1 .Obsession

One of the many calumnies spread for centuries about Jews was that their paramount aim in life was the acquisition of money. Not only the ignorant rabble, but men of culture as well gave voice to this canard, as witness Shakespeare and Dickens with their portrayals of Shylock and Fagin, to cite just two examples. The disproportionate number of Jews engaged in commerce and business was cited as proof of their acquisitiveness. Conveniently forgotten was the fact that for centuries they were forced to live in crowded ghettos, forbidden to own and work the land, and barred from the professions and civil service. Despite their reputation as skillful businessmen, or perhaps because of it, they were excluded from merchant associations, such as the Hanseatic League, which monopolized trade and commerce and thereby enabled their members to amass huge fortunes no opprobrium was attached to their exploits! In fact, most Jews earned their living, and a meager one at that, by the sweat of their brow as tailors, shoemakers, weavers, blacksmiths or common laborers.


If Jews as a people do have a collective obsession, it is with education, the quest of knowledge. They truly are the “people of the Book” in every sense. Many shtetl communities had no doctor, pharmacist, watercarrier or chimney sweep, some not even a rabbi of their own. But there was no shtetl without a Heder for teaching boys the Scriptures and at least the rudiments of Hebrew and Yiddish writing.

 2.The Heder

The Heder was always at the home of the rebbe (teacher), who should not be confused with the Rov (Rabbi) who was the ordained religious head of the community, nor with the Hassidic Rebbe the generally hereditary leader of devoted adherents who revere him as a holy man imbued with miracle-making powers. Our rebbes were ­ ordinary Jews who earned a living by teaching.


Boys usually began attending Heder at age six, but many started when only five or even four years old. For this reason some rebbes had assistants whose job it was to get the tots to and from school, often carrying them piggyback, especially in winter. The introduction into schooling on the first day was usually attended by the boy’s ­ parents or other relatives, who customarily dropped some coppers or even a silver coin unto the book from behind the child’s back as soon as the scholar repeated the rebbe’s opening lesson:  “Komets aleph O!; Komets beyss Bo! “  This was accompanied by the exclamation: "Look, an angel  threw money for you because you are learning Torah! “ though few of the youngsters were fooled about the source of the bounty.


The method of instruction was generally the same in every Heder, but the conditions depended upon the rebbe’s ability, temper, and available space in his house. In my first Heder, which I entered at the age of six, the approximately twenty-five pupils sat close to each other on hard benches at both sides of a long narrow table, reciting in unison with the rebbe a designated passage from the books in front of them, at the same time pointing with their finger or a small teitel (pointer) to each word in the text. The rebbe walked around the table behind the students, observing and listening to each of them, and woe to the one who was not pointing to the right word at the right time--a slight slap on the head or a tweak of the ear would effectively rouse him from his dreams and bring his attention back to the book. As often as not the rebbetzin (rebbe's wife) was in the same room cooking, washing dishes or clothes, plucking a chicken, or what not, while her and the rebbe's own brood of tots were crawling all over the place and annoying the scholars, sometimes to the latter's amusement, which was cause enough for another slap. This went on from early morning to late afternoon, with only a break for lunch, consisting of a roll or bread and butter, and an apple or pear, which the children brought with them in the morning. For a drink there was always plenty of water from a wooden barrel in the corner, dipped with a tin cup attached to the barrel with a rusty chain. Heder was attended year round, summer and winter, six days a week, with time off only on Saturdays, holidays or when the child was sick.


The memory of my Heder days would not have been very pleasant had I remained with this rebbe, who should have been pitied for his poverty and the wretched, nerveracking conditions under which he had to live and work. However, at the age of six these considerations never entered my mind, and the enthusiasm with which I started Heder was waning quite rapidly. Luckily, an odd and unheard-of incident brought a sudden end to my studies with him and I was sent to another rebbe, a man named Avrom Velvl.


When it was time for me to enter Heder my parents sent me to the one nearest to our house, the one described above, either out of a sense of neighborliness or to spare me long walks. They were apparently unaware of the atmosphere prevailing there. As for me, since this was my first experience, I naturally took it for granted that Heder was supposed to be like that, and dutifully attended without complaint. I received my share of slaps and tweaks and bore up under them. But, spoiled as I was by my two grandmothers to whom I was the first grandchild, such punishment was apparently not effective enough to keep me in line, so the rebbe undertook to give me a whipping. I had seen this being done to other boys and accepted it as a matter-of-course. I stretched out on the bench, face down, the boys around me eagerly watchful, and the rebbe bent over me, birch twigs ready in one hand while trying to pull down my breeches with the other. This indignity proved too much for me. Instinctively I kicked out with both legs hitting the rebbe in the stomach, jumped up from the bench and dashed out through the open window which was almost on a level with the ground outside. That spelled the end of my studies with this rebbe, I dare say to our mutual relief. And that was how I came to study with Avrom Velvl.


