My First Days at Kheder

The school memories of a little girl in Lithuania

What was it like to start kindergarten if you were a Lithuanian Jewish girl 165 years ago? In this rare autobiographical portrait of female Jewish life, Pessele Epstein, 1833-1916, (later known as Pauline Wengeroff), is five years old; her big sister, Chore, is seven. The girls’ father, a Talmud scholar whose lineage includes more than ten generations of heads of yeshivas, is a well-to- do contractor for the Czar. He can afford—as only a wealthy Jew could—to send his seven daughters to kheder. The following selection is Wengeroff s earliest Jewish memory:

To put an end to my adventures through mountain, field and underbrush, and to my perilous games in the hayloft, my mother determined to send me to kheder, and to entrust my education to the same melamed who was teaching Hebrew to my older sister.

The first day of school! I had been in suspense to see what the “sub-assistant” would be like. He would walk me the long way to school. He turned out to be a long, thin youth with long, thin blond curls dangling before a pair of donkey’s ears. His name was Velvel.

As we walked along my sister pointed out all the remarkable sights and explained everything to me. We passed many booths and stands with rummage for sale, and pressed through crowds of people. A wild dog followed and attacked us. We looked to Velvel, but he was the first to scream in fright, and run faster and faster so that we could not keep up.

Chave grabbed my hand, and terrified—without moving from the spot—we exhaled the following verse all in one breath:

Doggie doggie want to bite me?
Three devils will come and fright thee.
They will tear you limb from limb.
Doggie, doggie, want to bite me?
Three devils will come and fright thee.
They will tear you limb from limb.
I am Jacob, you are Esau.
I am Jacob, you are Esau.

The dog calmed down and let us pass. Velvel, our tried and true protector, waited for us, and our procession went on its way. At about 8 a.m. we arrived at the kheder.

Once long, long ago the little house must have had a coat of yellow paint. Now it stood sunk deep into the ground, its tiny window panes admitting little light, surrounded by a mound of earth on which my future classmates and my sister’s friends were playing various games.

All of them opened their eyes wide and stared at me.

At the entrance we stopped: it was not so easy for the uninitiated to find her way into the house.

My sister led. She opened the door, jumped down into the room, and held out her hand to me. I grabbed at it and put down my leg, feeling in the dark for the sill, which turned out to be a rotting chunk of wood buried in the mud floor. I had to feel a long way down to find it. Then I let down my other leg and bravely took a step into the room.

Chave warned me not to trip over the ladder which half-barred the way. Another step, and there we were at the water barrel with a great ladle suspended from its rim— that ladle which would soon become a familiar temptation to get up and have a drink. There was also a pitcher and a broom.

On the left I glimpsed a door whose wooden handle was rubbed smooth as glass. Chave opened it and stepped into the schoolroom, and I followed her. There was not room for both of us to stand up straight in the cramped space between the door and the school bench, which was attached to a long table covered with texts and prayer books. Across the table, a second bench backed right up against the far wall.

I leave it to the imagination of the reader to estimate the width of that room!

Reb Leser, the melamed, reigned over this domain, seated at the head of the table. He was a powerfully built man whose heavy shoulders completely obscured the window beside him. His large, water-blue protruding eyes, with two small ear locks in constant motion before them, his long face, his pointed gray beard, all exuded self-confidence and pride. The strong, swollen veins in his forehead gave evidence of great energy. His clothing was suited to the period and to his station: short trousers fastened at the knee over thick gray stockings; gigantic shoes; shirtsleeves of dubious cleanliness; a colorful, dark cotton arbakanfos [prayer vest with tzitzes, or fringes] which took the place of a jacket in summer. (In winter he wore a quilted jacket.) A small black skullcap completed the costume.

At the other end of the table sat the chief assistant, his head always bowed, holding a long, thin wooden rod called a deitelholtz, with which he pointed letter by letter to where the children were reading. His job was to repeat with us the lessons taught by the melamed. He was always serious. His nose was shaped like a spade; his eyes were small and melancholy; his two long black ear locks moved ceaselessly.

My sister and I stood still. We had to, since there was only that one spot to stand in. When Reb Leser caught sight of me he cried out, “Ah!”

