The Big Celebration

By Hirsh Bloshtein

Originally published in the newspaper “Birobidzhaner Shtern,” October 1970. 

I once had a friend.

We were born in the same town, on the same street and in the same year. We were together through our childhood years and the dawn of our youth; and though fate, which was not always kind to us, led us on different paths to different cities and different lands, we almost never lost our heartfelt connection. I say “almost” because, during the most difficult years of the civil war, we somehow did lose it. Yet when we met again, our meeting was so joyful, like the sky that becomes blue again after a storm, even bluer than before.

But I will describe this meeting later on. Many stories have been written with surprise endings. My story ended exactly fifty years ago, in the autumn of 1920. We are now in its jubilee year. Apart from universal historical dates, everyone has their own personal anniversaries. These personal dates are sometimes common to thousands of people of one generation, and worthy of public discussion. It seems to me that this date of mine should be among them.

But let us return to the beginning. Because there is no end without a beginning …

My friend lived in Moscow for fifty years, on Bolshaya Spasskaya street. Some time ago he was transferred to a new dwelling. His widow, Klavdia Konstantinovna, just recently sent me a picture of the tombstone she erected at his grave, in the cemetery in Vostriakov. She stressed that, before dying, almost his final words were, “It seems I won’t see Hirshele again…ever.”

My friend’s name was Mordechai Muller.

Why do I emphasize his name? Because it is not just his personality, but also his name that is of interest, not only to me but likely also to other Jews interested in the history of Jewish literature, its literary names and its writers’ pseudonyms.

In the “Lexicon of Jewish Literature, Journalism and Philology” by Zalman Reisen, 1928 edition, it says that I published my first poem “Dawn” in 1912, in the Vilna periodical “Life and Science” (Nos 7-8) under the pen name “Mordechai Muller”.

I am obliged to say here that, at age 17, when I published the above poem, I was a very sensitive youth. I was unsure how the poem would be received – I feared the editor would ignore me, or would mail me a caustic rejection. I feared that if this became known, everyone in town would mock me.

My friend liked the poem and gave me his name to use. “Let them laugh at me,” he said. “No one will ever find out from me that I am you…” He even gave his own address for the reply. I will never forget how happy he was when the editor’s reply came. He came running, bearing a celebratory bottle of liquor…

With this I could conclude the tale of my pen name, but for the sake of a possible future bibliographer I must add a few words. I never again, in any literary work in any area or any type of literature, used the pseudonym “Mordechai Muller.” All the poems that can be found in the Jewish press during the early years after the October Revolution, and which are signed Mordechai Muller, were written by my childhood best friend, who found his last resting place in the Vostriakov cemetery in Moscow. He was a great poet, through and through, and was exceptionally talented in poetic technique. Yet he only wrote poems in the first years after the Revolution. Why did he throw away his harp? Because …

No. I am not writing a lexicon here. I am only writing an autobiography. Let us therefore return to the actual story of the event, the big celebration that gives its name to this article.

***

The big celebration was conceived and prepared by a few boys and girls who had grown up in my Lithuanian town of Keidan, the town that heard my first cry and that tearfully accompanied me into the great world at the tragic end of my youth.

The oldest among us, the shoemaker’s son Meishke Alter, had just turned twenty. Keilke, the youngest, had not yet turned seventeen. We all lived on Smilga Street, a poor, humble street, with its low, wooden houses and its adjoining alleys named for the communal bathhouse, the synagogue and the ridge where the poorhouse stood – lanes even more narrow, grey and low than their larger sister.

Our fathers never sat by the synagogue’s eastern wall, nor by the table where communal affairs were conducted. Many of our fathers typically ate the same thin groat-porridge with skimmed milk and black bread on Shabbat as they did on weekdays. Before Passover they would walk to the house of the community board, heads bowed, to receive a few coins of charity in order to bake a little matzo. Wordlessly, they would place the coins before our mothers, who counted them in silence. It is hard to say which were more plentiful on those bare tables, the coins or the women’s pain-filled tears.

We young people were already living “independent” lives. Some worked with their own fathers, some had just begun learning what it means to work for other fathers. Some, like the writer of these lines, gave private lessons for a few meager kopeks, and some, like Zelig the tinker’s daughter Keilke, looked after the children of the town’s wealthy. We “green” teenagers earned too little to make any difference in the budgets of our large families.