Avrom Velvl was a tall stately Jew with a shock of brown hair framing his yarmulke (skullcap) and a luxurious reddish beard all but hiding his chest. When many years later I saw a representation of Michelangelo's Moses the image of Avrom Velvl immediately came to my mind. In addition to being a rebbe he was also the hazzan (cantor) in the synagogue on our street. He had a rich baritone voice which he used very effectively, especially in leading the prayers on the High Holy Days. His rendition of Kol Nidrei at the opening of the Yom Kippur services was a truly awe-inspiring introduction to the significance of this most solemn Day of Atonement. And it was this man who became my second and last rebbe.


In comparison with my first Heder the new one was bliss. True, the method of instruction was the same, with the boys sitting around a long table intoning the text in unison. But there was no chicken-plucking rebbetzin to be seen, no tots crawling about,  and no slaps or tweaks. Avrom Velvl was patient and forbearing. If a child began day dreaming a gentle reprimand brought him back to earth. A faltering boy was given individual help. But for me the greatest delight was the rebbe's melodious voice singing the passages of the Bible, which I quickly learned to repeat with all the nuances, to his great pleasure. After a few months Avrom Velvl earnestly urged my parents to apprentice me to him as a meshorrer, to be taught the cantorial melodies which I was then to sing with him at the services in the synagogue. This was vetoed, but at his insistence I had my debut as a soloist about a year after I began studying with him. On the Shavuot (Pentecost) holiday he came to our house, and before the assembled relatives and neighbors I sang the beautiful ancient poem Akdomus Milin which in many stanzas, beginning consecutively with the letters of the entire Hebrew alphabet, proclaims the glory of the Lord in terms of the natural universe. The performance was a great success, at least as far as my parents and the rebbe were concerned. On many occasions, and many years later, I heard my mother relate with pride the to her unforgettable event of that Shavuot, which incidentally is my birthday by the Jewish reckoning.


It is to be noted that the Heder was for boys only. There was no similar school, or any other type of school, for girls. With some exceptions, such as the lighting of candles at the advent of Sabbath, women had no direct part in the performance of religious rituals. They were not required to say the three prescribed daily prayers; were not eligible to fill the quorum of ten, the minyan, obligatory for services at the synagogue in fact they had to be segregated from the men there; and were not called upon to lead in the prayers or to publicly read chapters from the Scriptures. Women were supposed to bask in the glory of their righteous husbands, and were vouchsafed a place in heaven alongside of them. However, despite their subordinate place in the rites, women were certainly not exempt from religious duties and responsibilities. All the six hundred and thirteen prescriptions for virtuousness, the Tar'yag Mitzvoth, except those specifically reserved for men, were incumbent upon them. Women were highly esteemed in their own right as wives and mothers after all, only a child born of a Jewish mother is considered a Jew according to the Rabbinical Law!


In the family, despite the accepted attitude that men were the heads, women were equal partners in actual practice and often predominated in decision-making. Many women worked alongside their husbands as breadwinners, in addition to caring for home and children. Nevertheless, when it came to schooling, women took second place and no Heders were established for girls, presumably because they did not have to read the Scriptures in the original Hebrew. But since the need for their literacy was obvious, they were taught to read and write Yiddish by parents, older brothers and sisters, or private tutors. The rudiments of Russian and arithmetic were also learned in this manner, by boys as well as by girls. Any further study was left to the ingenuity of the “graduates”.

3.Books as Bombs

The above-described educational “system” was unexpectedly roused out of its drowsiness by a remarkable man known to me only as Zhuk. He appeared in town in 1911 from I do not know where and set about persuading the rich and influential members of the community to establish a modern. school. It was not an easy task by any means after all, why make such a radical change in the manner of bringing up children when the. time honored method was quite satisfactory? Would it not spoil the children and put newfangled ideas into their head? Would it not, God forbid, lead them away from tradition and Jewishness? And where was the necessary money to come from? The opposition was fierce, but Zhuk pressed on, pointing to the rut to which the young generation was doomed by the existing situation, the opportunities for a better and richer life education would bring, and the fact that the government's educational restrictions were deliberately designed to keep Jews from advancing their position in society. There were enough forward-looking men in town to give Zhuk strong support, and the project was approved. Two spacious airy rooms were rented and outfitted with desks, blackboards, and a supply of textbooks for the teaching of Russian, arithmetic, history, geography and general science. Attendance was from 9 A.M. to 3 P.M. with a five-minute break each hour and a full hour for lunch, during whi ch the students were free to play or relax in the adjacent large yard. The enrollment of about thirty, which included a few girls, was divided into two grades, one in each room. Corporal punishment was replaced by a rating system for proficiency and conduct, from a low of one to a high of five. For the first time in people's memory a real school came to Shershev, for girls as well as for boys, and with a curriculum for a general education a far cry from from the narrow limitations of the Heder.This was truly a revolutionary innovation which opened new horizons for the student body,  of which I had the privilege of being a member.


