Worlds Gone By

Keidan at the end of the 19th century

By Dr. Hyman J. Epstein

Originally published in 1930 by the Keidaner Assn. of New York. 

Keidan was not just another Lithuanian shtetl; it was a city, with an important lineage. Proud was the Jew who, when asked “Where do you hail from?” could answer, “I’m a Keidaner!” Truthfully, the writer of this memoir is not a “100-percent” Keidaner. Even though my papa and grandpa and all his family lived and died in Keidan, I myself was fated to be born not in Keidan but in Ragole [Ariogala]. Still it pleased me greatly when they called me “Chaimke the Keidaner” at my yeshiva in Ragole. Those childhood years which I spent in Keidan made an everlasting impression on me, so that Keidan remains as a sweet dream in my memory.

Controversies in Keidan

Not that everyone in Keidan lived in peace and harmony. On the contrary, Keidan was full of religious disputes — perhaps more than any other town in Lithuania. Members of the shul and the kloyz[1] were constantly at war with each other. Each had its own rabbi, and each tried to manage community affairs in its own fashion. Before Pesach Keidan had two separate charity drives. And nobody would let a baker of the other faction bake matzos for him until his oven had been purified and certified kosher by a neutral party.

One Saturday the kloyzner rabbi, Reb Berl Mezik of blessed memory, announced that Jews were absolutely forbidden to carry anything on Sabbath,[2] while the shulner rabbi said otherwise. Comical it was to see young boys from the shul carrying tcholents[3] for the kloyz families. Only in the cemetery did unity prevail among Keidaner Jews, under the undisputed control of old Itsche Moishe Yudes, the shamash of the burial society, better described as the Tsar of the dead.

The cheder and the barracks

There were two important institutions in town that left their marks on the Jewish children and youth of Keidan – the cheder [primary school] and the Russian military barracks. The cheder, where small children were confined from eight in the morning until nine at night throughout the year, deadened all our hopes and ambitions. Except for the bright hope of Friday, when we were released early, we were treated worse than prisoners. Our teacher lived in poverty and took out all his frustrations on us. Complaining about him did no good, because our parents believed strongly in strict discipline and always sided with the teacher. So naturally we could hardly wait for the coming of our beloved Friday afternoon; the moment it arrived, we ran off to the Russian barracks, where the two artillery batteries, the Fifth and Sixth, used to be stationed.

Grinfeld, the colonel of the Fifth battery, and Goleshchapov, commander of the Sixth, drilled their soldiers and we were the spectators. All the youth of Keidan – including young women and marriageable bachelors –would spend the day there as well, admiring the heroic soldiers, who took pains to look good in front of our youth. We knew almost all of them by name, and when the cruel Colonel Goleshchapov slapped platoon-leader Bakayev, the solder cried like a child ­– not so much from the pain of the blow as from being shamed in front of the Jewish girls and youths.

So it was no wonder that our main pastime was playing soldiers. And when we were immersed in our game, nothing else mattered to us. Cheder, home, food – who thought of such things? What mattered was showing how high a barrier we could jump over or performing other feats. These developed in us a spirit of heroism and daring. We hated Goleshchapov for his cruelty, but we forgave him his sins every Saturday when his band performed outdoors in the middle of Langer Gas [Long Street], something he apparently did just for us. We rarely had the chance to hear music, except when the Keidan Jewish band led a bride and groom to the wedding canopy in the synagogue yard, or when Count Totleben’s visits to Keidan were celebrated in the castle courtyard with music and fireworks. On those occasions we young people would stand outside his palace’s windows and balconies, taking great pleasure in the festivities for “our Totleben.”

The draft

Russian militarism was not always a source of pleasure. Our town’s saddest times came right after the holidays, when the Russians conducted their annual draft. The eligible young Jewish recruits had for weeks been appealing to the town’s elders for help. Year in, year out, they would use the same tactic – delaying the call-up. After hours of negotiation they would arrive at an agreement and begin reading out the names.

The mood was awful during draft days. First they would examine the non-Jews, and everybody would breathe easier when that was over, because the same hoodlums who used to run around town starting fights with anyone they met were completely transformed after the draft. Those who had been called up would walk around glumly with their heads down; those who had been rejected would get out of Keidan as fast as they could and run home.

Then came the Jewish draft. All day nearly the whole town would be lined up on Langer Gas by Mote Lipitz’s house to hear the results. Every few minutes a Jewish youth would stick his head out a window and run a hand across his throat, signaling he had been slaughtered, and his assembled friends and relatives would begin to wail in the street below. The Keidan police force, which consisted of two Jews – Hershel Bul and Motke the constable – never interfered with the noisy, crying crowd. Who could blame them? Hearts were full of bitterness! But then there would be a comic scene, when a young man ran out of the building and down the street half naked, holding his trousers in his hand. Rejected! There was a kind of superstition among us, that once the authorities had pronounced the words “not fit” a youth had to immediately run wherever his eyes took him, before the board could change its mind.

