Echoes of a Vanished World

 

By B. Cassel

Originally published Nov. 17, 1940, in the 40th anniversary edition of The Keidaner, the bulletin of the Keidaner Assn. of New York. 


Keidan’s Great Synagogue was packed. From all the small prayer-houses and minyans1, people had come to the shul 2 to hear the new cantor, Dovid Finesinger, with his chorus. The old-timers who had come early – most of them artisans and tradesmen – had been enjoying the music all morning. But there was also a big crowd from the study house, and even a few people from the kloyz 3, who usually avoided the shul, just as those who prayed regularly at the shul wouldn’t be caught dead inside the kloyz.

But now people from all over Keidan had come after their own morning services to hear the new cantor, whose reputation had been spreading through town ever since Yom Kippur.

Though it was nearly midday and they were hungry, the crowd was in no hurry to leave, and their faces beamed with satisfaction at the wonderful melodies that accompanied the prayers of the late morning service for Shmini Atseres4. Such a wonderfully rich and supple tenor had never been heard in Keidan, and the congregation was so enchanted by the harmonious, well-trained choir that they forgot about eating, and wouldn’t leave until the cantor had sung his last note.

When the service finally ended, people set off in groups to “make blessings” at each others’ homes. One would invite friends for drinks and refreshments, and when the group had consumed everything available there they went to a second home, then a third, until nearly everyone had had a chance to play host. At each stop, the crowd grew a little tipsier. Singing as they walked from house to house, they would enter shouting “gut yontif!”5 at the tops of their lungs, until the walls fairly shook.

Each hostess would greet the guests with a smile and a full table, and the group would make itself right at home. The more toasts they made, the less they stood on ceremony; eventually they’d go straight for the oven, drag out the kreplach6, the roast goose and the pudding, and when they had finished it all off, leave to make another blessing somewhere else.

* * *

All during Sukkos that year the weather had been extraordinarily beautiful: A dry, sunny autumn filled with the scents of ripe fruit mixed with evergreen from the branches placed atop the holiday huts erected beside each house.

Keidan was normally quiet on holiday mornings, when people were at prayer, but on Shmini Atseres – the last day of Sukkos and the day before Simchas Torah7 – the streets were full of action. Armies of boys rolled empty barrels over the cobblestone streets, making a deafening racket.

A view of German Street in Keidan.

Down Long Street, German Street, Smilga Street, gangs of street kids rolled herring barrels, tar barrels, even beer kegs, which they had cunningly removed from private yards or the backs of the shops. It didn’t matter how hard the owners tried to conceal the barrels; the kids had had their eyes on them for a long time. And now, while people were in shul, was the best time to swipe them. With a shout and a clatter, they were rolled through the streets.

Yokeh Tucker’s son Dovid and his gang made the best haul. They stealthily broke the lock on the tar dealer Reuven Madeksher’s yard, rolling out three or four empty barrels. Mrs. Madeksher tried to stop the theft, but there was such an army of boys, and Dovid’s strategy was so clever that even as she stood there screaming, her barrels were rolled out of her yard and down the street to a vacant garden plot, near the study house that stood by the Smilga creek. From there nothing could bring them back.

Along with the legions of barrel-rollers, the streets were enlivened by groups of inebriated blessing-makers, growing happier with each visit. But this only lasted until around three, when the barrels had all been collected at the garden, and the well-oiled revelers returned to their homes so as not to miss their traditional holiday naps.

* * *

Around four o’clock, people began assembling at the homes of the gabbais, leaders of the town’s important clubs and societies. The biggest and most important of these were the Burial Society8 and the Talmud Society.

At the home of Aba Refoel Rom, the Burial Society’s chief gabbai, the main room was filled with long, covered tables, on which were set out bottles of liquor and plates with chickpeas and apples. On All around sat Keidan’s leading citizens, all members of the Burial Society, each one placed according to his status, beginning with the chief gabbai at the first table’s head. Former shul officials were seated at their own tables, also according to age and status. In charge of assigning seats was Itse Moishe Yudes, known as the “dictator” of the Burial Society.

As each guest took his place, an attendant served him a portion of honey cake, while a second poured a glass of whisky. Glasses were raised to the head gabbai, then to all the former head gabbais. Then the society members raised glasses to each other. They raised glass after glass, knocking back drinks until eventually they began singing, and then dancing. The room took on an entirely different atmosphere, so that looking at this high-spirited crowd you would scarcely imagine the serious, sacred duties that occupied the gentlemen of the Burial Society the rest of the year.

