DAYS OF JOY, DAYS OF AWE
1. The Sabbath
In contrast to the drabness of the weekdays and the turbulence of the Sundays, peace and serenity descended on the Sabbath. The preparations for it began on Thursday evening when the women prepared dough in large oblong wooden troughs, kneading the mixture of flour, water, eggs and other ingredients until proper consistency was obtained. The mess was then left to rise overnight. At sunrise on Friday the large baking oven was heated for about two hours with a stack of thick logs, the women meanwhile fashioning the dough into braided oval loaves, and rolling some of it into sheets for making noodles. This was a tricky job, because the noodles had to come out as fine as possible. To that end each sheet was flattened with a rolling pin to a uniform thinness, then rolled up to form a multilayered tube which was sliced with a very sharp knife like one slices a salami, exerting just enough pressure to cut the dough without getting the layers stuck to each other. I know what it takes to do it right--I tried it, but got only lumps of dough instead of long fine strings of lokshen, noodles to the uninitiated. After the logs burned down, the charcoal was raked out into a metal pail and doused with water, to be saved for heating the samovar. The oven was swept clean of ashes and the prepared loaves placed inside with a long-handled wooden shovel. A delicious aroma soon spread throughout the house, and before long the loaves were brought out, now golden brown, and worthy of the name halla -- the bread to grace the Sabbath table.
We children always had a special treat on those Friday mornings: teigakhtz- a crisp thin potato pancake baked in shallow pans in front of the roaring flames. We used to eat it even before we got dressed, crunching the crackling rind and running for second helpings, our faces and hands dripping with fat. The mere thought of the taste and smell of that teigakhtz is enough even now to make my mouth water.
After the baking was done a general cleanup began, usually by the girls who were old enough to help. Pails and pails of water were fetched from the well about a quarter of a mile away from the house.
These were emptied into a large wooden barrel standing in the entrance hall, enough to last till Sunday, since one did not go for water on the Sabbath. Several kettles and pots full of water were placed inside the oven for heating. Glassware, silverware, the brass samovar were polished to a sparkle, special attention being given to the two Sabbath candlesticks. The unpainted wooden floors were scoured and covered with homespun linen runners in the passages. This done, the younger children received a good scrubbing with the hot water from the oven, and finally the older girls washed their long hair and in nice weather went outside to dry it in the sun. In late afternoon everybody donned their best clothes and were ready to mekabel Shabbos (greet the Sabbath) at sundown.
Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, mother was busy with preparation of the meals for the twenty-four hours of the holiday, since no cooking or even heating of food is permitted during that period. The messiest job was cleaning the fish: removing the scales, head, tail and innards. The meat was then removed carefully to preserve the skin intact, boned and chopped finely with a mixture of pepper and other spices. The concoction was then replaced into the skin, the spine bones reinserted in the proper places, and cooked with onions and carrots--to be served up on Friday evening as the famous gefillte fish, without which no festive Jewish dinner is complete.
A greatly interested participant in this proceeding was our old yellow tomcat who invariably showed up the moment the fish-cleaning began, meowing and rubbing himself against mother's legs until he received the innards, which he had to content himself with consuming in the back yard. Incidentally, when this cat became quite old and a great nuisance, it was decided to get rid of him. Father put him in a sack and let him out in a village about a dozen miles away. But old Tom was not to be so cavalierly deprived of his homestead. He was back in a few days, bedraggled and mangy, but ready for his square meals as well as for the harassment we kids used to inflict upon him. He was reluctantly allowed to live out the rest of his allotted days on this earth without any further attempts to rid ourselves of his presence.
After preparation of the fish came the meat. The fact that it came from ritually slaughtered cattle was not yet sufficient for it to be ready for the pot. It had to be rubbed down with coarse salt and left for at least an hour on a gridiron or slanted board so that all the blood would be drained off--only then was it sufficiently kosher to be eaten by an orthodox Jew. As for chickens, they were always bought live from a peasant, after ruffling the feathers and blowing on the down to see if the skin is not blue but yellow with fat. Since many households kept their own chickens for the eggs, one that stopped laying would occasionally be consigned to the pot. In either case it entailed a trip to the shohet (ritual slaughterer). They were plucked by the womenfolk in the yard or pantry, depending on the weather, the feathers and down being preserved for pillows or featherbeds. The women always wore kerchiefs at this work to prevent the fine down from getting entangled in their hair. After being plucked, the chicken was always opened with a sense of foreboding, because if an unusual blemish, such as an enlarged or spotted liver, was found it had to be taken to the rabbi for a ruling whether it was kosher or treif (ritually unclean). In the latter case it could not be eaten by a Jew and was either discarded or given away to a friendly gentile. On such, happily rare occasions, we were deprived of the customary piece de resistance--the proverbial mama's chicken soup--and had to make do with an improvised substitute, usually some of the beef or veal reserved for the cholent, the main Saturday afternoon dish.
