Out of My Past
A tale of a vanished world Jewish life in Vilkaviskis before the First World War
By Harold Freed
Harold Freed was born in Vilkaviskis on the 28th December 1890
By kind permission of David Perl [his grandson]
Out of My Past
The population of my town, Vilkaviskis was about 8,000 of which 70% were Jewish, the rest Lithuanians, Poles and Russians and a few Germans. Its main industry consisted of hog bristles factories. The bristles were brought in from Russia, cleansed, sorted and packed and shipped to Germany, France and England for the manufacture of brushes. The workers in these factories were exclusively Jewish. The next prominent occupations were commerce and agriculture. A number of Jewish families tilled the soil, mostly with the aid of outside help and some made a living raising produce and fruit. A number were engaged in the export business to Germany, these were especially busy in the fall when flocks of geese numbered in the thousands were driven on foot to the border and there loaded on railroad cars and shipped to all parts of Germany. Grain, flax and especially cherries in great quantities were also exported to Germany. The latter were used in the making of that favorite German drink Kirschenshnapps. All the trade was exclusively in Jewish hands. A number of Jews also travelled through the countryside buying up produce from the peasants for resale in the city.
My grandfather managed his land holdings, but father owned a tobacco factory in partnership with an uncle of mine. Its main product was course leaf tobacco sold in bundles and looking unlike whisk brooms. The peasants smoked it in their long porcelain pipes. The Jews got along well with their Lithuanian neighbors. I have no recollections from my early youth of any disturbances, fights or even pogroms.
Our city, being near the border, had a permanent military establishment, a regiment of dragoons who were quartered in a handsome brick barracks on the outskirts of the town. They wore a fancy uniform; the color of their pants was a bright blue. The town next to us, Mariampol, had a regiment of hussars who wore red pants. I remembered when they transferred the dragoons to Mariampol and the hussars from Mariampol to Vilkovisk. Since to our people both types of soldiery looked alike, both being cavalry, they couldn't understand why the Russian government went to all the expense, when the shipment just of red trousers to our town and the blue ones to Mariampol would have done the job just as effectively.
Out of My Past Part 3
My native city Vilkovishk was not a pretty place , there were no lawns or flowers. The houses were drab and built right up to the sidewalk. People were too absorbed in making a living and did not have the leisure to beautify their property. The only free time, the weekends, were spent in rest and religious observance, such as prayers or meetings in the synagogue to study the Law. The Catholic clergy were the only ones in the town who had large and beautiful gardens with well kept lawns located right in the center of the city next to the cathedral.
Vilkovishk has been on the map for many centuries. It had about half a dozen Jewish houses of prayer. The main synagogue was said to be almost three hundred years old. It was a beautiful ancient wooden structure of a quaint architecture and well suited for defense purposes if occasion would demand. It has been mentioned in the Jewish encyclopedia as a fine example of the old Polish - Lithuanian style; it was never used for study only for prayer meetings. A small plaza was in front of the synagogue and on Simchas Torah the congregation used to stage religious dances, with the sacred scrolls of the Law being carried around by the most prominent citizens. Around the square were square were several prayer and study houses , a "hekdash" a house for the indigent or sick people who couldn't take care of themselves and a ritual bathhouse. This bathhouse was used very often and regularly , by the observant Jews and, since no bathing facilities in homes existed, it contributed much to sound hygiene. The bathing, not unlike a baptismal rite, had the sanction of a religious function. If one watched this group of people enthusiastically steaming and flagellating themselves in this ritual bathhouse with birch tree branches, one would much hesitate to apply the epithet "dirty" to them.
