A Town’s Special Character

By Daniel Ben-Nachum (Prochovnik). (Beit Zera, Israel)

Based on their frequent descriptions in our literature, the towns and villages of Lithuania were apparently alike in appearance and character. The market square in the center, filled with noisy trade and bargaining, especially on market days, with its large shops, pharmacy and hotel with gilded sign boards, and small stalls on the periphery. A main street, the backbone of the town, on which official public buildings stand proudly.

In the evenings amorous couples stroll along the street, while on certain corners members of the various political parties and movements crowd the sidewalks. The local aristocrat’s ancient palace garden has turned into a park for the public’s enjoyment. The lanes radiating from the street become dusty in the summer and drown in mud in autumn. From the low houses, so hospitable to guests, come the sounds of labor, clanging from morning until night.

On the outskirts of town the fields and fruit gardens descend to a river (In Keidan, this was the deep, fast-flowing Neviazhe) with groves along its banks. The roads lead to far-off villages and fields with crosses at the junctions. Outside the town, there was always some kind of mountain, the size of a modest hill, attracting young hearts with its shadows and hiding places. In the town center stood the nonsense (our name for the church) and beyond it the eye-catching great synagogue with its courtyard. Farther on stood small religious study-houses.

The excited voices of the Torah students, their whispers magnified into hurricanes of sound, or crying in prayer; the joyful tumult of schoolchildren heading home; the energetic Zionist songs arising from the youth movements’ clubhouses and the fiery hora dances that disturbed the neighbors’ sleep; a love song on the lips of a young girl bent over a sewing machine; hymns of revolution sung by apprentices in workshops. These jumbled sounds accompanied us in towns and villages in every corner of Lithuania, in Jewish communities that no longer exist.

Still, each town and village had individual traits that made it distinct. Just as each human being has a unique face and soul, upon which history and experience have left their marks, so every community had its collective local spirit, revealed not only in collected memories and communal records, but also in its traditions, deeply rooted across generations. It manifests itself in the character of its sons and daughters. This spirit hovers over the old buildings; even the trees and stones are impregnated with it. It is in the shadows of the shrubs and the fences, alive and breathing, until the community has ceased to exist.

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The special character of Keidan was obvious and undeniable. It declared itself anew on every visit to the place and every encounter with its people. While a serious analysis and precise definition may be elusive, we can see in it a blend of different sources: folk roots, hard work and dedication to social welfare on one hand, love of Torah and devotion to Hebrew education on the other.

Some towns in Lithuania could be praised for the great Torah scholars who had lived there and studied in their famous yeshivas. There were those that took pride in their great men of learning, proficient in the world’s wisdom. Some produced business leaders and craftsmen, while others sent their sons to gain fame in distant places.

Keidan was proud: Its people were said to boast of their origins. They were proud of their handicrafts and merchandise, their gardeners and vegetable growers, their squashes and cucumbers; they were even nicknamed “Keidan cucumbers.” They also took pride in their Torah learning and education, and, eventually, in bringing their children up to be Zionist pioneers. The town was blessed with all seven virtues.

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Looking through ancient records, we find deep roots for these characteristics. In an old notebook of “The Tradesmen’s Society of the Holy Congregation of Keidan” from 1804, we find that the society had issued a ban against compromising with communal leaders. Why such severity? This is based on an incident that bore witness to the low standing of tradesmen in those days, and the rebellion of the tailors of Keidan, who refused to submit to oppression and would not forgive communal leaders for insulting them.

From ancient times, tradesmen had been forbidden to wear velvet yarmulkes or fur “shtreimel” hats, and allowed only Manchester cotton yarmulkes and plain hats. One Shabbat, two tailors dared to appear in the synagogue wearing velvet yarmulkes. They were immediately thrown out. The following Shabbat a number of tailors appeared in the synagogue wearing velvet yarmulkes. During Passover week the community elders met and decided to flog all the tailors, from the youngest to the oldest, with whips. The young ones were to receive 10 lashes and the older ones 25 lashes each, so that they, their children and grandchildren would remember and never dare such a thing again. The town was ruled by the local count. His guards were sought out and late one Friday night when the tailors were fast asleep, they were brought in one by one, stripped and flogged without a word. The older ones received 25 lashes and the juniors 10 (according to “Historical Writings” by Simon Dubnov).

This story – of a poor but proud man who wouldn’t give up his velvet cap, the symbol of the learned and well-connected, of influence and wealth – was passed down in Keidan from generation to generation. If one person embodied that spirit, it would be Moshe Leib Lilienblum, son of a poor Keidan barrel-maker. During all his spiritual wanderings and social struggles, he remained firmly rooted in the masses of his people. He worried about their physical needs and put the task of improving their lives ahead of the spiritual goals of those planning to make aliya. “When eighty or ninety per cent or more of our people live in misery and extreme poverty, grasping right and left for a slice of bread to survive, I’m unable to listen to poems about empty hearts and genius insights,” was how he stated his opinion, with uncompromising severity.

As one of the forerunners of the movement for national rebirth and the settlement of Eretz Israel, he believed their essence lay in productive labour, especially in agriculture. He was a cold-eyed realist – a “mitnaged[1]” – who reasoned logically against excessive idealism and romanticism. He saw Zionism predominantly as “the task of creating settlements over several generations. It is impossible to build such an edifice [as the Jewish state] in a short time, in the way that the pious call for rebuilding the Temple on Yom Kippur.”

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It is no coincidence that Keidan was the only town (and actually a small one by the standards of our times) apart from the capital, Kovno, in which a literary Hebrew periodical was published for a time. Hebrew books were also printed there. It wasn’t a coincidence that on the outskirts of Keidan, in Pelednagiai, the first Zionist pioneer training farm in Lithuania, called “Kibbush” –was founded. It long served as a center for the movement and a landmark for many of its members.

One of the largest branches of Hashomer Hatzair, which excelled in its steadfast and deep devotion to Zionist pioneering ideals, also arose here. These qualities also benefited its members in times of crisis and upheaval – a combination of pioneering rebelliousness and conservatism regarding educational values, faithfulness to their roots, with a layer of typical Keidaner stubbornness.

No wonder then that this branch saw the highest share of its members realize the dream of aliya. Perhaps that is why it was chosen to host the first congress of movement pioneers, at which the establishment was announced of the first Lithuanian Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz, now Beit Zera. And it is likely symbolic that the flag of the branch, which was miraculously saved by one of its members after much adventure and many wanderings, has been brought to Beit Zera, and is now preserved in the “Keidan Room” of the kibbutz, a silent witness to the continuity of the chain.

[1] An opponent of ecstatic religious movements such as hasidism.


Translated by Bella Golubchik.