Memories for Miriam, Alice, Theo, Delia, Tessa
and anyone else who would like to be here
In 1897 my grandparents, each around 20 years old, celebrated their marriage, which I assume was at least partially arranged by their parents and possibly by a traditional matchmaker. I wish I knew if they had a wedding host leading a kletzmer band like the ones that are now once again popular — it’s a good bet that they did, as that was one of the principal functions of music in the little towns at the time. No one has ever mentioned music in telling these old stories. I don't think they had a photographer, either, though photography had become available, even in some villages, much earlier.
I hope the family managed at least this once to serve a rich, luxurious meal with such delicacies as roast goose, goose cracklings with onions, veal, vegetables in goose fat, pickled cucumbers or turnips, and sweets like cherry or plum preserves, waffles, pancakes, and apple strudel. At weddings where the family could afford to serve it, the guests toasted the bride and groom’s health and future with homemade brandy, vodka, and wine. I don’t know what reality brought to them — perhaps little more than their daily fare of bread, potatoes, onions, and a glass of tea with a small sugar lump.
As a bride, my grandmother had a special wedding dress with a lace collar. She remade and reused the lace and other parts of the dress for a long time. She was wearing the lace collar in the family portrait made in 1913, and scraps from this dress also ended up as clothing for two china “nickel dolls” that belonged to my mother later. So I can say that it was quite nice white lace, maybe handmade, maybe not. I don't think the villagers were using sewing machines yet at that time, Her dress was thus sewed by hand, and made generous so that it could be used for best occasions for a long time, including alterations to serve as a maternity dress. My father's father was a tailor in a similar village, and my father said a man would normally buy one suit for his wedding and use it for years if not for the rest of his life. So that could also be my grandfather's wedding suit in the photo. He wasn't getting that rich in America.
When my grandmother and grandfather became engaged, the bride’s mother and the groom’s father had both already been widowed. Thus Mottle (Baba) and Avram Nuchom, the parents of the bride and groom, each around fifty years old, were both eligible to marry. During their children's engagement proceedings, the two of them got to know each other. A few months before their children were married, they married each other. My mother thought there had been some sort of Jewish law that prescribed the order of the two marriages. While my mother always told the story as a kind of a love story, Aunt Sadie said she thought maybe Baba and her grandfather had had to marry for appearances, because the young couple — my grandparents — were responsible for housing them and could only spare one bedroom. As an old woman, my aunts say, Baba told her granddaughters that she had never loved, or even liked, her two husbands. (They told me these stories when they were in the nursing home in the late 1990s.)
This post is one of a number of stories from a longer write-up of family history that I did a few years ago.
The village where my mother's parents, Morris and Dora, were born might have been called Newstadt, which just means new town, but I’ve never found it on a map. Morris listed “Kowno” on his immigration record in the Ellis Island database; however, this name doesn’t definitively identify any village in the region they came from. I now think that it was mistaken for "Rovno" where I recently learned from my cousin Chuck that his family later immigrated from. His grandmother was Morris's sister.
My second cousin, Nadine Kaufman, wrote that her grandmother, Chaia Sura Stepansky Bass, sister of Dora, was born in Berezno, Ukraine, near Zhitomir. The Stepansky name seems to come from another neighboring village named Stepan -- around 80 km from Rovno, 40 km from Berezno. This area west of Zhitomir definitely seems to be the location of my mother's relatives.
Zhitomir, the big city around 300 km from these villages, is easier to trace. In 1900, Zhitomir had a population of 80,787, of which one-third were Jews. It had two Jewish publishing houses, which printed nearly half of the Hebrew books in all Russia. During the nineteenth century, Zhitomir had been one of the few centers of Hebrew book production in Russia. A man named Avram the Bookbinder is the first ancestor on the family tree that my mother wrote down in 1927. Avram lived at the beginning of the ninteenth century, two generations before my great-grandmother, the source of the information. Histories of Hebrew printing sometimes reproduce pages from books printed in Zhitomir: I wonder if any were bound by our ancestor Avram. Or, I wonder, was he simply a binder of ordinary Jewish documents and religious manuscripts, occupied, that is, with an older trade? (Statistics from the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911 edition, and the Encyclopedia Judaica)
Based on family stories and fictional stories, I can picture the village where my maternal grandparents came from. Wooden houses with thatched roofs or slate roofs stood on crowded, unpaved, muddy narrow streets and still-narrower lanes. Jewish and gentile neighbors lived close to each other, but between their separate areas of town was a line that was invisible but perfectly well known. In a larger town, a central marketplace might open up an area in the center of the houses, but our ancestral town near Zhitomir in the Ukraine was small and had limited commerce. Jewish artisans worked in their homes, and Jewish peddlers went to neigboring villages of non-Jews with packs on their backs to buy and sell. Richer families had a house of their own; the poorest families were lucky if they had a whole room to themselves.