Out of My Past Part 4
Our town is mentioned in several biographies of Napoleon, as the last place in Russia through which he passed into Germany on his flight from the disastrous campaign of 1812. My great grandmother, who died at the age of 100, and whom I dimly remember, was said to have seen the emperor and his staff passing through the town. In fact one of the streets was named French Street as it lay on the direct route of the retreat of the disorganized Grand Army. A small synagogue located on that street was still called the "French Synagogue"
The streets of our town were paved with large crushed rock and, since the wheels of the wagons and carriages were made of iron, one could hear the clatter of an approaching vehicle when it was a long way away. The houses were mostly wooden one-story dwellings and only an occasional brick building. All the stores were built around a large square in the center of the town. The houses all had heavy shutters which were closed every night even during the summer months. No electricity, no running water or sewage was present. The profession of plumbing was entirely unknown. There was even no name for it. Privies were all outside and of very primitive construction, and the inconvenience of their use in the bitter cold of our winters can only be imagined
Out of My Past Part 5
There were no hospitals in our town of 8,000, only two physicians and one practical obstetrical nurse. In later years, when I was already in my teens, a dentist settled in the community. Emergencies, such as cases of appendicitis, either got well or died without the benefit of surgery. Yet there were a surprisingly large number of old people. Each home had an open well in the backyard, sometimes right next to the privy. It is no wonder that typhoid fever was a wide spread disease and claimed many victims.
The climate of our town was a cold one: warm weather only lasted three months of the year and, when snow covered the ground in October, it stayed there till April. To mitigate the rigors of the cold weather the women used, throughout the winter, what was called a "fire pot". It was a medium size earthen pot filled with glowing live coals. The women kept it between their legs when sitting down in the house doing sewing or any other kind of household chores. The pot was invisible because of the long skirts reaching to the floor which the women of those days wore. Accidents occurred occasionally when the voluminous underskirts caught fire.
Out of My Past Part 6
Open fire in the household was started early in the morning and kept going until bedtime. Upon arising almost everyone drank a glass of hot tea with a piece of lump sugar held in the mouth while drinking . Later at 10 o'clock, one had his breakfast consisting usually of coffee, bread and butter, cheese and an occasional egg. Lunch was partaken of around three in the afternoon and it was the main meal of the day. The fare consisted of a piece of raw herring, soup and soup meat. Desserts were unknown. Teas, with bread and butter or preserves were served for supper. In the winter time instead of preserves, goose fat was spread on the bread, invariably, the samovar was singing merrily on the table.
The preparation of a meal for an unexpected guest was a difficult undertaking. Since refrigeration was unknown meat could only be kept for a day or two. The housewife, who wanted to serve chicken, considered the proper dish for a guest, at first had to catch the chicken in the open yard. As everyone kept a few chickens for special occasions, for a guest, or a Sabbath meal. The bird was taken to the "shochet" the ritual slaughter, to have killed according to the Mosaic Law. The shochet however, had to be hunted up, for he could as well be at the synagogue, or market place or visiting with friends. After the chicken was killed it had to be plucked, soaked in water for half an hour, sprinkled with salt and let stand for another hour. All this according to the Law, so by the time the dinner was cooked the hostess had a very hungry guest on her hands. The housewife, living in a cool climate, could keep perishable foods in an outside pantry for about 8 months of the year.
Out of My Past Part 7
Jewish cooking was quite imaginative; however it tended to be rich in fat, as chicken fat was used extensively in most dishes. Specifically Jewish dishes were gefilte fish - fish ground up and rolled in balls and cooked thoroughly with various spices, Tzimes, Kugel, Tcholent and many , many other dishes. If food was good it was said to have a "Jewish taste", presumably the acme of good taste. Since tropical fruits were unobtainable, delicious preserves were made of simple vegetables, such as beets, radishes and turnips. These were thinly sliced, spiced and cooked in thick syrup. These delicacies were served to important guests, to be served tea or taken in case of illness - preserves were the most popular home remedies for many ailments.
A few words about the institution of Kashruth,. every household had to have two sets of dishes and silverware, one for dairy products and the other for meat. Two extra sets of dishes were also used for the week of Passover. One was not allowed to eat milk products after partaking of meat unless he waited for 6 hours. The poultry and cattle had to be killed under the strict specifications of the Mosaic Law. All these rituals took a great deal of time of our parents and grandparents and many generations before them. They were burdensome but they were always cheerfully complied with since this was the Jewish Law and it was part of daily life. There is much truth in the statement sometimes made, that these dietary observances contributed more than anything else to the preservation of the Jewish people, despite its many wanderings and persecutions throughout the centuries.
