What Will I be When I'm a Grown-Up?
Vilna - The "Jerusalem of Lithuania" in my Time
Vilna was a thriving Jewish city. There were higher institutes of learning, most of them with a strong Zionist influence. At the Epstein School the spoken language was Hebrew. The language of teaching at the Teachers Seminarion (Academy) was Yiddish. There was a Jewish theater. Yiddisher Gas (Street) had numerous synagogues. The most famous synagogue was the Big Synagogue.
Jews were active in the textile industry and banking. Near my school there was Rom, a printing house, where the Babylonian Talmud and other Holy Books were printed.
The Jewish community was very well organized. There were many Charitable Institutions. Poor people could get support through the "Matan Baseter" (Anonymous Donations), and there was even a free Soup Kitchen. Many Vilna people liked doing "Mitzvot" (good deeds). For example, if you asked for directions, they would walk with you all the way to the requested address.
This was known as the "Upper Vilna". However there was also the ugly side of Vilna. It was a gray, drizzly day. One of the girls suggested we take a short walk. On the way, we met three hooligans. One of them said, "Yangelevich, here is your beast" and they began chasing us. We escaped as fast as we could. Later we found that certain areas of the city had plenty of "Vilner Ganovim" (Vilna thieves), "Vilner Julikes" (Vilna hooligans) and drunkards. Some of them were Jewish, too. In contrast to the "Upper Vilna", this was known as the "Lower Vilna".
"Hechalutz" Movement in VilnaDuring my first days in Vilna I felt as if I had arrived at "Gan Eden" (paradise). My brother knew the city very well and he introduced me to all the Jewish activities. The Zionist youth movements were very active. There were the "Hechalutz Hatzair" (young pioneer), "Hechalutz Haboger" (adult pioneer), "Hashomer Hatzair" (young guard) and "Beitar" (Trumpeldor Alliance). Even the "Bondists" movement was there.
Since I have been a Zionist from birth, I was very pleased to find such variety. Following my brother's advice, I chose the "Hechalutz Hatzair". It was located at 9 Komertzeine Street. The local branch leader was Moshe Basok. His brother, Chaim Basok, later became the Vice- Mayor of Tel Aviv. The most famous new Zionist leader at that time was Moshe Sneh (Tenenboim). When he gave a speech, hundreds of young people would come to listen. Yehoshua Rabinovich was very active, too. He studied then in the Teacher's Seminarion, and was leading youth groups in his free time.
There was huge political Jewish infighting between the Communists and the Zionists. One time I went to listen to Moshe Sneh. When I arrived I found the place surrounded by Police. I left quickly. The next day a friend told me that all attendees were arrested and then released in the morning. It seems the communists were giving the police false allegations in order to prevent the rapid development of the Zionist movement.
Although I was very busy studying and actually practicing Sewing, I participated in the "Hechalutz" activities almost every evening. I loved my friends. I was devoted to the Zionist cause of establishing a Jewish State in Eretz Israel.
In our meetings we were given various lectures. Moshe Basok used to lecture about the condition of Jewish youth in the Diaspora and the need for Zionist fulfillment.
Our Friday night "Kabalat Shabbat" meetings were filled with joy reading, acting, singing and dancing. We were up to date on all the new Zionist Hebrew songs of that time, such as "Havu Levenim..." (Bring us the bricks…there is no time for rest…we'll build our country…) and more. The gates of Eretz Israel (Palestine) were almost hermetically sealed to Jewish immigration by the British. However, on the rare occasion when a friend got a "Certificate" (immigration visa) there was a great celebration.
This was an excellent group of people to be associated with. Everything was attractive and interesting. I was fully involved and very popular. These were the happiest years of my life.
SynagogueGenerally, we used to meet at the "Hechalutz" branch. However, in very important events, the whole community would gather at the Big Synagogue on Yidisher Gas.
I remember one of these events. I think it was in 1929, but I'm not sure. Yeshiva Students were murdered in the Arabs Riots in Jerusalem *. The son and daughter of Israelov were murdered too. There was a very sad memorial service. People were crying. I remember the deep painful atmosphere, the common feeling of a great tragedy, and the strong bonding tying all of us together.
* The most infamous atrocity of the 1929 Arab Riots in Palestine was the massacre of the Jewish community of Hebron.
I'm not an Orthodox Anymore - I'm "Oys" (out) ReligiousWhen I began going to the "Hechalutz" two girls told me "Du Bist A Ferd,Vu Du Bist A Frume". This meant : "You are as dumb as cattle by being religious". At that time I was very orthodox. Coming from a small shtetl, I was a strictly observant Jew. For example, I followed the ceremony of hand washing and food blessing before each meal. I participated in all religious events. Initially, I was very upset with these girls and let them know my opinion. I told them, "If we did not keep our religion, the Jewish people would be long gone. If not for Judaism, you girls would not even be existing now." I was absolutely convinced that I was right.
However with the passing of time, and with more discussions, I became less convinced. Finally I decided to take an easier route. It began with Shabbat observance. Being orthodox I did not work and did not schedule any clients on Shabbat, but I allowed myself to complete the leftover work on some client's dress. I did not rebel and did not do it on purpose. I just took the easier way.
When I first realized what I was doing I began trembling. I thought God was watching me. My Mother later said, "Oy Vey, I thought you'll become a Rebetze (Rabbi's wife), and at the end you became a Goya (female gentile)."
Then I became scared. I was afraid God would punish me. My girlfriends helped me overcome it and continue in my way. I adapted an old gentile saying: "Make sure your wagon joins a convoy."
I consider the following event as my turning point with regard to orthodoxy. One Friday night, I saw the Chief Rabbi of Vishnive, Rabbi Weinshtein, in Vilna attending the same lecture as I was. This lecture was given by Dr. Shmeterling concerning certain elections. I made sure not to make any eye contact with the Rabbi as I did not want each of us to see the other desecrating the Shabbat. To my great surprise I later learned from my brother that when the Rabbi returned to Vishnive the Rabbi said he had seen me. And he was not afraid at all to tell my brother that both of us were attending the same particular lecture on Shabbat. This was amazing considering that the Rabbi was a member of the ultra-orthodox "Agudath Israel" party. I think "he had a soul of a human being, not of an angel".
My First ConcertThe first time in my life that I attended a high level professional concert was in "Bernadiner Gorten" (Garden). The park is beautiful. At the entrance there is a picturesque Gothic church. The park is big, with big lawns, tall trees, and colorful bushes and flowers. A creek is flowing, meandering through the park, with swans floating around.
A big stage was erected in the middle of the park for the performing orchestras. They used to bring guest musicians from abroad, too. We went to the concert in a big group including Estherke, Stemler, Liske and more "Chevreh" from school and from "Hechalutz". This was not only my first concert, but it was also the first time I saw a female violinist. She played solo pieces by Beethoven. For me it was the miracle of miracles. I could not believe what I saw. A female playing a violin? And her music sounded so good to my ears that I felt as if angels were playing. Although I do not know much about music, I immediately absorbed and felt the music as it was really great.
I could not relax for a long time after this concert. It was like a dream. The beauty of the garden, the group of people I came with, the soloist and the orchestra, caused me a high level of excitement. When the soloist played her violin, I looked at the flowing creek, and at the flowers and trees moving with the light wind. It felt as if the whole world were playing one big piece of music.
After this concert I attended other concerts and shows. I also went to see many silent movies. However for me this first concert was the most special.
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