or seven-year old grandson somehow was credited with making practical suggestions and thus was prematurely promoted to chief assistant and advisor. In this elevation he undoubtedly found compensation for the minor status bestowed upon him by two elder brothers, who always played more vigorously, fought harder, ran faster, and swam better than he did.
My grandfather’s intrusions and improvisations in the housekeeping tasks of the family were largely actuated, aside from the need of letting out his surplus energy, by the special interests of the domestic animals. Whether handling cereals, cutting bread, or preparing vegetables or fruits for cooking, he would so manage as to leave behind sufficient surplus or waste to benefit beast or fowl. My grandmother Reva, rising much later than her husband, would be horrified to find several pots filled with peeled potatoes, beets, mound of peelings so thick and lavish as to redound only to the advantages of the livestock. Then too, as the amount of vegetables prepared was far above the immediate needs of the family, the animals would benefit some more. Grandmother would scold in her mild, restrained manner. Grandfather would explain and apologize. But he remained incorrigible, just as he never ceased being proud and boastful among his nighbors of the fine, sleek appearance of his animals. As for the exploits of Spitzka, faithful guardian of the home, protector of the chickens and the ducks, the children and the grandchildren – Spitzka, who one dark night returned from a distance of over fifty miles, after having been sold, for a sum much needed by the family, to a dog-fancying poritz, or landowner – how could one stop talking about Spitzka?
My grandfather’s home, where I spent so much of my childhood, is more familiar to me than the successive domiciles of my parents. Grandfather’s house, built of logs partially covered with boards in the primitive manner of the time, was the last but one on the street named after the river Smilga and paralleling its winding course. In the rear of the houses were truck gardens extending to the river’s bank. This was the lower end of the town. The last house on the street, also built of logs, with a straw-thatched roof, belonged to my grandmother’s brother, Baruch Kamber, whose family hailed from a dorf, or farm settlement, not far from Keidan, called Kaneberaz2. The road at the end of the street, passing the soldier’s barracks and stables on the right and the drill grounds on the left, led to the open country with fields and woods on all sides.
A quarter of a mile above the town was the bridge that crossed the deep, wide Navyaza3 River, into which the Smilga flowed. Farther away, about four miles from the town in the other direction, was the railroad station, a place of special wonder to the children, who would occasionally be taken there.
The arrival of the train, pulled by a bellowing and clanging engine, the ceremonial waving by the flagman to hold back all bystanders, the formal salute of the stationmaster to the conductors in their military-style uniforms as they alighted from the cars and in most resounding Russian announced the name of the station and the length of the stop, the emotional meetings between arriving passengers and their friends, the frantic farewells as the loud bell over the engine signaled imminent departure – this was enough thrilled excitement to last a young lifetime.
The railroad was of course our chief means of communication and contact with the great world outside, or at least with the large cities of Russia, which then held Lithuania as well as Poland under its domination. Beyond were far-off marvelous cities and lands about which we children spun our fancies, drawing upon tales we heard from our elders about Germany, France, England, and, above all, miraculous America, to which a good number of natives had betaken themselves and from which they sent letters describing incredible happenings.
Down the open road, which connected with the outlying farm settlements of Lithuanian and Polish peasants, came all the traffic from those sections. The farmers, with their crude wooden wagons heavily loaded and drawn by stalwart country horses, wended their way up Smilger Gas to the center of the town and the main market place.
It was the practice of the small traders and brokers, the hendlers and meklers of Keidan, to converge on this street and walk down the road as far as the bridge in the early morning of the market. Accosting the incoming farmers, they would start negotiations with them while in transit. “What have you to sell?” was the usual question: “Zo mas pseditz?” in Polish, “Ko turo pardot?” in the more difficult Lithuanian.
If the two parties hit it off, or if they knew each other from previous dealings, the peasant would invite the prospective purchaser or agent to jump on the wagon and take a seat beside him. They would continue their discussion as they rode on together toward the center of the town. The subject of their bargaining might be several bushels of wheat or corn,4 or a few bags of potatoes, or some pairs of ducks or chickens contained in a covered basket in the back of the wagon. If a price was agreed upon, the trader would ride with his host into the town, looking proud of his capture of business. In less favorable circumstances the trader would walk along beside the farmer’s wagon until his final offer was either accepted or rejected.
Some of these hendlers and meklers were old colleagues and cronies of my grandfather, and his warm and always hospitable house at the foot of the street, in the path of their pursuit of trade, offered a welcome retreat on stormy and bitterly cold winter days. These early morning visitors would be asked to join us at the frugal breakfast table and offered some hot tea or coffee with perhaps a bagel or a slice of challah. After hours of exposure to the raw and biting Russian frost this was a most grateful opportunity to warm up and relax for a few minutes.
Above this bleak existence of uncertainty and privation as I now recall it, over this sordid haggling and bargaining, rose a gleam of hope for those harried people, beckoning like a rainbow of promise – from far-off America. To that land of mystery and wonder some of our younger neighbors and friends had emigrated, traveling singly in advance of their families. Some of the older and less adventurous denizens of our town had sent their sons to explore the new country. These husbands and sons soon sent rosy reports and remittances that served not only to raise the spirits of their families but to keep the Russian wolf from the door.
During their fleeting moments of rest the motley and weary chasers after the perambulating market would stop to dilate on their news from the distant and incredible land. Not the least quaint feature of these conversations was the naming of the various centers of population in the New World from which letters and messages and money had been received. Outside of New York and Brooklyn, cities less known, like Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, were bewildering appellations. Philadelphia was called “the Second America,” Boston “the Third,” Baltimore “the Fourth”; and any new city discovered was given a higher number, until perhaps Chicago became “the Sixteenth America.”
Reflecting upon episodes of those distant days I recall, more distinctly than other incidents in my boyhood, not the turmoil attending my arrival in America – with the excitement of entering Castle Garden and being taken on another long journey to a place called Brooklyn – but my return from the United States to my native town of Keidan. Then I had the thrill of being hailed as “an American boy,” a strange phenomenon who was followed and admired for months, and whose unfamiliar English speech was listened to with wide-eyed awe and wonder.
Like most immigrants of that time before the turn of the century, my father had sailed for America ahead of the family with the expectation, which all those doughty explorers shared, of sending for their wives and children a year or two later, after securing an economic foothold. But my father did rather better, or worse. He had proceeded to the New World with the eldest of three boys, and he sent for the rest of the family after a little less than a year, long before he was well enough established in his small dry-goods business.
My mother’s retiring nature and almost morbid dread of change and excitement, her rustic small-town habits of life, her utter inability to adjust herself to the bustle and rush of New York existence – even in those calmer days – served to aggravate a situation which was much more difficult and complicated than the average problem of adaptation to a new, bewildering environment. After prolonged discussion in the family circle and consultations with landsleit over a period of more than a year, it was decided that my mother and the two younger children – myself, aged eight, and a younger sister, of seven – would return to the home country to live with our grandparents in Keidan. Since the old folks had their own home, with some small means of subsistence, it seemed best that we stay with them for a year or two, or until such time as my father should be more firmly settled in the new land.