Shabbos promenades over the bridge

Only young people would promenade. Of course, the grownups would stroll to and from the synagogue, and on Rosh Hashana they would all go to tashlikh.[4] But the young would set out right after eating, or after Saturday supper, to walk on the bridge over the Neviazhe. It was not a long bridge and could be crossed back and forth many times, giving young men and women many chances to meet. Of course, boys and girls would not walk together; in the first place this would be shameful, and in the second place, pranksters would make terrible fun of those who tried. They would call out a phrase from the Bible that implied the couple must be drunk, and the laughter would echo the length of the bridge. So the boys strolled in groups of two or three; so did the girls. Here come the F. sisters, both dressed alike. Everyone stares. Meeting them, we greet them in Russian – “Zdravstvuytye!” We move on, tipping our hats to Sh.’s beautiful daughter. To stop and chat with any of these ladies is naturally out of the question; people would talk.

Yanova St flood Keidan

A flood on Yanova St. in Keidan

The yearly floods

In Keidan you could count on the river Neviazhe to flood every Passover. When the ice broke and the floes were forced ahead, the water rose higher and higher. Before one knew it, the river flowed over its edges and the entire marketplace was flooded. Some tried to cross with a hastily made raft, some abandoned everything and escaped further up into the town. The stubborn ones stayed on in their homes as long as they could, until they could no longer open their doors. At that point, several young men would have to rescue the schoolteacher Noah Reuvens and his wife Rashe through a window. Naturally everyone worried, and tried to guess how high the water would reach this year. The same worries occupied those living across the river, but it all lasted a day or two at most, and then everything returned to normal.

The Keidan fire brigade

Fires were a common occurrence in Keidan, and with every conflagration the whole town was at risk of destruction. No wonder homeowners trembled when the fire “alarm” went off: The “alarm” that consisted of everyone who had God in his heart and a voice to shout with running through the streets shouting “Help! Fire!” Everyone ran to the site of the blaze: Some ran with pails, some with ropes and axes or whatever else was at hand. Everyone was on a rescue mission. Usually the wooden hut, where the fire had started, would burn to the ground, but a great effort was made to protect the wood and straw roofs of the neighboring houses. Water was not always available, so sand and mud, which always were in plentiful supply, were used instead.

Keidan firefighters

Members of the Keidan fire brigade

After one of the larger fires, in which Smilga Street was destroyed all the way to the small synagogue, the young people in Keidan decided to organize a fire brigade and volunteers from all social classes signed up. A firefighter’s uniform consisted of a type of soldier’s helmet with a shiny visor, and the brigade on parade was like a proud, victorious army. Naturally, the wealthy people were the officers who would give the orders to pour barrels of water on the fire. Everyone had a fixed job and there was a ready routine.

So what did God do? There were no fires! The brigade members just walked around, mournful and impatient. One day the commanders came up with a plan. The brigade would build a hut of old boards and straw, far out of town, on the other side of the river, and one day right after evening prayers and after everyone’s supper, the hut would be ignited. As soon as the fire scout spotted the fire, he would blow the signal on his trumpet and the whole brigade would run to extinguish the fire. This would put the brigade’s ability to the test.

Of course, the whole plan was to be secret. On the scheduled day the leaders of the brigade walked around very pleased with themselves. They could already imagine the dark sky lit with flames, while the townspeople ran about frightened and amazed at the speed with which the fire-fighters extinguished the great fire!

Unfortunately, as the saying goes, “Man plans while God laughs.” Well before afternoon prayers some pranksters torched the hut. And when the trumpeter was told to sound his signal. he would not believe there was a fire and he ran to the bridge to convince himself. Only then did he blow his trumpet. By the time the firemen gathered up their gear and reached the fire, it was all over. All they could do was to pump water on the smoldering embers and ashes. That was a dismal night for the Keidan fire brigade.

The holidays and Simchat Torah

Keidan was a gloomy place for most of the year, the burdens of life resting heavy on everyone’s bent shoulders. But as soon as the holidays neared, the clouds disappeared and our faces brightened. Our eternal sadness gave way to pride and joy as we all made our way to the synagogue.

We savored each holiday, but Simchat Torah[5] was a special joy. The whole town was happy, everyone’s spirits rose, and young and old alike felt ready to dance till they dropped, exhausted with joy. It was like a miracle. Constantly sad faces now beamed, ordinarily tearful eyes were now shining as everyone celebrated our holy joy in the Torah.

Near the synagogue, by the river, where the Smilga joins the Neviazhe, barrels of pitch are piled up ready for use. Young pranksters have gathered all the kindling they could get their hands on. As it grows dark the barrels are ignited and their light illuminates the whole city. Everyone watches with great pleasure, shouting and dancing, until the fire burns itself out. Then the crowd heads to the synagogue for the ceremonial Torah procession.

The synagogue is packed. Women and girls join the men in their downstairs prayer area – something not allowed at any other time. Reb Leyzer the shamash instructs as his assistant places candles in the giant chandelier, which has been lowered on a long rope over the center platform. When the candles are all lit Leyzer orders young boys in the balcony to pull up the chandelier. Then comes a yearly ritual as someone in the congregation shouts: “The blessed flock!” To which the children bleat in unison: “Meh-h-h.” And again: “The blessed flock!” and the children’s response: “Meh-h-h.”