He got up, grabbed me by my armpits, lifted me up and sat me down beside him. The other girls came running in to inspect this new phenomenon— me—and compare notes. My sister, who felt at home here, sat down at her place, but kept glancing over protectively.

Fear, embarrassment, the many strange faces, the low ceiling at which I kept looking nervously, all this and probably the after-effect of the angry dog too, choked me until I knew nothing better to do except cry.

I was ashamed, I was mad at myself, but I couldn’t help it. Reb Leser tried to quiet me. I would not have to start learning today, he said. I could just play with the others at recess. But the more he talked, the more I cried. Finally he guessed that what was frightening me most were the many curious eyes.

He stamped his enormous feet and shouted, “Out! Into the street, shikses! What are you staring at, have you never seen anything like this before?”

They scattered in all directions. My sister went over a paragraph with the Rebbe, repeated it with the chief assistant, and then tried to take me outside to play. But I wouldn’t hear of it.

Lunch Velvel, our shining knight, appeared outside juggling pitchers, pots, bowls, glasses and spoons of various kinds and sizes, bread, and food in the following configuration: the pots and pitchers were tied to his waist by means of his wide belt; hanging down over his hips the bread had been stowed by the resourceful youth next to his chest between his shirt and his kaftan; the full bowls were piled one on top of the other, pressed against his chest with one arm and held fast with the other. The dessert of nuts, apples, cooked beans and peas weighed down his deep thief’s pockets. Thus laden, the ship of state made slowly for its port, the kheder.

“Hurry up,” the Rebbe commanded, scolding Velvel for his tardiness. “Hand out the bowls and spoons!”

Velvel poured all our food together into one large bowl. I received a spoon with a little hole in the handle to signify that it was for use with dairy food. I turned it this way and that, afraid to plunge into that huge bowl. I was thinking, “This is how I’m supposed to eat? Not from my china dish?”

The tears started back in my eyes and my throat constricted. But I finally forced myself to take one spoonful and choke it down, together with my tears.

The meal over, the Rebbe helped me down off the high bench. Despite my vexation, I determined to set into my mind all the many ways in which this meal was better than the kind I was used to: Here we could talk or take a drink during the meals whenever we wanted, while at home we had to wait until after the roast. Here we could get up whenever we liked, while at home we had to wait until Father had risen from his place.

When I wanted another drink after lunch, someone explained to me about the big ladle by the water barrel. Then my sister took me by one hand, another pupil by the other, and I finally did go out to play until seven in the evening. We were called back into the schoolroom for the evening prayer. The assistant stood in the middle and we watched him and repeated every word. Then we hurried home.

I was so exhausted by the events of the day that I could not tell my Nana much about them. I drank my tea and fell asleep, without any supper.

In less than a week I was quite at home, familiar with every nook and corner of the school. In addition to the long, narrow schoolroom there was also, it turned out, a long dark crawl hole—no other name will describe it— containing the beds of the Rebbe and Rebbetzin. In front of their beds, suspended from a beam, hung the cradle of their only child, Altinke. Whoever came and went through this passage knocked against the cradle and set it in motion, and then it remained in motion for a long time.

One could not maintain that this room, or the linen on the beds and in the cradle, were clean. But one must be content with one’s lot, the saying goes, and the inhabitants of this hut were. Their only concern was for Altinke, the last remaining child of the four they had produced. Although she was over two years old, she was unable to stand or walk. She wore an amulet around her neck—a leaden square engraved with bits from the Kabbalah, and a little mezuzah. These, as well as a wolf’s tooth, were suspended from a ribbon which was pasted onto her quilted shirt by means of filth and spit.

This unhappy little creature spent most of her time lying in the cradle, since the Rebbetzin Feige operated a number of cottage industries: she baked a special honey cake containing an herb to drive out worms; she cooked the peas and beans the pupils bought from her every day for snacks; and she tended a hen and her chicks. All this left her little time to carry the child in her arms.

Every day she chose a pupil to help her, and she soon discovered a willing and obedient helper in me. Sometimes I rocked the baby—I loved doing this—sometimes I floured the paddle with which she pushed the loaves of bread into the oven, sometimes I found the egg which the hen would lay every day. If the egg was still warm, I loved to rub it across my eyes. All of this was part of kheder!