The restrictive dietary laws and rather simple fare did not prevent people from being sturdy and reaching an advanced age, but infant mortality rate was high, and very few families there were who had not lost one or more children. The law of the survival of the fittest was fully operative in our environment. A frequent sigh was peasants from the country arriving in town for church attendance and trading. It was not uncommon at all to see some of them with large tumors on their necks, heads or faces. There evidently was no attempt made to remove them surgically. Even the Jews who were known for their solicitude about health, carried superficial tumors with them thorough out life. With one physician in a town of 8,000 and no hospital , the people carried their load of disabilities, and only in extreme cases traveled for medical aid to Konigsberg, the nearest large German city.
Out of My Past Part 8
The Jews, although living under very restrictive ordinances, under numerous rules, violation of which were punished severely, still had complete autonomy when it came to their religious and cultural life. They enjoyed complete independence in regulating their religious life, as though they lived in their own country. This was the only ray of sunshine in their otherwise bleak existence.
The Jewish population was highly literate; while among their non-Jewish neighbors were a great many who could not read or write. Among the Jews there was no illiteracy, except for the mentally defectives. Irrespective of means, parents saved their few rubles or kopecks and sent their children to the "cheder" where they all received an education in Hebrew. The Bible was the principle textbook, the Old Testament only being used in the studies. The great majority never went farther in their education than the cheder, but still strived throughout their lives to increase their knowledge. The study of Hebrew lore was continued in the little prayer houses or "Klauses" which used to cluster around the main synagogue of the town. Our little town had half a dozen of such prayer houses which functioned under the names of " tailors" prayer house, the "carpenter's " prayer house etc. These plain working people used to congregate there in the evenings, on Sabbath or on holidays, to hear discussions on some chapters of the Talmud or Bible led by a member of the congregation more learned than the others.
Ours was a patricidal society. The man was the unquestionable head of the house, around which the household resolved. He was catered to both by his children and wife. Father entered the house and his entire household waited on him. I never recall my father ever attempting to pour a glass of tea for himself, mother generally anticipating his desires. Many shopkeepers, were running the entire business by themselves and were making a living for the family, thus allowing the man of the house leisure to attempt three services in the synagogue daily, besides taking part in the communal affairs, which was part of the process of storing up "wealth" for the hereafter. The Jewish male never had it so good. If the man was the king, the wife was the queen of the household. The relationship between wife and husband was very tender and though he was the master of the house he showed his wife all the respect due to a junior partner.
Death especially among older people was taken for granted. Extreme measures were not resorted to prolong life in hopeless cases as is done today. When a noted Talmudic scholar or a pious man was critically ill, it was customary to send the beadle of the synagogue around to solicit "days" for the sick man's account. People used to say "donate" a week, a month, or more of their life to the good man and pray to God to transfer their time to the sick person's account. Since those involved in these transactions believed in them implicitly, it really was a noble deed. On the other hand, if a young man was critically ill his name was changed to another name to confuse the angel of death. Commonly the new names were Alter, which means "the old one"
An incidence of the death of the old grandfather of our neighbor Rausuk imprinted itself indelibly on my memory. He was a very old man, a widower, but apparently in good health, attending the synagogue every day. One beautiful morning after returning from the service he announced to his children that his time had come and that he would live only a few days. He went to bed, blessed all of his grandchildren by laying his hands on their heads and reciting the traditional benediction. That evening services by a minyam - ten Jewish males over the age of 13 - were held in the old man's house. For several days we, the neighborhood children, visited him daily. He blessed everyone on of us and gave us a few pieces of hard candy, which he kept separately for that purpose in a paper bag by his bedside. I still remember the serenity, the inward peace of the old man. Even though I was at the time a tot of five I still recall the deep impression this entire occurrence had made on us children. Services were held at his bedside for a week and, as he predicted, he peacefully passed away at the end of this time.
