Shevuot in Keidan

by B. Cassel


Published (in Yiddish) in “The Keidaner” monthly bulletin of the Keidaner Assn. of NY, June, 1941.


After Pesach, Spring ruled our lives more and more each day. The days became warmer, lighter. From after cheder until bedtime there was more time to play outdoors, and also more time to devote to making toys. As long as you had a pocket-knife you could make almost anything: a little mill from a nut, a stick of wood, a potato and thread. A windmill from a stick, a small nail and a bit of paper. Trick-boards; bows and arrows from a half-hoop, a rope and a pointed twig. A pistol from a goose’s foot-bone and a stick of wood, and so forth.

But the chief pursuit in those few spring weeks was making whistles from the tender, supple shoots of the willow trees. For some reason Keidan used to be inundated in that season with those kinds of shoots: people would twist them into planks and baskets and carriers. But we youngsters would make whistles and flutes. A certain length was cut from the smooth shoot, some little holes were poked out, it was soaked in water, and with a few taps on the shoot the bark stripped off like a shirt. A little piece of wood was inserted not far from the top hole and the whistle, or flute, was ready.

It was, however, the time of Sfire1, and you couldn’t whistle, or everyone would glare at you for being an impudent smart-aleck.

Lag b’Omer2 relieved some of the season’s severity, but only for a day. So everyone really seized that day, making bows and arrows and going to the woods outside town for a picnic.

But from the first day of Sivan on, life began to be transformed. From then until Shevuot we went half-days to cheder: Rosh Chodesh3 and the “three days of setting bounds”4 were already preparation days for Shevuot. People went prospecting in the Skongale, where you could cut fragrant water-grass for spreading on floors, and pick bunches of lilacs and other blossoms to stick in the beams and rafters in honor of Shevuot.

The half days that we spent in cheder were devoted to a different sort of study than usual: The story of Ruth, her love with Boaz in the field at night among the harvested sheaves. It was filled with images of field, country and nature, things not foreign to us Keidaner children. Then the chanted study of Akdomes,5 with its poetic portrayal of the glory of the Ruler of the World, whom even “if all the forests were your pens and all the waters ink” it would be impossible to describe.

The other half of the free days we spent in different games and in expeditions to Kelerke’s fields, the court road or across the river.

All that, together with the abundant vegetation and colorful cherry blossoms in the orchards in and around the town, which filled the air with pleasant smells, filled our young hearts with happiness and joy.

Two days before Shevuot I went off with my closest friends to Yanushova, where my mother kept a garden and orchard. I and the gang picked many bunches of lilacs to decorate the house for the holiday. The road home, through Long Street, was a gauntlet; from all sides we children were besieged with demands: “Give me a bit of lilac.” But we usually answered “Go chew some mud!” because if we happily supplied everyone who asked, we’d wind up at home without a single flower.

The day before Shevuot we went to cut water-grass at the bottom of the Skongale. We chopped it into little bits, and when Mother had cleaned up the house and scrubbed the floor with yellow sand, she spread the water-grass around the house.

It was still very light outside. The house was cleaned and festive, the windows hung with clean drapes; from Apteik’s orchard, near where our house stood, a breeze came through the open window carrying smells of blooming fruit trees, and mixed with the scent of lilac and water-grass in the house. Father headed for the bath house in honor of the holiday.

Meishe “the Heart” (he got the nickname because he always went around with an open “heart,” meaning his chest was exposed because his shirt was unbuttoned) – the shamash6 of the Eyn Yaakov synagogue, where my father prayed, came with a basket collecting candles for the synagogue. Accepting the few tallow candles that Mother gave him, he found it necessary to say a few words in praise of the Shevuot holiday: “A Jewish house smells like the Garden of Eden!” and, detecting the smell of the dairy-pastries, the babke with saffron and the coffee that was the centerpiece of the Shevuot meal, he added: “I tell you Chaya Sheyna, I’m so fond of coffee that I don’t know if I can hold out until Shevuot!”

As we came home from shul after evening prayers, and Father made the holiday kiddush7 over raisin-wine, the holiday felt quite unlike Pesach and Sukkos. First the dairy supper, that we ate only during Shevuos, with farfel-tzimmes and saltenosis,8 filled with cheese and fried in butter and sour cream, and then a strange sense of freedom. Father sits down to say the Tikun Shevuos prayer, and I run around outside with the children, free as a bird. Mother doesn’t even chase us to bed.

In the morning Father came from shul early — he had prayed at dawn, before I had done more than bless my tzitzes9 – and we ate breakast with the babke, something that happened only on Shevuot.

Then we went strolling until noon. And then more delicious dairy dishes with blintzes and coffee. After eating, a stroll in Yanushova to visit the orchard and garden. That is how the holiday was spent in this world. It was like taking a vacation, and it was very welcome.

And that is why, truly, Shevuot has remained in my memory as the happiest holiday of my youth.

 

Translated by A. Cassel

Footnotes

  1. The 40 days between Pesach and Shevuot, traditionally a time when Jews were meant to behave with solemnity.
  2. The 33rd day after Passover, traditionally a time for outdoor excursions
  3. The first day of a new month
  4. The three days before Shevuot in the Jewish calendar, from the Biblical commandment to “set bounds” around the tents of the Hebrew encampments near Mt. Sinai.
  5. A hymn traditionally sung by Ashkenazic Jews on the first day of Shevuot.
  6. synagogue assistant or caretaker
  7. blessing
  8. A Lithuanian-Jewish dairy dish, made of triangular shaped kreplakh filled with cottage-cheese.
  9. Fringes, traditionally worn under clothing but often exposed