Memories of My Teachers

By Meyer Yitzhak Edelman

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

1.

My first rebbe was Noach Reubens, who taught the youngest children. He lived on the northwest corner of the marketplace by German Street. The cheder took up the one room that constituted the teacher’s home. In one corner of the room stood a sleeping bench covered with a wide board, under which was a mattress stuffed with straw. At night this was spread over two benches, creating additional sleeping space, while the front part of the sleeping-bench itself was pulled out for use as a bed.

The main entrance of the house, and thus of the cheder, was on the German Street side. You could also enter through the shop on the marketplace side of the building – the last in the row of so-called “little stores” – but this entrance was not for us schoolboys.

The door from the classroom to the store was split into upper and lower halves. The upper half stayed open during the day, while the lower half was almost always shut and bolted from the inside. The rebbe had nothing to do with the store, which was completely his wife’s domain.

The meager merchandise in the store consisted of several bundles of hay, a small sack of oats, some sticks and straps for making horsewhips, some boxes of axle grease and a pitcher of fish oil. Since business was slow, the teacher’s wife didn’t need sales clerks. She did her household chores in the store, such as peeling potatoes, chopping up farfel, rolling out noodle dough, or grinding cinnamon, pepper or barley gruel for Sabbath.

The trade in hay and oats was slow, because a peasant usually brought his own from his home village, except when he would get drunk after a Thursday market and his horse, not knowing of thrift or thinking of the future, would eat up everything at once. This actually occurred fairly often, since the peasants weren’t any more farsighted than their horses. Also, it was hard for them to avoid temptation: On the east side of the market was Yosi Breuer’s bar; on the south side Aryeh Chaim Shmuel’s, on the northeast Frantskevich’s. Down the street on the north was Moshe Varneper’s, a bit further on was Rishe Chaim Shloyme’s, and on the west, the well-known Yankel Podratushe. You could get anything you wanted in these places.

Thursdays the trade in horsewhips picked up a bit, because as soon as a peasant turned away from his wagon a thief would steal his whip. There was a particular demand for the sticks, which were the first things to go in the many fights that broke out. And on market days business was very good in axle grease, since they couldn’t get home unless the wheels were greased.

This reminds me of a debate that used to take place among peasants in more recent times, which went as follows: “Who’s the richest Yid in town?” One peasant would say that the richest was “the bar owner.” Another would say “the bagel baker.” A third: “the owner of the dry goods store.” A fourth: “the goldsmith.” But finally they decided that the richest Jew was the one who sold axle grease, because you can manage, more or less, without anything else, but not without grease. Wheels have to be greased…

Fish oil was mainly sold on Sundays to Catholics going to church, and to Jews on Friday afternoons. The teacher’s wife would pour one or two kopecks worth of oil into a bowl and the customer would apply it with a brush to tops and sides of his boots, leaving proud and happy with his glistening footwear.

The rebbe’s wife owned a goat, with gnarled horns like all goats, and a beard. I and the teacher’s son Dovidke, who was my age, used to love to pull the goat’s beard. We usually did this when neither the rebbe nor his wife was looking. The goat would often stand on its rear legs leaning on the half door to the store as if it were looking for a customer.

All this took place some 53 years ago, yet I recall the events as if they took place yesterday. The following happened in the middle days of Sukkot: The teacher came to our house to settle my school arrangements for the next term. We then went to my uncle Heishel’s house where I was given an oral exam. The rebbe remarked that I distinguished well between “s” and “sh,” and that I spoke with a decent accent.[1] My father was not too thrilled with the teacher’s comments (possibly because in those days, Litvaks were proud of their accent).

2.

My second rebbe was Feive Lozers, who lived in a half-sunken shack in what was later called New Bath Street, between Yosel the treybetsh[2] and Sholem Konstantin, another teacher of older children. He had a thick cataract on one eye and taught in a voice so loud that we could hear him in our own cheder.

Our classroom was furnished with a long table made of simple planks, two long benches on either side and an old, broken chair at one end, on which the teacher sat upon a cushion. The entrance to the cheder was a door on the east side, which, due to the house’s sinking, was so low that an average sized man had to bend when coming in to avoid hitting his head. For the same reason, the windows were also low, starting about 10 or 12 inches from the ground outside. Not having double panes, the windows in winter were covered with frost, which we would imprint with various coins when our teacher was out of the room. Underfoot was a plain dirt floor which the teacher’s wife raked smooth every Friday afternoon.

Near the door on the south side of the classroom was the oven, with a bench cemented to it and a bucket of water nearby. By the west wall, two beds stood behind a dirty, colorless curtain. This was the room where I began to study chumash[3]. Our rebbe always carried a whip, and woe to the boy who strayed into some transgression! I first tasted that lash when I refused to put on my brother’s hand-me-down coat, which had been crudely cut down for me. The coat was brought to school and my disobedience reported to the teacher.

The teacher had two sons. The older, Moshe, was very short, but he was called Moshe the Pine Tree. This wasn’t meant to be ironic; rather, it referred to the time he was being examined for the military draft, and his mother, standing with dozens of other wailing mothers outside Mordechai Lipets’ house, where the draft board sat, kept shrieking, “My little pine tree!”

At the end of the term my father examined my progress and decided that not only had I not advanced in chumash, but I had also fallen behind in my ability to read Hebrew. And during Passover week he found a new teacher for me – Israel Nakhman.

3.