Gershon Pimshtein, the bookbinder, was a cheerful pauper. But besides being the Torah-reader in the shul and a fine musician, he was also a stutterer. Remarkably, however, he stuttered only in Yiddish. When it came to Hebrew, such as in reading the Torah or praying, he spoke smoothly, without a hint of a stammer. His Torah recitations were actually quite melodious, and it was very pleasant to hear him lead the congregation.

After Gershon had had a few drinks, he offered up his favorite chant:

“Oy, v’kol mayminim! [And all believe]
“G-G-od m-m-must b-b-be s-s-served,
“M-m-must b-b-e s-s-served sh-sh-should be s-s-served.
“And w-w-why sh-sh-shouldn’t he b-b-be s-s-served?
“And w-w-when we s-s-serve him w-we m-must h-h-have a l-l-lit-tle v-v-odka!”
“Hatseyfe laroshe v’khofeytz behitsodka.”

And so forth, rhyming in stammered Yiddish the verses of “V’kol mayminim,” which sounds very melodic when sung, although not when stammered.

* * *

It was mostly workingmen, wagon drivers and other common folk who gathered at the home of Shmuel Varneper, the gabbai of the Psalm Society. Their leader was Leyb Peretz, who, although but a shoemaker by trade, knew all the psalms by heart. He was the one who took charge of the shul every Friday between afternoon and evening services. As the people sang psalms, verse after verse in their deliciously rich Litvak melodies, he began and ended each stanza.
Peretz was also the one who woke up the town at dawn for the penitential slikhos prayers each year before the High Holidays. Half-asleep children would hear Leyb Peretz’s voice approaching and then fading away as he called out in a melancholy singsong, “Ho-o-o-ly pe-e-e-ople of Isra-a-a-el, get u-u-up for sli-kho-s.” Grumbling, they would shudder and snuggle up closer to their sleeping mothers or fathers.

Leyb Peretz also served, gratis, as a waiter at poor peoples’ weddings and circumcisions, just as a mitzvah9. He therefore served as master of ceremonies at Psalm Society gatherings. He had a good word for everyone, and with each he drank a little toast. This was a group that could hold its liquor, so it took a while for everyone to warm up; but eventually as spirits rose, they too would start dancing and celebrating just as God ordered.

Savitzky was a Polish aristocrat, who had had quite a good education as a child. His parents had left him an inheritance, but after they died he drank it all away. With his good Russian education he had gotten himself a job as court clerk, but he never missed an opportunity to get drunk, particularly on holidays, both Jewish and Christian. On Shmini Atseres he made the rounds of his Jewish acquaintances, accepting several drinks from each. By evening he’d be half loaded, and then he’d go to Frantzkevich’s bar to fill up the other half.

The Psalm Society left Shmuel Varneper’s on their way to the shul for the Simchas Torah procession. In the lead was Mendy Kirzner, a tall, well-built man with a great long beard, along with Feive Kerzner, a small, dark fellow with a little goatee. Bitter competitors, they spent the whole year trying to grab each other’s customers, always bad-mouthing each other’s merchandise. Now, both quite lubricated with drink, they had their arms about each other, singing:

“Wake up brothers, why do you sleep? One, two, three, four!”
“‘Tis already time to be chanting Psalms! One, two, three, four!”

Savitzkele (so he was called, because he was quite short, though quite lively) got carried away and fell in next to Mendy Kirzner, making Mendy look like a giant between Feive on the one side and Savitzkele on the other. Mendy and the crowd sang:

“Tis already time to be drinking whisky! One, two, three, four.”

And Savitzkele, who knew no Yiddish, but felt that he should sing too, joined in with:

“Seigneur benis leuvrage, qui doit ronflir ses jours…”

… a line from a French grammar book that he remembered from school.

The crowd, in high spirits by then, thought it a great joke on Savitzki’s part. So with everyone singing along, off they went toward the shul. In the middle of the street, near the apothecary’s on the corner of Bridge and Shul Streets, Sholale stood waiting for them, a bottle in his hand.