Traveling back to Europe we experienced anew all the hardships, perplexities, and mishaps of steerage passengers. Then the long train journey through Germany, from Hamburg to Kovno, with many changes, stopovers, and losses of baggage, caused my mother such anxiety and anguish that she was driven to distraction. Whatever luggage was left, after most of it had been lost or stolen on the way, was taken in charge by pretended travel agents or guides who offered to befriend us in the name of some society. They managed to take us across the frontier all right, but they never came back with the bags and satchels of clothes they had promised to deliver. We were pushed and hustled into another train before we could ask questions. At the station, two miles out of Keidan, we arrived with only one traveling basket of belongings. But we wore American clothes, and that was enough to attract attention.
No sooner had the crude wooden wagon that served as a droshke driven up to our grandfather’s house than we became the cynosure of all eyes. All the neighbors of Smilger Gas flocked to the end of the street and surrounded the house to catch a glimpse of the new arrivals from the far-off land of wonder. Those who were not invited, or could not be accommodated indoors, shamelessly stared in through the low windows of the small house to see the guests from abroad. All day long, people went back and forth, peeping, tiptoeting, expostulating and chattering about the Americans who had come to Keidan, and especially about the “American children.”
After a day or two the hubbub subsided. No longer afraid of the advances of the curiosity-seekers, my sister and I at length ventured out of doors to renew our acquaintance with the street, the things around the house, the vegetable patches in back of the row of houses. These sloping grounds, when cleared of their harvests, were trampled on by the youngsters of the neighborhood for a direct route to the pebbly and purling river running below. But instead of their usual frolic and play at the riverside, the children persisted in following tbe two young Amerikaner around, plying them with questions, and above all straining their ears to hear the strange, outlandish American language they spoke.
Whether, pathetically enough, we were striving to retain our knowledge of the few precious English words we had brought from the marvelous land whence we had been ruthlessly torn, or whether we sought, childlike, to show off our accomplishments, we did lapse into English, such as it was, every now and then, and our former playmates listened spellbound. How pitifully limited that vocabulary was, how halting the speech, how hopelessly intermixed it was with Yiddish expressions (it may have been only Americanized Yiddish), there was no one present to determine. Nor did anyone within our hearing know that, while I had attended public school in Brooklyn for several weeks, my sister had had no such advantage and had picked up the few words she knew from hearing them pronounced, or rather mispronounced, at home or on the street. Yet our conversations in the unknown tongue were listened to by young and old with intense interest and admiration.
There was one red-letter day which may well have been entered in the pinkas, the official register of the community, among the records of expanding relations, transactions, and communications between obscure Keidan and the grand New World beyond the seas. That day a full-fledged “American,” an adult native who had returned, walked up the road with our little man. Both displayed their American attire, and both conversed in the outlandish but fascinating language. Getzel Glusonock, back from the United States after a sojourn of four years, may have wished only to question the boy about where he had lived there, and at the same time perhaps indulge in a little practice in the baffling and fast-slipping language. Whatever his motive, he surely was not conscious of the sensation he was to create.
It was on a Saturday afternoon, when many of the burghers with their families were out for their Sabbath walk, wending their way up the road at the end of town that led to the highway, the railroad station, and the great world beyond. Some boisterous and romping youngsters had passed the word, “They are talking English!” There was a rush of old and young to follow them closely, to overhear their talk, so that the conversationalists were plainly disconcerted by the eager intruders. Nevertheless, Mr. Glusonock was too proud of his knowledge to quail before the distraction of many eyes and ears. So the dialogue, meager and monosyllabic though it was, went on until the enthusiastic pursuers grew weary of hearing sounds whose meaning they did not understand, and the cluster of people gradually fell away. Walking back, my fellow American and I reached the Smilger Gas and parted.
As far as hazy memory can produce, our talk proceeded something like this:
“How long you in America?”
“Two years nearly.”
“Where you live?”
“You go to school?”
“Yes, four weeks.”
“I no remember.”
“You like America?”
“Why you come back?”
“My mother no like.”
“Oh. Here you like to stay?”
“Am glad to see my bobe and zaide.”
“You going back to America, bye and bye?”
“Sure when I grow big.”
After this encounter, Mr. Glusonock often noticed and spoke to me on the street. It was always; “Well, how you getting along here? When you go back to America?”
I would answer in a vague and general manner, not being able to announce any family plans. But it was always enough of an incomprehensible conversation to make any bystanders prick up their ears and listen. After a while, however, these salutations became less frequent, and the English words and sounds and names gradually faded and became obliterated from memory, just as my American kapelush (blocked hat), my jacket, knickers, and shoes grew discolored and dilapidated.
My heart sank as these outward insignia of the new life abroad were gradually discarded. I donned long pants with the bottoms shoved into high boots, put on a Russian shirt and longish coat and a cap with shining black visor, after the fashion of Keidan. I was no longer an American.
I was soon indistinguishable from the forty-odd other little boys of similar appearance with whom I sat at the long tables of the cheder (Hebrew school), reciting the Bible lessons in singsong and plaintive melody, and there was hardly any trace left of former distinction among these pupils and playmates. It was five years before I was shipped back, as a lone boy passenger, to the United States; and it took much longer for the other members of my family to return to the New World.
In our family’s difficult situation, incident to the struggle for existence in a small town like Keidan, without industry and with a minimum of commerce, we children were continually being farmed out one or two at a time, to our maternal grandparents. After all, in their house at the end of the town they had plenty of room; they had milk from their own cow, and fruits and vegetables were obtainable from all the incoming vendors on their way from the country to market. Besides, Bobe and especially Zaide loved to putter around and busy themselves with the preparations for cooking big meals.
In cases of emergency my grandfather would hurry over to our parents’ place and carry one of us children off to his house in his arms. I remember that on one occasion – probably because I was snatched from my play without warning – I became quite unruly while he was carrying me and took off his hat and threw it on the ground, thus exposing him to the shame of appearing bareheaded on the street.
Left to the care of my mother’s parents, the Sirks, so much of the time, I have only vague recollection of my own parents’ home during those early years. It is strange, and I am troubled in mind when I strain to invoke a clearer picture of my father and mother and the separate or independent life of our family. I remember hazily a little grocery store on a small cross street between Smilger Gas and Langer Gas, which was the fashionable business street. I remember climbing up a winding, rickety staircase to our small apartment over the store. The rooms were nearly always in a state of disarray, as most of the day my mother was downstairs tending the store. This was the time when my father, Sender Rabinovich, Talmudic scholar and Hebrew teacher willy-nilly turned merchant, was trying his luck at a shipping enterprise centered in Libau, the port of the Baltic province of Kurland, in which my grandfather and my uncle Zodick were involved. This took him away from home for a large part of the year and made the task of my mother, a shy, modest, and quiet person, least qualified for merchandising, all the harder.
