Synagogues in Keidan

The Keidan shulhoyf, or synagogue yard, in the mid-1930s. The beis-hamidrash is at left, the Great Synagogue at right, rear.


By Yehezkel Rochin (Ramat Rachel, Israel)

There were seven synagogues in Keidan. Four of them were in the shulhoyf,1; two more were in Smilga Street, and one was across the [Neviazhe] river.

I can briefly recount the many different things that I remember about synagogues in Keidan. However, most of the details retained in my memory are of the large beit-hamidrash 2, where my father used to pray, and where my grandfather had been the shamash3.

All major town events took place in those days in the synagogues. An emissary would come from the Land of Israel; a maggid4 would come to town to deliver an exhortation about ethics; there were electoral meetings before the Zionist congresses, and from time to time, the local rabbi would preach a sermon. All these events would stir great interest among the congregants. Most of these events, however, took place in the large beithamidrash.

The beit-hamidrash

There were two rooms, called “shtiblekh,” in the corridor of the beit-hamidrash. In one of these rooms, the minyan5  called “Tiferet Bachurim” [“Young Men’s Glory “] held its services for many years. This was made up of local youth. They also had gabbais [congregational officials or administrators] who managed all their affairs. A number of minyans met there on weekdays, the most important being the first one of the day. Those who wished to pray early would come then because they had to go to work; later on they would pray in the large beit-hamidrash. At other hours a small yeshiva used the shtiblekh. This yeshiva was connected to the Slobodka Yeshiva [in a suburb of Kovno]. Some of its students were local youths, while others were young people from all over Lithuania. Most, however, were from small towns close to Keidan, such as Datnova (Dotnuva), Krok (Krakės), Yasven (Josvainiai), Shat (Šėta), etc. The local youths studied in the mornings at other schools, and only came to the yeshiva in the afternoon.

Keidan’s shulhoyf in 2015.

Many memories arise in my mind from that period, because I often would help my grandfather at the beit-hamidrash. The yeshiva students used to sit at the tables and study Gemara and Mishna.6 The local rabbi would sit at one table and give a lesson. At a second table, the teacher-instructor would give a lesson, while my grandfather, of blessed memory, would give his lesson at a third table. I remember that, at the end of a tractate, the students would break off their studies, sit down and celebrate with a drop of brandy, biscuits and chopped herring.

But the synagogue was not used only for prayers and for studies. Jewish life in Keidan, in all its forms, was reflected there. Once a Jew was arrested in the town for illegal trade, and left a wife and small children at home. On the Sabbath, before the reading of the Torah, his wife entered the synagogue and delayed the Torah reading until the congregation promised to do everything they could to free her husband.

Before the elections to the Zionist Congress, posters were put up in the synagogues by all the political parties; children would remove posters of the opposing parties. This sometimes produced scuffles, and eventually the parents became involved in these fights. One fine day, the beit-hamidrash gabbais7 decided they would no longer allow posters to be affixed there. They put a net with a lock over the poster crate and told my grandfather not to allow any of the parties to stick posters on the crate or on the walls. This happened on Friday, just before candle-lighting time. Representatives of the “Poalei Zion8, approached me, as a member of Hashomer Hatzair 9, and asked me to put posters in the beit-hamidrash. I took the keys from my grandfather, opened the large crate and stuck the Poalei Zion posters on it. I closed the crate and gave the keys back to my grandfather, pretending that I knew nothing.

The Sabbath arrived, and congregants started coming to the beit-hamidrash. They suddenly noticed that the crate was full of posters. One of the gabbais was a supporter of the Revisionists10, and all his children were members of Beitar 11. He started questioning grandfather about the matter, asking who stuck up the posters. Grandpa, of course, did not know what to tell him. He just said: “I sent my grandson to do something at the beit-hamidrash, and he must have let them put up the posters.” The gabbai approached me and started reprimanding me for what I had done. I didn’t answer him and just got out of there. Meanwhile, the Sabbath had started, and it was forbidden to remove the posters, so as not to violate the Sabbath, and so they remained there all Saturday. The supporters of Poalei Zion very much enjoyed the whole incident.