Sholale was a retired “Nikolai soldier,” one who had been snatched up and given to the military for conscription as a child, during the time when mandatory service could last up to 25 years. Despite all he had endured in the Tsar’s army, he had remained a Jew, resisting conversion. In truth, he knew very little about Judaism, but at least he hadn’t become a Christian. He didn’t even speak much Yiddish, but he would come to the shul on Shabbos and holidays and recite the few blessings he had taught himself. Nobody in town knew if he’d originally been born in Keidan – Sholale himself didn’t know – but he had shown up after his military service, married the half-idiot girl Tzipkele, and was still here. Sometimes he would disappear for months, but on holidays he would return to Keidan.

“Gospoda! [Gentlemen!]” Sholale greeted the crowd in Russian, “gut yontekh!” Raising his bottle to show the liquid inside, he called out: “Gentlemen! I’m drinking kerosene!” and took a strong pull from the flask.

Savitzkele couldn’t restrain himself. “You’re lying, it’s vodka,” he yelled, also in Russian. “Give me a taste!”
And leaving Mendy Kirzner behind, Savitzkele went over to Sholale, who treated him to a sip from his bottle. Evidently Savitzkele found the kerosene to his liking, because they both went off singing down Calvinist Alley.

* * *

The Talmud Society from the kloyz assembled at the home of their gabbai, Reb Zalman Hirsh Zisele, where the tables were laid out in grand style. Society members entertained themselves by sharing both wisdom and jokes, and later with music. Although there was plenty to drink, the crowd conducted itself politely, and never even got around to dancing.

Meanwhile, a large group of scholars gathered at Zalmen Hershel’s, the gabbai of the study-house Talmud Society, with their rabbi, Zalmen Troyb. There was plenty to eat and drink, but the crowd was chiefly entertained by the cantor and his choirboys, who led the group in song. There were also several students who boarded with their in-laws, along with some from the yeshiva, who amused everyone with funny topical rhymes.

Itzel Zogerer, a scholarly Jew who was shy as a rule, turned playful under the influence of several drinks: He twisted the visor of his silk hat to the back, making like a drunken soldier, and cried out as though he were guzzling:

“Yiv-v-v-oneh hamikdesh!” [“May the Temple be rebuilt!”]

Leyzer Mendels, a little guy who could get drunk on half a glass, was also in a Russian mood. He sang:

“Oy, reboyne-shel-oylem, [Oh, Lord of the Universe!]”
“Zatchem ti ne smotrish, [Why don’t you look] ”
“Zatchem ti ne vidish [why don’t you see] ”
“Mar goleseynu [our bitter exile!]”

And the crowd sang along:

“Mar goleseynu perebudyom [Our bitter exile we will survive],”
“La’aretzeynu fort poidyom [Our own land we will yet find]!”

But more high-spirited than anyone was Henekh the candlemaker, a delicate young man but quite a good fellow. Since it was already beginning to get dark and afternoon prayers were more or less over, they all set off, singing, bringing their gabbais to the shul.

Henekh walked up front. He wore only the right sleeve of his coat, carrying the left side tucked under his left arm. A top hat, not his own and much bigger than his head, was pushed down over his eyes, so barely the tip of his long nose could be seen.

With him went Leyzer Ziskes. A personable young man with a thin black beard, he ran a religious school for boys, and his wife baked the best sugar cakes in town. He had a talent for making faces and letting out with a strange, queer voice; nobody could keep from laughing while he sang and clowned. Just like Henekh, he wore a top hat and draped his coat about his shoulders. Henekh led the crowd in singing as they marched:

HenekhYo Adir, yo adir, [God is almighty]
The crowdAdirey amkho yisroel. [The Almighty of the nation of Israel]
Henekh: Adir b’ney beyskho, beyskho iboneh. [We will build your mighty house]
V’shem neshemakh kulonu, kulonu. [All, all rejoice in thy name]
The crowdGodoylim v’ktonim yokhed oteynu [great and small, together with us]
Yiru eyneynu, v’yismakh libeynu, v’sogel nafsheynu [Our eyes will see, our hearts rejoice and our souls delight]
Bimheyro biyomeynu, haleluye. [Speedily in our days, speedily in our days, hallelujah]
Yo borakh … and so forth through the alphabet.

A platoon of youths surrounded Henekh and Leyzer Ziskes and joined in singing. Others did little dances, all in honor of the gabbai, who walked with the rabbi, his assistant Reb Moishl, and the other scholars and gentlemen of the Talmud Society.