Cholent was a stew of meat, potatoes, onions, carrots and other vegetables, cooked only in earthenware pots. Since no cooking was allowed on Saturday, an arrangement was made by a number of neighboring households whereby the one with the biggest oven would fire it red hot on late Friday afternoon, all the participants would bring their pots, each bearing some mark of identification, and place them in the oven which was then sealed with clay, to be opened after everybody returned from the synagogue about noon on Saturday. Each housewife then reclaimed her stew, piping hot and done to a turn. Incidentally, the breaking of the clay to unseal the oven was also prohibited, it being considered work, so by prior arrangement it was done by a gentile boy, for proper compensation.
One wonders what would have happened if the boy failed to appear to unseal the oven--it certainly would have ruined the Sabbath as well as the stew. However, no such calamity ever occurred, presumably by provision for a substitute Shabbos goy as such hired hand was called by Jews and gentiles alike.
By late Friday afternoon all preparations were finished and the housewife had her chance to wash up and get dressed in her finest. And then, just as the sun was setting and the first stars became visible, she received her reward for her toil and trouble. For it is the lady of the house who has the honor to signalize the advent of the Sabbath. By that time the festive table was set, with the halla, covered with a white cloth, and a carafe of red wine for the Kiddush (Blessing) in front of father's seat and the gleaming candle sticks gracing the other end near mother's seat. At the appointed time, with the whole family assembled around the table, mother would cover her head with a shawl, light the two candles, circle her outstretched arms like the wings of a bird three times around the flames, then cover her face with her hands for a few minutes murmuring inaudibly a prayer from her own heart, in the deep silence around her. There was something mysterious in this ritual, something harking back to ancient days, to times past memory, primitive, incomprehensible, but at the same time serene and reassuring -- a sense of peace and security amid the encroaching threatening darkness.
The importance of the woman in the Jewish household is further highlighted on Friday evening after the men return from the synagogue and before the meal is served. It is then, in recognition of the role played by the woman in the maintenance of the family that the husband sings the encomium Eshet Hayil (A Woman of Valor) dedicated to his wife and the mother of his children.
The holidays presented an even greater contrast to the drab everyday routine. Pessah (Passover), celebrating the exodus from Egypt and the transformation of the erstwhile slaves of Pharaoh into a free people, was the most joyous one. Preparations for this holiday began several weeks in advance with arrangements for baking matzoth, the unleavened bread in the form of large wafers which can now be bought in every super market in the United States not only on Passover but throughout the year, except that ours were round, not square. These had to be of utmost purity and devoid of any contamination by hametz (any leavened substance) to such a degree that the various utensils and tools used in its preparation, even the oven in which it was baked, had to be cleansed in a specially prescribed way. For this reason one house in each eighborhood, usually that of a baker because of its large oven, was consecrated for that purpose and a specific time allotted to each household for its use. All participants had to wear clothes that were thoroughly cleaned, because even a crumb of bread was deemed cause enough to vitiate the purity from hametz. We kids felt quite self-important when permitted to help carry the flour and utensils, all wrapped in immaculate covers, from our house to the place of baking. A special treat was to be allowed, after proper purification, to make the fine perforations in the flattened sheets of dough with a sharply toothed metal rowel attached to a wooden handle. When ready, the matzoth were carefully wrapped and placed in a large two-handled wicker basket, carried by two people. The average family baked from twenty to thirty pounds since it was the main staple and had to last for eight full days. At home the basket was set down in a previously prepared special corner where other Passover foods such as wine, dried fruit and nuts, jars of chicken fat, were also stored. This corner became strictly off limits to the children until the advent of the holiday.