I recall my mother, her comely features and eyes expressive of continual good nature often clouded by anxiety, making hurried trips to the Sirk homestead to see if all was well with the offspring placed in the care of her elderly parents. In my memory the stern, almost forbidding image of my father, his clear-cut features framed in a heavy black beard, his penetrating dark eyes shadowed by bushy brows, is softened by the recollection of his habitual humming of ritual melodies in a low, musical voice. There is a fading out of my father’s image, for our family was on the verge of emigration, and my remembrance of him reappears in vivid form several years later, in the very different settings provided by the New World.
Both my elder brothers, Leibe and Sachna, and my sister, Rochele, who was the youngest, were at frequent intervals sheltered and cared for in the old, rather bare, but warm and cheerful Sirk domicile. Our grandparents must have often deprived themselves, but they always saw to it that the grandchildren were well fed – only the domestic animals had higher priority! – and that the boys were sent off to cheder well protected against hunger and cold.
Vacations from cheder were limited to Sabbaths and holy days. On these days – except for some of the lesser festivals – we could not enter into the strenuous exercises that would come under the ban of forbidden labor. But in the summer the longer afternoons would afford opportunities for all kinds of excursions and adventures. We would weave baskets out of fresh twigs, fashion willow whistles from willow branches, pick wild berries in the woods, roam and romp in distant and forbidden territory and worry our parents and guardians by our lateness in returning. The older boys, of course, scorned the Smilga, which at times during the hot weather shrank to a mere brook that one could cross by stepping on stones. The first boast of any boy who had attained the status of bar mitzvah was that he could swim the Navyaza, the large river crossing the upper part of the town, to which the Smilga was a tributary. But to us smaller children the Smilga was a boon, an endless source of amusement and diversion. We would float boats, build miniature bridges, collect pebbles, and wade and splash to our hearts’ content.
Dwindling in the summer time, swelling in the spring and fall seasons, and furnishing a fine skating spot in the winter, the Smilga invited all kinds of play activity, and these required varied contrivances for building, spanning, and navigating the stream. Only the crudest implements were at our disposal, and the little homemade shovels and picks were poor instruments for bridge-building and canal dredging, just as the store-bought penknives, with wooden handles and iron blades always at odds, hindered the efforts to carve and float our small boats and sailing vessels. In the face of this frustration we were able to score at least one great achievement when the youngest of my maternal uncles, Schneur Zalman, produced a ferryboat that for a long time remained the wonder of all the boys on Smilger Gas.
With a stout and substantial penknife having several sharp blades, which must have been brought to him from a large city, perhaps Libau, my uncle was able to carve and build a ferry that surpassed anything we had ever seen in our town. Propellers, a main deck surrounded by railings and gates, a cabin with windows and doors, a captain’s bridge with awning and flag flying above – all these combined to fill us youngsters with awe and amazement. We had never even seen a picture of such a vessel. Looking back at this incident I can only surmise that the builder, a young yeshiva student, had somehow caught a glimpse of a print that had found its way to our town. When the ferryboat, attached to a cord, floated down the Smilga, a shout of joy and excitement went up from the boys on the shore which was heard all over the street.
Beyond the construction and floating of the ferryboat, I have only the dimmest recollection of my uncle Schneur Zalman. He was named after a great rabbi, the founder of the Chabad, or rational, branch of Hasidism, to which my grandfather gave allegiance, but he did not live to fulfill the promise of that great name or of his own angelic face and almost unearthly sweetness and kindliness. For all his gentleness, he was strangely elusive and aloof. I remember him sitting and whittling and carving for hours, totally absorbed in his inventions and contrivances. Whether I was too young to comprehend or was shielded from the fact, I did not realize, when we no longer saw him, that he had died, and I did not know till many years later that he was one of three or four children lost in their youth by my grandfather and grandmother Sirk.
The meek and unobtrusive Smilga, which in the dry, hot weather was content to assume the form of a rivulet, babbling quietly over its pebbly bottom, was not so modest when the cold and rainy season arrived. Then it would swell and spread and encroach upon the land, cultivated or not, belonging to the homesteads on our street. In the spring, when the heavy piles of snow and ice covering the countryside would suddenly melt, the little river would become a torrent, inundating all our backyards and garden plots and even threatening our houses. It was usually during the Passover week that, instead of our having to go down to the river for buckets of water, it would come to us, flowing right into the house. My grandfather’s house and that of his brother-in-law, Baruch Kamber, next door, were situated on lower plots of ground and were more exposed to the onrush of water than any of the other houses on the street. I have recollections of some exciting adventures when both houses were flooded up to the windowsills.
One Passover, my brother Leibe and some other big boys rigged up rafts and waded into the water in high boots to rescue the matzoth and other provisions. That year our grandfather’s house was so badly flooded that we were taken in by our neighbors across the road, on the hill opposite our house, and celebrated the holiday with them. Our host, Yudel the brazier, and his wife and two grown daughters made room not only for us but for the cow and the chickens and, of course, Spitzka, the dog, always welcome everywhere on the Gas. It was sad and rather awkward to be observing the joyous festival of Pesach as temporary lodgers, but these good neighbors did everything possible to cheer us up and make us comfortable. We children tended to treat the event as something of a lark. The waters would recede in a few days and we would return to our home, but this could not happen until after my zaide, with the help of the Shabbos goy Adamowitz, had cleaned out the mud and debris brought by the flood and Chone the plasterer had repaired the damaged walls. Then we would all come back, tired and sleepy, as if returning from a long and tedious journey.
The floods did not come every spring, and when they did come they did not always interrupt the Passover, but from time to time they imposed a serious hardship upon my grandparents and other residents of the lower section of Smilger Gas.
But the real scourge of the old-time Jewish settlements in Lithuania – largely made up of wooden houses, their shingled or thatched roofs dried out by the hot summer sun and as inflammable as tinder – was fire. Firefighting provisions and appliances were, of course, unknown. The destruction of their house by sudden outbreaks of flame would often leave a family destitute and reduce them to a state of beggardom. Indeed, the mendicants who came from distant points and appeared at our doors in Keidan, waiting for a penny or a slice of bread, were in many cases the victims of fires that had occurred in their home towns. They were called nishrofim (“burnt ones”), and within the limits of the means of their poverty-stricken benefactors they were given special consideration.
The great conflagration that occurred in Keidan shortly before my departure for the New World remains one of my most vivid memories. Almost the whole of Keidan, or at least the largest part of the houses on the Smilger Gas and two side streets, burned down. The fire broke out late in the evening; by midnight many houses were aflame and the town was in a panic, as a scarlet, threatening sky struck greater and greater fear into the hearts of the residents. It was in the fall of the year, and a brisk wind was driving the flames from the upper end of the Smilger Gas closer and closer to my grandfather’s house and the houses of his immediate neighbors. The wind and flames were threatening the shulhoyf, or synagogue grounds, with the Great Synagogue (Grosse Shul) and the auxiliary place of worship known as the Kloyz. On the big military training fields at the foot of the street we and all our neighbors assembled with our packs and bundles of belongings, the women praying aloud in their traditional mournful singsong, asking God to at least spare the houses of prayer from the fiery blast.
