1. Coexistence

The population of Shershev was almost equally divided between Jews and gentiles, but the economy of the Jews depended mainly upon the peasantry of the neighbouring villages whose combined population exceeded by far the total of the town's 5,000 residents. These villagers were equally dependent upon the Jews for essential supplies and services, and for disposing of their surplus products.

Except for the police, clergy and some impoverished Polish gentry, the town's gentile residents were not much different from their village cousins--perhaps a little better dressed and more refined in manner and speech. Like the villagers they tilled their fields, raised cattle, hogs, sheep and fowl for their own use and for sale; and en­gaged in handicrafts that almost made them self-sufficient. They milled their own grain and baked their own large round dark-brown loaves of rye bread--rye being the chief grain crop, although some wheat, barley, buckwheat and oats were also grown. They churned their own butter by hand in wooden churns, and made very tasty cottage cheese. They had plenty of fruit--apples, pears, plums and cherries, and an abundance of vege­tables--cabbage, carrots, beets, turnips, cucumbers--but lettuce, tomatoes and corn were unknown. In the autumn their garrets were filled with dry peas, beans and lentils in burlap sacks, and plaited strings of onions and garlic hanging from the rafters. Next to bread potatoes were the most important staple. They were stored in deep pits lined with straw, to be dug up in spring for sowing. Added to all this were mushrooms and berries picked in the woods, eaten fresh in summer and dried or made into preserves for the winter. An occasional piece of pork or lard from a hog usually slaughtered for Christmas or Easter complemented this simple but nourishing and plentiful diet.

The peasants also produced much of their own clothing. They grew flax which was worked into excellent homespun linen for towels, sheets and undergarments. Long strips of linen were also used for foot wrappings, to be worn with the homemade bast shoes; the lapti, since leather shoes and boots were a luxury, usually worn only on Sundays to church. It was not uncommon to see villagers walking to town with their footwear in their hands or thrown over their shoulders, to be put on only upon reaching the outskirts. Pressed-felt high boots, known as valenki, were worn in winter, with mittens, scarves and head coverings made of homespun wool. A prized possession was the kuzhukh, a sheepskin short coat with the fleece on the inside, and an indis­pensable accessory was the torba, a large catchall leather bag slung over the shoulder on a wide leather strap, usually worn only by men. Many poor peasants, who could not afford leather, had their torbas made of burlap, with a sturdy rope serving as a shoulder strap.

If the modern woman's handbag, with its plethora of gewgaws, seems bewil­dering (to a man, that is), the torba was a veritable storehouse of things ordinary and arcane. It always contained a hunk of black bread and a piece of hard cheese, bacon or dried fish; a knife; a corncob pipe and a pouch of makhorka, the coarse veins of tobacco leaves that produced a nauseating miasma when smoked; a piece of flint, a steel bar for striking it, and some tinder (matches were too expensive); and a lengthy piece of twine or rope, for any emergency. The torba might also contain a horseshoe or two; some rusty nails picked up on the road; harness parts and household articles to be mended in town; quantities of dried beans, peas or lentils, in small linen bags, for sale; and sometimes the carcass of an unlucky rabbit killed on the way. Good behavior was often exacted from Jewish tots by threats of being sold to a "goy" and be put in his torba.

Though supplied with the basic necessities through their own labour, the peasants still needed other essentials, the money for which was obtained by sale of surplus pro­duce, a sheep or a calf and by working as labourers in the forest during the winter. They also sold pelts of animals, mostly rabbits but occasionally otters and foxes, which they trapped; and fish, mainly perch and pike, caught in the numerous streams of the area. The peasant women also contributed to the family income. Though they worked alongside the men in the fields during the sowing and harvesting seasons, they had the additional tasks of tending to the cows and pigs, raising chickens, and taking care of the vegetable gardens, on top of the usual home chores of cooking, washing, sewing and mending clothes, churning butter, making cheese, and looking after the children. During the long winter evenings they spun flax and wool, wove the first into linen tow­els and sheets, and knitted the wool into mittens, socks and headwear, the towels often embroidered in colourful patterns. All these products were for home consumption as wall as for sale to the towns people.

With the proceeds the peasants bought salt, sugar, soap, kerosene; axes, saws, shovels, rakes, hoes and other hand tools; harness gear, cooking utensils, and other manu­factured articles they could not fashion themselves. An occasional bottle or two of vodka for the men and some items of finery for the women--no woman would be seen in church without her gaily coloured kerchief on her head, and no girl would think of going to a dance without some ribbons entwined in her braids--were also a must. Then there were services the peasants needed: horse shoeing, wagon repairs, tailoring, boot mending, and repair of household articles. For all these goods and services they depended upon the Jews, who were also the buyers of their products, thus bringing about a lively inter­course between the two disparate segments of the population.

The Jews were congregated in the towns, large and small, not by choice but by compulsion. The Pale of Settlement was a circumscribed area in the western part of Russia designated by the Tsarist regime as a place of residence for Jews, who were not allowed to live elsewhere in the vast territory of the empire, except by special permis­sion. But even in the Pale there were severe restrictions on their living conditions, occupations and education. Jews were not permitted to own land other than small plots for houses within the boundaries of towns, thus preventing them from engaging in farm­ing. Though subject to draft into the army, they could serve only as common soldiers and were not promoted to the officer class. The civil service was closed to them; they were excluded from the police and the railroad administration; and it was a rarity for a Jew to be found in the legal and educational professions. Their entry into the medical, engineering and other scientific fields was curtailed by the rule that Jews could con­stitute only five percent of the total enrolment in institutions of higher learning. For this reason Jews aspiring to a higher education or profession often went to study in Germany, Switzerland or elsewhere in Western Europe, if they could afford it. Because of these restrictions Jews were perforce reduced to earn their livelihood by commerce, industry and service occupations. Hence the profusion of Jewish store­keepers, itinerant traders, tailors, shoemakers, blacksmiths, carpenters, repairmen, and ordinary labourers. A few became small manufacturers, wholesale grain and cattle merchants, and lumber contractors. These were generally more prosperous than the storekeepers and artisans, most of whom led a hand-to-mouth existence. Essentially they were all middlemen, catering to the needs of the peasantry and providing the necessary link between the latter and the urban population of the large cities.