This period was also the occasion for outfitting the family, especially the children, with new clothes, the old ones having been outgrown or reduced to tatters during the long winter. Since ready-made clothes were unheard of, it meant trips to dry goods stores for selection of fabrics, then to the tailor for measurements, then again for fittings of the loosely basted garment, and at last for trying on the almost finished product for final adjustment. Shoes too were custom made in this manner. Not every child received a new outfit--only the rich could afford that. Some had to be content with hand-me-downs from an older brother or sister, or a mother's dress would be altered to fit a child. All this involved consultations within the family and with the tailor. Great excitement reigned, because new clothes were seldom gotten more than once a year.
About two days before the holiday a thorough housecleaning was made. Spring was usually warm and sunny, so all movable furniture was carried outside for scrubbing and disinfecting with kerosene.
Featherbeds and quilts were draped over fences or ropes for airing. Inside the house doors, windows, floors and the remaining furniture received a similar treatment. The older children were recruited to help while the little ones were constantly being shooed out of the way. The last day was spent in cooking, baking and frying, all in special dishes that were used only on Passover, having been stored away the rest of the year. A lot of work went into preparation for this holiday, but it was all done in a spirit of cheerfulness and a feeling of renewal, in harmony with the young greenery of the trees, the busy sparrows and darting swallows, and the first spring flowers, all proclaiming the awakening of life and redemption from the bondage of the long harsh winter.
The eight days of the holiday were spent in prayers at the synagogue, feasting, visiting relatives, and relaxation. The first evening set the keynote for the festivities with the Seder, the ceremonial feast beginning with the "four questions" asked by the youngest child as to "Why is this night different from all other nights?", receiving in reply a recitation of the story of the Exodus as related in the Haggada. And indeed there was a difference. Seder in Hebrew means order or arrangement, and the Passover dinner was so named because it followed a set procedure, unlike other holiday dinners.
To begin with, a special roomy seat, with pillows at the back and sides, was prepared for father so that he could recline and bask in presumptive luxury. Then a bowl of water and an embroidered towel were brought to his seat for the prescribed washing of hands before a meal, so that he would not have to go to the pantry for this purpose. These were symbolic gestures of freedom, of being his own master in contrast to the slavery endured in Egypt. The drinking of at least four cups of wine during the course of the meal, at stated intervals, had a similar significance. But the misery endured in captivity was not to be forgotten--on the contrary: the injunction is to pass on the story of the Exodus from father to son, from generation to generation, and that each person is to consider himself as if he had been personally redeemed by that momentous event. The Haggada begins with these words: "This is the bread of affliction (pointing to the matzoth) that our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt!"; followed by the invitation, as befits a free man to extend hospitality: "Let all who are hungry come and partake of our food!" The recital then continues with: "Slaves were we unto the Pharaoh in the land of Egypt. . ." and relates all the great events which preceded, accompanied, and followed the liberation: Abraham forsaking idolatry to serve the Lord, God of Israel; his advent into the land of Canaan; subsequent migration to Egypt; enslavement of the children of Israel by the Pharaoh; the hard labor and suffering they endured; Pharaoh's refusal to release them until forced by the ten plagues; passage through the parted waters of the Red Sea which then engulfed the pursuing Egyptian host; wandering in the desert for forty years, miraculously sustained by manna; receipt of the Law at Mount Sinai; and final return to the land of Israel. The Seder is interspersed with many blessings and tasting of symbolic foods, shared in by all the participants.
Strangely enough, Moses, the foundling who became a prince of Egypt, who led the revolt against the Pharaoh, who delvered his people out of bondage, gave them heart during the long years in the desert, proclaimed the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai, and brought the Israelites within sight of the Promised Land--this great leader's name is nowhere mentioned in the Haggada! All the stupendous achievements are ascribed therein to the omnipotence of the Lord.
The children, free from heder for the duration of the holiday, took full advantage of their liberty and the fine spring weather by running about the streets, showing off their new outfits, and their pockets bulging with walnuts for a special game played only on Passover. Seven nuts were placed in a row about six inches apart, and each player rolled his favorite "shooter" pebble or metal ball trying to hit a nut in the row, preferably the one at the top, a hit winning all nuts below the one knocked out. Another popular game called "Chizhik" was played with a square wooden peg, tapered at both ends, with the Roman numbers I--III--V--VII scratched on the sides. The player threw the peg on the ground to see which number came on top, then would hit one of the tapered ends with a stick, causing the peg to fly up in the air, and had to hit it in mid-air to go as far as possible in a given direction. This was not as easy as it sounds. Every try counted, whether or not the peg was touched, and when struck it would often go in a different direction from the one intended. The player had as many tries as the number originally shown, and after these were used up the distance of the peg from the starting point toward the designated direction was measured off in paces, and that was his score. The next player then took over to try his luck.