It appeared to us as if their supplications were answered, for the wind finally subsided, removing the danger to the sacred buildings and nearby houses, and giving the volunteer rescue teams an opportunity to check the fire and salvage some of the household wares. With no equipment or experience these amateur firemen accomplished much, reducing the suffering and the losses that their townsmen might otherwise have sustained. These were surely brave men and stalwart – among them, the professional tregers, or carriers, accustomed to bearing heavy burdens of grain, flour, and vegetables from farmers’ wagons to stores and mills. They carried the furniture and household goods from many homes to the empty fields, lifting the heaviest objects with what seemed to us children amazing ease. In no time the drill ground was covered with furniture, furnishings, and other belongings of many houses of our street, the whole area filled with families sitting on their piles of goods and pieces of furniture, all hugging their belongings like refugees. There we stayed until the small hours of the morning, the children huddled up against their mothers, the mothers trying to comfort them, and all of us falling off to sleep after we knew that the worst of the calamity was over. The houses of about one quarter of our long street were spared. Wearily we dragged ourselves back the next morning, the giant-like tregers again rendering yeoman’s service in carrying all belongings back to the houses. The upper part of our street and another section of the town were in ruins or entirely bereft of houses, with only foundation stones visible and tall chimneys standing like monuments of desolation. Some of the householders had insurance on their homes, attached to little stores or places of business, and others may have had nest-eggs or kniplach put away: in any case, the rapidity with which most of the victims of the fire put up flimsy board shanties, especially for stores, and then built more solidly constructed houses than they had before – the way all this happened was another evidence of the perpetual resilience and recuperative powers of the ghetto.
In the early morning hours my grandfather’s cronies and fellow-traders, followers of the market caravans of the farmers bringing their products to town, would come in to snatch a bite or breakfast and rush out again to the creaking of the lumbering wagons. There was the tall and burly Leibe Kamber, son of Baruch, who would always linger a little longer, and, though protesting that he had had his breakfast, would ravenously devour a bagel or a slice of bread before he suddenly disappeared. Leibe had married and settled in a large city in Russia proper, where he was presumed to have been prospering as a merchant. But now he and his family were back in Keidan, and he had returned to the onerous occupation of following the perambulating market. Though his aged father and invalid mother, Neche, lived next door, he would come to my gandfather’s house for cheer and recreation, being satisfied merely to inquire about his parents, whose house at this early hour showed no signs of activity. I could not fully understand the stream of talk of Leibe and my zaide about events in the great outside world, but I caught some words and phrases that were as fascinating as they were mysterious, reflecting as they did rumored great events abroad.
Somewhat later Leibe left Keidan and returned to the large Russian city of his former sojourn and to a more successful career, and there was a day when his eldest son, Yitzhak, came back to visit his grandparents wearing the colorful uniform of a Russian university student – an extraordinary and stirring sight to us children of Keidan.
My grandfather, advancing in years and suffering from occasional attacks of rheumatism, was no longer active in business – retirement was an unknown concept in those days and regions. He now depended for his modest needs upon his two sons and on periodic earnings of his own. In general he belonged to the class of traders, brokers, or middlemen but he was exceptional in that in the heyday of his enterprises he negotiated large transactions such as the sale of farms, woodlands, or large quantities of grain or flax or the wholesale disposal of the fruit of an entire orchard. A man of handsome appearance, immaculate about his person, he was adept in the language and ways of the country, and his jovial, cheerful nature as well as a flair for the jocular, assured him of easy approach to outstanding landowners of the region, even to the Polish schlachtzi,5 or noblemen, who, clinging to their aristocratic pretensions, were still haughty and proud, though often land-poor and embarrassed for ready cash. My grandfather would advise or assist them in arranging for sales of property or obtaining loans, and whatever the outcome of these tangled transactions, they would always remain his friends.
Even at the time of which I write, when he was no longer able to carry on his former activities, farmers and landowners, including some notables, would come to his shabby little house on lower Smilger Gas to consult and converse or exchange the latest gossip or humorous anecdotes. One of the regular visitors from among the neighboring farmers was Pan6 Yankevitz. I remember him as a tall, large-limbed man who had to stoop as he passed our doorpost and whose head almost touched the ceiling. The conversations would be carried on in Polish and the subjects were beyond the grasp of us youngsters, but we sensed that the talk ranged over a wide area of matters, including emigration to America and news received from the wonderful New World. If the conversation was carried on in the more involved Lithuanian language, my grandmother, who had grown up in a Lithuanian village, was called on to clarify obscure points in the conversation.
After my grandfather had partially withdrawn from following the traffic of trade, he developed the sideline of shipping vegetables and fruits to the big Baltic city of Libau in Kurland, then also under the reign of expanded Tsarist Russia. This was the period of the settlement of his eldest son, Israel, in Libau and of the business journeys to that city first of another son, Zadick, and then of his son-in-law, my father, Sender Rabinovich, who though bearing the onus of being an outsider in the family, nevertheless for a number of years carried on a business partnership with my zaide and both uncles.
Libau, a notable seaport city of ancient Teuton and Baltic origin, largely German-speaking and, compared with our provinces, modern in character, also had more and closer contacts with the broader spheres of Germany, Austria, and France. Hence Libau became our chief means of communication with the progressive trends of approaching new times. From Libau came proscilkas – packages or boxes of goodies, consisting of oranges, figs, dates, and other fruits and sweets either entirely unknown or unobtainable in our town. Through letters and visits of our kinsmen in Libau we learned of important world events. From Libau we learned of the publication of journals and books outside the range of our strictly religious literature; from Libau came my uncles, with their pleasant voices, singing the latest Jewish songs, unconnected with synagogue ritual, especially the ballads and melodies of the famous folk-singer Eliakum Zunser, whose simple Yiddish verses and artless native melodies were contrived to impart homely moral lessons to his people and lovingly to rebuke the arrogant, the wayward, and the uncharitable among them. Zunser had himself journeyed to Libau from his home in Minsk to give one of his unique concerts of songs. This homespun genius – an old-time badkhen, or rhymester, grown to the stature of a modern Yiddish Beranger7 – singing or reciting his lays to the accompaniment of instrumental music, took his Libau audiences by storm, as he had conquered other communities, and he sent his listeners away humming his sweet melodies or repeating his satires on would-be aristocrats who sought to escape their fate as Jews. Enthused by these recitals, my uncles would return to Keidan with Zunser’s lieder on their lips. They found a ready imitator in the youngest of their nephews, who had a penchant for singing and who took pride in learning by heart, second- or third-hand, these long verses and intricate melodies.
Years later I was destined to meet the poet whose songs had so deeply stirred my imagination – not anywhere in the vast empire of the Tsar but in the free, new land of America, where he had come, late in life but not too late to extol Columbus and Washington and other great American pathfinders and to admonish his own Jewish brethren to be worthy of their new destiny. I met the aged teacher and comforter of his people, now his fellow-immigrants, and his interesting family on tbe lower East Side. Here, on East Broadway, the celebrated minstrel conducted a Hebrew and Yiddish printing shop and assisted younger writers and poets to become known.
