By Aliza Greenblatt
Translated from the Yiddish by Yaacov Dovid Shulman
With love, to my children:
… It is good to be
A simple person:
Reading a book,
Writing a stanza,
And cooking kashe with soup…
It is good to be
A simple person,
Looking at the world with love,
Thanking God for every small tree,
For every blossom,
For every blade of grass in the field…
And if Hamlet-like thoughts
Fill your heart with pain,
Then tell yourself:
Well, when I no longer exist,
The world will still exist, forever…
Yes, it is good to be
A simple person,
Writing a stanza,
Reading a book,
And cooking kashe with soup.
I was born in the shtetl of Azarenits [Ozaryntsi]—near Mohilev and by the Dniester River—on the Fast of Gedaliah in 1888. During that period, my parents were living in Mohilev with my father’s parents. However, when my mother had to give birth, she would come to stay with her own mother in Azarenits.
The custom was that a young married couple would live with the wife’s parents. But since my mother’s father was no longer alive, it was arranged for my parents to board with my father’s parents, who were well-off.
My parents spent nine years there, during which time my mother gave birth to her two children: my sister and me. Then, when my father’s parents stopped supporting them, my parents returned from Mohilev to Azarenits. At the time, I was five years old.
When I think back and try to recall the image of Mohilev, it comes to me all topsy-turvy, foggy and blurred, as if in a dream. Compared to the shtetl of Azarenits, Mohilev was a city, a large town with sizable houses and a boulevard. But despite its many shops and urban schools, Mohilev was also renowned for its huge, swampy puddles. People used to say that when a person put his foot into a Mohilev puddle he would never be able to pull it out again.
That is almost everything that I remember about this town where I spent the first five years of my life.
By contrast, the shtetl of Azarenits lies fresh and clear in my memory, as though I left it only yesterday.
This shtetl, surrounded by high mountains, lay in a shadowy valley. The peasants of the surrounding villages had fields of wheat and rye as well as orchards, and in addition they raised fowl and animals.
Our shtetl, at the bottom of the valley, was populated only by Jews. The inhabitants were very poor. Only one Jew—as though to make up for the rest—was well-off. He owned a dry goods store. In comparison to everyone else—but only in comparison—he was wealthy. In Azarenits, a person did not have to own much in order to be considered rich.
All of the other Jews were workers: tailors, a few shoemakers, a few storekeepers, a few businessmen and two wagon drivers who made a living transporting passengers from Azarenits to Mohilev and back.
The village also earned a little bit of money from the Hasidim who used to come from the surrounding shtetls and villages to be with their rebbe, or spiritual leader, for the holidays.
The only two days of the month when the shtetl came alive were alternate Thursdays, which were the market days. On those two days, the shtetl entirely changed its appearance.
The usually sleepy marketplace came alive. The place was filled with peasants bringing their produce, and on those days the Jews became energetic merchants. Merchants also came to the fair from other towns.
Besides grain, fruit and fowl, the peasants brought pots, cups and bowls that they had made themselves. I will never forget the wondrously wrought cups, which were packed in straw so as not to break. They really brightened the marketplace, and my grandmother always bought cups as well as pitchers to give to her grandchildren as gifts.
In the images that swim up in my memory, the shtetl is almost always wrapped in a gray weekday quality and in poverty. The men walked about in worn-out clothes and the women wore cheap gypsy clothes and white kerchiefs on their heads.
This was how the Jews dressed throughout the week—but only until the Sabbath. People began preparing for the Sabbath two days in advance, on Thursday. Then a commotion began in every house. Everywhere, people were baking braided challah loaves, and the scents of cooked fish and fowl wafted across the alleyways.
Every Jew had some wine for kiddush, which he himself had made from raisins, and in addition everyone had home-made horseradish.
On Friday afternoon, the Jews went to the bathhouse. The children appeared in the streets with their hair shampooed, freshly bathed, lighting up the streets with their scrubbed appearance, wearing their Sabbath clothes.
Before nightfall, Sabbath candles glowed from the windows of every house. Not everyone could afford to put candles in silver candlesticks. In poor homes, candles were placed in brass candlesticks and even in candlesticks made of potatoes.
And as soon as night fell, the melodies of the Sabbath songs could be heard from every window.