Jewish funerals were very simple. According to the Jewish law the body had to be interred within twenty four hours. The coffin had to be of the plainest wood for the reason that the poorest should have the same funeral as the rich. Since everyone is supposed to be equal before the Lord. The procession in those days was on foot and the people were canvassed by the members of the burial society for donations. I still recall the Hebrew chant of the members soliciting alms " Charity saves from death" No professional mourners were employed, but I was in the big city of Vilna, boys from the Jewish orphan's home marched in front of the casket singing in a plaintive tones the psalms of David. This only the rich could afford
The bright spots in Jewish life were the Sabbath and High Holidays, but above all the Sabbath. Regardless of how poor the family was there were always candles on the Sabbath table, a clean table cloth and white bread , "chala". The ushering in of the Sabbath began late Friday afternoon when all the stores in town closed down and a hushed and reverend holiday spirit descended on the community. The children were scrubbed and washed, put on clean shirts and were then ready for the Sabbath. Preparations for the Sabbath meals were completed, as no cooking was done on the holy day. Two pots, one a potato pudding - Kugel - and another of beans with chicken fat were taken to one of the bakeries in the town, where they were sealed in a large oven. Next morning after the services s more or less large group held one youngster from the family brought it home for the noon meal. On Saturday morning the women generally stayed at home, but the men and boys went to the synagogue, or a private home, where Sabbath services were held. These gatherings also served as a kind of men's club where local and national politics were aired prior to holding the services. I recall dimly the heated discussions of the Dreyfuss affair and later, the Spanish-American war. These events, particularly the war, was closely followed by the Jews, who were passionately pro-American because of the ancient grudge against Spain for the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, the year of the discovery of America.
The main meal, the Friday night meal, was served upon return from the Synagogue, and it was a meal which compensated for the abstemiousness of the entire week. Gefilte fish was served and, if means permitted, chicken and soup and a dish called Tzimes, consisting of prunes, potatoes and brisket. During the time I was away from home, I always had a longing for my mother's Friday night meal. Many years later, when we brought our parents over to the United States, my mother prepared for me a traditional Sabbath meal. To my regret I could not enjoy it, because it was very rich, highly spiced and it gave me a king size indigestion.
The Sabbath day was one of complete rest from physical labors, but there was no rest from religious observances. There were services most of the forenoon, after which the noon meal was partaken of, rest after that, and at three in the afternoon back to the Synagogue to hear perhaps an itinerant preacher discussing some topic from the Talmud, or studying the Law until shortly before sundown, when the traditional third Sabbath meal was consumed. After evening prayers there was an ushering out of the Sabbath in a special and beautiful ceremony called "Havdalah". It consisted of the chanting of blessing over a cup of wine with the head of the household waving a special spice box and then examining his hands to be sure it was dark enough for the termination of the Sabbath.
During the Sabbath all cares and worries of daily life were forgotten and each head of the family was like a king in his domain, with his wife the queen of the household. In retrospect this pleasurable anticipation of the Sabbath reminds me now of nothing more than of Christmas eve, and we had one every weekend of the year. What a pity it's no more with us. Jewish life revolved around the Sabbath, in fact the entire week was a preparation for the holy day of rest.
The three main holidays of the year were Passover, Pentecost and the last month of the Jewish year with its New Year, Yom Kippur and the holiday of "Rejoicing in the Law". The preparations for the holidays, especially Passover, were generally started one month before the holiday. Every house was thoroughly cleaned and scrubbed from attic to cellar. Special pots and pans, dishes and silverware, put away for the entire year and used only for during Passover week were taken out of storage and cleaned and polished. Matzos, unleavened bread, and matzo meal were prepared beforehand, and however poor the family was, the community saw to it that no Jewish home was left without all the necessities for the holiday week. Each household had the traditional Passover wine or mead, a sweet beverage, which was brewed from hops, like beer. The first two nights of Passover were the most solemn. The ceremonial meal, the Seder with its elaborate and inspiring ritual was an event for which we children waited patiently all winter. A turkey or goose was the piece de resistance of the feast. Most housewives began fattening up the bird weeks before the holiday. A favorite method was to place the fowl snuggly in a "gunny sack" , with the bottom perforated for the excreta, hang it up on the barn wall and stuff the critter by hand with fattening food several times daily. The small fry were given filberts and walnuts with which they played games all week long. The nuts were placed in a line on the floor at one end of the room and the players took turns to knock out from the distance as many nuts as possible from the line. A small metal ball was used for that purpose.