My new rebbe lived on the east side of the marketplace, near the Neviazhe river. His cheder consisted of ten pupils, divided into two classes, or at times three. He taught us chumash, the Book of Prophets, and so forth. I was attentive because the Bible stories appealed to me; however as a teacher he was very weak, lost his temper easily and beat us mercilessly for the most trivial reasons. We were never allowed to play or run about as boys are inclined to do. He was always worried and let his anxious anger out on us. I don’t recall that he ever hit us with his bare hand; it seemed he didn’t want to defile it on us.

Right after our afternoon snack the rebbe would remove his leather belt and keep it at the ready on the table until it was time for afternoon prayers. He also kept a special stick on the table – a piece of driftwood which he had brought back from the annual fair in Shat [Šeta] where he would visit his family each year.

I can definitely say that the worst beating he ever gave me was for making a soldier’s cap out of paper, which I gave to one of my classmates, who put it on his head. One summer day I made little boats out of paper and sailed them near the edge of the river between afternoon and evening prayers. The beating I received as a result was so merciless that I now wonder that I didn’t get sick.

The rebbe’s wife, Dvora, was a so-called “market lady:” She would seek out bargains on Thursdays and resell them to housewives who didn’t have time to go to market themselves, or didn’t have her negotiating skills with the peasants. She would also buy geese, ducks and chickens, take them to the kosher butcher to be killed, pluck the feathers, cut them up, and deliver the pieces to her regular customers’ homes. She kept the giblets for herself for Sabbath and even ate them during the week. Every evening she was busy pulling feathers, and every Thursday evening she could be seen dragging geese and ducks home from the slaughterhouse, their heads bloodying the streets as she pulled them home by their feet.

One Thursday evening I found a windpipe that Dvora had removed from a goose. I planned to blow it like a trumpet on my way home. By accident it made a sound in class. The rebbe responded immediately with his stick, and took away the windpipe.

We did receive one privilege near the end of the term. After the fair was over in Shat, entertainers from there would come to Keidan and set up a show-tent in the middle of our marketplace, where they gave performances. They also stretched a rope from one side of the market to the other for a girl from their troupe to walk on. This the rebbe would let us watch, because he didn’t want to miss it himself. He used to stand with us at the end of the street until one of the players came up to him with a drum or a cap, asking for a coin…

During the last term in this cheder I studied the Talmud book “Baba Kama” and also began to learn to write. My writing teacher was Chaim Aharon, a tall, handsome man with a long grey beard. He always dressed smartly and his cheder, which consisted of two rooms at the beginning of Smilga Street, was as clean as possible, given the circumstances.

He charged a total of ten kopecks a week, and he had so many students that there was hardly a place to sit down. My assigned time with him was between 8 and 9 in the morning and I often had to wait for a place to sit. The tumult in the classroom was overwhelming: One student would yell, “Reb Chaim Aharon, let me do this over!” Another: “Reb Chaim Aharon, show me how to write this!” A third: “Reb Chaim Aharon, write out ‘God’s help’ for me!”

He tried to satisfy everyone, and never showed the least sign of impatience or annoyance as he gave out sheets of paper with big letters for the children to trace over in ink, distributed penmanship models to be copied, or demonstrated how to write “God’s help” beautifully.

His own penmanship was remarkable. When he inscribed a closing salutation he would twist his pen around the paper for several seconds, and the result was a gorgeous peacock’s tail or the outline of a stork or a swan.

4.

I was about 10 years old when I began to study with Ortsik Berl Fradkes.

I was sent to his cheder because he prayed in the gravediggers’ synagogue, where he also taught a daily Talmud lesson after prayers, and my father prayed there on the afternoons of the high holidays.

This teacher was very pious and was more concerned with our prayers than with our studies. More to the point, he would beat us more for being remiss in prayers than for neglecting our studies. He would stick his bony fingers into my armpit and shout: You, so and so! Get to your afternoon prayers!” When he prayed or said grace or made any other blessing he had the habit of repeating the same words several times. The first time I heard him do this in a strange singsong when reciting the prayer after bodily elimination, I burst out laughing, and got a nice beating for it.

On another occasion he thrashed me for sliding on the ice in the idiot Malke’s yard on the way home. I was told on by another cheder boy, Shmuel Zelke, who was four or five years older than me, and who had himself talked me into sliding there.

I revolted and refused to return to that cheder.

My next teacher was Moshe the treybetsh’s son-in-law. I felt quite different in his class. He usually treated us as equals and often told us stories from the Bible and Talmud, posed riddles for us and sometimes in summer would go swimming with us on a free day. I can say for sure that I got the most out of studying with him.

My last rebbe was Reb Yekel, with whom we studied the Talmudic laws of marriage. When we began the chapter about widowed and divorced women, he explained the details clearly, without assuming we were already steeped in medieval commentary. He talked to us in a manner suitable for adults, rather than 13-year-old boys… One day in class, out of boredom, I was playing with a bottle of quicksilver I had bought, with which I intended to try to coat copper coins. I dropped the bottle under the table and then crawled under, trying to gather together the elusive balls…

For the remaining time before we moved to Warsaw I studied with Moshe Shmere Lichtman, and I feel fortunate to see him, a fellow toiler, still among us.


[1] A feature of Litvak Yiddish was a tendency to pronounce the letter “shin” like an “s.”

[2]A treybetsh is a butcher who removes unclean veins and fat from meat to make it kosher.

[3] The Five Books of Moses, or Pentateuch.


Translated by Meyer Dwass.