Coming to the corner of Long Street, where the road to the shul-yard began, the Talmud Society met up with the Burial Society, which had left Aba Refoel’s house singing and dancing. Their chief gabbai was being led under the arms of two earlier chief gabbais, and accompanied by many of the town’s leading citizens. A couple of the assistants, who were quite well oiled, got tied up in knots and kept crying out: “Make way, here comes the gabbai!”

When the two societies met, they greeted each other with merry cries of “gut yontif” and the Burial Society allowed the Talmud Society to go first. Just then the Psalm Society joined them, and the singing and cheerful greetings echoed through the town.

The kloyz’s Talmud Society, leading its own gabbai, arrived from German Street at the corner of Calvinist Alley, making less of a clamor than the other societies.

Spotting from afar the Jews of the study-house and shul, the kloyzniks stayed put, and waited until the last of the societies had left for the synagogue yard. Then they went down Long Street and turned past Aba Meishe’s tavern in Smilga Street to the kloyz. Thus did the kloyzniks avoid meeting up with the study-house people.

While the town elders had been dining, napping and celebrating with their societies, the young people had not relaxed for a minute. Bigger boys brought barrels to the Smilga garden, and the smaller ones hauled evergreen boughs from nearby sukkas [huts] in the shul yard, Bath Street and Smilga Street.

Directed by Yoke Tucker’s son Dovid and his helpers, the barrels were placed in rows 15 to 20 feet apart. Three or four barrels were set on top of each other, so that they looked like large chimneys. The bottom one was usually a tar barrel, and was filled with spruce boughs.

As soon as it became dark, the boughs in the bottom barrels were lit, and the flames rose up just like in the chimney of a smelter oven. The more the boughs and tar burned, the bigger the flames grew; and the darker it fell, the brighter the sparks burned, rising like a fountain amid the dense smoke carried up from the barrel-chimneys.

The garden was soon filled with screams and shouts of delight from the children, who had assembled from all over town. The rows of barrels extended down to the Smilga, and in the dark their flames were reflected in the calm water, turning the little creek into a burning strip of light between two dark banks.
And as the dark autumn night fell, the rows of flaming barrels, surrounded by multitudes of children, dancing, singing and running from one chimney to another, became a kind of magical tableau, revealing something secret, mysterious and glorious.

* * *

Inside the shul, meanwhile, an entirely different scene was unfolding. Ever since the afternoon service ended, the synagogue’s assistant caretaker and his helpers had been busy setting candles in the chandeliers.

Gigantic brass chandeliers with scores of candle tubes hung above the synagogue, suspended by strong ropes from round wooden beams built into the attic, above the ceiling. These could be turned by a handle to raise or lower the chandeliers.

The aron kodesh – holy ark – in Keidan’s Great Shul.

On the ceiling itself, paintings of clouds and stars representing the sky surrounded the holes through which the chandelier ropes hung. Each opening was adorned by a specially painted vignette. From the ceiling’s center, suspended between the holy ark and the reader’s desk, hung the biggest, most elaborate chandelier – a massive thing, with scores of candle-tubes on each branch. Ringing the opening through which it hung was a gigantic fish – the Leviathan – holding its tail in its mouth. We children knew it was a miracle that the Leviathan, which encircled the whole world, kept its tail in its mouth. Because if, God forbid, he should let it go, the seas would overflow their banks and the whole world would be flooded.

That Sukkos the shul had received a surprise gift. Hirsh the Cooper (the father of Moshe Leib Lilienblum, the eminent early Zionist) had fashioned a special chandelier out of enormous wooden hoops. Resembling the skeleton of a gigantic globe, the chandelier was decked with colored paper flowers, with tin tubes fastened to the horizontal hoops to hold the candles. Reb Hirsh had labored long to make the chandelier, using all his skills as a cooper. He had brought it into the shul in pieces before the holiday began, then assembled and hung it near the holy ark

All during Sukkos the colorful, giant chandelier had been admired by Keidaners who had come to hear the new cantor. Now it was being set with candles, with Reb Hirsh closely supervising several boys to make sure they did it correctly, and testing to make sure every candle was firmly in place.

Up in the attic several skilled youths manned the beam handles, unrolling the ropes until the chandeliers were low enough for those below to reach up and insert the candles. Those standing below directed, shouting “lower” and “higher” up to the shul’s high ceiling.