Contacts and communications created with Libau after the settlement in that city of my uncle Israel led to the establishment of the small and seasonal fruit business in which my gandfather and several members of the family took part. My uncle had studied to prepare himself for a clerical position and he had married Rachel, the daughter of Ber Meshulamy, the chief shokhet, or ritual slaughterer, of Libau, but he departed from his original plans to take an executive position with a firm dealing in sugar and sugar products. He himself did not participate in the fruit-shipping enterprise, but his advice and recommendations made the undertaking possible. While my father and uncle Zadick spent a large part of the summer in Libau, and with the aid of a local partner attended to the selling of the products, my grandfather at home, with some temporary assistants, handled the purchasing and shipping of the fruits and such vegetables as cucumbers, beets, and carrots. Farmers and fruit-growers from various parts of the region, upon a given signal conveyed by the word of mouth of neighbors going back and forth, would bring into town with their products baskets and tubs of luscious and fragrant fruits and come straight to the house of Pan Yankele. Sometimes a whole orchard of fruit would be purchased as it stood, with the trees heavily laden, the purchaser undertaking the picking and shipping of the produce.
Was my grandfather now operating under the impulse of a sort of second wind, following the trading enterprises of earlier years? The new ventures seemed to have given him a fresh youthfulness and vigor. All by himself he carried on a complicated undertaking, ordering, purchasing, superintending the packing. and shipping, running all over town to obtain carting supplies and equipment. The atmosphere would become hectic and exciting as the time approached to meet the deputing train, and zaide, fortified by an occasional gulp from a bottle kept at the bottom of an almer, or wardrobe, in a corner of the stoob, would issue commands to his helpers and loudly boast, for the benefit of passing neighbors, of prospective profits. One characteristic deal was the purchase of the entire harvest of fruits grown in the orchards of the famous estate of Count Totleben, military leader and favorite of the Tsars, whose schloss, or castle, outside our town was one of the showplaces of the district. This transaction, a memorable achievement in itself, was effected by negotiation with Russian agents, who had come from St. Petersburg itself: only our zaide could approach and properly impress such notables! My brothers, Leibe and Sachna, and myself then had the unlooked-for privilege and rare treat of entering the forbidden precincts of the vast grounds and beautiful orchards of the castle, surrounded by a high wall of brick and stone, part of which ran for half a mile along the road to the railroad station. To see the stately, palatial structure – only occasionally occupied by the fabulous overlord – and the other imposing buildings from within the gates, and to be allowed to help or to pretend to help in the picking and gathering of the fruit was an unforgettable treat.
The fruit-shipping season generally was a most enjoyable period of our young lives. My grandfather’s house would then be encircled with boxes and baskets and wooden tubs and all manner of containers holding the fruits, and on beds or straw on the ground would be great piles of apples and pears and plums. These fruits, and, earlier in the season, heaping barrels of cherries, would stand there glistening in the sun while Zaide and his aides would be busily packing the produce in huge packing cases. To be part of such activity and to have our fill of such delicious edibles was to the children like a taste of paradise.
The drab childhood of a Lithuanian shtetl, with its long hours in cheder, which in the regular season even had evening sessions, was relieved and brightened in other ways during the summer months – by trips on the river Smilga, outside the town, by roaming through fields that were somehow known as Kellerke’s felder, by picking wild berries in the woods, by bathing upstream in the fresher and deeper stretches of the river – but the fruit-shipping period furnished our most exciting childhood preoccupations.
Alongside the fruit-shipping venture, which lent zest and color to a succession of memorable summers, my grandfather from time to time undertook other business enterprises similar to those of the other traders with whom he associated. But though he was in the fraternity, he was not one of them. A certain consciousness of early achievements in a larger field, when the stakes involved the sale of woodlands and farms, seemed to have kept him aloof from the ordinary class of mekler and hendler. There was also a sense of yiches, of family pride, derived from rich and influential relations in a distant city, now assuming the haziness of a legend. What if these faraway haughty kinsmen spurned this rebellious and mocking young man, resented his failure to apply himself to a study and become a lamden, a Hebrew scholar, washed their hands of him, permitted him to go off and settle in an obscure corner of the land – what of all that? Somewhere in far off Vilna or Vilkomir8 there were storied kinsmen who were molded out of the stuff that makes rabonim and negidim, men of learning and worldly success, and even if he did not follow in their path of both spiritual and material prosperity, he would not yield one iota in pride of heritage. He was Herz Yankel Sirk, and the mere mention of his name served as a kind of declaration of independence and a challlenge to parvenus and pretenders.
Allowing for a sense of humor that was bubbling over and for a spirit of playfulness that sought expression in pranks and practical jokes, there was undoubtedly something else that egged Reb Yankel on to mock and poke fun at his neighbors, to burlesque and mimic their simple and awkward manners. Was it a consciousness of his higher origin, a sense of superiority? There was also something of the daredevil in his makeup, with perhaps more than a touch of recklessness. Anyway, neighbors who were the butt of his irony were all around, and their homes stretched from our end of the street for some distance toward the center of the town, where the business section offered him most conspicuous targets for the stings of his satire in the persons of the two biggest merchants.
To begin, next door at the very bottom of our lane, there was Baruch Kamber – a brother-in-law and hence eligible for attack. Kamber was a man of huge bulk, heavy and ponderous, slow of thought, as well as of speech, just the antithesis of the quick and volatile Sirk. My grandfather would call Reb Baruch “the mountain” and he would speak of yeshuvnikes, country people who would not know when the Jewish holy days fell until some karabelnik, or itinerant peddler, came and told them – sometimes a week or a month too late. Out of deference to my grandmother, my grandfather would spare Reb Baruch from some of his observations, but if for some reason he became wrought up, he would make the grave charge that their native villager Kamber was inhospitable and refused to sell bread to strangers. Reb Baruch had two tenants, one of them, Jon Yushkewitch, occupying a little one-room apartment in the rear of the house, was accorded special and more considerate treatment as a gentile and as our official Shabbos goy. But this was not the case with Lieutenant Zamaroff, the shoemaker, who with his workbench and his wife and young son, lived in the kammer, or separate room, in the front of the house. Zamaroff was a veteran of the Russian army, who whether because of his skilled shoe-mending or because of other merits, attained the rank of feldwebel9, or lieutenant – a rare honor for a Jew. On the street he would stand most erect and walk fast with a quasi-military gait. His clear reluctance to let anyone forget the grandeur of his past came in for its share of Zaide’s gift for barbed mimicry.
