A small town in Southern Lithuania
Where the Jewish Community is no more

Jewish life in Vilkaviskis under the Russian Rule

This material has been collected from personel memories and archival materials.


Boys and Education: Folks took great interest in their children‘s education. When a son reached age three, his father wrapped him in a tales [prayer shawl], covering his face to create an element of mystery. Thus, the father carried his son into the esteemed kheyder [religious elementary school for Jewish boys]. Here the teacher ceremoniously started him immediately on his alefbeyz . . . [Hebrew letters]. The teacher said, ―See yingl [little boy], this is alef [letter A], this is a beyz [letter B], and so on. The teacher enticed the student by promising, ―If you say your alef, beyz [letters] correctly, an angel will throw you sweets. Lo and behold, sweets suddenly landed on the alef, beyz page.
When the sweets lost their enchantment for the little boy, the angel dropped a shiny kopeyke [Russian copper coin] as the boy studied his komets-alef, „oh‟ komets-beyz „boh‟ komets-daled „doh‟ [rhyme to memorize the letters and vowels]. Sometimes the letters were covered with sweet tasting honey. (The folk song ―Oyfn Pripetshik” immortalized this ritual.) Children studied in the kheyder to learn to read and write the Hebrew alphabet. Then they studied from nine in the morning until nine at night, studying the Bible and Talmud. At age 10, they learned to write Yiddish.
Girls and Education: Girls were not given a strenuous traditional Hebrew education. If a girl went to a girls‘ kheyder for a semester or two and knew her prayers and how to write a few lines, that was considered sufficient. However, in later years, with the formation of the Jewish gimnazyes [secondary schools], girls also received a thorough education.55 The teaching was in Yiddish, except the Talmud, which was taught in Hebrew. In time, Jewish women were permitted a secular education long before other towns in Lithuania. Saul Issroff‘s grandmother arrived in England fluent in English, German, and French, apart from Russian and Yiddish.
Education and Finance: Even when times were hard, tuition money was found and boys studied with the best melamed [children‘s teacher]. Tuition was the number one item in the family budget. Families took turns, for twenty-four hours at a time, providing meals for poor students who attended kheyder or yeshive [a secondary school for boys where the Bible, Hebrew, Jewish rituals, law, and Talmud, were taught]. At the end of the nineteenth century, Russian, German, and literature also were taught in some schools. It was considered a mitsve [good deed] to feed a student, even if it meant providing the student with more nutritious meals than the family could afford for itself. If families lived too far away from the town school, they hired a teacher to live with the family during the school session. Jews in Vilkaviskis  had a democratic approach for educating all children‘s Toyre lishmo (in Hebrew) [Torah study]. The yakhsonim [privileged rich] and the humble poor were treated alike. Torah instruction and secular education were sponsored by volunteers. Prominent men, mostly sons-in-law of the rich, accepted the honor of collecting charity to pay the tuition for poor children. They collected chicken feathers from the shoykhet [ritual slaughterer] to raise school funds for underprivileged children by marketing the feathers to be used for bedding. Children received a free education at the Talmud Toyre [Torah study school] sponsored volunteers.  The qualifications for teachers of the kheyder were standardized. A melamed who taught in the kheyder was required to obtain a license to teach. Money was scarce and often it was difficult for teachers to raise the rubles for the required permit. Parents who wanted to send their children to kheyder also had difficulty raising the funds for shar lemud [tuition fees].
Academic Schedule: School was divided into two semesters. The spring-and-summer semester began after the peysekh celebration, and the fall-and-winter semester began after sukes [the Sukkoth celebration]. The school hours were long, lasting from nine in the morning until two in the afternoon with a lunch break, then continuing until the evening. It was dark in winters when the children finished kheyder and they carried likhternes [lanterns] to guide them home.
School Buildings: In early days, only one- or two-room kheyders existed and were often used for a dual purpose—both for instruction and for the teacher‘s dwelling. In addition to the elementary kheyder in various parts of town, the beys haseyfer [school building], with its scholarly and capable teachers, afforded cultural inspiration to the boys. In later years, Mariampole organized a large modern beys haseyfer with airy classrooms on the main street and classes were taught in Hebrew. On occasion, fights between Jewish students from their respective schools were carried on using sticks and stones

Discipline: Disobedient children at school were punished physically with the application of a kantl [―little edge, straight edge ruler] on the body. When a child was struck it was both painful and shaming. Shmaysn [whipping] the child was also a common practice.

Discrimination : A few Jewish boys had the legal privilege of attending a Lithuanian gimnazye, equivalent to a junior college or college preparatory school, but only when the enrollment did not surpass the quota of one Jew to ten non-Jewish students. Jewish parents were required to pay higher tuition, which paid for their son as well as a non-Jewish student. However, there were no quotas for girls in the private high schools, girls‘ gimnazyes. Jewish students who were not allowed to study at the Russian government gimnazyes, but were eager for an education, studied privately. They studied both day and much of the night and most students succeeded in taking the examinations for all eight required courses at once. On the eve of World War I, many Jewish boys and girls were admitted to the Russian secondary schools in addition to the traditional kheyder.

Apprenticeship: Some boys went to the yeshive after they completed kheyder, but parents of most boys between 12 and 15 arranged an apprenticeship for their sons, preferably for what they considered refined trades, such as watch repairing, printing, or photography. The boys would serve without compensation for at least a year. Sometimes their parents even paid for the 18 months training.

This site was built by Ralph Salinger of Kfar Ruppin, Israel
It is built to the glory of the Jewish Community of Vilkaviskis
You can contact me with any comments at,il