As darkness fell, the assistant caretaker and his helpers began to light the candles. As each chandelier was lit up, those underneath would shout instructions: “Draw it up!” “Higher!” “Lower!” “Hold it!” Reb Hirsh’s hoop chandelier was saved for last. Meanwhile the congregation was beginning to arrive for the Torah procession. As the signals – “higher, higher!” – rang out, the gigantic decorated globe with its hundreds of lit candles rose majestically, like a ball of stars. The growing crowd called out its admiration while Reb Hirsh, a little man with a thin white beard, stood petrified, his face flaming with excitement, grinning proudly at his handiwork.

Light poured from the hundreds of candles, illuminating the hand-carved reliefs on the shul’s spectacular wooden ark. Filling nearly the center third of the large eastern wall, the ark was divided into three sections from the bima up to the ceiling: The lowest, with the Torah curtains and holy books inside; the second with the crowned tablets of the Law, and the third with a priest’s hands making the sign of benediction.

The strong light brought out in detail all the unique artistry of the ark’s construction, as well as that of the lectern, with its carved lions, menorahs and ceremonial vessels bedecked with flowers, all gilded and painted.

The images on the ceiling – animals, birds, everything was so distinctly brought out that you could not keep from raising your eyes and marveling at the artistry that graced the synagogue. They never got old, these dear familiar images, painted and carved years before by unknown craftsmen whose religious devotion found expression in their work.

People now began arriving in greater numbers. Fathers led young children by the hand, and mothers carried infants in their arms. Nearly all the children, whether held by their parents or walking on their own, carried sticks with paper flags glued on. Many of the sticks had hollowed-out carrots fastened to their tips, with candles stuck in. Others were mounted with little pumpkins carved with windows all around, and candles burning inside like lanterns.

The festival procession at Simchas Torah was the only time during the year when women would enter the men’s sanctuary. It was mostly mothers with children, but young girls would also congregate along the western wall, around the entrance and in the foyer. So, rather than go to their own seats, young men would hang back by the foyer and the outer doors, exchanging glances and occasionally words with the girls.

From the synagogue-yard came the singing of the societies escorting their officers. First, the Talmud Society came from the study house, dancing and singing until their gabbai had been brought to his place along the eastern wall.

Next, the Burial Society entered the shul, singing and escorting its own chief gabbai to his seat by the eastern wall, to the right of the ark. Then came the Psalm Society, leading its gabbai, also with song. The now quite inebriated Leyb Peretz and Mendy Kirzner went before the group, embracing each other.

Spotting the crowd, Leyb Peretz shouted out, in his strange voice: “Behold God’s holy flock!” and a hundred voices of all descriptions thundered back: “Meh-h-h!” This was repeated for some time, until everyone was inside the shul, and the Psalm Society gabbai had been escorted to the eastern wall, on the left side of the ark.

The shul filled up. The singing stopped. Gershon Pimshtein and an improvised choir, including both young people and elders, had set themselves up near the cantor’s pulpit. On the bima, Leyzer the head shamash [shul caretaker] received a wink from the head gabbai, and with a well-practiced hand gave the reader’s lectern a rap that rang out over the whole shul. The noise from the assembled crowd gradually decreased. Leyzer rapped the lectern a couple more times, and the shul became quiet.

The improvised choir with Gershon Pimshtein as cantor began a High Holiday-like introduction to the borechu prayer and almost the whole congregation, except the wives, fell in singing a parody of the high-holiday chant. The whole Simchas Torah evening service was prayed in such a fashion, with Gershon Pimshtein demonstrating his cantorial ability and the whole congregation serving as choir. Leyzer the shamash diplomatically distributed prayer readings among the upper classes, according to each one’s status; by repeating verses several times he was able to satisfy everyone.

The procession began with the chief rabbi, the gabbais, and the town’s leading citizens. Then came the heads of household carrying the Torah scrolls, followed by bachelors holding the books of the Prophets, and after them children with flags.

No matter how loud Gershon prayed, he couldn’t be heard because the sanctuary was full and everyone was singing or humming along. The stone staircase by the outer lobby was filled with young women and girls who wouldn’t venture further inside, so when the procession arrived by the western wall, giving the women a chance to kiss the scrolls, there was such congestion that the marchers could hardly move. But in the exalted mood of the holiday, the elders smiled and patiently allowed the “young ladies” to kiss the scrolls.