In our darkest days of want and privation, my zaide would describe the situation in the words of the Psalmist who speaks of the time when “the waters have come up to my soul.”10 At such times nevertheless, he was always counting on some unexpected turn of events, some piece of business – a little commission on a sale, perhaps – that would tide us over the immediate crisis. He would call it a sposob,11 using a Slavic term unknown to me; something would turn up. Again he would invoke the Psalmist and say, “I lift mine eyes unto the mountains and ask whence comes my help.”12 The awaited help from heaven became mystically associated with a far-off land where, as Israel Zangwill was to say so many years later, God was “making the American.”13
Our destiny gradually became interwoven with the distant and nebulous United States, as one member of our family after another, without any knowledge or equipment, ventured forth, crossing unknown and frightening seas, to put his hands to the fashioning of a new life. First my father and eldest brother Leibe (hereafter, Louis) entered upon the long journey after exciting preparations and tearful, choking goodbyes. Then my Uncle Zodick (hereafter, Simon) broke off a fragile engagement arranged by a shadchen, or marriage broker, while on a visit to Verbelova, the home of the bride-to-be; this town being, conveniently close to the German frontier, he crossed the border and made his way to the seaport of Bremen, notifying his parents by letter of his fateful decision.
If not my father, at least Uncle Zodick and other kinsmen and townsmen began to establish themselves, and reports of incipient prosperity were encouraging to future prospectors. The lure of America later was felt even in the attractive port city of Libau, where my Uncle Israel was employed by a firm of sugar merchants. Being pressed by creditors for debts incurred to assist a friend, he left for America, after a “business trip” to Keidan, which in reality enabled him to take leave of his aged father and mother, who, being aware of another, more personal, source of his unhappiness, tearfully encouraged their favorite son to go and try his fortune in the New World.
It was about a year after this occurence that my father wrote to my mother, this time quite definitely, about sending us shifskarten, or steamship tickets, and money as well, so that we could come to the United States. Shortly afterward, Isaac the letter-carrier appeared at my grandfather’s house looking more ominous than usual; he produced a bulky envelope with letter and draft (or onveiszung), shifskarten, and railroad tickets bearing pictures of ships and trains. Thus suddenly a vague, transient hope was transformed into a vivid reality. The receipt of the ultimate letter from America, containing steamship and railroad tickets, money for traveling expenses, and many instructions, was the signal for a bustle of preparations and arrangements, with sad thoughts of the approaching final departure clouding the happy excitement.
But there was too much to do to leave much time for reflection. There were clothes to be bought, and made, for my mother and three children; there was food to be dried and baked and made durable against the prohibitions imposed by the observance of kashruth on the journey; and there was so much packing to be done – clothes and bedclothes, huge pillows and featherbeds, and even some cherished copper and brass cooking and other utensils, and … a samovar! How could people in America get along without a samovar? All these objects were enclosed in various containers: canvas bags, baskets and boxes, and above all, one gigantic wicker-work trunk, with cover and lock and an enormous capacity for holding things, as well as for giving trouble to all those who tried to handle it.
Finally one morning the big boid, or van, a conveyance on the order of the old covered wagon, hitched up to two horses, stood laden and waiting in front of my grandfather’s house, ready for one of its periodic trips between Keidan and Kovno. Prolonged and sorrowful leavetaking marked the last sad and hectic hours of that morning; my grandmother’s usual restraint forsook her and she wept copiously over the heads of her departing grandchildren, whom she surely did not expect ever to see again. Mingled with the resounding farewells from many neighbors and friends as well as members of the family were admonitions, guiding instructions, advice for the journey, and regards to kinsmen in America – all of whom were presumably living in the narrow confines of one street in a single city.
But where was our dear old zaide all this while? Was our persistent, ardent, and most devoted grandfather going to let us leave with merely an embrace and a few endearing words? Not he! He insisted upon accompanying us at least part of the way to guard us against mishaps. Was there not an old custom of beleiten – accompanying the traveler part of the way to give support to his venture? In his best coat and cap, his boots freshly polished, he took his place beside us in the wagon, as if he too were journeying to America. Our relations and neighbors watched and waved as the crude, creaking homemade tallyho rumbled off – not toward the north, the end of town, in the direction of the railroad station, but toward the south, through the long Smilger Gas and the big square which was the market place, and across the long bridge, the Sabbath-day promenade of the elite, passing through the section colloquially known as “the other side of the water,” and on to the open country and the highroads.
The long and tedious trip to Kovno took all day and the greater part of the night. Huddled up against our mother, and surrounded by our bags and bundles, we children – and our grandfather, who sat on a bench in front of us – slept fitfully while the rickety, rattling wagon lumbered on, every now and then jolting us into full wakefulness. In Kovno, where we had our first glimpse of a larger city, with wider streets and a few tall brick buildings, we had some refreshments and rested for a few hours in a krechma, or wayside inn. Then, either in accordance with previous instruction or on newly received advice, we embarked around noon on a sort of excursion and passenger boat that plied the river Neman from Kovno to Yurberik14, where we were to undertake the perilous adventure of crossing the frontier between Russia and Germany.
It was a pleasant sail on this simple, ferrylike boat, despite the many excited people on board – emigrants like ourselves and other travelers jostling with the pleasure-seeking excursionists, loud-spoken Lithuanian-, Polish-, Russian-, and Yiddish-speaking travelers, producing a babble, if not a Babel, of tongues. Our zaide found some consolation at the refreshment counter on the boat, which, he said, served very good beer.
After landing at Yurberik we rested again at a china, or tea house. That evening we were to be taken across the frontier, a clandestine affair that required the darkness of the night; arrangements had been made with the traveling agent, who was presumably also the van driver, and had perhaps one or two additional sidelines. Before entering upon the tribulations of crossing the border, we faced the ordeal of parting from our beloved grandfather, and all our tears and loving embraces allayed only slightly the painful wrench of leaving him behind. Zaide, after paying for our lunches and all our immediate needs, insisted upon giving my mother all the money left in his purse, outside of 3 gulden (about 45 cents), for fear that we might run short. We could not deter him, and we left not only disconsolate but very much worried as to how he would ever get home from that strange city, a trip requiring at least 10 rubel, without money.
We boarded a diligence, a more substantial and larger equipage of the covered-wagon type, but built in a curious way with a loose and partly collapsible bottom, the strange purpose of which we were, to our dismay and sorrow, to learn much later. This boid was driven by a tall, formidable, red-bearded fuhrman, or driver, who held his whip as if it were not only a threat to the horse but a menace as well to the foreign land we were about to enter. His assistant was a beardless and nimble little man who acted as if he was there to offset the gruffness of his boss and to supply politeness to the passengers. His chief task, for a consideration beyond the traveling fare, was to negotiate with the authorities at the frontier, that is, to hand out bribes in both the Russian and the German language – or with no spoken words at all.
I have no notion of what legal status, if any, we possessed as we left our native land. Under the reign of the Tsar – which in this respect anticipated a much later regime – the people, especially the minority groups, had very few rights, certainly not the right of emigration. Once a Russian citizen, always Russian citizen, in the eyes of the law – for better or for worse, usually the latter. Therefore prospective emigrants were subjected to all kinds of regulations and impositions. The easiest way to gain exit from the country was to grease the palms of officialdom. Right now we were dealing with a breed of go-betweens, carriers of human contraband, who made the most of their opportunity – and not only by charging high fees for bringing people over the boundaries from Russia to Germany.