Each of the main holidays had its special attractions. Three cornered poppy seed cakes, as odd as they were delicious, were the earmarks of Purim - the feast of Esther. Presents were usually exchanged on that day, theatricals were performed, depicting scenes of the story of Esther. It had all the features of a carnival. It was even incumbent upon the adults to imbibe hard liquor and, on this and other holiday, Simcha Torah, one could enjoy the rare sight of a Jewish drunk, about the only days of the year when you could ever see one.
On Pentecost, which lasted two days, one was regaled by tasty pancakes made of dairy products, called blintzes. Rosh Hashanah was usually the time when one got new clothes. It was incumbent on anyone at that time of the year to make a benediction over new fruits which were tasted for the first time that season. The more exotic the fruit, the more meritorious the deed.
I still recall vividly, one Rosh Hashana morning in my grandfather's house, when our family came to him after services to usher in the New Year. As everybody assembled grandfather I disappeared mysteriously in the next room and brought out something wrapped in a napkin. With everybody watching him intently, he unfolded the object and for the first time in our lives we saw a banana. Slowly he peeled it off, took out his pocket knife and cut it in thin slices for the eight or ten present in the room and gave each one a slice of the fruit. Everybody made a benediction over the piece of banana and enjoyed the rare treat to the utmost.
Years later, when I , as a youth, travelled to Switzerland to study medicine, I stopped over inn Berlin to visit my friend Berle Shapiro who was attending the University there. As I stepped out of the huge Berlin railroad depot the first thing I saw was a fruit stand with plenty of bananas , I had not seen one since my grandfather's days, so I bought six or eight bananas, sat down on a bench nearby and ate them all at one time. I paid a heavy price for the momentary pleasure, having terrible cramps all that day and my visit with my friend was ruined. For years afterwards I could not stand, not only the taste, but even the looks of a banana.
A quaint custom was to attend the synagogue right after midnight during the last days of the year, preceding the Jewish New Year. Special prayers were offered to ask forgiveness for all the misdeeds of the past year. The beadle of the synagogue made the rounds those early mornings and banged on the closed window shutters with a heavy stick to summon the congregation to services. The banging was accompanied by a loud exhortation in Yiddish " Wake up Jews for the service of the Lord" It woke up generally, not only the men folk for whom it was meant, but also the rest of the household, but there was no grumbling about it, for the men were supposed to be praying for their womenfolk as well as for themselves
The first month of the year with its many holidays was both festive as well as a month of prayer. According to tradition man's fate for the entire year is decided in the Heavens above on New Year's day and sealed there on Yom Kippur. The congregation never prayed as fervently as during this month. Especially impressive were the Yom Kippur services, when the older generation, dressed in long white linen robes and slippers, spent the entire day fasting and in continuous prayer.
Our part of the country was very backward. I still recall visiting some farms near our town. The roofs of the houses were straw thatched and the floor was of smooth beaten down earth. The agricultural country around us was a rich one, but all the labor was done by hand. The peasants had never any farm machinery, and if they did they would not have known what to do with it. Grain was threshed by beating it on the earthen floor with a flail, which is a long wooden staff, to the end of which a short heavy swinging club was attached by a leather tongue.
It's hard to believe that these primitive conditions existed only 60 or 65 years ago. The backwardness extended not only to technology, but also to public health and medical facilities. Children were born without benefit of hospitals or physicians. One practical obstetrical nurse attended to all the needs in her field in a town of eight thousand people. Infants were swaddled in linen bandages from head to foot like Egyptian mummies. This was done presumably to keep their limbs straight. They looked like mummies except that they were wailing mummies
A curious custom existed among the well to do classes. The infant was turned over almost immediately after birth to a poor woman in the country who was nursing her own infant. The child was kept by the new mother un till a year old, if it lived that long, and returned to its parents, thus sparing the family the sleepless nights and worries connected with taking care of a new born offspring.
Equally simplified was the matter of marriage of young people. The burden of finding a mate was taken off the shoulders of the boy or girl. It was the parents' responsibility to arrange a marriage with the aid of a "shadchen" - the marriage broker. This worthy knew of course, all the financial and social particulars of his clientele and from a long list of eligible's he matched up the couples. I remember the shadchen who visited my uncle's home, and very proudly pointed to many soup stains on the lapels of his Prince Albert coat, the garb of the gentry. He said the stains were the best proof of his attendance at numerous wedding dinners of couples he had brought together.
