Mae's Real Stories

Memories for Miriam, Alice, Theo, Delia, Tessa and anyone else who would like to be here

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


My Grandparents' Village

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.

Do you remember Raskas dairy smetana? My daughter says that's the Russian word for sour cream. I loved smetana on blintzes and latkas but I never knew it was sour cream until I grew up and left the "ghetto."

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