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Sefer Vladimirets

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Old and New

From: Sefer Vladimirets, 1963

Author: Yitzkhak Kamin

** Webmaster Note: The following is a translation from Hebrew by Laia Ben-Dov as sponsored by George Zilbergeld. Additional clarifications are provided in parenthesis ( ).

OLD AND NEW

Who did you harm, beloved city of my birth?  For what sin did your fate become so bitter?  You were small and innocent, full of charity and kindness. Your heart was always full of longings and prayers – you lifted your soul toward the time of redemption, like the rest of the congregations of Israel.  You strived toward good deeds – why, then, was the evil decree issued against you?

From time to time, I am drawn into such a conversation with myself and the memory of my city, as if the city of my birth were a living body I could converse with and receive an answer.

Even though a great many years have already passed, I can return and see the town in my mind's eye as it was in days gone by – neither greatly wealthy, nor greatly poor – Sabbaths and holidays were scattered over the surface of the ordinary days of the year like longed-for, magic islands.  Here, the town's Sabbath has arrived, and dozens and hundreds of its Jewish residents, who were loaded down only a few hours ago with the burden of their livelihoods – are hurrying home to make themselves holy to meet it.  In a little while they will go out to the houses of prayer – I can see them going; they go gracefully; even their walking is a kind of prayer.  Already yesterday, Thursday, they took the trouble to prepare for the Sabbath – was it only yesterday?  The entire six days of the week were no more than a passageway into its parlor, and now they appear as if they are inside the parlor.  Their feet tap on its carpets; they go to accept the Sabbath in their silk hats and robes.  In a little while, sweet melodies will rise from the prayer houses and fill the listening, quiet air of the town:  "Come Let Us Rejoice;" "Come My Beloved to Meet the Bride," sung by the cantor and congregation.

So much has been written about this experience, about the Friday night Sabbath meal, about the song "Welcome, Angels of Peace!" that came forth from every house before the meal – hundreds of thousands of Jews, in the towns and in the cities, were almost simultaneously saying the same verses of peace – what an enormous movement this was for the sake of peace – a movement that was not forced upon them from outside, but came entirely from within, from spiritual motives.

Tomorrow, on the morning of the Sabbath day, many will wake up early and go to the synagogue to recite Psalms – again with a melody of sadness and longing.  From the synagogue, they will return home to the morning meal, to Sabbath wafers and a cup of chicory with "cholent-milk" – milk that has stood in the oven since yesterday and is already covered with a rich, red skin.  And then, they go again to the synagogue – for the morning and additional services.  Even the following meal is combined with songs and blessings – the needs of body and soul come folded together.

And the special preparations for the holidays – each holiday with its own character, especially the Pesach [Passover] holiday.  Every holiday symbolized a revolution, some outstanding deviation from the ordinary, the Passover holiday more than all of them.  A month before the holiday, its approaching footsteps were felt – in the shops, the turnover increased – youngsters came to buy fabric for a suit.  Tailors and shoemakers now entered the season of frantic work – they worked day and night in order to be able to finish all of the orders.  New sights appeared in the town.  The snow had already melted and gone.  The earth revealed its face – distorted by the many puddles caused by the melting snow.  And here, you see Jews carrying white bundles – these bundles are none other than the first shoots of Pesach– they contain the special flour for baking matzos.  They carry the bags of flour, wrapped in white sheets, to the special bakeries.

In the market, you see many gentile villagers.  They also are familiar with the Jewish holidays, and they direct the sale of their products accordingly – now they are bringing wooden and pottery vessels to sell and women are surrounding the wagons to buy them.  A woman picks up a pottery bowl, taps it and listens to the sound.  If the bowl is not defective, the sound will be a ringing one, a sign that the bowl is whole and good.  If the sound is hoarse and muted – that is a sign that the bowl is cracked.  The gentiles have already brought red beets in their wagons – this is a very pleasant fruit for the Passover holiday.  Its red color is desirable – the Seder wine is also red.  Many of the town's Jews carry the red beets home – presumably for their wives, who will prepare borscht deserving of the name.