"Chizhik" was our baseball, and we played it all summer, unlike the nut game which was played only on Passover for the simple reason that we had no walnuts during the rest of the year. The peg game, however, had one serious drawback. Since playgrounds as such did not exist in the town, we of necessity played in the courtyards between the houses, where all too often the game would be brought to an unscheduled end by the tinkling of a broken window pane, with painful consequences to our parents' pocketbooks and our own buttocks.
As a matter of fact we never had any manufactured toys. Everything was improvised or adapted to uses not originally meant for. Although we sold fishhooks in our store, I was not allowed to take one because: "This is not a plaything, and besides it is dangerous--you might stick yourself!" So I had to use a rusty pin found somewhere. Buttons, all kinds of buttons, were our medium of exchange, a less common one being worth several of the ordinary ones, with the military-type brass (gold in our parlance)ones having the highest value. Sticks served as lances, thin slats of wood became swords, and pebbles made fine bullets. Pieces of elastic from torn garters connected to a forked twig became fine slingshots, a weapon much favored because of its use by David in his battle with Goliath, and we too became quite skilled in its use. We even manufactured "real" guns. In every household could be found rusty old keys, the kind with a hole bored lengthwise into the stem. To make a gun out of it, all we needed was a nail that fitted snugly into the bore and a longish piece of string. The point of the nail was blunted with a stone, the string was tied to its head at one end, the other end was tied to the loop of the key, and the gun was ready for firing except for powder.
That presented no problem. Matches were filched from the kitchen, the sulfur was scraped off and tamped carefully into the bore of the key stem, leaving room for part of the nail to be inserted and act as the firing pin. The firing was accomplished by holding the center of the string so that the "gun" was property balanced and swinging the contraption to make the nail's head hit smartly against a wall, compressing the sulfur which exploded with quite a bang. Most of the time the nail just shot out and the "gun" was ready for use again. But it sometimes happened that the key itself burst apart, with even a bigger bang. The last time this happened one of the kids received a fragment in the leg, luckily causing only a flesh wound. That finally roused our parents, slaps were liberally distributed all around, and an end was put to our not so innocent gunplay.
The only tools we had were what we could find at home: a hammer, scissors, a small handsaw. Every household had an axe for splitting firewood, but its use was strictly forbidden to us, just as we were not allowed to handle the sharp kitchen knives. Yet two in our gang had treasures which were the envy of the others. My namesake Yankl, whose father was a locksmith, had a usable, even if rusty metal file (he was also the chief purveyor of keys for our "guns"); and I had a real two-bladed bone handled penknife which was "borrowed" from our store. I do not think that I ever possessed anything which I cherished more than that beautiful penknife. And what use we all made of it! Sticks were whittled to sharp points to become spears; old shingles were shaped into daggers and sabers; we made pegs for "Chizhik"; we even made a small cage out of twigs with a trap door manipulated by a string, and waited for hours for the birds that never came to peck at the bread crumbs we sprinkled inside.
Girls too had to fashion their own playthings. Dolls were made out of discarded pieces of cloth, with beads or tiny buttons for eyes. They were helped in this by their mothers or older sisters who at the same time taught them how to sew. Their games were mostly of the "playing house" kind: being mamas; taking care of their "babies"; having visitors; and other such "girl stuff". The only game they had in common with boys was hide-and-seek. Girls also did quite a bit of running about, but not so much as boys--they were usually apprenticed at a tender age to help with the household chores and care of the ever-present infants. There was good reason for inclusion in the man's morning prayers of a sentence thanking the Lord for not having created him a woman!
3 . Shavuot through Simhat Torah
Seven weeks after Passover came the next holiday, Shavuot (Pentecost), which usually fell in June. My recollection of it brings to mind two special features: covering of the floors with fresh green reeds, armfuls of which we kids gleefully fetched from the swamps; and the traditional blintzes and cheesecakes which we even more gleefully dispatched. The emphasis on greenery and dairy products no doubt stems from the days when Jews were farmers and herdsmen in their ancient land and celebrated the gathering of the first crops and the weaning of lambs and calves at this time of year.