Thinking back on those days from a distance of 56 years, I feel that I am looking through two lenses, both magnifying and shrinking what I see with head and heart. Through the close-up lens all is grey, miserably mundane and heavy, but when I look from afar, yearning awakes and it seems like a painting, which one should view from a certain distance. The lines are not so sharp; every brushstroke is not so distinct. Either way, the heart clenches, and so we look back, when our maturity confronts the years of our youth, dreamy, smiling days meet fading shadows…

We all read, some more, some less, but we all dreamed increasingly beautiful dreams, for ourselves and for the world. What besides the unrelenting hunger and distress of Tsarist Russia could produce so many dreamers? Yet most of us were aware even then that simply dreaming was not enough. Out of those grey, pain-filled days the big celebration could come only after much sacrifice.

Nearly every one of us had a family member who was behind bars or in Siberia. The favorite songs in Smilga Street were “A Letter to Mother,” Nomberg’s lullaby, (“From Siberia your father sends you greetings, my child”) and “Play, Play, Wicked Winds” by Avraham Reisen. Also “Slushay” [“Listen”] translated by An-sky to Yiddish, the ballad of Hirsh Lekert and other struggle songs… but …

We were not only very poor then, but also very young and we wanted to celebrate with our pals, with wine, dances, song and games, all in the “bosom of nature.” And Keidan possesses an abundance of such heart-warming natural surroundings. We were familiar with them almost from the cradle. The town is surrounded by rivers, and beyond them lay pastures, fields and pine forests. Right behind the train station, which is situated near the town, a thick forest, called a “bor” begins, stretching for miles. Here in the “bor” the festivities were planned. On the way our friends were supposed to march through Smilga Street playing music and carrying a placard, bearing the message: “We are young, we want to celebrate … we have time enough to work…” with all who wished to join the parade as it passed.

The main designer of this “program” was Mordechai Muller – also known as Alter the badkhn’s[1] son Motl.

The idea of the big celebration was born in Motl’s mind after a “white” June night, as he was escorting his girlfriend home at dawn. The white nights, in the northern regions of Lithuania, the nights of May and June, are not nights at all. One corner of the heavens still wears the purple imprint of the sun that has only just disappeared, even as the other corner opens its grey-blue gates for the rising sun, veiled in rose and gold. In those few weeks the day never gets enough sleep. It wanders like a drunkard, in whose eyes there seems to be a joyful, happy insanity. Young people experience this more than anyone, although traces of it remain even in old age. This is the wonder of the beginning that remains at the end, the vague remnants of a melody after a song has disappeared.

Motl accompanied his girlfriend home but didn’t go home himself. His heart, like the dawn, was filled with love, yearning and melody. He felt so good he could almost have wept, so he left town again and turned to the dew-laden pastures, with their intoxicating smells. As doors began to open in Smilga Street, he drummed gently with his fingers on the windowpane by my sleeping-bench. I heard him and, surprised at the early hour, I asked him, with fear more in my eyes than in my voice, “What happened?”

He answered with one word: “Open!”

His smile was so lovely and joyous that I swung open the windows immediately and Motl entered the room at once. The windows in the edifices of our dreams were lofty, but the small windows of our dwellings were nearly on the ground. We didn’t fear thieves much, we inhabitants of Smilga Street.

And without relinquishing his smile, eyes peering into the distance, Motl said, “Hirshele, I have just heard the song of the Earth. Not with my ears. Put your ear to my chest. I have felt and celebrated the festival of the Earth. I have heard her singing and I have accompanied her.”

And he laid out for me his plans for the “big ” with great enthusiasm. I was the first to whom he revealed his grand plan. The second was his father, Alter (Bentzi) the badkhn. Motl never kept any secrets from his father, though his father was also his employer at that time. He owned a barber shop, which he ran by himself until his eldest son Chaimke grew up, and after him, Motl.

***

It is only right to dedicate a few additional lines to Alter, my townsman. Characters like him were not uncommon in Lithuania. It seems to me they have not received enough attention and have been given scant notice in our literature. Perhaps I only think so because I am a Litvak, and I love not only Lithuania’s landscape but also its people. I believe I can be forgiven this provincial affection – it is only natural.

