1. God's Creatures
Shershev was situated on both banks of a small river, Lesna, which flowed sluggishly through it before spreading into a swamp on the outskirts. It was spanned by a wooden bridge, about seventy-five feet long but too narrow for two-way vehicular traffic. When two horse-drawn wagons approached simultaneously from opposite sides one had to wait a few minutes for the other one to cross before crossing in turn. The bridge was the only connection between both parts of town, unless one was to wade across the swamp--not difficult during the dry summer months. In winter everything froze solid and it was no problem to get across on foot or by sleigh.
During good weather the river's only sandy bank near the bridge was alive with barelegged women, their long skirts tucked in high above their knees, washing their laundry in metal basins, slapping the clothes with wooden paddles over flat stones, or rinsing them in the stream. It was unseemly for grown men to stand about gawking, but we boys had no such inhibitions and hung around ostensibly fishing or looking for frogs, but not missing the intriguing female contours revealed by the clinging wet garments. Our "fishing" was done with a string tied to a stick, the hook made of a rusty pin with a piece of bread crust for bait--at least that was used by me because of an aversion to worms. None of us ever caught anything, and I doubt if any fish were around with all the commotion of the washing. We were more successful with frogs, which were grabbed with bare hands, taken some distance away from the water, then watched as they jumped back to the river, under our prodding. We never harmed them otherwise--we were taught compassion for "God's creatures." Pigs, of course, did not come under that category.
Of all "God's creatures" our tenders feelings were reserved for the birds. The town was full of sparrows, and we could tell the deep-brown males from the grayish females. They were all over the place, and used to swoop down on the still steaming horses' droppings on the cobblestones, chirping, squabbling and pecking away for all they were worth, and in no time the dropped balls were transformed into a nasty mess spread about the pavement. Crows were the next abundant species, and flew over the houses in swarms, wheeling and turning as if on command, their flapping wings and strident cawing drowning out all other sounds. They nested in the trees around the Russian church and the cemetery behind it, and never alighted on the ground. Then there were the storks, which we saw high in the sky flying in V formation southward in the fall and back again in the spring. They built their nests of dry twigs on the thatched roofs of the peasants' houses, and could be seen standing there on one red leg, their heads and enormous beaks turning in circular motion while producing a series of sharp clacking sounds like that of two boards being struck against each other. I do not recall ever seeing two storks together near their nest, supposedly because one remained to guard the eggs or fledglings while the mate was feeding in the swamp on the plentiful population of frogs, leeches, small water snakes, and fish. After catching the prey they would throw it into the air with an upward jerk of the beak and catch it again on the way down, repeating the performance again and again until the food was in proper condition to be swallowed or taken home to feed the nestlings.
we loved most were the swallows, black except for a bright red spot
on the throat and red markings under the wings which could be seen only when they were in flight. They used to appear every spring and we knew then that the harsh winter is definitely over. Their nests were built out of mud, usually in clusters, right underneath the eaves, and it was believed that the same birds came back to their own nests each year. The house of my maternal grandmother had two such nests, and we kids were delighted to watch the swallows dart like lightning just past us, disappear from view, dart in from another direction again and again, and only then, apparently satisfied that no danger lurks, disappear into the nest opening. We guarded "our" nests with a sense of proprietorship and chased away other birds and cats if they came too close. Though we heard faint peeps, we never saw the young come out and learn to fly. They either did this early in the morning when we were still asleep, or else remained in the nest until ready for flying. One fall day after the birds were gone both nests fell down during a strong squall. They were never rebuilt again.
Not far from the bridge, in the center of town, a sprawling open area constituted the business section, market place, and fairground. In the middle of this space stood a massive fortress like rectangular structure, with thick masonry walls; transversed by a wide arcade for pedestrian passage. The building was honeycombed with about twenty-five stores, and the arcade contained a number of closet-like niches used as trading posts or stands. Each store, or krom in Yiddish, was a cubicle about ten feet wide by eighteen feet deep, without windows, the walls lined with shelves and the floor encumbered by wooden boxes, barrels and sacks, perhaps not unlike the old-time American country store. It had one solid door of rough wood on heavy hand-wrought iron hinges and next to it a similarly constructed Dutch door, the bottom half of which formed a counter when the upper half was open. The storekeeper (kremer in Yiddish, kremerke for female) sat on a high stool behind the counter, or often stood just outside the door, calling out his wares to every passer-by. The high stool had a double purpose: first, to afford a view across the counter; second, and more important, to provide warmth during the frigid Russian winter. For underneath the stool was placed a cast-iron pot filled with glowing charcoal, which exuded enough heat for comfort, especially for the women who draped their long skirts like a tent all around the stool while sitting on it, the heated air thus being directed upward to keep their bodies warm even on very cold days.