Next came a grouping of holidays in the fall, beginning with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year; followed by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement; Sukkot, the Festival of the Booths; and ending with Simhat Torah, which marks the completion of reading of the five books of the Old Testament, one chapter of which is read each Saturday in the synagogue. Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are known as Yomim Noroyim (Days of Awe), because it is believed that the destiny of every person for the coming year is preordained and irrevocably sealed on those days. Accordingly these High Holy Days were devoted to solemn prayer and fasting (on Yom Kippur only). All manifestation of frivolity was forbidden. The entire community, young and old, gathered at the synagogue to hear the shrill tones of the shofar (ram's horn), no doubt used in ancient days to call the people together on important occasions, and to take up arms in time of peril. Joshua most likely used the shofar at the time the walls of Jericho came tumbling down. The eerie sounds of this instrument served to heighten the feeling of awe on these holidays, and the mood of solemnity was further enhanced by the garb of many of the old men who in addition to the tallith (prayer shawl) wrapped themselves in a kittel - a pure white shroud that covered them from head to foot. The chants at the services on these holidays were very elaborate, notably of the Kol Nidrei at the beginning of Yom Kippur. A good hazzan would embellish the traditional tunes with variations and cadenzas of his own, and when these met with approval of the critical congregation his fame would spread far and wide throughout the province.
Three archaic rituals worthy of note were connected with Yom Kippur. The first one took place at home during the morning preceding the holiday. It was known by the Hebrew word for sacrifices: kapporot, or kappores in the vernacular. The male children gathered around their father who held a live rooster by the legs and circled the wing-flapping bird three times about his own head and the heads of the boys, while chanting a Hebrew phrase consigning the rooster as a sacrifice for the life and health of the group. The same ritual was performed with a hen by the mother on behalf of herself and the female children. What effect this had on our future well-being is not for me to say, but the fat soup and boiled chicken consumed that evening were very good indeed.
The second ritual took place at the synagogue throughout the same day. This was called malkot or malkes, meaning flagellation. Starting in early morning penitents appeared at the synagogue, prostrated themselves on the floor on a spot covered with reeds, and received thirty-nine blows with a sort of cat-o'-nine-tails, administered by the shammus (sexton). Only relatively few persons, mostly old men, submitted to this scourge as an atonement for whatever sins they may have ,committed during the year.
The third ritual was actually part of the Yom Kippur services--a recitation of forty-four sins or transgressions, each preceded by the words "Al het . . ." meaning "For the sin of . . ." The enumeration included, among others, the following: hard heartedness, false utterance, unchastity, deceit, disrespect of parents, evil thoughts, violence, profanity, overindulgence, usury, arrogance, covetousness, pride, envy, and perjury. At the mention of each sin the worshipper was required to strike his breast with his clenched fist. Since this recital is repeated four times during the day-long service, it meant a total of one hundred seventy-six blows. Unlike the malkot, the Alhet self-punishment was administered by all, except that the strength of the blows depended upon the depth of devotion rather than on the degree of guilt.
The Climax of the Yom Kippur service comes at sunset with the chanting of Neilah, the closing prayer. This is the last chance of beseeching the Heavenly Powers for a propitious judgement, or for amelioration of a dire lot already proposed before it is irrevocably sealed. The doors of the Holy Ark, symbol of the Heavenly Gates, were thrown open for the Neilah. The worshippers, already exhausted by the twenty-four-hour fast and continuous praying, gathered their last strength to raise their voices in supplication, resoundingly seconded by the women in the gallery, swaying to and fro, their heads wrapped in the black-striped prayer shawls, and tears streaming down their faces and beards. With final blasts of the shofar and the appearance of the first stars Yom Kippur came to an end, and everybody repaired to their homes to break the fast.
Four days later began Sukkot, the Festival of the Booths, commemorating the forty years the Israelites wandered in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt, dwelling in tents. These four days were devoted to the building of a sukka (booth) by each household. Most people nailed some boards to a wall of the house to form a lean-to, with only some crosspieces on top to hold green boughs which traditionally served as a roof. This makeshift structure was meant to be the symbolic residence of the family for eight days, and as a token thereof at least one meal was eaten there each day.
Unfortunately, the weather at that time of year was usually rainy, windy and cold, preventing many people from carrying out the custom. Nevertheless, many others, the very pious ones, complied with the requirement despite the adversities. Our family was among the fortunate ones to have the sukka inside the four walls of the house, due to the foresight, when the house was built, to hinge a section of the slanted roof so that it could be raised vertically, thus exposing a part of the interior to the open sky.