Here is another interesting incident connected with the beit-hamidrash. On Yom Kippur eve, after mincha 12, the congregants used to hang around the beit-hamidrash, paying off all their debts before going off to eat their final meal before the fast. For this purpose, there were special bowls in which they put their money. This custom developed so that each Jew could pray with the feeling that he did not owe any money. Pesach Weitzer (Chitin) used to come to the beit-hamidrash as a representative of the Jewish National Fund. Because he did not have a partner, Pesach used to call me to sit with him next to the bowls. I was then a boy of 12. We finished our job, and I also signed the report. One day, when the reports were being checked, one of the checkers was my sister, who was a member of Hashomer Hatzair. Suddenly, she saw her younger brother’s signature. I remember how she laughed and enjoyed herself when she told me about it.

I particularly loved the eve of Shavuot, when they would sit the whole night at the beit-hamidrash to learn and pray Tikkun13. First thing in the morning they would pray shacharit and musaf 14, then go home, eat a dairy meal and lie down to sleep. Afterward they would return to the beithamidrash for a second musaf, in order to recite Akdamot 15, which was omitted from the earlier service.

One day, a well-known cantor came to Keidan. He had once been a cantor in our town. His name was Herzl Kussevitsky and he had a beautiful voice. He used to come occasionally to Keidan for our enjoyment at the Sabbath musaf or to pray ma’ariv 16 – a sort of concert. Tickets were not sold for his performances, but a stand with a plate was placed near the entrance, and everyone would put money on the plate. One such event was on a Sunday before ma’ariv, and it seems that not many people came that day. The gabbais waited for the beit-hamidrash to fill up, because it was important for the plate to be full of money. On the same evening, there was a wedding party at the fire brigade hall, because the brigade commander, Tzadok Shlapobersky, was getting married, and his friends wanted the cantor to sing there. A delegation arrived at the beit-hamidrash and started trying to persuade the cantor to come to the brigade hall to give them a concert. The cantor gladly accepted the invitation. He looked around in all directions, grabbed the plate with the money and ran off with the brigade delegation to their hall. However, since this hall was very close to the beit-hamidrash, everything ended up for the best: the cantorial concert, which he should have performed at the beit-hamidrash, he performed at the fire brigade hall. I would imagine that this concert did not include a ma’ariv prayer.

Older people tell me that when he was a cantor in Keidan, he used to sit on Fridays in the shop of the hatter Moshe Wolpe and listen to recordings of cantorial music on the gramophone. That evening he would pray in the same style that he had heard earlier on the gramophone.

Another event at this beit-hamidrash comes to my mind. I think this happened in 1934. My grandfather was very ill and my father took over his work as shamash. It was then customary for all the honors for the whole year at the beit-hamidrash to be sold on Simchat Torah. These honors included opening and closing the Holy Ark, raising up or rolling the Torah scrolls, etc. The shamash used to stay on a stand next to the ark, announcing the honor. Anyone raising the price would receive the honor. Some local pranksters decided to have some fun with the town’s solid citizens. A group got together and decided to buy all the honors for the whole year. When the sale of raising and rolling the scrolls started, this honor went to the pranksters. They immediately started making plans: For example, on Shabbat Bereishit17, they would give the raising to the rabbi and the rolling to some town porter; on another Shabbat, they would give the raising to one of the honorable heads of household, and the rolling to a carter or another lower-class Jew.

A huge row broke out in the town. How could such a thing happen?! The gabbais came to my father and asked why he sold this honor to this group. He answered: “This matter doesn’t interest me. A Jew who comes to the beit-hamidrash to pray has the same right as anyone else. Apart from that, I cannot see from the pulpit which Jew is giving more.” In the meantime, they decided that the pranksters would not divide the honors that they had won on the forthcoming Shabbat Bereishit, but that the gabbais would do this.

The gabbais then decided to go to the rabbi to convene a religious court with some of the pranksters. I remember how we walked around in front of the rabbi’s house. The rabbi heard the claims of both sides, the pranksters and the gabbais. He tried to persuade the pranksters to give up their hard-won rights. They finally accepted the rabbi’s authority, but on condition that, in return for their compromise, the gabbais would build a pavement around the beit-hamidrash. I don’t know if they actually built the pavement, because I left Keidan the same year.

