In the Brisk Yeshiva

After my motherís departure, I was overcome by a terrible home-sickness. I longed for my motherís beautiful house, which so recently had been surrounded by plants and flowers, lilacs and cherry-blossoms, which I myself had helped my father to plant. Akh, how beautifully they grew and bloomed...everone who passed through the village, from peasant to lord, could hardly their eyes of them. They could hardly believe that this was a Jewish home. I also longed for my motherís wonderful stories...for the happy Friday evenings when my father would sometimes read to us stories from "Eyn Yaíakov", from Kalman Shulmanís "Divrei Yímei Olam", from Avraham Mapuís "Love of Zion", which used to captivate me. I also longed for my little brother, and especially for my lovely little sister, Dinneleh, the youngest, who used to love to play with here little fingers in my curly hair.

Every Thursday morning, I would run to the inn, where you could always find wagon-drivers from Kamenetz and Zastavia, to see if there was a letter from home, or even a package. And while I waited for an answer from "Vigder the Absent-minded Wagon-Driver", I would gaze at his horse and wagon, which had just arrived from home, and I imagined that I could still smell the fresh air of the village....I would be overcome by a feeling of envy for that simple horse, who by this time tomorrow would be home again, back on his own land...while I would have to stay a long, long time on my own...and it would be such a long time until Peysakh.

On account of my home-sickness, I would sit in the yeshiva before the Gemorra as though I didnít belong, like someone who was not really there. I was in the west - in Brisk, my heart and sould were in the east - Zastavia, in my home town...and so my new surroundings, with their raucous tumult inside and outside the yeshiva, did not sit well with me. Most of the yeshiva-boys came from the near and far-away cities and towns, with their own way of speaking and their own strange customs, with their little hats and long curly forelocks, with their long black frocks, the likes of which I had never before seen....the strangeness of it all only made my spirits sink lower. To me they didnít even look like children, little boys....instead, they looked like little miniature Jews, with their peculiar habits, gestures, mannerisms...all of which had a thoroughly depressing effect on me...

And they made life miserable for those of us who came Lithuania and White Russia. They laughed at us...making fun of how we spoke, playing all kinds of mean tricks on us. Calling us the ugliest names, like "blockhead" and "chicken guts"...in short, they harassed us to death! More than one altercation took place between us and them...but they were stronger, healthier. When they gave you a whack, you could practically see all the way to your grandfather in the other world! And such pigs they were! Real gluttons! They were always stuffing their own greedy faces; hanging around day and night in the canteen that was on the grounds of the Hebrew School. Sometimes one of the women would come down with baskets of buckwheat pancakes, covered up with a thick, grease-stained, cloth so as not to let them cool off too quickly...those boys would throw themselves upon that poor Jewess, like a pack of hungry wolves, and buy up all the pancakes down to the last one. It seemed that a kopek to them was nothing. I hated them. I couldnít stand to look at them. From that motley crew, I would have gladly run away to "where the black pepper grows".

To drive away my bitterness towards my"schoolmates", and my ever-present longing for home, I would take a Gemorra...swaying back and forth, I would start to sing the familiar, sad, Gemorra-melody: "ai, ai, omer Abay, thus sayeth Abai; ai, ai omer Rovoh, thus sayeth Rovoh...."*

Not having anyone with whom to confide, I poured out my misery and longing before God. I had always been religious. But now, on this foreign soil, in my own youthful exile, I began to pray even more; I prayed long and hard, with feeling, and when I came to the part in "The Eighteenth" where it says "our eyes shall witness your mericful return to Zion"...the thought running through my mind was, in fact, that the end should come to the long, cold winter, and that soon should come beloved Eve of Passover, when I, "with Thine great mercy", would be able to return to my own mother, back to my own home, in my beloved home town.

 

From the constant tumult in the yeshiva, and the incessant "swimming in the Sea of the Gemorra", from Talmudic arguments which tossed you back and forth like angry waves on a stormy sea, until your head would spin.... from all this, I would often be left sitting there drained and exhausted. My soul cried out for peace, and craved a momentís relaxation....

More than once I would put the Talmud aside, right in the middle of a heated debate between two opposing schools of thought, and find refuge with the help of my "powers of imagination". I would picture various shapes and pictures, scenes from my beloved home, my family...and often, these images would be mixed with things taken from the Talmud itself.

For example, we were studying the Gemorra "Gitin", which was concernced with a very important question: whether the messenger who brought back a divorce document from overseas was required to say, that "before his eyes, the divorce has been written and signed"; and although this question was indeed very important, it also seemed to me a serious omission that the same Gemorra told us almost nothing about that "land across the seas", from whence the messenger had brought back the divorce. For example, what did the people there look like? How did they dress? What did they do for a living? And could the land in question possibly have been that very same country, America, where my brothers Leyzer and Moshe-Ber lived? The same land which lay so very far away, far across the "Ocean Sea"? And might not that very same messenger, who had just returned with the divorce, also perhaps have seen my brothers?!? How my mother would rejoice, to hear a living word from them...!

