RITES OF ADOLESCENCE
1. Boys and Girls
In all times and in all places the age of pubescence has been idealized more than any other stage of man's life. It is the time of yearning and restlessness, of rosy dreams and bitter-sweet melancholy, of sublime exaltation and dark despair--all due to the burgeoning awareness of the opposite sex as the embodiment of heavenly bliss. The poets glorified it as the golden days of spring; religions and societies gave special meaning to it with sacred rites and taboos; but the awakening youth has generally been left to its own devices in groping its way through the delicate phases of courtship and intimacies leading to the realization of that bliss, epitomised in one word--love.
The term "love" was not bandied about lightly in the shtetl. Young people usually consorted with each other in groups, and it was unseemly for a boy and a girl to go off by themselves away from the group's protective ambience. They took pains not to display their attachment to each other in front of their companions, lest it disturb the atmosphere of collective comradeship. A declaration of love was taken very seriously as a solemn pledge of permanent relationship.
Our town had some Hassidim, distinguished by their long black caftans and dangling earlocks, whose children were not given the same freedom of association as those of the Misnagdim--literally: opponents. The latter, though observant Jews, did not reject all worldly progress as profanation. The Misnagdim wore modem European dress, trimmed their beards, and did not shy from strange women as from the plague. They showed an interest in 0lam Hazeh (This World) as against the main concern of the Hassisim with 0lam Habah (The World to Come). They also exhibited a healthy skepticism toward the "wonder-working" Hassidic rebbes, just as they often took to task their own ordained rabbis.
The Misnagdim even went so far as to circulate irreverent anecdotes about the Hassidic rebbes. One of these related to the practice among the believers to send a newly married woman, who did not conceive within a reasonable time, to the rebbe for his blessing. If the young woman became pregnant shortly after the visit it was ascribed to the holy man's intercession. The wags added an incontrovertible proof of the rebbe's powers: that the child invariably looked just like him! No wonder they were stigmatized as "opponents", which to the Hassidim carried the connotation of apostasy.
The Misnagdim, among whom our family belonged, allowed their young people considerable freedom in their social life and activities, provided of course that they did not overstep the bounds of propriety, or leitishkeit. The very young children had no problem in finding playmates--they made friends, fought, and made up again with the neighborhood kids who usually were also their schoolmates. Boys played with boys and showed no interest in girls, except to tease them and demonstrate their masculine superiority. Girls also kept their own company, and did not hesitate to reply in kind to the boys' insults, not infrequently getting the better of the verbal exchange. As they grew older, however, a process of selection set in and friends were chosen on the basis of common interests as well as social status. It was not so much a matter of snobbishness (which did exist) as of adjustment to reality, since the differing economic conditions of necessity led to a parting of the ways. Most of my own childhood playmates, for instance, from the age of ten and even earlier, were enlisted to help in providing for the family either by working with their fathers or being apprenticed to learn a trade, while I continued to study and was even sent away to school in another city. This situation, together with the awakening interest in the opposite sex, led to the formation of different groupings among teen-age youths of the town.
Unlike the simple association of children, that of adolescents was more formalized, especially among the opposite sexes. It was customary for these to become "officially" acquainted before they could meet on a social basis. One way of accomplishing this was for a brother to introduce his sister to a friend, and vice versa. Boys and girls could also introduce their friends of either sex to the new acquaintances. The most popular meeting ground though was the Hoif Gessel (Manor Lane) --a wide alley bordered by old trees which was on the edge of town. It must have been part of an estate at one time, but in my days there was no sign even of an ordinary house there, not to speak of a manor. It was a favorite place for boys and girls to walk by twos or threes on Saturday afternoons, in their best clothes, often carrying books and ostensibly engaged in "serious" conversation, but more interested in the groups of the opposite sex than in their own companions. A dropped book or handkerchief which a boy gallantly picked up, or an apology when two groups met head-on--often deliberately contrived--brought an exchange of shy glances, courteous remarks, some giggles, and an acquaintance was established. Frivolity was not considered in good taste, and idle chatter was taken as a sign of lack of culture--hence the books and "serious" conversation--but pleasantries were permitted once the ice was broken. After one or two more encounters and the introduction of additional friends on both sides a kruzhok (circle) came into being, and no special excuses were needed for further social intercourse.