These "fire pots" provided an obvious and inexhaustible source of wisecracks at the expense of the "hot women" and their husbands who knew of no better way of keeping them warm. Occasionally the women indeed got more heat than bargained for, when a flaring ember would shoot out of the pot and singe their underclothes down to the skin. But that was only one of the minor hazards of being a kremerke. The houses surrounding the market place and in the adjoining streets were occupied by Jews. Most were one-story wooden structures with shingled roofs, standing close to each other, with usually a small yard and vegetable garden in the back. There were a few brick houses belonging to the well-to-do. Every back yard had an outhouse, since indoor facilities consisted only of chamber pots for use at night and in winter.
These outhouses were about the size of a telephone booth, erected over a pit, and deliberately left open on the bottom of the back to allow access to the roaming pigs which used to feed on the excrement. Pigs were not supposed to be in our area of town, but they got there anyway and presumably found their way home again, although occasionally a peasant woman would walk about in search of a lost one, calling out loudly: "Vas, vas, vas! Vas, vas, vas! “The Jewish boys made a sport of chasing these pigs with sticks and stones, especially when they got near or into the vegetable garden. In such events the women would raise a cry: "Children, children, quick! A pig is in the gardens" and the hunt was on, the trampling kids adding to the damage caused by the animal. Though we knew that the pigs were given to rooting in the excrement, and looked about for the presence of one in the vicinity before going into the outhouse, it was startling just the same to suddenly hear a grunt under one's bare buttocks while squatting there. Many a time was I scared out of my wits by such an unexpected visitor.
The gentile population lived on the outskirts, nearer to their fields and pastures. Their houses were even smaller and poorer than those of the Jews, generally with thatch roofs, but they were spaced much farther from each other, had large fenced-in yards for their cattle, and tremendous barns for storage of hay and grain and for housing the cattle in winter. What 1 admired about them was the profusion of fruit trees and garden flowers which the Jewish houses were generally devoid of. Many gentiles also had their own wells since they needed a lot of water for their cattle, whereas the Jews had to use public wells often situated a considerable distance away from their houses.
There were two churches in Shershev. The Russian Orthodox Church, with one large and two small onion-shaped cupolas, was in the center, not far from the market place. The Catholic Church with its Gothic facade stood across the bridge on the other side of town. Four prayer houses, in quite ordinary buildings, were scattered conveniently in the Jewish section. And there was the Great Synagogue--the Shul--in the center of town, but that deserves a special description. The only other public facilities were a poorhouse and a communal bathhouse with a. ritual bath as an adjunct, maintained by the Jewish community. Otherwise there were no public buildings--no school, library, post office, hospital or police station--not even a jail. The small police contingent occupied a rented house and used one of the back rooms as a lockup. Fire fighting equipment consisted of two large wooden water barrels mounted on two wheeled undercarriages, with attached hand pumps and hoses, which were hauled to a burning building by hand, or by horses if they could be procured quickly enough. Fires were a constant threat, especially in summer when wind-blown sparks would ignite one after another of the crowded wooden houses, sometimes wiping out entire streets.
One such conflagration remains vividly in my memory. My grandmother FREIDE LEIE and her daughter ESTHER BEILE, each holding one of my hands, half dragged me while running through the flames on both sides of the street, heading for refuge in the nearest swamp. Many other people were running hither and yon, some carrying bundles or a single household article, crying, yelling, all half crazed with fear. Wind-driven embers and flaming roof shingles were flying over and around us, and the crackling, hissing flames were shooting up to the sky. I kept on closing my eyes against the heat and glare, and suddenly began shivering from the abrupt change in temperature when we came into a side street and dropped on the ground under some trees to catch our breath. That was during the groisse sreife (big fire) of 1908 which devastated the center of town and was talked about for years thereafter. Our houses--each grandmother had her own house--escaped the fire due to their location away from the center, nearer to the gentile houses on the outskirts.