Later on in America, I returned to my shtetl many times in my thoughts, and I dedicated many poems to it. In these images which swim up in my memory, the shtetl was “just one footstep across”:
My entire shtetl,
Just one footstep across,
Bordered by purple hills,
With golden rye
And silver buckwheat—
With deep-blue, dreamy skies,
With fantastic castles
Poured of fine gold,
Woven with satin and velvet,
With princes and counts, knights and horsemen,
Their eyes blue and dreamy;
With trees and fields, enchanted forests,
With red cherries, sour cherries and grapes,
With fathers and mothers, with holidays and the Sabbath,
With holy, Godly faith.
My shtetl, large as a yawn.
Little houses stand silent and gray,
As though a strange hand
Had thrown them together.
Small crooked streets twisting about
Trail off into a dirt road.
And the rabbi’s red goat
Nibbles the straw from his roof.
Fathers, delicate, pale,
Are gloomy and worried.
There isn’t a groschen to be had.
For Shabbos, they have to borrow.
And the good, loving mothers
Grow old before their time—
Always pregnant, nursing, worrying.
They fall under the heavy yoke.
A Jewish child lifts his eyes,
Reflected in the silver dew.
“God in heaven,” the child asks,
“Why do we suffer so much?”
And the mountains around the shtetl
See everything and remain silent.
And the people, hollow and blank,
Wander about like the dead.
In a poem called “My Childhood Dreams,” which I wrote much later when I was living in Sea Gate, New York, I recalled many details not only of the gray week but also of the holidays—and in particular of the most joyful day of the year, Simchas Torah, when the Jews danced in the streets with the Torah scrolls.
My Childhood Dreams
I draw up pails filled with fresh, crystal water
From our town well,
And I thirstily drink of my childhood dreams.
I still smell the aroma of our small acacia tree
Dipped in lilac blossoms.
The gentiles’ orchards are in bloom.
Before my eyes still stands our half-fallen wall
With its creaking, broken gate.
I see our ragged, yellow hen, which had been lost for months.
A tall rooster with a red comb walks proudly around her.
He brought her back at dawn.
He sings a serenade: Cockadoodle do!
And an echo answers: Doodle, do!
And fills our shtetl with the tranquility of Creation.
And our neighbor Shlomo Rabei strides,
Walking with measured steps, leading his thin, black cow,
His source of income, to the field to graze.
And small Vassili with bare feet and a fur cap
Drives his flock of fat, spotted sheep.
They run happily in a zig-zag; the small lambs huddle
At their mother’s breast, and they bleat: meh, meh, meh, meh.
The dust, like silver rain, spreads across the roads,
Bringing with it the aroma of sheep milk and cheese,
And freshly cut lilacs.
And Jews at dawn in the synagogue,
Not to be late, heaven forbid, for the first prayer service.
Jews with long beards, worn-out capotes,
With a Talmudic tune on pale faces
And Jewish fathers’ worries…
And God’s Jews dance on Simchas Torah in the streets.
They lead our rabbi, Rabbi Boruch Meir’l, may his memory be for a blessing.
They lead him under a silk wedding canopy into the synagogue.
Hasidim dance, sing, clap their hands,
Holiday Jews—you would barely recognize them.
And the Jews dance in circles, carrying the tall, holy Torah scrolls
Wrapped in silk with gold-stringed mantles,
The synagogue shines with candles and lamps,
The holy ark is opened wide and beautiful,
And Jews wish each other: “May you live out the year; may you live out the year!”
And we, the children, with blue-white flags, with red apples, lit candles,
Rise up on our toes to reach and kiss the holy Torah scrolls,
And sing along: “Amen and amen!”
I have drawn full pails of fresh crystal water from our town well,
And I thirstily drink of my childhood dreams.
Of my two grandfathers and grandmothers, I remember particularly well my grandfather on my father’s side, R. Itzik’l Aharonson. He was born in Berditshev, but after he lost both his parents, a relative named Breina Saraker took him to Mohilev, where he grew up and lived for the rest of his life. There in Mohilev my father, Avraham Aharonson, was born.
I remember my grandfather very well. He was a short Jew with a silver-white beard, which ended in two sharp points. During the week he wore a cloth capote with a cloth hat, but on Shabbos he sparkled in a silk capote with a silk belt, and he wore a velvet hat. He was always busy and excitable.