It wouldnít be long before my thoughts had taken flight, from distant lands straight back home, to my own village...to see what my mother was doing at that very moment. Yes, I could see her now sitting on the bed, with my little sister, Dinelleh...she is telling her a story, from "The Little White Goat"; from "Raisins and Almonds"; how Dinelleh would grow up one day to have her own home, blessed with peace and happiness, and her husband would be able to sit all day and study Torah and wisdom. My little baby sister Dinneleh, who is pretty as an angel, listens to motherís stories until her blue eyes slowly close, and she lies sleeping with a sweet smile upon her red lips.

And what about my little brother, the frail, sickly Yitzak-Eyzikl, who was dark as a Gypsy? He must be sitting now at the big table, by the glow of the small oil-lamp, studying the Pentateuch with my father. And here comes Reb Shaulíkeh, my fatherís good friend to have a game of checkers. There they would sit, the two teachers, good friends, with their beards and forelocks, immersed in their game, carrying on a bitter war over their "little bricks", and at the same time humming together a Gemorra-melody. And the mameh would be bringing them a glass of something warm...

I see everybody and everything: I hear what they say and see what they do...but they donít see me. No one can see me.

And so in this way I would draw for myself various pictures, each one more beautiful than the next. From each of these little episodes, that I conjured up on the wings of my fantasies, I drew fresh strength. I was like a person wandering for days in the desert: the sun burns down on him from above; his gums are parched; his feet are tired. Suddenly in the distance he sees a mirage, a green oasis. The tired wanderer, with his last strength, rushes to the cool, bubbling water which flows there; he drinks, slakes his burning thirst, and eats from the fresh fruits that grow on the trees. And with renewed, fresh strength, he continues on his way.

And that is how it was for me: after "wandering" for days on end in the great "desert" of the Talmud, I was exhausted from the heated debates, nit-picking arguments. The great arc-lights shone down harshly on me, buzzing and crackling, humming and radiating heat. The cacophony from the dozens and dozens of yeshiva-boys hurts my ears. When I glanced at the large clock, which stands right in the middle of the yeshiva, and I saw that the evening was still so long...it seemed that the end of the day would never come.

The last shred of desire to study soon left me, and I surrendered once again to my fantasies. I would fly away to some beautiful, far-away land, where it was always summertime, and where there grew all kinds of wonderful fruit-trees. A place you would never want to leave, with multi-colored flowers and fragrant herbs. And then I would go back home, to my own village...

But suddenly, right in the middle of my day-dreams, something would jab at my heart. A painful realization: it was a sin to sit and dream, when one was supposed to be studying! I quickly came back to reality, and began to study fervently, swaying back and forth as though to more quickly drive away those strange, sinful thoughts that tormented me like pesky flies, and wouldnít leave me alone. And I started singing at the top of my voice: "Ai, ai, omer Abai, thus sayeth Abai! Ai, ai, omer Rovoh, thus sayeth Rovoh!..."

But then again, as though to tease me, a thought ran through my head: what could that Abai have looked like, and what about his "friend" Rovoh? NO! One mustnít think about such things! One must study! Study! "The school of Hillel argues thusly"...while the "School of Shamai", you understand, argues precisely the opposite! And while pondering these heavy questions, the thought would enter my mind: what did he look like, that great prophet, "Hillel the Elder", the founder of the School of Hillel? And when I looked around....there he was before my eyes, in all his patriarchal glory: a grizzled old man with a silver-white beard, with long curly peyos that hung down almost to his knees. Hundred of young disciples were clustered around him, hanging on his every word. And at the same time, he smiled so that your whole soul basked in the warmth of his eyes...

Shamai, for his part, was a different story altogether. For one thing, he was quite a bit younger than Hillel. His beard was not so long, and not so silvery-white. And his eyes had such a stern glare, that filled you with fear. And like their master, so went their pupils: the "House of Hillel", Hillelís students, were such good, sweet boys...while the "House of Shamai-ers" took after their Rabbi: just as strict, just as hard....if someone said - "it is permitted", you were allowed: if someone said the opposite - "forbidden", you simply didnít dare...

And for some reason, in the midst of these scenes from long ago, there intruded an image of Reb Yokhanan Hasandler, the shoemaker from the village, and Reb Yitzhak Nefukhah, the blacksmith...there stood Reb Yitzhak Nefukha all day long in the forge, soaked in sweat, wearing a black leather apron, and pounding away on a piece of glowing iron, so that sparks of fire flew in all directions...while students stood around him listening to the fiery words that flew out from his mouth...

Quite often, right in the middle of my fantasies, the teacher, Reb Berl, would suddenly give me a whack and call on me to recite the Gemorra. I would be sitting there in confusion with fear in my eyes, like someone who had just been awoken from a deep sleep, and who doesnít know where in the world he is...my neighbors, the yeshiva-boys sitting around me, would break out into laughter. The teacher would be furious, ready to let me have it...anyone else in my place would have certainly gotten a sound thrashing for such an offense. But out of deference, perhaps, to my well-known uncle, Reb Menakhem-Tzvi Toksin, I would usually be let off with no more that a little scare, and with a stern lecture.

 

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