The destruction of a house was always a major catastrophe to the owner. With the exception of the rare person of means who may have been able to save some money, the average Jew, even of the middle classes, had trouble enough to provide for the immediate daily needs of his family, let alone accumulate savings. Men his house burned down, usually with everything in it, he at once became a pauper, without a roof over his head. There was no such thing as insurance, no banks to borrow from (and what bank would lend money to a pauper?), so the only recourse was charity.
Charity, under the Hebrew name Tsedaka, has been rooted in the Jewish ethos since ancient times, and was practiced almost as an eleventh Commandment. There was no Jewish home, no matter how poor, which did not have a little blue and white box (the national Jewish colours), known as pushke, into which a copper was dropped whenever possible for charity. Usually the money was donated for such local needs as paying cheder tuition for a poor boy; aiding a widow with small children; providing a dowry for an orphan girl; and for supporting a yeshiva or home for the aged. But it would take the contents of thousands of pushkes to help a man rebuild his house, and in the case of such a calamity as the "big fire" local means were totally inadequate. Only an appeal to all the Jews of the province, and beyond, would avail in such a situation.
An appeal of such magnitude was made through the dispatch of an emissary, known as shaliakh, or several of them, to travel from town to town and plead for donations for the homeless victims. The emissaries carried letters from the town rabbi, usually in Hebrew, detailing the extent of the disaster, expounding the virtues of Tsedaka with citations from the Talmud, and appealing for help. Upon arrival in each town the letter was presented to the local rabbi, who would read it from the pulpit to his congregation in the synagogue, adding his own appeal for generosity as a great mitzva. The Shaliakh too would make a statement and answers questions from the audience, and often go from house to house to make the collection.
In addition to the emissaries, who usually covered the small towns, letters were dispatched to the community heads of large cities with similar appeals. Though the response in all instances was wholehearted and generous, it often took a year or longer before enough money was collected to rebuild the houses destroyed by the fire. Meanwhile the homeless were crowded in with relatives, in the poorhouse, or in the prayer houses if no other accommodations could be found.
The selection of an emissary was not a simple matter. The man had to be unencumbered with personal affairs, permitting his absence from home and family for many months; sufficiently articulate to convey the urgency of his mission; and trustworthy enough to remit all the collected money, the accounting for which was far from foolproof. Nevertheless, suspicions and accusations sometimes arose, leading to dissension in the community, with the shaliakh's life made miserable whether or not he was guilty of any malfeasance.
life miserable for public figures was a sport zestfully engaged in by the
shtetl Jews. Powerless to openly resist the government autocracy, they vented their frustrations against their own people of some prominence. Within the Jewish community democracy reigned supreme, at least in vocal expression, and no one was immune from criticism, including the rabbis.
Each shtetl typically had only one rabbi--there was neither the need for, nor the means to support, more than one. His most vexing task was to resolve personal disputes in a Din Torah, or judgment according to the Torah, still occasionally resorted to today by Orthodox Jews. Although both sides voluntarily agreed to put their case before the rabbi and abide by his decision, the losers sometimes accused him of unfairness or partiality, and did not hesitate to air their grievances in public, or worse.
One such incident, still talked about during my childhood, had occurred about twenty years earlier. It involved a decision that one of the two ritual slaughterers did not fully observe the prescribed rules in butchering an ox, and that the meat was therefore unusable by Jews. This was a severe blow to several butchers, who protested that the ruling was based on a technicality and that the rabbi favoured the other slaughterer. They were supported by a number of households who were faced with a meatless Sabbath.
The following morning, a Friday, a pig's ear was found nailed to the rabbi's door. In consternation the venerable old man refused to pass through the door, the only entrance to the house, and did not allow anyone else to do so or to pass food through it for fear of contamination. He declared a fast until the door is removed and replaced by a new one, and also proclaimed an anathema against the perpetrators. Legend had it that several of the suspects had met with untimely deaths, and that the rabbi himself died within a few days from the shock of the desecration.