The system worked well, perhaps better than the present one: divorces except for reason of childlessness, were practically unknown and the devotion of the Jewish couples to each other was proverbial. A custom which was on the way out when I was yet a child, was for the bride's parents to furnish the new son-in-law and his wife room and board for one, two or even three years after marriage. This gave the newlyweds time to orient themselves and for the young man to find a suitable occupation, in case he didn't have any at the time of his marriage. Weddings were colorful and differed in various sections of the vast country. In Vilna , capital of Lithuania, where I attended the gymnasium , weddings were held in a special hall. The ceremony was performed under the tradition al canopy and the bride was escorted to her "throne" , a high backed chair on a little platform where the guests came by to congratulate her all through the evening. A seated dinner was served and almost one third of the dowry, which the bride brought in, was spent on the wedding.
My uncle Abraham's wedding was one of that type. I remember the affair well. I was then a lad of thirteen or fourteen and met there a remarkable personality whom I never forgot. He was a large handsome man of sixty or seventy. I sat next to him all through the evening and he told me the story of his youth. He ran away from home and joined the guerrillas, who participated in the abortive Polish Rebellion against the Russians in 1863. The rebels spent most of their time deep in the forests of Lithuania and Poland and engaged in constant raids on the regular Russian troops. He told me about his father, who had a premonition that his son would run away from home. One day he called him aside, gave him a silver ruble and told him that he may borrow all he wants on it but never part with it. He said "You are the son of a Jewish mother, and I know you will not be able to observe all our laws. You may transgress a lot but never forsake your Jewish heritage, remain a Jew" and , he added proudly, "I still have the ruble"
Our town also had its quota of odd people which, I found out later, were not rare in other Jewish communities. There was an elderly Jew who was always taking care of some cripple or mental case. He was often seen in company with one or two maimed, blinded or mentally deranged people. He had been taking care of the unwanted for years. When I knew him he was barely able to look after himself, but he was still trying to help other unfortunates. People used to contribute money or old clothes to him. He was truly a sainted man in the best Jewish tradition.
One of the customs which went out about the time I was born was to cut off the bride's hair before the wedding and wearing a wig thereafter. Both my grandmothers wore wigs, but my mother saved her hair and she was the first generation to discontinue that practice.
A man of a different caliber, who was present in nearly every community, was the informer, a type bred in the small Jewish towns by the very existence of the Russian police state. He was generally a frustrated small shopkeeper, usually with psychopathic tendencies, who periodically dispatched unsigned letters to the Russian authorities denouncing people of alleged evasions of the law or of serious crimes, true or fancied. This played right into the hands of the Russians, as they were only too eager to have a pretext to harass the Jewish population. The main activity of these informers was in connection with the military obligations of the young men.
The term of military service was four years of hard grind. The food served was the Russian mujiks / fare which the Jews could not stomach, aside from the fact that it wasn't kosher. These four years of a young man's life were absolutely wasted. No educational facilities like we have in this country were available in the Tsar's army, the treatment by commissioned and non-commissioned personnel was harsh and there was also the rule to send the recruits away from their homes to the opposite corner of the empire. No advancement from the ranks was available to a Jew, not even to the rank of corporal. No wonder that the Jewish youth tried in every possible way to evade military service. Many Jewish young men emigrated to the Americas or to South Africa. Emigration from my section of the country flowed to the U.S. and the Boer republics. A first cousin of mine fought in the Boer war and rose to commissioned status in the Boer Army. The fine and sturdy Jewish community of South Africa is for the greater part of Jewish Lithuanian origin. Those who were about to be called to the colors, who did not emigrate, tried to starve themselves, stay awake nights prior to the examination so as to be underweight and below passing physical standards. Many maimed themselves, inflicting grievous injuries, all for the purpose of evading military duty. In my own immediate circle of friends was a fine strapping fellow who had an ear injury produced by a "specialist", to evade service and who died of meningitis as a result.
