30. The Cantorís Wife

August 1914

Tired and sleepy, I arrived on a warm, sunny morning at the home of my auntie in Molodetchno, my motherís only sister. From the very first encounter, she began to take stock of me from head to toe. At the end of her examination, she pronounced her verdict: that I was "a man", my fatherís son. By this she meant to convince herself that I did not, God forbid, take after my older brother, Aryeh-Leyb, who had spent a few months there the previous summer, prior to his departure for America. He had not made a good impression on her. She disliked him on account of his outrageous rebelliousness; for his outspoken opinions on "God and the Messiah"; and not least, for his "dalliances" with the local girls...

She soon sat me down at the long table, among her own army of children, and her usual guests, the wayfarers and travelling scholars; and with her giant wooden spoon, she doled out from one of her pots a fresh portion...for me, the new visitor.

I was stunned by the tumult into which I had been suddenly thrust. I felt lost and abandoned. My aunt hardly saw me, because she was run of her feet all day long. Now and then she would appear for a moment...and then, almost immediately, she would disappear. Small chidren were crying and screaming, scurrying around underfoot like little kittens. One of them sits there naked in bed. Another walks around with one shoe off and one shoe one, crying "give me food!". Meanwhile, village wives cluster about with squawking hens, geese, and ducks, waiting for the slaughterer (her husband) to come home from the House of Study, that he should slaughter their poultry. The geese cackle. The ducks quack, and the chickens gobble...and right in the middle of this commotion, the lies on the ground a tied-up claf, that a villager had brought to be slaughtered. It seemed that even the calf could hardly wait for someone to come and put him out of his misery. He twisted his body this way and that, mooing with a forlorn voice, so that it was virtually a case of cruelty to animals....

The door to my auntieís house was never closed, between all the comings and goings. If there was a travelling preacher, a cantor, or a Rabbi passing through town, he was likely to drop in here. Because the cantorís wife was known throughout the region for her great hospitality. And since Molodetchno was a central station on the road from Vilna to Minsk, it was not unusual that someone changing trains should show up with his suitcases to pass the time and perhaps enjoy a hot meal at the home of the Cantor-Slaughterer.....

On account of the war, the little town of Molodetchneh had suddenly become a great military center. Here was located one of the great supply depots, including a huge bakery, which supplied bread to the Army of the Northwest Front. A good number of Jewish soldiers were also to be found here. Young and middle-aged, "red tickets", religious Jews with bears ....they would often come to the cantorís wife to enjoy a kosher meal and read their letters. More than one of them would wait for the auntie, or one of her sons or daughters, to help him write a letter home...

And so it was like a county fair in the house, or a train station. Everyone was busy...each one occupied with one thing or another. My uncle, the cantor-slaughterer, along with his sons, would be busy with slaughtering poultry and livestock. The daughters were busy cleaning up. Auntie would be boiling something on the oven. Even the small fry were busy fighting with each other! Only I, the guest, had nothing to do. I dragged myself about the house, not knowing what to do with myself. But seeing my discomfort, my auntie came to my rescue. She stuck an axe in my hand, I should go chop some wood. After that, she handed me an empty bucket, I should go fetch some water. And by the time I returned, I was no longer a "guest", but one of them.

Next, my aunt decided to seek out for me a "future"...because she believed that everyone who was capable of working and earning a living, should not let himself be dependent on charity. So one day, she walked right out the door, leaving the whole commotion behind her: children, kitchen, guests, travellers....she went all over the village, calling on parents with children. It wasn't long before she came back withe the happy news, that she had put together for me a whole class of private Hebrew lessons. In this way, she made sure that from my earnings, I should have enough left over to send something home.

She also saw to it, that I shouldn't be an idler, even in my spare time...rather, I should read and study for myself. She used to remind me of Hillel's proverb, saying:

"Think, Falik, "if not now, when?" Look around. Learn Hebrew, grammar, Bible, Russian. Now you have the opportunity."

And to give me more motivation, she would point out to me the example of her daughters, who had virtually risked their lives for their education. And there was her son Aryeh, who had his rabbinical license, and was a fearsome scholar. When he decided to learn Russian, he had sat himself down for a period of time with a big, thick Russian dictionary, and memorized it cover-to-cover. Now, not only could he speak Russian, but even, if need be, write a petition to the Czar! Such were the exploits that his sisters, the high-school girls, would tell about him. In the same way, he had devoured the Hebrew grammar "Shakhal" and other such difficult treatises.