The Great Synagogue

And now for something on the Great Synagogue. This was one of the most splendid synagogues in Lithuania. The holy ark in this synagogue was built by an artist and was thought to be one of the most beautiful in the whole country. This synagogue was used for prayers in the summer only, from Passover through the High Holy Days. The reason was that this synagogue was designed for summer use only, without a stove or any other means of heating. In winter, prayers were held in the building which stood at the side of the synagogue. That building had a stove and was kept warm.

The aron-koydesh, or holy ark, from Keidan’s Great Synagogue.

Concerts of cantorial music were always held in this synagogue. The famous cantor Koussevitsky 18also appeared here. I remember that even Christians used to come to hear him. Among these were the mayor, local priests and even senior gabbais of the army garrison posted in Keidan. There was once also a concert given by the cantor of Kovno (I think his name was Friedlander), together with his choir.

When the “Yavne” school19 was established in Keidan without its own building, the children studied in this synagogue in the women’s section. In winter they studied in the winter building that was used for prayers. This situation did not last for long, however, as a building was soon found for the school.

On Lithuanian Independence Day, there were big celebrations, with flag-raising ceremonies in the market square. There were long speeches given by the city fathers and the army gabbais. Quite often, Lithuanian President Smetona20 would participate in these speeches. Later, the soldiers and the Christians who participated in the celebrations went to church across the river. After all this, the Jews, school pupils and members of the youth movements, the fire brigade and the ex-servicemen’s organization used to gather at the great synagogue. Here, speeches were made in honor of Lithuania’s liberation, psalms were recited, and the Lithuanian national anthem was sung. Later, the anthem was translated into Hebrew. The President of the Republic used to come to the synagogue and was seated next to the local Rabbi. The elders used to tell us that, during World War I, a cannon shell had hit the eastern wall of the synagogue.

During the High Holy Days, I used to go to this synagogue when a good cantor prayed there. Most of the time, this was the cantor Herzl Koussevitsky21. One year, the cantor who prayed there was the permanent cantor of the beit-hamidrash. He came from a small town called Pikele (Pikeliai) and he had a beautiful voice. He was the type of cantor who used to be called “baal tfilah22, and it was a pleasure to hear him. That year I sat more in the great synagogue than in the beit-hamidrash where my father prayed.

The Kloyz

I can tell something of the kloyz because my father used to go there to study the Ein Yaakov23. In the kloyz, Moshe Milner, a very learned man, would sit at the table and study Ein Yaakov with a group. I would go there with my father, and we would enjoy Moshe Milner’s explanations. After my mother, of blessed memory, died, I used to go there to pray mincha, because they prayed early there, at 1 p.m., and I had to go to work at the same time. On the Sabbath, after the mincha prayer, Reb Orchik Goldin, of blessed memory, used to gather children around the table and recite psalms. Later, he would distribute cakes and honey-cookies to the children. I remember the great celebration that was held at the housewarming party after the kloyz had been renovated and cleaned up. I was then a student in one of the lower classes of the school, and some of the pupils, myself included, decided not to go to school.

The kloyz, in 2015

We went instead to the kloyz. In the morning, during the shacharit prayer service, the Yankel Dushkes orchestra played, and the prayer session went on a long time that day. There was a big feast that evening, where the orchestra also played. Torah was studied, and speeches were made. One of the gabbais was Reb Motl Shapira of blessed memory, a very happy Jew who also knew how to pray beautifully. The party went on until midnight.

On Simchat Torah, the kloyz was the happiest place in the town. Reb Motl Shapira used to entertain the audience there. They used to drink much vodka and eat cakes. When the prayers and the hakafot 24 were completed in all the other synagogues, they used to come to see the procession at the kloyz, and how Motl Shapira used to conduct the celebrations. The prayer service would not end there until part of the congregation staggered out blind drunk.

One day, a young man from another town arrived at the kloyz. No one knew where he was from. He sat down in the kloyz as if learning Gemara. When people came to pray, they found him dead. It appeared that he drank poison and committed suicide in the kloyz. Until he was buried, he was laid in the side-room next to the kloyz, and Orchick the shamash sat next to him all the time until the burial. Because he had committed suicide, he was buried, according to custom, on the other side of the fence.