The two years that I studied with Zhuk affected profoundly the course of my future, and the studies probably had a similar effect upon a number of the other students. But it was not only the new setup, despite its importance, which brought this about it was the personality of Zhuk that made us aware of the beauty of language; the logic of mathematics; the progression of historic events that led to the social and political system under which we lived; and the physical wonders of the earth we inhabited. He taught all these subjects himself, and had an unerring way of making us understand and appreciate the knowledge he imparted; and of arousing in us a desire to know more and more. Zhuk was the personification of a great teacher, whom we all loved and admired. To my deep regret, I know nothing about his personal life, not even his given name. Just Zhuk.


To describe Zhuk solely as a great teacher, laudable as this may be, would however show only one facet of the man's worth. There was much more to him than that. His appearance in our small town could not have been motivated by pecuniary considerations. Excellent pedagogue that he was, he would have commanded a higher stipend in a larger and more prosperous community, where he would also have found an intellectual and social milieu more akin to his spirit. He was in his thirties then, of medium height, rather portly, with a ruddy face, walrus mustache and cIose-cropped hair, contrary to the fashion of the time. He apparently was unmarried at least he lived alone in Shershev. What then made him come to our out of the way place? The answer lies in his deeds. He-was seized with a passion to better the life of his people, to help them rise from the morass into which they had been thrown by discrimination and oppression, to dissipate the ghetto mentality and bring them into the modem world with a sense of dignity and self respect. The means to that end he saw in education. He was a revolutionary, like the Russian Narodniki who “went to the people”, but his weapons were books, not bombs. That is why he fought for weeks with our "town fathers” with cool, reasoned arguments until he persuaded them to provide the money for a modern school where secular studies could be pursued, not just the Scriptures and the Talmud as in the Heder and yeshiva; and what more, that girls should be taught along with the boys! Referring to the official government educational restrictions against Jews (who were limited to only five percent of the total student enrollment even wnere Jews comprised a majority of the population), Zhuk kept on hammering: "They have built a wall around us, they want to keep us in ignorance and subjugation we must breach that wall, we must strive for enlightenment and freedom by all means and at any cost! “


Zhuk remained in our town for a little over two years, long enough to see the school firmly established, and satisfied that his successor, whom he guided and trained for a while, would adequately continue on the course he had mapped out. And then he disappeared, as suddenly as he came, presumably to surface in some other backward community and fight another battle for his cause the education of Jewish children.


Zhuk did not leave our town however before launching several of his students (he would have dearly loved to do it for all of them) on the road to further progress. Because of the very limited funds available, our school was designed to provide a two year course of study paralleling that given in the official government schools, the Gymnasiums. Under the prevailing system it was not obligatory to enter a Gymnasium at the first year level. A properly prepared student who passed examinations in the prescribed subjects could be admitted directly into the second, third, and other levels, on an equal footing with the students promoted from within the Gymnasium. That is what Zhuk had in mind. Although the five percent limitation still applied, it was some what easier for a Jewish student to enter at a higher level because many gentile students dropped out after the first or second year due to poor scholarship or their parents' economic situation. Accordingly, when the first group of graduates completed his two year course he began a campaign to urge the parents of the best qualified ones to send them to an official school for further study. There was of course no such school in our town, so it meant being sent to a large city, involving considerable expense for room and board in addition to tuition fees, books and expensive clothing--students had to wear prescribed uniforms in those schools. Although quite a few of Zhuk's graduates were equally qualified, the parents of only seven boys, myself included, could afford it. Thus it came about that these seven fortunate boys, at the age of ten or eleven, were sent away from home "into the world”. Never before had anything like this happened in Shershev.


Although I do not know of any specific cases, other boys might have been sent to study away from home, but not in secular schools. Ultra orthodox parents who wanted to further their sons' religious education could send them to a Yeshiva, usually also located in a larger city. There the students led an almost monastic life, spending years in pouring over the pages of the Mishnah and Gemara from early morning to far into the night, discussing and arguing over abstruse points among themselves and with ther guiding Rabbi, until, with God's help, they became great Talmudic scholars or were themselves ordained as Rabbis, to the glory of their parents and of Judaism.


These religious students, known as Yeshiva bahurim, led a unique existence. Impoverished for the most part and living away from their families, they depended upon charitable townspeople for subsistence. It was considered a great Mitzva to support these pious young men who devoted their lives to Torah study, so many families "adopted” a student to have his meals one day a week at their homes. Thus every student had to eat at seven different households each week, accepting whatever fare the host could or would provide. This was known as "eating days,” often followed by “and swallowing tears” an apt metaphor for the life they led. Hand me down clothes, often too large or too small, covered their usually emaciated bodies, and the hard synagogue benches served as their pallets. Most of them ended up as sons in law of well to do Jews who were glad and proud to have a “scholar” in the family even if they had to support him the rest of his life.


There was current a story about a wealthy but uneducated Jew who asked the Yeshiva head to recommend a fine young scholar for a son in law. "But you have no daughter”, said the puzzled rabbi. “So what, “ retorted the man, "I can well afford to have a son-in-law in the house! “