Circle members gathered at each other's homes periodically and spent the time in communal reading, discussions, singing, and games. The latter were generally also on the serious or educational side, for instance "Charades"--the equivalent of the French Tabieaux Vivants--wherein one or more participants enacted historical or literary characters or scenes which the others had to identify.
Another favorite game was "Flying Letters" wherein each participant addressed an unsigned note, not necessarily complimentary, to any other person, leaving to addressee the guess of the sender's identity. Not surprisingly, the guesses were quite accurate most of the time, despite efforts to disguise the handwriting. However, this game occasionally brought about embarrassing or even painful situations, as when a recipient of unpleasant remarks developed a grudge against a mistakenly supposed sender; or conversely, when the recipient of a love note was filled with rosy dreams about the wrong person, and suffered keen disappointment when the dreams were deflated. There was no dancing in the circles, at least not in the one I belonged to, mainly because of the absence of music.
Before long a process of pairing off would set in, but the couples remained in the circle and did not usually go off by themselves until they, and often also their parents, decided on an eventual permanent relationship. Many factors were considered, especially by the parents, before such decision was reached: social status, family background, economic situation, liability to military service, and so forth. The feelings of the young people toward each other were of course a strong factor, but not always the decisive one. The wise parents kept a vigilant eye on the company of their children, and tried to steer them away from anyone deemed unsuitable before the attachment became too strong. There were occasions when the youngsters rebelled and insisted on their choice despite their parents' objection, leading to domestic clashes and discord, but most of the time a meeting of minds was achieved and the problems were resolved without a complete break in the family harmony.
Older folks were generally so taken up with their occupations and family matters that they had no time for social affairs. For men the synagogue was a common meeting ground, especially after services on Saturday, when religious questions, politics, and business matters were discussed and sometimes quarrelled about. Women always found time to chat with neighbors in the back yard or in the market place, the main topics being children and mutual acquaintances whom they could gossip about. During the Passover and Sukkot holidays it was customary tb visit relatives and friends en famille, and spend a pleasant afternoon around the samovar over glasses of steaming tea, cakes and preserves, while rehashing family affairs and matters of general interest. The largest assemblages, however, occurred at weddings, when all relatives and all friends had to be invited and in which indeed the whole town participated in one way or another.
2. The Wedding
Although marriages reportedly are made in heaven, providence usually took on the guise of the shadhan (matchmaker) to carry out its design. Even when the young couple knew and cared for each other, and the parents were agreeable, it was deemed unseemly to have direct talks about practical arrangements, such as the bride's dowry, amount to be contributed by the groom's father, how the wedding expenses will be shared,the groom's ability to support a family, where the married couple will live, and other such important questions. Even if the parents on both sides were not averse to settle these matters among themselves directly, how could one deprive an honest Jew of his livelihood? So the shadhan was sent for, and the good man began running from one household to the other with proposals, suggestions and compromises, always extolling the virtues of each young person to the parents of the other one and elaborating on the great benefits that will accrue to each family from the union. If too much resistance was encountered he would try to enlist the aid of grandparents or influential family friends, and sooner or later both sides found themselves in agreement and were ready to write Tnoyim (contract of betrothal) and set a date for the wedding.