They tell the story of a Jewish mother who extolling the virtues of her marriageable son, said that he was just wonderful, that the Tsar would never dream of taking him in the army because his cough was so bad that it sounded as if it were coming out of an empty barrel. I remember vividly when I was three or four years old, a visit to my uncle Sol in the city jail, where he and several other young men were interned at the time of recruitment. This was so-called preventative arrest, as the informer reported that he and his friends planned to flee the country.
The main idea was to appear at the examinations for military service being underdeveloped and underweight for a man of twenty-one. Many subterfuges were employed to fool the Russian authorities, such as recording the infant son older than he actually was, so that he could present himself at eighteen, presumably aged twenty-one, and not meet the physical standards. Many a father was in a quandary about how to register his little one. To record his son younger than his actual age, was an advantage when it came to evading military service, but a handicap when it concerned marriage. It is told that a confused father once came to the rabbi for advice in regard to this matter. When the good man told him that the best thing to do was to register his son at his true age the father conceded that he had never thought of such a simple solution.
When a Jewish young man emigrated before he reported for military service the family was forced to pay a five hundred ruble fine, a very considerable amount in those days.
No family was complete without at least one male. A man's name could be perpetuated only by his son, who would, upon the death of a parent, say Kadish three times a day for an entire year. Kadish was an ancient prayer for the dead, recited by a son. It extols and hallows the name of the Lord and a pious Jew would go to any length to assemble a Minyan for the purpose of reciting this prayer. Another qualification which only a male had was to be raised for the Torah, marriage and good deeds - the Jewish ideal.
My education began when I was four years old with entrance in the Cheder - the Jewish school. Prior to entering it, a teacher, who happened to be a midget, came to our house a couple of times a week for about three months to teach me the Jewish alphabet and rudiments of writing. We used goose quills instead of steel pens, and the teacher taught us how best to make them out of goose wing feathers.
On my first day in Cheder, when I sat down at my desk, a few pieces of candy were dropped from behind in front of me. It was supposed to have come from Heaven. I saw this procedure repeated many times later when a new pupil entered the school. This was supposed to show the student sweet and rewarding was the study of the Torah. This illusion was quickly dissipated, when the irritable teacher chose, in the performance of his duties, not to spare the rod.
The work consisted principally in studying the Old Testament and reciting the daily prayers in Hebrew. There were many cheders in town, some for beginners only and others for older boys. There was quite a rivalry and wars between them, but all presented a united front on the occasional encounter with the non-Jewish boys of the town. They were our sworn enemies and there were never any friendly contacts between us. A favorite sport of ours was to drive a hapless pig in an enclosed yard and chase and hit it with everything we had. It was thought be a good deed, and pleasing to the Lord. Girls never went to cheder but obtained their education at home.
Sports were entirely unknown to us. It was unseemly for a minor as well as for an adult to engage in any sports and, even such an innocent pastime as fishing was frowned upon. We had a few primitive games such as "poliantry". It was played with a small square piece of wood brought to a hedge at one end. It was hit by a stick and made to fly some distance. The girls had a game of throwing certain small highly polished bones from a sheep's hoof. It was played like dice. This, and just running around, comprised all our recreational facilities. Most of the time was devoted to study of the Torah. Occasionally an itinerant group of acrobats used to visit our town. They spread a mattress on the ground on which they performed their acrobatic stunts. My mother always enjoyed watching them and gave them several kopecks when they passed the hat around. She was not as generous though with us children when we asked her for money to ride the carousel on its yearly visit to our town. Her retort, generally, was that they will be back in town next year and then we will get to ride it.
The older group, the teenagers, had as little recreational facilities as the children. One has to keep in mind that ours was a world without automobiles, radio, or television. Cinema art was in its infancy, and the pictures were very primitive. The main recreation of the youth consisted in walks in city parks wherever there was one, but since most small towns had no park the sidewalks of the main street took its place. The boy took the girl out on a walking date and the topic of conversation was generally the latest in current literature. It was a world without dancing, parlors or juke boxes, but there was no juvenile delinquency either. Crimes of violence were extremely rare. No one ever heard of holdups or kidnapping. People were completely safe on the streets or outskirts at any time of the day or night.