Older women and the very religious ones filled their upstairs section of the shul, and were satisfied to merely look down through the grates at the “liberties” being taken by the young people, thinking to themselves: “Well, after all, it is Simchas Torah.”

* * *

The Torah procession was also an occasion for something completely different: namely, the settling of old scores. This was a custom generally restricted to younger people of the poorer classes, as well as workingmen. If someone was carrying a grudge, or had suffered either a real or imagined injury from any person or group, the conflict would come to a head on Simchas Torah.

Jews, even young ones, don’t get drunk and fight in the middle of the year – that’s for the goyim. On one of their holidays or a market day, goyim will meet in a bar and get drunk, start singing and end up fighting murderously among themselves, bloodying each other till they’re pulled apart half dead. Even close friends or relatives can’t drink without starting to fight.

But on Simchas Torah it’s considered a mitzvah for Jews to get drunk, so that was also the right time to settle accounts. And if the one whose head you had to knock for justice’s sake was a strapping young guy who could take on the whole town, well, plenty of gallant youths stood ready to follow you into battle, in exchange for a few drinks.

Young working-class Jews would spend most of Shmini Atseres celebrating with their friends. At dusk, primed with liquor, they went first to watch the barrels being burned, then to the Torah procession to flirt with their girlfriends.

Suddenly people began running toward the synagogue yard. At first it looked like the whole town was fighting; young and old grappled, ripped and tugged, punched and boxed, kicked and cursed. Because it was dark, with only a faint glow coming from the lights inside the study house, you couldn’t tell precisely who was hitting whom. Women and girls, presumably relatives of the brawlers, deafened the shul yard with their screaming and wailing.

But amid the shouting and cursing people could hear things like this: “From your little machine you should get cholera!” … “You and your sewing machine are taking bread from our mouths, damn your bones!” And from this, everyone understood who was fighting and why.

Ever since that summer when Shmuel Yude the tailor bought the town’s first sewing machine and was flooded with work right up to the holidays, the other tailors had been in rebellion. They vowed to get even with Shmuel Yude, and particularly with Black Shleyme, who was engaged to Sore Beylka, Shmuel Yude’s daughter. Black Shleyme was actually the one who had persuaded Shmuel Yude to buy the sewing-machine and was its main operator. The tailors’ anger had been growing ever since the sewing machine had arrived, and the whole town had flocked to see and marvel at it. The jealous tailors vowed to destroy the machine.

Now, Shmuel Yude was well-liked; moreover, his workers, a half-dozen young men in all, were devoted heart and soul to Black Shleyme, and would have sacrificed their lives for both Shmuel Yude’s family and his machine, in which they took great pride. Because of that, the conspiracy was actually discovered in time, and the young tailor who was leading the plot to break the machine had been slapped around sufficiently to keep him from trying such a thing.

That the tailors were preparing to get even on Simchas Torah with the machinniks, as they called Shmuel Yude and his workers, was an open secret. Thus both sides had time to lay their plans in advance. Shmuel Yude’s many sympathizers had enlisted allies among the other tradesmen on Shmini Atseres with drinks and food, getting loaded themselves in the process. They set out for the evening in groups, ready to fight, before the Torah procession. As usual, people went out to the Smilga garden to see the barrels being burned. When it was dark, however, an apprentice came and warned Shmuel Yude’s workers and their friends that in the synagogue yard the tailors were starting to fight. That’s just what they were waiting for.

They sped off to the synagogue yard, and threw themselves at the rebellious tailors. Fists and kicks flew in such a mishmosh that you couldn’t tell who was hitting whom, or which side was winning. Who knows how long this would have kept up if not for the sudden arrival of the keepers of municipal order, the constables Avrom Parkh (“the Scab”) and Heshel Bul (“the Club”), who arrived together with Antonye – the imperial Russian police commissioner’s right-hand man.

Antonye, a short, fat goy, was barely on his feet thanks to his many visits to householders on Shmini Atseres. In a faded, brass-buttoned uniform he looked rather like an old retired soldier: He wore no epaulets, his hat carried the badge of a customs officer, and the oversized sword hanging down from his shoulder strap dragged on the ground. Conscious of his important office, however, Antonye spewed choice Russian curses and threw orders at the two Jewish constables.