Alter the badkhn was a man of many talents. He was the best barber in town; he was the best makeup artist, not only for amateur theatrical groups, but also for the professional theatre companies that occasionally visited the town; he excelled in reading music and played just about every instrument; he was always invited to play with the professional klezmorim who serenaded at aristocrats’ weddings on the surrounding estates, and he was the most renowned badkhn in our large town, which numbered more than 6,000 Jewish souls. Why do I say renowned? Because there was a second badkhn, Dovid the painter. It was typical for Lithuanian Jews of the time to have multiple trades, yet they still had great difficulty earning “water for porridge.” As they used to say in Lithuania in those days, “Many trades, few blessings.”

Alter the badkhn once explained this to me in his own fashion: ”You understand Hirshele, the Almighty calls one of his servants, an angel, in the morning, gives him a large loaf of bread and says to him: ‘Hurry and give this loaf to Alter the barber, they are awaiting you anxiously.’ The angel comes to my barber shop and asks after me. He is told: ‘There is no one here like that. There is someone with that name, but he is a badkhn. Look for him at Reb Moshe’s, where a wedding is taking place.’ The angel goes there, but still doesn’t find the person he is seeking. Someone whispers to him: ‘I think the person you are looking for left yesterday with a group of klezmorim, for a party at Pan Kochavitzky’s manor.’ In short, even an angel gets weary. He returns to heaven with the loaf of bread.”

I mentioned Dovid the badkhn before, because of a certain tale (I hope the reader will forgive me for trying his patience). Dovid was a traditional religious Jew. He wore a long black overcoat, he had long side curls and a long grey beard, and was skinny and stooped with red-rimmed, ailing eyes. He was generally asked to the weddings of Jews as traditional as he was. Dovid was an expert in entertaining the bride and squeezing tears from the congregation.

Alter was his exact opposite: he stood erect, was not lean and was of average height, with wise, smiling brown eyes that were somewhat sadly mocking. Clean-shaven, he was a walking treasury of Jewish sayings, amusing stories, folksongs and poems by Frug, Rosenfeld and Edelstadt[2]. He knew how to get a laugh. He was invited to homes where they were not pedantic about prayers and dirges, and not to the homes of the rich and religious. It was common knowledge that when Alter visited the courts of the “squires” he wouldn’t deny himself a little slice of pork. And in the eyes of the rich Jews, Alter had another “stain:” His eldest son Chaim had participated in the town’s self-defense during Russia’s first revolutionary wave, from 1903 to 1905.

I was then a lad of about nine years, when Alter the badkhn’s son Chaim became the town hero. It was during the miserable Russo-Japanese War. That day the town was filled with conscripts and members of the army units who had the right to bivouac for 24 hours in the towns they passed through.

That night, one of the officers burst into a Jewish house and tried to rape a girl. Hearing the girl’s screams, Chaim came running and shot the officer dead on the spot. The entire town barricaded itself behind doors and gates, all certain that a pogrom would follow. Lithuanian and Russian acquaintances from the surrounding villages reached our house and those of other tradespeople, offering shelter in their own homes to their friends, the workers.

The army and local police officials searched many houses. They searched for Chaim, but he was already over the border that same night.

Motl greatly resembled his father and big brother. In appearance he was almost a copy of his father, as pictured in the wedding photo that hung on the wall. Motl was also like him inside, spiritually, although one step above him in one aspect – reflecting the spirit of the times.

They were not only father and son, they were also friends. That is why Motl immediately told his father about his plans for the “big celebration” – and immediately received a bucket of cold water, in the form of mockery combined with a great deal of anger.

“You are my heir, you are a great statesman, a veritable Lord Disraeli, in addition to which you are smarter than the whole world, the wise son of the Haggadah. What a brilliant scheme! Madame Linda, she of the weird hairstyle, can certainly get you permission for such a celebration, since she is the police chief’s mistress. And do you know what else she is? An informer. She will be delighted to help assemble such a large group of boys and girls, to have their pictures taken by the police. The chief will reward her generously; everyone will sing Reisen’s ‘Play, Play, Wicked Winds’ and the program Madame Linda submits for approval will carry your name. So in sum, what is this joy that overcomes you?

Motl didn’t interrupt his father, which was how he always behaved with him. He stood with bowed head, only the colour in his cheeks changed from moment to moment. They alternately reddened and paled, but he answered not a word.