I did indeed apply myself to my studies. Every evening, my cousin, would drag me down to the House of Study, to read with him a page from the Gemorra, or from "Yoreh De'a" , or maybe a chapter from the Bible. Like a starving man he devoured one book after another. He sometimes complained to me, that because he had to help his father in the slaughter-house, he no longer had time to sit all day and study. And thanks to the war, business was booming...so his father could seldom spare him. Therefore, he had begun to study at night. In the daytime, my little cousin Surehíkeh used to study with me her Russian grammar, reading Russina books, carrying on long conversations with me, to help loosen up my Russian tongue.

My auntie approved of me. She said of me, that I was a "good fellow", and God willing, I would certainly become "a pride for my mother", her sister, Esther-Yehudith, whom she never ceased to pity for being cooped up her whole life in "such a hick town" as Zastavia, and never having seen the great wide world beyond. Because my auntie, regardless of her own household poverty, of which she never complained, at least had the consolation that she lived "among people"; that she got to see new faces - quite often, even quite famous ones. And as for the fact the her parents in the village had not been able to give her an education...for this, she had found solace in the learnedness of her own children.

In addition to her gang of "moochers", my auntie had her own household to feed, which consited of no less than ten souls. There was hardly a day went by that twenty mouths didn't come to her table for a watered-down portion of something. Auntie had but one job...to stand in front of the stove and make sure that her giant cast iron and copper pots should continuously be providing more food. And this was not the easiest thing in the world for a small-town cantorís wife, whose budget was always stretched to the limit. She would stay up late racking her brains to put together the next dayís breakfast...and after getting through the midday meal, she scrounged for all kinds of ways to cobble together a decent supper.

But the little cantorís wife had great faith and optimism in her giant pots, that they wouldn't let her down. Fortunately, it seemed that the Lord of the Universe himself had bestowed upon those pots his blessing. And so no matter how much she had ladled out from them with her big, wooden cooking-spoon, it seemed that her pots were never completely empty.

Aunite was always running around in a sweat, until late at night....draggin heavy sacks, hauling meat from the butchers, bread from the backery, fish from the Gentile fisherman, sewing, knitting, cutting, frying, cooking, making all kinds of food...so that her dinner table should be continuously replenished. On top of all that, she also was responsible to her husband, the cantor, in his capacity as choir-master...because before you knew it, it would be time again for the High Holidays. And then it would be her job to see that the hungry choir-singers should also be fed, so that they should have the strength to carry a tune. In this way, the cantor could be assured of having a fine, well-rehearshed choir, from which his employers should be satisfied. Oddly enough, nobody ever actually saw her eat anything herself. Whether it was because she didn't believe in such wordly passtimes as "eating", or whether she simply never had enough time?...nobody was really sure.

But above all, she worked hard so that her children should study, should grow up into "learned people"...and well-learned! Because the mumeh didn't believe in "bits and pieces" of Torah. The oldest son, she had sent to the Rodiner Yeshiva. He didnít come home until he had in his pocket a certificate of the Rabbinate from the some of the most illustrious sages of our generation. Her daughters, she sent off to study in the Vilna High School. She cooked day and night for them so she could send them "parcels", so they shouldn't God forbid have to suffer from hunger away from home. They themselves studied all day, and at night, the gave private lessons in the homes of the Vilna well-to-do. With their earnings, they were able to pay their tuition fees, and they lived off what was left over. And they did indeed become well-educated, whether in Russian or in Hebrew. Because Autnie believed that learning and wisdom stood above everything else ...that especially for a girl from a poor family, an education was her only chance for a decent future.

These were the burdens she carried on her thin shoulders. And when I would argue with her:

"Auntie, why do you work so hard?..Save your strength!" she would answer me in jest, as was her habit:

"Don worry, child, my father Jeremiah (may he rest in peace) was a blacksmith, and he forged me from steel and iron..."

And this small woman of steel and iron would fall into bed each night like a sheaf of wheat that had been cut down with a scythe.


The cantorís wife also possesed a good sense of humor and satire. With a word or a phrase, she could let you have it right in the seventh rib. And her ability to "get to the point" was so acute, you would think she was a scholar herself, and a daughter of scholars in the bargain. The village used to say she was as smart as any man. When she was in a good mood, she could, for hours on end, speak in verse. And these were not just random streams of nonsense rhymes...rather, an outpouring of clever aphorisms, sayings which were, with no exaggeration, worthy of being written down. When she wrote letters to her brother-in-law, to my father, or to her older married daughter and son-in-law, (who were Hebrew-Russian teachers off somewhere deep in Russia), she would write long letters, virtual testaments....and completely in verse! Her son-in-law, Shmul Voltchok, who was himself a Rabbiís son who liked to write songs in Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian, had to admit, that when it came to rhymes...he didnít even measure up to her ankle...in that realm, she truly was a master. From her mouth, there flowed rhymes like water from a well, no worse than much that was written by "real" poets...

Such a woman was my auntie, the Cantorís Wife, who introduced me to a world of learning.