One day the Rebbctzin saw me bend down from the pripoczok [the lower part of the stove] and take up the broody hen. Misunderstanding what I was doing, she rushed over, grabbed me by the shoulder and started to scream: “What are you doing? What do you want? Meshuggene, get away!”

The chicken tore out of my arms, clattered into Reb Leser’s domain, noisily flew onto the shelf where the tin plates and bowls were kept and knocked them all down, and then ducked on top of Reb Leser’s head, and left him a souvenir of her brief visit.

The pupils were all laughing and pointing at the Rebbe’s head. Scolding and cursing loudly, Reb Lesser swore to his helpmate that he would slaughter all her chickens. Our fearless Rebbetzin argued back, arms outspread. Out in the alley many spectators arrived to peer in the windows, and some came near to getting ‘involved in the lengthy domestic fight.

That evening I had a lot to report to my Nana.

When Reb Leser fell silent before his wife, he did so with the air of a man whose dignity was unassailable. To this he was fully entitled: in his own schoolroom, in his neighborhood and even on the peninsula across the lake, Reb Leser was a very popular man. They came to Reb Leser, the melamed, whenever a child was sick. He was a healer who knew how to drive away the evil eye. He would take a piece of the patient’s clothing—say, a stocking or a shirt—whisper a secret word and spit on it three times.

If you had a toothache, Reb Leser would go out into the moonlight with you, and at midnight sharp he would stroke your right cheek, then your left, all the while whispering magic words.

For severe backache, you stretched out on the floor. Reb Leser—the firstborn—stood on your back for a moment and you were cured!

People who wanted to buy a cow were convinced that she would give more milk if Reb Leser had participated in the lengthy process of haggling for her.

But these were minor sources of his income—the shadchan business [matchmaking] brought in much more! He conducted this business between minkha and maariv at the end of the Sabbath, when Jews had rested for 24 hours and were in a good mood. He made almost as much from the shadchan business as from the kheder, with the added advantage that a shidduch was usually accompanied by a glass of whiskey. Maybe it was good that Reb Leser had so little time to devote to this sort of thing!

I was soon familiar with the world of the kheder and was also on good terms with all the neighbors there. My special favorite person was the shul-knocker, a haggard, bent little man with a greenish yellow goat face and dull goat’s eyes filled with anguish. He seemed to suffer from a whooping cough all his life. When the kheder children saw him in the street, we ran up to him and yelled into his face, “In shul! In shul!” and accompanied him along his way. It was his job to appear in the street near the shul, morning and evening, and cry out, “In shul! In shul!” to call the community together for prayers. Then he would dig his fists into his sides and cough. For a long time he couldn’t get his breath.

The shul-knocker had another job: On Friday afternoons he ran to the Jewish merchants to remind them to close before the Sabbath. And he roused the community for slikhes on the mornings between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

After the Rebbetzin screamed at me about the hen I became soured about life inside the kheder, and I started to concentrate on life in the alley. I became excellent at games: the zeichenspiel (which used a pair of bone dice), the nut game, and the pin game, paired and unpaired. One of my friends was very good at the pin game, and made me quite envious: She could hold a lot of straight pins under her tongue at once and talk at the same time.

I am now 70 years old, but I remember these simple games vividly—there were many of them. We played so much at our kheder, actually, that we often forgot the real reason that we were even there.

POSTSCRIPT: Pauline Wengeroffs autobiography. Memoirs of a Grandmother (from which this early kheder story is excerpted), published in 1913 in Germany, goes on to document Wengeroffs family’s religious life in an increasingly assimilated and complicated Jewish world.

Wengeroffs mother—Mrs. Epstein— pious and Orthodox, becomes a do-or-die fighter in the battle (just beginning to rage in many Jewish homes) against the Enlightenment. In the early chapters of Wengeroffs autobiography we see Mrs. Epstein taking enormous pleasure in watching her teenage sons-in-law study Talmud every afternoon in the Epstein’s bustling, cultured, meticulously observant home. Even when the boys’ father-in-law was away on business—the sons-in-law studied. Later in the book, however, Mrs. Epstein one day sidles up closer to hear the boys’ learned disputation, and she comes away horrified, her heart as good as stabbed: They have hidden the poems of Schiller under their Talmud folios, and are arguing about the interpretation of secular poetry!