Avrom Parkh was a tall, skinny man with a grey goatee. He had been one of the child-snatchers in Tsar Nikolai’s time, and thanks to his former occupation he still evoked terror in the hearts of Keidan Jews, who as children had trembled at the mere mention of his name. He wore an old soldier’s cloak and military hat without badge, both of which were too big for him, and an old sword whose blade and handle were both so rubbed down that it looked like an imitation. Toothless, his hoarse voice straining, Avrom tried in almost a fatherly way to calm the furious masses: “Tsk now, this won’t do on a holiday. It’s Simchas Torah, this is blasphemy! Damn your grandfathers!”

Heshel Bul was also a retired Nikolai soldier, a husky man whose beardless face was full of anger beneath his fat mustaches. He wore a soldier’s cloak and a decorated hat that still fit him. His brass-handled sword in a black scabbard, and the black belt on his coat, gave him an authentic military demeanor. He immediately proceeded to restore order, prying the combatants apart by pulling at their hair or clothes.

Heshel cursed in Yiddish and Russian and did not spare any of the brawlers, giving each one a punch or a slap, whatever it took. “A plague on you! … Let go, you bums, or else…” Heshel thundered in his deep voice, which resonated as from an empty barrel while he worked with both hands.

It didn’t take long for the fight to stop, though the evidence remained on the faces and clothes of many participants.

“Get along with you!” cried Antonye, and gradually people separated, mingling with the crowd that had already begun heading home from shul after the Torah procession.

* * *

The next day – Simchas Torah – the shul was no longer full. The procession took place without excitement, almost casually. Children took part with half-torn flags and unlit carrot-candlesticks. After praying, people in all the shuls and minyans shared honey-cake and whisky, which had been bought with the pledges made by those called to read from the Torah. People would pledge a half-quart of whiskey or a pound of cake, and in each minyan and little prayer house, the gabbai or a trustee then ordered whatever had been pledged. After the holiday was over an assistant would collect enough from the donors to reimburse the gabbai.

By morning the heavens had turned ominous, stretching a grey cloak over the town as if in sorrow that the beautiful Sukkos holiday season was passing. Gradually the sky clouded up, and as the people left the shul around noontime, a glossy drizzle was falling. Slowly, hesitantly, as if it didn’t really want to interfere with the last day of Simchas Torah, the drizzle grew heavier and more constant, throwing a melancholy mood over the city.

After noon the rain stopped, but the clouds kept the sky overcast as a warning that autumn was approaching. The rain’s pause gave the people an opportunity to go to afternoon prayers, and later to stroll on the bridge to bid the holiday farewell. But the crowd on the bridge was none too big, wary of the threat of rain.

When it was time for evening prayers, a stronger rain did break out, letting everyone know that the cheerless Lithuanian autumn was coming on, bringing dark nights and muddy days to the city and countryside.

Often during the day there still appeared half-drunken men, those who had stayed behind with their friends making “blessings.” By nightfall, however, the streets were dead. Some shopkeepers tried opening their stores, but no customers came. The rain had transformed the streets into puddles, which partly reflected the glow of an open shop, or a lighted house window. The stores didn’t remain open long, and a thorough darkness spread itself over the streets, accompanied by a stillness that amplified the sound of the raindrops falling steadily over everything.

Around ten o’clock in the evening the rain noise was interrupted by a tune, which started far away and then grew nearer, accompanied by a pair of feet tramping through the puddles. This was the young schoolteacher Hatzkel, who had spent the whole day of Simchas Torah visiting his pupil’s families, and had gotten good and loaded. He stayed late with a friend, and thus went home drunk and soaked from the rain, to which he was oblivious. He was still shlepping through the streets and singing, in a monotone, Dovid Feinsinger’s new melody from the high-holiday prayer services:

“Oy vyomer, oy a-dayshem selakhti,
“Selakhti, k-de-vor-r-r-ekho. – Oy
“Vyomer, oy a-dayshem selakhti k-dev-v-or-r-rekho.”

The tune rolled on and on, without end. And with that, Keidan’s joyous Shmini Atseres and Simchas Torah came to a close.


Translated by A. Cassel 

Footnotes

  1. Prayer groups, required to have 10 adult males
  2. synagogue.
  3. the town’s other large synagogue
  4. The seventh day of the Sukkot holiday
  5. From the Hebrew “Yom Tov” or holiday
  6. fried dumplings
  7. holiday marking the renewal of the annual cycle of Torah readings
  8. khevre kedisha – literally, “holy society”
  9. literally “commandment”, but also used to describe a good deed or selfless act