Like all other important events, weddings followed a prescribed ritual. I vividly remember the wedding of my mother's sister, my aunt Henye. The groom was Osher Kagan, a member of a Brisk (Brest Litovsk) Hassidic family which, however, did not observe some of the more esoteric customs of the sect, including their mode of dress. Their match was brought about entirely by matchmakers, one on each side, since the families lived in different towns and did not know of each other's existence until the shadhans got to work on them. These fellows did not sit around waiting for business to come their way. Each of them was constantly on the lookout for eligible marriage candidates, and carried with him lists with all basic details relating to the prospects. These lists were exchanged with confreres in other towns, permutations and combinations were constantly concocted, until one set fell into place like in a jigsaw puzzle. A match between people from different towns was both a dream and a nightmare for a shadhan since the fee was much higher if success was achieved, but the difficulties of bringing together two families totally unknown to each other were quite formidable, involving
correspondence, procurement of testimonials, and travel of the parties to and fro for personal acquaintance, with the loss of time, effort and expense if the deal fell through.
This preliminary stage provided excitement enough, but nothing compared to what went on during the weeks preceding the actual wedding. First and foremost, of course, was the bride's trousseau: studying the latest modes in the illustrated magazines specially obtained for the occasion and the interminable rehashing of the merits or shortcomings of each individual style, color, flounce, and whatnot; selection of the fabrics; visits to the tailor; etcetera, etcetera. Shoes presented a special problem- fashion called for high heels, but the bride was taller than the groom, so a compromise had to be made. Other family members also required new outfits, especially the bride's two unmarried younger sisters. Meat, fish and other provisions had to be arranged for in advance--there was no such convenience as the modern caterer or supermarket. Finally, quarters had to be found for the sizable suite of out-of-town guests accompanying the groom. There was enough commotion for a lifetime, and the details were talked about by the women for years thereafter.
At last the day arrived, a bright cloudless summer day. The wedding took place at the bride's, that is, grandmother Peshe's house. From early morning the men were banished to shift for themselves, and the house was filled with women and girls who busied themselves around the bride whom tradition required to fast on that day. By noon she was enthroned in the parlor surrounded by the female companions, the fiddler from the kapelye appeared together with an adjunct known as badhan (not to be confused with the shadhan!), and the ritual of Bazetzen di kalle (Installing the bride) began. The fiddler struck up his most heart-rending tunes to accompany the badhan who began a mournful recital, in verse, of all the wonderful things the bride is to give up: light hearted girlish freedom, shelter of parental home, closeness of relatives and friends, cheerful association with boon companions, and so on, and so forth. This was followed by a catalogue of what awaits her: life in a new and strange abode, with a man whom she hardly knows, with responsibility for her own household, a husband, and yes, for children who are to come. This monologue began with the traditional phrase: "Kallele, kallele, vain, vain, vain!" (Dear bride, dear bride, weep, weep, weep !), and continued interminably in a plaintive singsong with appropriate gestures and grimaces. Needless to say, the bride and companions did not fail to heed the badhan's admonition, tears flowed like water amid the kisses and embraces, and a grand time was had by all.
One component of the above ritual, a must among the very orthodox, did not take place at this wedding. This was the ceremonial cutting off of the bride's hair and fitting her out with a sheitel (wig), to be worn for the rest of her days. I heard later that some of the groom's Hassidic relatives were quite upset about this flouting of tradition, but the bride's more worldly family, abetted by the groom wno obviously liked the bride well enough as she was, prevailed and my aunt went to the canopy with her own hair intact.
By mid-afternoon the groom arrived on foot, preceded by the musicians, all four of them, and followed by his suite and a host of kids gleefully jumping all around them. Then the procession formed, again led by the kapelye. The groom walked arm in arm with his parents, followed by the nearest relatives, followed in similar fashion by the bride and her relatives, the rest of the participants making up the rear. The host of kids was now augmented by many curious grown-ups. The entire procession marched to the open square in front of the Shul where the Huppa (wedding canopy) was set up.
