A small town in Southern Lithuania
Where the Jewish Community is no more
Growing Up Under Russian Rule 1815 - 1914 Part 3
SOCIAL, HEALTH AND WELFARE
CHOOSING A MARRIAGE PARTNER
When a girl reached marriageable age, her parents began to worry about a shidekh [marriageable match] for her. They feared their daughter would be farzesn [passed over]. The song, ―Yome,‖ [a girl‘s name] expressed the daughter‘s concern. People with means preferred a son-in-law who was educated. To pick a student as his daughter's husband a girl‘s father might travel to a yeshive [Jewish institution for where young men studied the Torah and Talmud], speak to the head of the yeshive and observe the interactions and behavior of the male students. Sheyne eydems [scholarly sons-in-law, literally, beautiful sons-in-law] were considered desirable. Although the yeshive bokherim [male Talmud students] were mostly poor, the lack of finances did not matter. The future father-in-law would provide the young man with room and board and other expenses. During the engagement year, the couple might see each other only a few times. Marriage through a shatkhn [matchmaker] was another way for a girl to find her bashert [destined] match. The job of a matchmaker was difficult. Not until the wedding was complete were the shatkhones [marriage brokerage fees] certain. In the eagerness to complete the shidekh, the wealth of the prospective bride or groom was exaggerated. Often the father promised a cash gift to the groom that he was unable to fulfill. If the groom wanted to make sure he would not be cheated, he demanded his nadn before the wedding ceremony. Therefore, it often took much bargaining to make the groom go through with the wedding ceremony. It was considered below a woman‘s dignity to marry a working man. A Lithuanian saying admonished, ―Souhas, kriaucius ne zmogusz.‖ [―A shoemaker and a tailor are not suitable.] The expression, ―In mayn familye iz keyn bal milokhe nit faran” [―In my family there were no working men‖], also conveyed the sentiment that suitable marriage partners were from the highly educated class. Although desired, some of the sheyne eydems were not as successful providers as some of the so-called lower-class working men. Many of the educated and those who adopted a lifestyle of continual full-time education had to depend on their wives to run their shop in the market and support them, while they sat in the besmedresh [house of prayer and study] and studied the Talmud. However, regarding the working man, the Hebrew saying declared ―bizies apey.” [―By his sweat he earns a living.] A man‘s wealth was judged by the size of his protruding stomach. A buxom hefty young girl took a man‘s fancy.
CELEBRATING A MARRIAGE
Not only were the bride and groom and their families kept busy preparing for the anticipated khasene [wedding], but also the entire town seemed involved with the preparations. The shames [synagogue attendant and rabbi‘s assistant] was busy distributing the bilet [ticket, wedding invitation]. Friends and families were seeking suitable droshegeshanken [wedding gifts], and the bandleader and his kapelye [musicians] were practicing their music. The family was arranging the bridal and wedding quarters. At last, the day of the khasene arrived. A wedding took a week to celebrate. The wedding party marched through the streets to the khupe [canopy] under which the ceremony was performed. Usually they walked from the bride‘s house to shul and stood before the crowd of orkhim [guests]. The musicians played the wedding march and relatives carried lit candles. The rabbi, khazn [cantor], and shames ceremoniously awaited the bride and groom at the khupe. At the end of the ceremony, the groom [khosn] broke a ceremonial wineglass wrapped in a cloth by stomping on it, and everyone shouted, ―Mazltov, mazltov” [congratulations]. The musicians played freylekhn [cheerful melodies]. The guests were invited to the wedding house to eat goyderne zup [bridal soup]. The traditional batkhn [wedding entertainer] recited drosho geshank [rhymes for the wedding couple]. The kales tsad un khosns tsad [friends of the bride‘s side and groom‘s side] danced, celebrating the joyous event. Three days after the wedding, newlyweds were invited to visit the homes of friends and relatives, a custom known as rumpl. If it was winter, the kale [bride] usually wore a new ratond [fur coat]. The groom looked bright in his wedding outfit with a gold chain and zeyger [watch], a gift from his bride. The groom‘s outfit was a tight fitting coat cut away in the front with a split back like a full dress frock.
Metrikes [birth certificates] caused worries for some people. Parents, burdened with responsibilities, sometimes neglected to register a newborn, thus creating troubles for their sons or daughters in later years. For instance, a young man who looked physically big enough to be called into the army, but could not prove his age, was taken before a military commission that opshatsn [appraised his age]. The army, hungry for soldiers, would conscript such a young man years before his legal age. A birth certificate also was needed for entering high school and when applying for a passport. Many children marked their birthdays based on holidays or specific months of the Jewish calendar. For example, ―I was born on the drite likhtl [third light] of Chanukah. My birthday is three days on elel [the last month on the Hebrew calendar] or during peysekh [Passover].‖ When Jews were uncertain about the year they were born and when they did not know their exact age, they often guessed. This proved useful for those who wished to appear younger by removing a few years from their age. A father knew he was born in August, but he was not sure if it was 1889 or 1899. His age and those of his siblings were estimated relative to events and the span between siblings‘ births.
EDUCATING THE CHILDREN
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, to the extent that she taught World War I officers German and Russian.
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].
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.