Motl got a second helping that day from the young teacher, Ester Jaffe. She too was from Smilga Street. She worked in the Jewish government school, where most of the children were from Smilga Street. A half day in the Russian practical school[3] and a half day in the Jewish Talmud Torah. Ester Charna loved her pupils very much.

She listened to her former pupil, Motl, as he laid his plan before her, and also his father’s reply. Motl was always open and sincere. Ester answered him briefly: “Motele, I always thought you were smart and very successful … and your father… anyhow, in short, I have overestimated you and disparaged your father… Apologize to him for me.”

Ester Charna Jaffe … I feel pain when I recall her name, as she was my friend and a wonderful person. Near the end of June, 1941, when the German fascists overran Kaunas, Ester was among five hundred members of the Jewish intelligentsia gathered into a hall, where Lithuanian nationals attacked and fatally beat them with clubs.

The big celebration never took place, but the longing for it continued for a very long time. Our daily lives were so mundane, so difficult. The Shabbats and holidays we spent, sitting by poor, sad tables, listening to our mothers chant “God of Abraham” and other prayers, were no happier than our grey weekdays.

***

On August 1, 1914, the First World War broke out. The battle front rapidly approached our town. A large group of our youth were quickly conscripted, Motl among them. Arrests became more and more frequent. Every night brought raids at different homes in Smilga Street, with people led away in handcuffs. The cycle of persecution and black terror, the mortal fear of decrees hung constantly over our heads. And then it happened: Expulsion from Lithuania! The Tsar’s high military command ordered half a million Jews away from areas near the front. In a few hours, we Keidaners were also forced to leave the place where we had put down roots for hundreds of years. Trains, most of them with locked doors, transported the town’s inhabitants far away, across Russia’s enormous spaces. (I dedicated a large portion of my novel “Homeless” to the expulsion from Lithuania and to the fate of its people.)

Our group fell apart completely. To this day I have seen almost none of my dear friends, who longed for the “big celebration.” I say almost, because there were a few exceptions, and Motl was among them.

We met by chance in 1920 in Moscow. This happened during one of the happier days in the land of our birth. I can’t recall the exact date on which I met with Motl; but I do remember that it took place after November 17, when the Red Army had conquered Perekop, ending the battle with Wrangel[4]. The young Soviet Union, which had been tested in blood and fire, celebrated its victory and Moscow, frozen, covered in snow, ill lit, breathed a warm sigh, and its miserable dull electric bulbs spread such a brilliant light that it shone all over the world….

In those same days, spontaneous demonstrations broke out, with flags, slogans, festivities and music – some by the Communist youth.

On one of those days, I came out of the building that housed the Ministry of Education, where I had been given a position as an educator at a children’s home in Vitebsk. I moved quickly in order to get warm, and rushing through the streets I encountered one such joyous demonstration coming out of a side street. I joined the procession and quickly adjusted my steps to its pace and my voice to the singing. Looking around after a minute, a few rows behind me I saw Motl, wearing the long coat of the Red Army and a cavalry hat. We glanced at one another for a second in astonishment. I continued walking until the procession stopped, smiling non-stop with both my eyes and my lips. We embraced each other with our eyes for a long while.

And when we reached our destination, before we had managed to tell each other about our relatives and about our personal affairs here in Moscow, Motl proclaimed, with tears in his eyes and a joyous tremble in his voice, a sentence I have carried in my heart these whole fifty years. This is it:

“Hirshele, say shehecheyanu![5] It has arrived – our big celebration! We finally managed it – and look at where!”

To this very day, when I see youth parading on one of our holidays, my heart is flooded with warm feelings, like a green wave of spring.

–––––––––––––––

[1] A jester or comedian, traditionally hired to entertain at weddings.

[2] Shimon Frug, Morris Rosenfeld and David Edelstadt, popular Yiddish poets and essayists of the late 19th century.

[3] Called an “uchilishche,” it offered instruction to young people in trades such as carpentry, tailoring or metalwork.

[4] At Perekop, on the isthmus connecting Crimea to Ukraine, from November 7 to 15, 1920, the Red Army defeated the White Army, led by Pyotr Wrangel.

[5] A Jewish blessing, thanking God for having reached the present moment, typically said on holidays and joyous occasions.

 

Translated by Bella Golubchik