This consisted of a rectangular piece of red velvet attached to four poles held aloft by men chosen for the honor. The traditional marriage ritual then took place. The bride and groom, flanked by their parents, faced each other under the Huppa; the rabbi chanted the blessings and read the Ketuba (marriage contract); the groom placed the ring on the: bride's finger while reciting the prescribed Hebrew phrase beginning with: "Harey at .." "With this ring thou art consecrated unto me in accordance with the Law of Moses and Israel"; each took a sip of red wine from a goblet which was then smashed under the groom's heel in commemoration of the destruction of the Temple; and the ceremony was over amid embraces, kisses, and shouts of: "Mazel Tov!" The whole assemblage then retraced its steps, the new couple walking side by side, and the musicians playing their merriest tunes.
During all this time feverish preparations for the wedding feast were going on at home, by devoted neighbors and hired help. Long tables, improvised out of boards placed on trestles, and benches borrowed from other houses were put along the walls of the largest room which had been emptied of other furniture. White cloths were spread on the tables, which were then set with silverware and dishes, mostly also borrowed; baskets of sliced halla; and bowls filled with pickles and radishes. A few bottles of wine and vodka were placed at strategic locations. In the kitchen cauldrons of soup with chicken, meat, noodles and potatoes were steaming. Peppery gefillte fish was being portioned out to serve as the first course. Other pots containing compote and tsimmes (a dessert of prunes, raisins, carrots and dried apples) were also kept warm, everything ready to be served. One large table laden with food was placed outside in the yard for the poor or anyone else who wished to partake of it.
When the procession arrived all the men crowded around a barrel of water just outside the entrance in order to wash their hands and utter the prescribed blessing before going inside. The newlyweds were then escorted to the head table and the guests were seated about them according to rank, age, and closeness of relationship. A number of the young people and all small children were put in another room since there was no place for them at the large tables. The badhan and musicians were relegated to the kitchen for their meal, and waited there until called upon to resume their roles. We did not have the present barbaric custom of assaulting people's ears with a deafening cacophony while they eat. A festive meal was a serious business of enjoying the food and the pleasant conversation of table companions, which our guests engaged in leisurely, topping off the repast with glasses of hot tea and cake.
When it became evident thdt everybody had enough and refused urgings to have additional helpings, the badhan appeared once more on the scene. Standing in the center of the room and holding a scroll which he consulted from time to time, he began a sing- song recital of the gifts bestowed on the newlyweds. Each donor was mentioned by name, occupation, relationship, and standing in the community, with appropriate laudatory remarks and embellishments, including jocular asides which aroused much merriment. If the gift was a tangible item, such as tableware, linen, jewelry or a pair of candle- sticks, it was exhibited before the assemblage to exclamations of approval: "Oh, how beautiful! Very nice! Let them use it in good health!" This was the time for a good badhan to demonstrate his skill,for it required great tact and use of circumlocution to praise the generosity of a rich man who made a miserly gift; to laud the virtues of a notorious double-dealer; or proclaim the sagacity of a known simpleton--all without giving offense and being entertaining at the some time. There were badhans whose art made them famous throughout the country, not unlike some humorous television stars of the present day.
After the repast and the badhan's act were over, the musicians were recalled and the dancing began. The elders came first, hopping and jumping to the best of their abiliiy but without touching each other,the only contact between two dancers being a colored kerchief which each held by one end. The groom's relatives, the Hassidim, to whom dancing was an exalted expression of faith, especially distinguished themselves with extravagant movements and body contortions. Their dancing was accompanied by loud singing, without words, of intricate melodies being intoned by the constant repetition of: "Oy, oy, oy; ay, ay, ay; chiri biri bim; chiri biri bom!" When they had enough the younger people took over, dancing the quadrille, the waltz, the sher (a type of cutting-in dance), and the unique Jewish breigez tantz (quarrel and reconciliation dance). The merriment went on for hours until everyone became exhausted and retired to their quarters, but not without a final round of kisses, embraces, and renewed shouts of "Mazel Tov!" Some of the out-of-town guests remained for several days, but gradually all went their way and tranquility returned to the household, bringing with it the routine activities and cares of everyday life.