He was learned, and there were always holy books on his table. I remember him often sitting at the table, looking into a book through his large spectacles and sighing.
Twice a day he went to pray in the small Yarshever Synagogue.
He traded in grain and sent ferries with racks of grain to Odessa, Zvanyetz and other distant towns.
I remember seeing Grandfather sitting by a desk in the dining room, paying the non-Jewish workers after they returned from their travels. But my principal memory of him is as a small, hunched man bent over an open volume and sighing.
In a poem that I wrote much later, I tried to bring back my grandfather’s image, of how he was principally engraved in my memory: sitting at the table over a volume of the Talmud.
In the hall by the rich, round table,
Through the nights my grandfather would sit,
And onto the Talmud there fell
The silver points of his beard.
Spectacles with golden stems,
Deep furrows on his forehead,
And with a sad melody
He gazed into the book.
Lightly he swayed his body,
Leaned on his hands,
And his quiet Talmud tune
Rang against the walls.
Amar Abaye—“Abaye said…”
What then did Abaye say?
My grandfather’s tender voice
Lamented quietly about something.
Wrapped up snug, half asleep,
I would lie in my bed
And my grandfather’s soft voice
Lulled me with his longing.
“Master of the world, oh, oh, sweet Father!”
He would sigh so hard.
In my grandfather’s silver beard
A tear was hidden.
I swallowed the tears into myself.
It is fresh in my memory.
My grandfather’s moan, my grandfather’s tear
Follow me for all these years.
My grandparents on my father’s side had eight children: six sons and two daughters. A couple of children lived with them in their large two-story house. In return for helping him in his store, they were supported by my grandfather—this was in addition to my father, who sat and learned Torah.
My grandmother Rivele (named after the pious Rivele of Mezshbish) was small like my grandfather. She was plump; and unlike my grandfather, who was easily excited and gloomy, she always had a sweet smile on her lips. She did not make do with grandfather’s business, but she had her own flour store. She always needed money, because she was very busy helping her family and, in general, everyone in need who made his way to her.
Because she used to give away everything she had, she always lacked ready money, and so she would always come to Grandfather for another few hundred ruble. Grandfather would argue with her: “Does that make sense, Rivele? Not long ago I gave you so much money!”
Grandmother would answer him: “Well, do you want people to say that Rivele, Itzik’l Aharonson’s wife, is bankrupt?”
To this, Grandfather had no reply and he gave her whatever she asked for.
Much later in America, my mother used to tell me wonderful stories about her mother-in-law.
For instance, many times my grandmother Rivele distributed my Grandfather’s clothes among her poor relatives. When Grandfather would ask where his Shabbos clothes were, Grandmother would always give him an excuse: that his clothes were airing out, or that the moths had gotten to them, or simply that they had been stolen.
In the worst case, she would say that the clothes were old and worn-out and that Grandfather needed new clothes. Then the tailor would be called and Grandfather got a new set of clothing. But not for long. Because a while later Grandmother did the same thing again: she distributed the clothes and the entire series of events began anew: the moths had gotten in, they were set aside to air out, they were stolen….
Grandmother was always thinking of needy people. For one person she did a favor, for another she bought a piece of clothing; she gave one person flour to make Shabbos challahs and another she helped out with a few rubles.
She also helped poor widows and married off orphan girls. People would come to Grandmother Rivele for help from all over town. And she had an open hand and an open heart for everyone.
We treated the servants who worked for us in the house like our own family. Grandmother gave them dowries and married them off.
Mother used to tell how one time a young man came to look over one of the maidservants and then turned to the door. When he was about to leave, Grandmother stood at the doorway and said: “What’s the matter? Doesn’t her family background please you? Or do you think that there isn’t any dowry?” And saying this, she took off her pearl necklace and handed it to him. The engagement was fixed.
Based on the various stories that I heard about her, principally about her own childhood and her family background, I later wrote a poem, “My Grandmother Rivele.”
My Grandmother, Fruma Rivele Bremeg
(“Bremeg” is an acronym for “Descendent of Rabbeinu Moreinu Gershom,” a great eleventh century rabbi)
My grandmother was a simple Jewish woman
Who could neither read nor write—
And, what is more,
She could not sign her name.