While driving toward the fearsome grenetz, or frontier, the team repeatedly broke down. Each time, part of the floor of the carriage would fall out and passengers would be thrown pellmell to all sides and against one another, while satchels, packages, and bags fell through the open spaces of the yawning bottom of the wagon. Frightened and shocked, the unhappy travelers would raise an outcry but the driver would quickly warn them of the danger of making noise in this forbidden zone, He would curse his evil fate, his horses, and his assistant, attributing all the trouble to them, and would send the assistant back along the road to search for the missing pieces of luggage. The passengers too would climb out to grope and search and scour the roadside brush and ravines for their missing belongings. The assistant would return with perhaps one or two objects recovered and report that most of the pieces of luggage were nowhere to be found. The boss driver’s scraping of the ground with the butt of his whip in utter darkness would prove equally fruitless.
Stealthy accomplices in the rear, probably driving another wagon or truck, certainly did much better; no doubt they located every parcel or bag that fell out of the wagon. But there was no time for further reproaches and complaints; the driver of our vehicle insisted that we were losing precious time and that we would run into danger if we delayed any longer. So the missing planks would be hurriedly put back – not too firmly however! –in the floor of the wagon, and, all of us weary wanderers having climbed into our seats, the journey would be continued, until the next collapse. For the incident repeated itself three or four times during that night, so that the diabolical inventors of the sliding wagon bottom, base despoilers of the poor and the helpless, could complete their harvest of booty.
When we reached the frontier, the business between our contractor and the officers in charge was conducted in whispers during a few minutes’ stop. If the long-talked-of and awesome grenetz was something to see or to marvel at, it was too dark for us to observe any sign of it.
Fully worn out and half asleep, we finally arrived at the German city of Tilsit, where, after some time spent in searching and inquiring, we were given shelter in a hostel for emigrants en route provided by a Jewish aid committee. From a window in this lodging house my brother and sister and I watched the imposing maneuvres of a regiment of the Kaiser’s soldiers, fascinated by their sparkling regalia and brassy attire, so much more ornate than the accouterments of the Tsar’s military we had been used to watching at home. Little did we dream what this display augured for the world in ensuing years.
Throughout the troubled drive to reach German soil, and the ensuing trip on the hard-rattling trains through Germany to the seaport at Bremen, we were anxiously wondering how our dear grandfather, whom we had left behind, practically penniless in a strange city, ever got home to Keidan. We learned only much later of the adventures that befell him. After accompanying us on the eventful trip from Keidan to Yurberik and parting from us in the latter city, our zaide went to the shul, or synagogue. Following the evening prayer, there was the usual exchange of greetings, the special “sholom aleichem (Peace to thee)” welcome extended to one who was obviously a stranger in town. The customary question addressed in such instance – “Fun vanent kumt a yid?” (“Where do you hail from?”) – led to a lengthy conversation with a man who had relatives in Keidan and therefore invited my grandfather to be his guest for the night. On learning that he wished to pay his respects to a distant kinsman in Taverik15, a town at close range within the province, his host arranged with a friend who was traveling that way on business to give my grandfather a lift in his brizke, or buggy. Arrived in Taverik, my zaide rested in a tavern – those three gulden went further than himself – and then walked some distance out of town to the home of his cousin.
This was no ordinary house, nor was the owner an ordinary person. Reb Yoshe Zundel – the rarely used family name eludes my memory – was one of the few remaining Jewish landowning magnates of Lithuania. His imeniye, or estate, a family inheritance, covered about a thousand acres, and he lived like a lord of the manor in a grand mansion surrounded by beautiful grounds, including gardens, orchards, and a lake. In the spirit of the ancient patriarch Abraham, who according to legend built his house with many doors so as to make himself more readily accessible to travelers and strangers passing by, there was always open house in this sumptuous domicile.
A special dining room was set up which at all hours served food to visitors and travelers, strangers and friends, and here many itinerant petitioners and beggars came seeking victuals and alms. Before the visit of which I am writing, and long afterward, our zaide told us innumerable stories of the fabulous wealth and generous benefactions of Yoshe Zundel and his progenitors.
When my grandfather arrived at the estate and made himself known to a secretary or valet, he was at once provided with a place of rest and offered refreshment. Later Reb Zundel himself appeared. In after days my grandfather would often tell us what an imposing figure he made, with his large head and round, black beard. Sitting tall and erect on a magnificent white mare, a young colt trailing behind, the country squire at once proceeded to greet all waiting visitors, guests, and supplicants, as well as persons who had come on various business errands having to do with his granaries, lumbering, and farm produce. On being told of the arrival of Reb Yakov Herz Sirk from Keidan, Reb Zundel invited my grandfather into his kabinet, or private office. The two men talked at length, tracing the long and complicated family relationship between them and exchanging reminiscences. Reb Zundel invited my grandfather to stay ovemight, or a few days, but Zaide said he had to retum as soon as possible. So the next day he departed. Reb Zundel in the course of the farewell asked Reb Yankl Herz, indirectly but quite clearly, if he could help him in any way. My zaide, swelling with pride in the re-established relationship with the great man, thanked his host profusely, and with the ancient hauteur of the Sirk family operating in full force, assured him that he was in no need of any assistance. He had merely stopped on his way, he said, after seeing his daughter and grandchildren off to America, to pay his respects to his cousin and to renew a cherished old relationship.
My zaide was driven to the town of Taverik, where he arrived very happy and full of self-confidence, though he now had only 20 kopeks in his pocket.
Casting anxiety to the winds, and entrusting his destiny to a benign Providence, my grandfather entered a krechma in Taverik, and ordered a glass of beer. At a table nearby sat two men, one quite elderly, the other in early middle age, apparently belonging to the schlachtzi, or class of Polish noblemen. They were drinking and talking convivially in the easy-going manner of the most leisurely of the leisure class. My zaide, with his uncanny memory for faces and voices, thought he had recognized a resemblance between the younger man and Count Stanislav Siebetzky, a large landowner with an estate just outside Keidan, whom he knew as he knew so many other notables. He stepped up to their table and, with due apology for the interruption, asked the younger Pole if he was not somehow related to Count Siebetzky of Keidan.
The Pole jumped up from his seat in great excitement. “Boze moy (My God!)” he exclaimed, “you know my Uncle Stanislav?” Whereupon my grandfather, invited to join the schlachtzi at their table, told of his cordial relations with the great Pan, and imparted to the nephew all he knew about the nobleman’s agricultural enterprises and public activities. With the restricted means of communication of those days, uncle and nephew had not been in touch for years, and the first-hand news now conveyed was unexpected and welcome.