The inevitable drift away from the Judaism that has been the Epstein family’s whole beloved life for centuries—that sets its rhythms and gives it its values and center— has crept into Mrs. Epstein’s very household. Over time, Pauline Wengeroff also—happy in an arranged marriage, modestly wearing a shaytl—comes, like her mother before her, to curse the Enlightenment.

Wengeroffs full memoir turns out to unveil the story of the slow erosion of Jewish learning and values that occurs under the author’s own eyes. As young Jews pass the entrance exams to universities at the top of their classes—only to be refused admission, over and over, because they are Jews—many finally succumb to baptism, which allows all doors to open to them at once.

By the end of Wengeroffs autobiography it becomes clear that the author’s grandchildren-and some of her children-are Christian. The author blames herself—not the Enlightenment (or her husband or children)—for this death rattle of traditional Judaism which occurs between her childhood and her old age.

Henny Wenkart is the editor of the anthology Sarah’s Daughters Sing, and of the Jewish Women’s Literary Annual.

Gendered Jewish History

by Susan Schnur

In a chapter about Pauline Wengeroff (the author of this accompanying kheder memoir) in the new book. Gender and Judaism, edited by Tamar Rudavsky [New York University Press, 19951, Shulamit Magnus hails Wengeroffs autobiography as the first instance wherein “a major epoch of Jewish history |the Enlightenment] is refracted through a female lens.”

Other memoirs of (he Enlightenment era are written by men—who uniformly find WOMEN to be one of the chief problems of traditional Jewish life. According to these male accounts, traditional Jewish females have way too much power and are “manipulative, overpowering, abusive mothers-in-law, into whose clutches the future maskilim fall when, as child-husbands, they go to live in their in-laws’ homes. Wives are fertility traps, people with whom they share no meaningful relationship yet who will, unless resisted, anchor the maskilim in the suffocating world of tradition and familial responsibility,” writes Magnus, Wengeroffs husband, a chassid who threw off his faith and pressured his wife into finally relinquishing her kosher kitchen and shaytl (to her great sorrow), doubtless would agree with these male accounts. According to Pauline Wengeroff, however, the “old” world—according to Jewish women— was rich and rewarding. Writes Magnus:

While the men of Wengeroff’s family were in synagogue on the Ninth of Aw the day of mourning for the destruction of the Temple, the women evoked the drama and anguish of Jewish exile with ash-marked carpets at home. They sat on the prescribed footstools of mourning to read the Book of Lamentations. with Wengeroffs mother leading the women {Pauline, her sisters, maids) in weeping. In the days preceding Yam Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Wengeroffs mother would he visited by a semi-official female spiritualist called a Gabete, who officiated at a solemn, awesome ceremony of remembrance and penance—a non-rabbinic, purely female exercise. Gabetes also determined the needs of the poor in the community and solicited charity from wealthy women; one such Gabete was a fixture in Wengeroffs house… When a girl became a bride, she was visited by a Gollerke who performed the ritual shaving of her head. If her marriage meant leaving her hometown, the bride bade farewell to friends and relatives accompanied by a Reisele, an honorary escort.

Clearly the strife over Judaism in Wengeroffs marriage was far from being a personal predicament. “It was part of a marital disease widespread among Jewish couples,” writes Magnus.

“Women as a class were fighting to preserve tradition against men who would jettison much or all of it in the name of progress and acceptance in the world outside the ghetto.”

In the Enlightened Jewish household, women became suddenly “privatized”— no longer tolerated as wage earners. As wives lost their economic role, husbands used that fact to demand religious “reform” of the household. “Traditional Jewish society marked distinctly separate and unequal spheres for men and women, but at least women had a recognized sphere: the home,” writes Magnus. Modernity, however, took away the home from women. Wengeroffs husband “dictated the character of her kitchen, something neither of her parents (or his) would have found imaginable.”

Wengeroff herself writes bitterly about the male double-standard: “Preaching modern ideas like freedom, equality and fraternity in society, these young men were, at home, the greatest despots toward their wives, demanding ruthlessly the fulfillment of their wishes. Quite a few wives did not want to give way, but the spirit of the age won in this struggle and the weaker yielded, with bleeding hearts. This is what happened to others, and to me.”

No amount of personal strength, writes Magnus, “can counter overwhelming social forces, which is what, in Wengeroffs telling, overtook her and other Jewish women in her time.”