 2. The Market Place

The common meeting ground between Jews and gentiles was the town's market place. The local residents did their trading during the weekdays, but the big market day was on Sunday, when the villagers came to town to attend church--many villages had no churches--and to take care of their mundane affairs. On that day the place was packed with peasants' wagons, shafts raised vertically to provide more parking space. There were cows, pigs, sheep and fowl brought for sale, and lively bargaining went on all over. Cows' udders were examined for presence of sores, squealing pigs were hefted aloft to gauge weight, and fowl's feathers were ruffled to see if the skin was yellow with fat--the fatter the better. All this was accompanied by shouts, recrim­inations, swearing and curses until a mutual slap of the antagonists' hands signified that the deal was made, and both parties repaired to the nearest inn to seal the agree­ment with a few shots of vodka. Horse trading was one of the most important activities at the fair, and horse stealing was not uncommon. Many fights broke out, especially in the afternoon when the "goyim" had already fortified themselves with monopolka —the vodka produced under government monopoly. Not a few men were down on the ground in a drunken stupor, wallowing in the horses' droppings and urine, oblivious to the com­motion around them. Peasants often urinated next to their wagons, since the few public toilets ware out of the way on a side street and there were not enough of them for the huge throng. Here and there a group was gathered around an accordion player, hopping and stomping to its lively tunes. There were enough sights, sounds and smells to satisfy any curiosity seeker.

In the stores every transaction was a tug of wits or will between buyer and seller. First the merchandise was carefully selected from among the number of the same items available. Next it was tried out if at all possible. A comb, for instance, would be pulled through one's matted hair to test the strength of its teeth. If it broke in the process due to exertion of too much force, it was proof that it was no good in the first place, the deal was off and the storekeeper lost his cost of the comb. A penknife was tried out for sharp­ness on a small piece of wood or on one's fingernails. Lengths of pink, blue, green or yellow ribbon would be entwined in a girl's tresses to get the opinion of companions about which colour was more becoming. A pair of stockings could not be tried on, so it was ex­amined even more thoroughly against the light, after sticking the hand inside and spread­ing out the fingers, to make sure there are no flaws. When the selection was finally made the haggling would start over the price, the customer offering half the amount asked, the seller swearing that his own cost was more than that, each side giving in a little at a time until the bargain was struck. And as often as not the bargaining would be accompanied by recriminations, insults and curses--it was all part of the game.

Among the storekeepers both husband and wife were involved in the business, since the store had to be open for long hours and the woman also had to do the housework, shop, cook and attend to the children. But on Sundays and other market days all available family members, including children from the age of six or seven, were recruited as salespersons or watchers. On those days the stores were thronged with shoppers who could not be trusted to resist temptation. Stealing was a time-honoured practice if one could get away with it, and the torba was very suitable for dropping things into underhandedly. When caught in the act, the peasant usually returned the stolen article, spat contemp­tuously and walked away. However, if a thief became recalcitrant, a shouting dispute arose, with witnesses on both sides joining in and an amused crowd gathering to watch the outcome. The commotion usually went on until one of the two strazhniki (policemen) appeared, listened to both sides and made his decision, from which there was no appeal. Fear of the police. was so strong that these two men, armed with revolvers and long sabres in black scabbards dangling at their sides, exercised undisputed control over the populace, and their word was law. Since the peasants' propensity for thievery and the Jews' reluc­tance to court trouble were wall known, the strazhnik's ruling usually was in favour of the storekeeper, the stolen item was returned, and peace was restored. No arrests ware ever made in such cases. The frequent fights that used to break out were usually limited to fisticuffs be­tween drinking companions, encouraged by friends and other onlookers with: "C'mon, Mikolo, smack him on the jaw !" or "Attaboy, Petrukho, paste him on the mug " "Knock his teeth out, his teeth!" while the women were screaming: "Botyushki, good people, stop them, stop them, they'!! kill each other!" After a while one of the older men would calmly pronounce: “Right boys, you've had your fun. Enough!" where- upon half a dozen hands would grab each of the combatants, blood was wiped from the faces, a fresh bottle of vodka was uncorked by a smart whack of the palm on its bottom, and everybody joined in the celebration. These fights left no hard feelings, the police seldom interfered, and business went on as usual in the market place.

Occasionally, however, fights took on a different dimension. One of these I wit­nessed from a safe distance. A peasant from a nearby village recognized his horse, stolen several months earlier, being offered for sale by a group of gypsies. These swore that they had bought the horse in a town many miles away, but the peasant, abetted by his co-villagers who also recognized the horse, accused the gypsies of the theft and demanded its return. Other people joined in, the mood became ugly, and a general brawl ensued, during which one of the gypsies flashed a knife and cut a peasant's face. One of the peasants then grabbed an ax from his wagon and hit a gypsy on the shoulder. By then the full police contingent was on the scene, a shot was fired in the air, the brawling' ceased, and the knife and ax wielders were arrested. The next day they were taken in chains to another town to be imprisoned pending trial, since Shershev had neither jail nor court. The cause of the dispute was never resolved--during the melee the horse dis­appeared, apparently spirited away by one of the gypsies.