The prayers are led, not by the usual cantor, Reb Dovid Feinzinger, but rather by a layman who begins the evening service using the Kol Nidre melody from Yom Kippur eve. Remarkably, the same melody that tears at the heartstrings during Kol Nidre, brings no sadness on this night; rather it seems a source of fun, bringing a wave of joy.

Next, portions of the “ata her’eta[6]” prayer are distributed. The town’s leading citizens, after celebrating throughout the day of Shmini Atzeret with the gabbai or the rabbi, stand in their places on the synagogue’s east side, half intoxicated. Each performs his portion in his own style, and the congregation repeats each one, their voices raised loudly.

There seems to be a small democratic wind in the air. Even the big shots by the eastern wall seem less pompous than usual. And when Reb David Yitzhak, pretending to be drunk, begins singing a hasidic melody, helped by the youngsters, interrupting the “ata her’eta,” none of the elders rebukes him. On the contrary, the shamash loudly calls him up to the podium to read a passage, proclaiming that “our teacher, Reb David Yitzhak, son of Reb Asher-Leib, honors us with the passage from ‘ata her’eta,’ beginning “in David’s name.” This brings Reb David-Yitzhak suddenly back to his senses, and he begins to sing in a hearty voice: “In the name of David, your servant, do not keep us from the Messiah!” The congregation feels that the holiday belongs to everyone.

As the ata her’eta prayer ends the Torah procession begins, led by the men of property, followed by the youths holding scrolls of the Torah and Prophets, and finally by little kids holding paper flags and carrots on sticks, with lit candles attached. Everyone takes part. The parade circles the bima seven times with everyone, including the women, stretching to kiss the Torahs as they passed by. Recently married young men, still living with their fathers-in-law, playfully trick young matrons into planting a kiss on their hands instead of on their Torahs. This does not anger the young women, who merely lower their eyes in embarrassment.

When the prayers are over, people don’t go straight home, but wish each other a good holiday. Groups of revelers proceed to visit each other’s homes, singing and dancing en route, receiving drinks and refreshments at each stop from the woman of the house and giving her good wishes in return, then taking her husband off to the next stop, until late into the night, attempting to hold on to the holiday spirit as long as they could.

Doctors and feldshers

Keidan had only two doctors: The village’s Dr. Yevtekhovsky, and the apostate Dr. Levit, also known as Layne, who lived on German Street. Yevtekhovsky was the younger of the two and also the busier. He was engaged by the government to examine military draftees. As a result he had many patients who were not really sick, but wanted to establish ties so as to be able to “shmear” him when their sons and brothers became eligible for conscription. Yevtekhovsky was not at all bad for a goy, which is to say he was willing to take a bribe.

Doctor Layne was not as popular; therefore, besides doctoring, he had a sideline, which brought in nearly all the householders of Keidan: He made small loans, taking pawned goods or notes of good value, and requiring weekly payments at high interest rates. The whole town detested him as much as they depended on him. Moreover, he had family connections: His daughter had married the police captain. Thus it became especially important to stay on his good side. At Passover his debtors filled his house with presents of matzos and honey wine, meanwhile wishing in their hearts that the apostate should get sick.

While the two “real” doctors were not of much use to Keidan, God provided good Jewish feldshers[7] to meet the town’s medical needs. Neither of the two official doctors was worth a finger compared with Reb Velve, Reb Gavriel or Reb Hirsh Lieb. Despite their lack of official medical certification, they were esteemed as experts with abilities far beyond those of the gentile doctors. Moreover, it should be noted that doctors were not called when women gave birth: For that service Keidaners turned to Mina the midwife, whose husband Leib helped out and also sold lumber. With such experts on hand, Keidaners felt secure in their health and lives.

***

I could go on endlessly with many stories from the various layers of Keidan society of those days — the wagon drivers and coachmen who played a dominant role in the town and in the synagogue; the big merchants and the small market peddlers, with their whisk brooms hanging under their coats; the cloth merchants and the small dealers in notions. Their lives, their aspirations, their grand ideas and their petty accomplishments; the Keidan intelligentsia, the graduates of the community trade school and their educator Ptashkin. However, most of this was not peculiar to Keidan, but was part of the life of most towns in Lithuania.


[1] A small synagogue (shul) or study house.

[2] Orthodox communities often symbolically surround an area with wire, within which food or other necessities may be carried on the Sabbath. The principle is called eruv and its exact rules of implementation are often controversial.

[3] A traditional Sabbath dish of meat, potatoes and beans, prepared on Friday and often slow-cooked overnight in a neighborhood baker’s oven, to be eaten after Saturday services.

[4]An annual prayer ceremony in which Jews figuratively cast their sins into flowing water.

[5]The celebration renewing the yearly cycle of Torah readings.

[6] “It has been shown to you” – the opening words of a traditional prayer said on Simchat Torah.

[7]Unlicensed medical practitioners, folk doctors.


Translated by Meyer Dwass.