She was born and brought up in a village inn
In a far-flung backwater, “not far from Uman.”
Her father, a religious and pious Jew,
Sat in the tavern and learned Torah,
Sold glasses of vodka to Ivan and Stefan,
Served God sincerely and faithfully.
Her mother, loving, a homemaker,
Always worked hard, lived in poverty,
A wife receives a portion of the world-to-come from her husband’s learning—
This her mother certainly believed.
Their only daughter, a pious soul—
Like her name, Fruma (“pious”) Rivele—
Did what good and pious people told her.
She knew all of the blessings by heart.
Her parents never thought of teaching their daughter.
For a Jewish woman, learning is not appropriate—
She need only know her three mitzvos,
Be a mother to her child and faithful to her husband.
My grandmother grew up as free as a bird,
Not far from the brook in the nearby woods.
She sang Ukrainian songs of longing
About a wicked mother-in-law and a white cow.
She climbed on trees with ripe fruits,
Washed the laundry by the crystal brook.
She befriended the gentile village girls
On plowed, broad fields.
At the age of fourteen, she was married
To a husband from Mohilev near Dniester,
An orphan boy from a wonderful family,
The best student in his class.
The family rejoiced with their fine son-in-law,
Promised him—as is proper—to support him forever.
My grandmother bore children and lost children.
With every newly-born child, she consoled herself.
Years passed, years flew by,
My grandfather became a grain merchant,
His name was renowned in distant districts,
He shipped wheat and rye on the Dniester.
He moved to the great town of Mohilev,
He headed a fine and beautiful empire.
Besides her own children, she always cared for widows and orphans,
She gave them dowries and married them off.
She always supported poor people,
She became a friend to the lonely.
She helped everyone with a good word, with advice.
She gave charity with an open hand.
She never took time for herself:
“A person must rely on God’s help and care.”
“Pious Rivele”—that was what they called her—
Became the best-known mother in town.
She went to the synagogue with awe and dignity,
She listened to Chayah-Leah, who read the prayers aloud.
She wept over the painful fate of the Jews
And soaked her book of prayers with her bitter weeping.
Before she passed away, she allowed the rabbi to be called.
Her sons and daughters stood at her bed,
Bent over to hear the sick woman,
Who, with her final strength, spoke words of Torah to them:
“If you have enough for the Sabbath, do not forget someone else!
Give half of your challah to the poor.
God, blessed be He, has given you money.
You are only the agent, like the summer swallow …
“If you make a new garment for your body,
First give a garment to your soul:
Support the lonely, poor person.
Always sand up to do someone else a favor.
“Cast your bread upon the current of water.
When you help someone else, you will find your own happiness.
You never can know when
The current might run the other way…
“Do not fight with each other—that is my request.
It is not fitting for Jews, for religious people.
I beg you to distribute my entire inheritance,
My clothes and jewelry, to the poor.”
Ending her words, calm, at peace,
She recited Confession with her hands clean,
Closed her eyes with a glowing smile.
Her soul left for another world…
Everyone remained frozen, unmoving.
Everyone lamented and wept silently to himself.
An angel fluttered its wings
And took my grandmother to heaven with him.
When she passed away, my mother told me,
All the stores in Mohilev were closed.
The school children walked before the coffin,
The leading citizens brought her to be buried.
Women wept and cried out loud.
They tore their hair and argued before God:
“Why have You shamed us, Master of the world,
And taken away our provider?”
My grandmother was a simple woman
Who could neither read nor write…
Most of the stories about my grandmother I heard later on in America from my mother’s lips.
But I myself remember very well how we grandchildren—eight or nine of us—would often dance around the large, round table in her house. Grandfather, who was an excitable Jew, couldn’t the tumult and noise and stuffed his ears. But Grandmother stood with her hands on her hips and took delight in us.
I remember, as in a dream, how Grandmother raised a brother’s orphaned son, Avraham Bremeg. Later, when he decided to travel to America, Grandmother collected money from all of her children and supplied him with provisions and expenses.
When one of the daughters balked at giving, Grandmother told her: “My daughter, you never know what might happen. It is possible that one day you yourself or one of your children will have to go to him for help.” And that was indeed what happened. Years later that same Avraham Bremeg sent ship tickets to his Uncle Tuviah and his older son, and then to Aunt Frieda and her children.