Somewhere among the Jews’ houses in every village was a synagogue, and in at least one house lived and worked the elementary teacher. This often-disliked man, called the melamed, taught the small boys to read Hebrew and recite their prayers, often beating and abusing them in the process. Qualification for the job was minimal, and those who took on the task often did so as a last resort. Unlike the revered teachers who studied Torah and Talmud in houses of adult learning, the elementary school teacher earned little respect for his work.
In the town square, a church topped by a cross stood tall: a place where Jews would fear to approach. Each house had a muddy, fenced yard, possibly with a well. Less fortunate villagers had to go to a public well or a nearby river or stream for water. Sholem Aleichem described the houses as full of odors: “the odor of damp walls that dripped in winter and molded in summer, the odor of sour dough and bran, of onions and cabbage, of wet plaster, of fish and entrails; the odor of old clothes steaming under the hot iron.” (Favorite Tales, p. 99)
Geese, pigeons, and sometimes a calf or a goat lived in the yards of the village houses. Non-Jews raised an occasional pig, who might escape and root around the town, eating what it could find and causing disgust among the Jews. Gentiles and a few Jews kept dogs as pets or as protectors. Jewish children and many adults greatly feared being attacked by dogs that gentile masters had trained to hate them. My grandmother and great-grandmother, even in America, passed this fear on to the children, especially to my mother. Village men who made a living moving goods and others who could afford it also kept horses for transportation and pulling delivery wagons.
Lanes and streets of most villages quickly led out of the built-up area to the surrounding cultivated land. Just outside the cluster of houses peasants cultivated gardens of cucumbers, sunflowers, and other produce. Orchards and livestock pens also surrounded the houses. Few if any Jews had such agricultural land, but they often bought or traded produce. A rich or noble landowner and his family might also own an estate with house and land outside of the most crowded part of a town or village. The head of the high-born family frequently employed a local Jew as a bailiff or clerk, who might supervise local peasant laborers. If a village had enough Jewish residents, a Jewish cemetery would also be located on the outskirts. Generations of ancestors lay buried there, and Jewish families often visited the graves of their relatives or of rabbis they considered “saintly.”
The forests beyond the fields and gardens provided wood for timber and for heat. Both Jews and Christians worked in the forest daily or occasionally as wood cutters. In spring, children went into the forest in groups or with their mothers to gather mushrooms, wild blackberries, strawberries, and herbs. In summer, mosquitos from the marshy areas filled the town. In winter dirty snow covered the roofs and streets and made access to the forest difficult. Everyone suffered from each season’s disadvantages: cold, heat, bugs dust, ice, or flooding. Nevertheless, the woods and fields were often beautiful and peaceful.
A road leading to the next village gave Jews and peasants a route through the forests of birch and evergreens and the swamps of the local rivers and streams. The road from my grandparents’ village went on to Zhitomir. Aunt Sadie remembered her mother and grandmother talking about traveling by wagon for about a day to reach the big city. One such occasion was the marriage of one of my grandmother Dora’s older sisters, Chaia Sura, who married Nachum Mayer Bezboki and went to live in Zhitomir in the early 1890s. The roads were bad. The railroad never came all the way to the village. As a result, its isolation and commercial backwardness scarcely profited from nineteenth century improvements in communication and transportation.
After immigrating, my grandfather Morris worked in the garment industry in St.Louis, so he probably had worked as a tailor in the village. Historic sources state that Jewish merchants in the region were active in export trades, especially agricultural and wood products from the surrounding farms and from the forests to the north. Many Jews were innkeepers, but I’ve never heard of anyone in the family being involved with that. Poorer Jews sold small consumer goods, food products, and household items, and repaired, sold, or made clothing or shoes. The poorest worked at any trade or manual labor they could get, including cutting wood in the forests and carrying water to homes without wells. I suspect that everyone in the family did whatever they could to stay alive, including buying and selling goods in the marketplace. The encyclopedia lists kid gloves, tobacco, dyes, and spirits as the industrial products of the area around Zhitomir: family stories do mention that our great-grandmother was a bootlegger — in fact, Uncle Bob said she was once arrested for dealing in illegal whiskey — so I guess she was involved with the last product!
My great-grandmother used to say that she could speak “both Yiddish and goyish” in order to make deals with peasants and farmers as well as with Jews. “Goyish” was what Jews called either Ukranian or Russian, spoken by over 80% of the people in the Ukraine. The Yiddish of the Ukraine had a distinct grammar and some vocabulary borrowed from Ukrainian. The use of baba for grandmother is one borrowing that the family obviously followed. The useful word nudnik comes from the Ukrainian word for boring. Food words came along with the recipes: lokshin kugel (noodle pudding) and latkes (potato pancakes) are examples. Jewish dishes were typically sweeter than those of the ethnic Ukrainians, and of course didn’t use pork.
That's about all I know about my grandparents' village, from a story I wrote a few years ago.