The Gravediggers’ Synagogue

There was another synagogue called the Gravediggers’ Synagogue (“di kvernishe shul”). Those who prayed there were mainly from the Burial Society and the Psalm Society. This was a small synagogue. A number of events took place here. For example, the 19th of Kislev was a day of fasting and prayers for the Burial Society. On this day everybody would wake up early and say slichot 25, and the Burial Society people would fast. On the evening after the fast, they would arrange a big meal. Sometimes, the meal used to be held in the synagogue itself. Later, the meals were held in the house of one of the members of the Burial Society. At this meal, “drinking was according to the law; none did compel.” 26

Another important event used to take place at this synagogue. Twice a year, on Shavuot and on Shmini Atzeret 27, the Psalm Society used to have a small party for its dues-paying members. After prayer they would come to the synagogue, sit and drink a few glasses of vodka and eat cakes, and sometimes end with a song. I remember this tradition well, because I used to go there with my grandfather and my father, who were members of the Psalm Society.

When there was a funeral, the gravedigger used to arrive early with the horse and cart carrying the deceased. He would park the cart outside this synagogue until the time arrived for the funeral.

Other synagogues

There was another synagogue called “Shiv’a Kruim”28. I don’t recall any special events connected with this synagogue, but I shall explain its name. In this synagogue, only seven men were called to the Torah, even when there was some special celebration among the congregants, such as a bar mitzvah. When someone celebrating a joyous occasion wanted many participants to rise to the Torah, he used to go to another synagogue at prayer times.

There was also a synagogue for soldiers in Keidan. Its name was “di Soldatske shul.” People older than me told me where the name came from. Before the first World War there was an army base in Keidan, and at that time there were many Jewish soldiers. The community took care to see that these soldiers had their own synagogue on Smilga Street, not far from the army barracks. This synagogue stood closed and unused for many years, but I think that it was restored in 1933 or 1934 and used by the “Tiferet Bachurim” congregation. In that period, 1935, I used to go there every morning to pray, as I was saying Kaddish for my mother of blessed memory, and I was considered a permanent member of the congregation. I therefore received the honor of passing before the Ark. I also used to lead prayers on Shabbat.

The “over-the-water” shul across the Neviazhe river.

There was also a synagogue in Keidan across the river, which was simply called “oyf yener zayt vaser” 29. I think it did not have services during the week, apart maybe for shacharit. A cantor who resided in Keidan prayed there. His name was Hirsch Bein, a tailor by profession. He served there as a permanent cantor on Shabbat and especially on holidays. He was blessed with a beautiful bass voice. On the High Holy Days, I used to go there for a while to listen to his prayers. From my father’s stories, I also knew we had lived in that area before the first World War, and my father used to pray there.

Translated by Chaim Charutz

Footnotes

  1. the central religious courtyard
  2. study house
  3. synagogue assistant or caretaker
  4. itinerant preacher
  5. prayer group
  6. Component parts of the Talmud.
  7. Administrators, or lay leaders of religious institutions.
  8. Eretz-Israel Labor party
  9. a leftist Zionist youth movement
  10. Right-wing Zionists.
  11. the Revisionist youth movement
  12. Afternoon prayers
  13. Tikkun Leil Shavuot – a tradition involving the study of Torah and other religious texts throughout the first night of Shavuot.
  14. Shacharit – the daily morning prayer. Musaf – an addition to the regular morning, afternoon and evening prayers
  15. A religious poem in Aramaic, which is recited on Shavuot
  16. evening prayers
  17. The first Sabbath after Simchat Torah, when the reading of Torah restarts from the beginning
  18. One of four brothers who gained fame as cantors in Eastern Europe during the interwar years; they later emigrated to America.
  19. Orthodox schools offering instruction in secular subjects
  20. Antanas Smetona, president of Lithuania 1919-20 and 1926-40.
  21. Apparently an error; of the four Koussevitsky brothers, none was named Herzl
  22. master of prayer
  23. “Jacob’s Well,” a book of Talmudic stories and commentaries
  24. Torah procession
  25. Penitential prayers, traditionally said before Rosh Hashana
  26. From the Book of Esther, 1:8. I.e., drinking was optional.
  27. The eighth and last day of Succot
  28. Literally, “Seven Guests”
  29. Yiddish for “across the water”