Here in the lane stands Chaim-Leib, the shoemaker, with several Jews.  They are drawing all of the water from the well – to make it kosher for the Passover holiday.  And there, on the street leading to the bathhouse, women are hurrying with copper vessels in their hands, so as to scald them in kettles of boiling water and prepare them for the holiday.  Here, next to one of the houses, a Jew is digging a pit in his yard.  He throws stones into the pit.  In a little while, he will heat the stones with fire, and he will scald his utensils on the hot stones.  Jews are hurrying to buy wine.  Here, you see waggoners coming from the "koleika" [railway], bringing various visitors – lads who learned in Vilna are coming home for the holiday.  Lads who went out to look for jobs in other cities are also coming home.

Everyone goes to the synagogue, even though new winds are already blowing, mainly among the youth.  The young men look at each other's suits and exchange know-how.  After the prayers comes the traditional "Seder," with all of its accompanying glory – the Haggada and the wine, and stealing the Afikoman, and opening the door for Eliyahu the Prophet, and at the end – in order to gladden the heart and go out of the terribly serious atmosphere – we finish with lighter matters.  These are the different songs included at the end of the Haggada and sung in a light and amusing spirit.

And here is the Ninth of Av – the lamentations arise from the synagogue, the turned-over benches – in memory of the Destruction.  Barefoot Jews– their feet clad only in socks – sit and cry over the exile of the Divine Presence.  The boys are trying to deepen the feeling of despair in their own way.  They are throwing "berelach" – that is, thorns – into the beards of the men, who are finding it tortuous to remove them.  Here you have two merits at one and the same time – the children gain a mischievous act, and at the same time fulfill a commandment:  they are causing deepening of the suffering.  Truly, to remove such a thorn caught in one's beard did involve a great deal of suffering.  Now, everyone goes from the synagogue to the cemetery, to prostrate themselves on the graves of their relatives and the righteous ones, to spill out the bitterness of their hearts and request that the dead be good advocates before the One Who dwells on high.

Now the High Holidays are approaching, and they are signaled by the sad melodies of the Selichot prayers.  Here, it is Rosh HaShana.  I see Reb Ben-Zion, of blessed memory, the shochet [ritual slaughterer] of the Trisk Chassidim, going up on the stage before the shofar [ram's horn] is blown, and I hear his pleasant, clear voice, lifting around and around as he says the chapter of Psalms "To the player, a song of the sons of Korach."  I remember the trembling that passed through me when, as a child, I heard his prayer – and here, it is the eve of Yom Kippur – the entire town is filled with the characteristic begging for mercy, with atonement for sins.  Around us rise the voices of the "kaporos" – the chickens that the boys are carrying to the slaughterer.  Toward evening, we would stand and look at the spectacular and instructive sight, how respected Jews prostrated themselves on the floor in the synagogue and were flogged by the sexton, all for the purpose of wiping out their sins and transgressions.  Here are the charity bowls on the tables and the large memorial candles that fill the synagogue and flicker like pure souls; the Kol Nidre prayer that transmits trembling, and the Ne'ila prayer.  And after that, the Sukkot [Tabernacles] holiday and the "wing" that opens from the roof of the house over the succa, revealing bits of Heaven between the green of the schach [roof of the succa, made of tree branches]  - in memory of the huts in which our forefathers lived when they left Egypt.  And after that, Simchat Torah, with all of the laughter and rejoicing that this holiday brought to the life of the town – what a wonderful spiritual balance in this entire experience – sadness and joy; light and darkness; and all given in the proper proportion and weight to preserve the strength of life – because our fathers were commanded to observe the Torah of life and have a belief in life.  And therefore, it was very forbidden to exaggerate in one direction or the other 

A quiet, pleasant life, a life of charity and kindness – and the question is piercing and gives no rest:  why was the decree made against these people, to be annihilated under the Heavens in such a cruel manner?  Why was it decreed that the pure man, Zelig Tcherniak, of blessed memory, who hurried to rescue the Torah scrolls, would be murdered in such a way?  It is true that our generation had already distanced itself in its outlook and ideals from this existence – but its wonderful attributes remained engraved on our hearts 

Our generation was a new generation, but it did not arise in an empty space.  It has deep roots in the existence of our forefathers – a new existence began in the town:  various kinds of organizations, a municipal library, a drama troupe, a Hebrew school, which existed with difficulty, speaking Hebrew and learning Hebrew with perseverance and self-sacrifice.  These are only chapter titles of the rich life that was expressed in many daily matters, but over all of them shone the light of yearning for a return to Zion, those yearnings that we absorbed in our childhood from our various prayers and the vibrating verse, "May our eyes witness your merciful return to Zion!..."


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