Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

18 Sivan 5766 - June 14, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Home and Family

Let Them Journey
True Stories Uniting the Past with the Future

Compiled by Jennifer Hall and Pesah Leah Porat

Published by the Telshestone English Library

378 pages, Reviewed by S. Weinbach

My downstairs neighbor of years back came from New Zealand. In the next entrance of our building, lives — until 120 — a fascinating, very distinguished Sefardi woman who was born to a chareidi family in Jamaica and speaks English with an exotic accent. My next door neighbor survived Auschwitz, with a tatooed number on her arm. Another, in her nineties (until 120) is the granddaughter of the renowned R' Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt'l, and yet another, a great- granddaughter of R' Boruch Ber Levovitz zt'l; yours truly is a Holocaust survivor from Belgium.

Each one with a distinct tale that spans the bridge of time and space and that fascinating additional dimension of ongoing Jewish history that unites us all, even the seventh generation Jerusalemite family from our first entrance.

"This book illustrates the story of Jewish migration in the last hundred years from an unusual perspective. There is no faceless narrator sweeping the characters along the tides of history; the stories are told by the people themselves, unaltered and with all the poignancy of memory intact."

That's the back cover testimonial. The front cover says it far better. At first look, you are almost invited to step into the frame of an idyllic farmhouse scene, with two horses in the barn adjoining a cottage "where last the lilac bloomed" clinging to the lintel, a milk can standing, waiting to be filled, a cobblestone path . . .

And then you see the two figures, a teenage boy in knickerbockers, knapsack over his back, holding the hand of a beribboned little girl carrying a satchel, locking a parting look with her friend, the trusty brown mare. The house is open — and it seems it will remain that way until vandals come to strip it of anything of value.

Brother and sister are literally stepping out of that pastoral frame, their feet set for the long trek of golus — and that is the keynote of this book. The Wandering Jew, the vicissitudes of our existence in history, the special Providence which we have experienced — and, sadly, it tells as well of those who have fallen by the wayside.

It is not a sad book, per se, because we Jews take the road of life in stride, determined to survive, if not individually, then ultimately. There is maturity in the older brother's look, resignation, responsibility, but hope and trust that just as he is holding his sister's hand, so is Someone holding both of theirs and guiding their footsteps.

This book is unique, full of flavor, of nostalgia galore, inviting you to step into yestercentury and beyond, and relive the cradle scenes of your grandparents' grandparents, be they from Minsk, Pinsk, Frankfurt, Hungary, India, the South African Transvaal, England or the East Side of New York. Somehow, you identify with these brothers and sisters through their own chronicles, straight from [I almost said `the horse's mouth,' the one on the cover] the source, spanning a century and a half of five generations.

"Our family tree can be traced back to the return of Jews to England in the seventeenth century during the Parliament of Oliver Cromwell," writes the elderly granddaughter of Esther Deyong who was born in 1864! She reminisces through the eyes of a six-year-old (her grandmother) who was taken to see stagecoaches careening to a stop outside a coaching inn amid shouts and the sound of a post horn, relives the scene of Londoners skating on a frozen River Thames — and of challah baking in the 19th century. Since some ovens were two small for the family's challos, "my grandmother would run around with the unbaked challahs and then return to collect them" after they were baked in the large oven of one of the neighbors. "This woman eventually became her mother-in-law."

Visit yestercentury of Botei Ungarin. "I lived with my grandparents until I got married at the age of fifteen and moved into my own two-roomed apartment close by, where I still live. My ten children were all brought up in this apartment."

This entry tells of water being fetched from the courtyard well which had a drainpipe from the roof of each building that directed the rainwater into the well. You can still see this well today, locked for safety's sake.

"The government rationed the water . . . with every soul receiving a bucketful twice a week." The well was locked, with one person responsible for doling out the water.

She tells of parafin stoves, icemen, the communal bakery where you brought your loaves, challos and even cholent to bake. "For lighting, we had a keronsene lamp. Arabs would come with their horse and cart and ring the bell to let us know they had arrived. My father wrote a big book on astronomy by the light of the lamp."

They had no telephones — and no loshon hora. No checks that bounced — since they barely had money. "If a girl asked for a dress, mother would say, `Your father learns in yeshiva,' and she wouldn't ask again . . ."

The next entry is about a Jewish `diamond digger', Solomon Joseph Cohen, who was six when he came to South Africa from Ponevizh with his family. It tells of backbreaking work in terrible conditions, but this was during the Great Depression, and one had to eat to survive . . .

Then there is the story of Pinchos Trachtenberg, b. 1879, told by his daughter. She tells how he was inducted into the Russian army and how his mother bribed the guards and brought him a bag of woman's clothing, enabling him to escape.

Then there is Rabbi Yaakov Baker, who reminisces of times "after the First World War. When I became bar mitzvah, I would walk to the yeshiva in Lomza, 19 kilometers away, in order to save a zloty. The villagers were kind and used to invite me to have a drink. I was surprised that, later on, many of them became Holocaust murderers. As I walked through the woods, I found berries, mushrooms and fruit such as apples. I took them with me to the yeshiva to share with the bochurim."

He tells a hair-raising story that begins when the rabbi of his town came to the Lomza yeshiva and said, "We need to save the town from starvation." The shochet was watched by the Secret Police 24 hours a day so the rabbi taught Yaakov shechitoh so that there would be something to eat on Pesach, since the townspeople did not use milk products. The police learn that he has become a shochet and there is a suspenseful tale of his evading them again and again through clever Jewish wiles where the last calf was slaughtered in the police stables, no less!

Miriam Pollack boasts of her parents' "beautiful house in Hungary with a sink in the kitchen and a toilet in the garden." Her father was considered a wealthy man; he purchased old clothes in the Budapest market. At home, they cleaned them, sewed up seams, changed buttons, pressed them and resold them for the price of a new garment.

She goes on to tell about her grandmother's screening process in shidduchim. "This boy is not for you," she announces. "Bubbie, why?" "His cufflinks weren't matched." Another boy was rejected because his handkerchief was dirty and another, because he "didn't look healthy." He died the same year. "She saw things that I did not."

You feel the flavor of this book, where history is interwoven with human interest and pure homespun flavor. You can't help but love it!

Let Them Journey is a fundraiser. It is very skillfully put together by the women who run the library in Kiryat Telshestone, Jerusalem, the follow-up of "Library in a Book," a literary project and also fascinating. But this is unique, fully packed, very authentic. Jennifer Hall claims they did not touch up the stories, but they sure made them readable.

Memoir writing has come into fashion these days, especially since the Holocaust survivors are slowing vanishing from the scene. People who thought they couldn't write are tapping into their colorful pasts and dredging up bygone memories to preserve for their posterity. The recent Writers' Conference which took place in Jerusalem had one workshop on it and this is a subject which should be promoted and pursued.

A second volume coming up, Jennifer?


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