The last day of this holiday period was Simhat Torah, and that was celebrated joyfully by everybody, old and young. In the synagogue all scrolls of the Torah were taken out of the ark and carried round and round, the more pious men hopping, dancing and singing at the top of their voices only four words: "Sissu vesimhu besimhat Torah!" (Rejoice and exalt in the festival of the Torah!) As the procession went by people reached out to touch each scroll and then brought the fingers to their lips. But we youngsters had the grandest time of all, since almost everything was permitted. We played pranks on each other and even on adults, carried blue-white flags with the Star of David in the center and an apple stuck on the shaft, and ran in and out among the crowd almost knocking people off their feet. The main excitement came after dark, when we wrapped some rags at the end of long sticks, doused them with kerosene, lit them and marched with the smoking and stinking torches in front of the synagogue, the onlookers, especially the women and girls, oh'ing and ah'ing but giving us a wide berth. The real heroes were the few daredevils who would take a mouthful of kerosene and squirt it out in a spray against a lit candle, creating a momentary fireball to the delight of the rest of us. It is a wonder that no house was ever set on fire and no one suffered any serious burns during these escapades.
4. Hanukka and Purim
The only other holidays were Hanukka and Purim, the first commemorating the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian-Greek oppressors; and the other, the thwarting by Mordehai and Esther of Haman's plot to massacre the Jews of ancient Persia. These were really semi-holidays, not requiring cessation of everyday activities, and were national rather than religious festivals.
Celebration of Hanukka was a family affair, with lighting of candles on eight successive days, eating potato pancakes, and playing of indoor games, notably the spinning of a four-sided top called dreidl which had the Hebrew letters Nun, Gimel, Heh, Shin standing for the phrase: "A great miracle happend there." This refers to the tradition that after the Temple was purified of the defilement perpetrated by the heathens a small cruse of sanctified oil was found, enough to burn for only one day, but by miracle it lasted for eight full days. It is customary to give money to children on this holiday, the so-called Hannuka gelt. Children were told the epic of the struggle of the Jewish people, under the leadership of the Hasmonean brothers, for freedom and independence; and were encouraged to sing Zionist and patriotic songs.
Purim was celebrated by reading the Book of Esther in the synagogue, the youngsters creating a racket with rattles and other noisemakers at every mention Qf Haman's name. A unique custom of this holiday is to send gifts of fruit, nuts, candy and cake to relatives, friends and neighbors. So the streets were full of children, bundled up against the cold, trudging back and forth through the crunching snow and carrying dishes of goodies covered with white napkins. Since it was acceptable to utilize what was received in composing the gifts being sent, many items after making the rounds wound up in the end with the original donor. But this of course was expected and taken with good cheer.
Another feature of this festival were the "Purim Players" --people who dressed up in costumes representing Mordehai Ahasuerus, Esther, and Haman, as well as other Biblical characters, going from house to house to enact the story with song and dance, and receiving money or other gifts for their performance. All in all it was not a bad way of keeping alive the memory of a victory over a tyrant who tried to undo the Jewish people more than two thousand five hundred years ago.
Such was the shtetl, and such was the life of its inhabitants. Throughout the tapestry depicting their struggles and achievements, joys and sorrows, drabness of everyday existence and spiritual sublimation during times of festivity, one motif predominates in the grand design--the sense of tradition, the adherence to old Jewish values, the feeling of belonging to an ancient and indestructible people--all epitomized in three Yiddish words: "Dos Pintele Yid" --the undying spark deep in the heart of every Jew.
To put the life of the shtetl, as hereinbefore described, in its proper perspective it should be borne in mind that the period the narrative deals with, namely, the first decade of the twentieth century, marked almost one hundred years of peace in our region, which had not undergone any major disturbance since Napoleon's Grande Armee marched triumphantly toward Moscow in 1812, and scampered back in disarray through the frozen fields and marshes in the winter of the same year. This long era of tranquility lulled the shtetl into a state of serenity, gave it a sense of permanence in which life seemed to proceed in an orderly well-regulated pattern, established since time immemorial and not subject to change. Of course there were variations: ups and downs, rich and poor, success and failure, quarrels and reconciliations, sickness and recovery, birth and death--the full range of human experience. But that was all part of the pattern, was accepted as natural, and seemed to be destined to continue till the end of time. Well, the end of time came much sooner than expected. It came with thunder and lightning, with fire and sword, uprooting the long established order of things, and changing forever the destinies of men and the course of their lives. The cataclysm was engendered by the outbreak of the First World War.