After this chance meeting, there was nothing too good for Pan Sirk, the visitor from Keidan. He was wined and dined and given comfortable quarters in the same inn for the night. He was asked to deliver to Count Stanislav not only a letter and personal greetings but also a gift of a handsome imported pipe. And he was forced to accept for himself a little present of 20 rubles – ostensibly to go toward his traveling expenses.
So my zaide got home not only with ease, but with comfort. The delivery of the letter, greetings, and gift certainly enhanced my grandfather’s relations with the great Pan. This led to some new business dealings, with increased commissions, and at least for a time, a better outlook for daily subsistence. This I believe should also be credited to America.
The quaint and rustic town of Keidan, or Keidany, as the Russians pronounced it, was reputed to be of ancient origin, and its residents cherished a legend of the early settlement therein of a sect of Scots Calvinists: The time-stained church on Langer Gas, now occupied by a more recent Polish denomination, was still pointed out as a landmark. Though isolated and provincial, with only an occasional Hebrew or Russian newspaper coming to one of the more elite townsmen, Keidan nevertheless had regular contacts with the great centers of population beyond. Army officers would arrive to supervise our two brigades of Russian cavalry, police inspectors would come to look into the books and the pockets of tax collectors, and merchants like my uncle Israel from Libau would visit us on business matters. Another class of visitors to this compact community of Jews were the meshulochim, or messengers, who traveled in the interest of yeshivoth, or rabbinical colleges, in distant cities, and magidim, or itinerant preachers, whose exhortations and condemnations, delivered in the big shul, would stir me to the dephts of my young heart and send me home trembling for my nameless little sins.
Keidaners were a proud race of men. “I am from Keidan”, “I am a Keidaner,” they were never tired of repeating. The stereotype that ghetto raillery bestowed upon them – as it did upon the natives of every town – poked fun at their village chauvinism: the Keidaner was said to boast so much about his city, to point to himself and pound himself on the chest that it made him round-shouldered, hence Keidaner heiker (“Keidan hunchback”).
“Stolz vi gants Keidan“(proud as the whole of Keidan), wrote the Yiddish poet Morris Winchevsky, though he himself was not of our town but was, like my father, a native of Yanova, another Lithuanian enclave of old-time piety and learning. The great scholars and men of distinction that our town of Keidan produced added to the pride of the natives. There were rabbis of far-famed wisdom and sanctity. In the secular field of endeavor there was Moshe Leib Lilienblum, precursor of Zionism and Hebrew writer whose autobiographical Chattot Ne’urim (Sins of My Youth), published in Vienna in 1876, was a sensation in its day. Isaac Levitan, one of the great landscape painters in Russia, was also born in Keidan (1860), and while his townsmen could not understand why and what he was painting in far-off St. Petersburg, they were nevertheless ready to claim credit for his work. Lilienblum too had removed himself from our midst, settling in distant Odessa, but his growing fame as a leader of his people continued to shed luster on his native village.
Among the relatives who would on rare occasions come to enliven the sameness of long days, none was more welcome than Yoshe Leiser, a thin, gnomelike little man with a sharp-pointed beard. He was a distant cousin of my zaide, from a place near Vilkomir. He came every spring to purchase seed for the truck gardeners of his district. Genial to a fault, bubbling over with good humor, he had such a fund of amusing experiences to relate that we were all delighted to see him and eager to hear him talk. Yoshe Leiser, with a bundle of canvas bags of all sizes dangling from his back as part of his very light luggage, was our herald of spring: when he came to purchase his seeds we knew that brighter days were ahead. His little canvas bags would be empty at first, but after he had made the rounds of our local gardeners and planters they would be bulging with seeds of all kinds. He would carry his load over his shoulder on his journey home – looking for all the world like the burden-bearing messenger of song and story. We children would cling to him every hour of his stay. In proffered compensation for several days of lodging and food he would seek to make himself useful around the house. He would no sooner enter and dispose of the customary greetings than he would pick up two wooden buckets and go down to the river for fresh water. Then he would assist with heating the samovar, bring more wood for the oven fire from the shed, and carry out other chores. For an extra bed a sheaf of fresh straw would be spread out on the floor of the main room. As a special indulgence I would be allowed to share his sleeping quarters. I was always wanting to have a heart-to-heart talk with him, to tell him my perplexities and ask for advice.
There was a time when neither my rebbe (the principal of my Hebrew school), my zaide, nor I was satisfied with the progress I was making, a certain element of uncertainty having crept into the instruction because I was regarded, and indeed thought of myself, as a future settler in America, where everything was to be so different. The harsh admonitions of a magid would throw me into panic as I remembered with qualms of conscience some deviation from observance of the Sabbath law. Intense religious emotions induced either by the burning words of the magid or by the solemn and sonorous reading from the Prophets in cheder in the fading light of the late afternoon – Isaiah, perhaps, storming against the black sheep in, Israel – would create a mood of repentance and contrition. This made the thought of joining my father in godless America a horrifying prospect to contemplate. With such a troubled mind I would look forward to Yoshe Leiser’s arrival, eager to unburden myself to him. I recall how on several nights when I slept beside him I began to unfold my doubts and misgivings. But every time this happened I fell asleep before I finished my story,
Next day there would be long cheder hours, household chores and errands to do, and the diversions of the street, and the alternating emotions of religious ecstasy and repentance would vanish – until somehow a new magid had come to town. Then all by myself – without asking any questions – I would wander off either to the Beth Hamidrash or to the Grosse Shul (both located at the shulhoyf, or synagogue center of the town); for an hour or more I would revel in the emotion stirred up by the magid. I was putty in the hands of any one of these masters of admonition of intense moralizing, described in Hebrew as musar. I did not know then that this type of exhortation was the core of an ethical movement (with a distinctive literature of its own) that had taken its place in history in the middle of the nineteenth century under the leadership of a great scholar named Israel Salanter. Of course I could not follow the magid in the theological dialectics or sophistic arguments known as pilpul, but there was enough reproof and remonstrance to make me wince and to fill me with terror at the prospect of the hereafter he conjured up. His fierce words would sink deep into my being, and I would resolve that never again on the Sabbath would I bite into a plum or a cherry hanging from a branch or pick a blade of sour grass with my teeth (favorite ways of attempting to evade the sin of picking fruit on the Day of Rest). Never again would I commit such transgressions. But after a time the memory of the indictment would wear off and I would return to my evil days, until either a new magid or the Day of Atonement arrived.
Copyright © Keidan Memorial Fund 2018
- Litvak pronounciation of the Yiddish word for a small dwelling, shtub.
- Kalnaberžė, 13 km north of Kėdainiai.
- Meaning barley or rye, not maize or Indian corn.
- More commonly spelled “szlachta”
- Polish honorific, the equivalent of “Mr.”
- 19th century French poet and songwriter, celebrated for his liberal humanitarianism.
- Today, Ukmergé
- A term more typically used to describe a non-commissioned officer, roughly equal to sergeant.
- Psalms, 69:1
- Russian for “method”
- Psalms, 121:1
- From Zangwill’s 1908 play, “The Melting-Pot”
- Today, Jurbarkas