Memories of Motol


Celebrations of Jewish Holidays in Motele

by Sarah Heller

  Contributed by her daughter, Tauby Shimkin

                The observance of Shabbat and holidays was a living and functional part of our life, as was a strict adherence to the religious customs and rituals.  There was a feeling of joy, awe and excitement with the approach of each festival.  Each had its own special charm, beauty and attraction. 

                To describe how our family celebrated them, I have to trace back to my childhood in our townlet,Motele, in White Russia.  There were no bakeries where one could go in and get ready-baked challah or cake.  Everything had to be prepared at home.  Our mother and grandmother displayed great art and ability in carrying out the task, unselfish, always busy and concerned not to fail their families. 

                I still remember vividly our mother getting up very, very early every Friday morning (and in the Winter months when it was still dark) to bake, cook, clean and have everything ready for Shabbat.  We children were still fast asleep.  The sweet small of the freshly baked goods penetrated our rooms.  It was good to greet the day in this warm, cozy atmosphere; and introduction to the welcoming of the Sabbath queen.  I still feel the taste of the special delicious dishes:  gefilte fish, soup, chicken, cholent stuffed derma, helzel and compote made of dried fruit from our own orchard. 

        To keep the food hot for the following day and so as not to desecrate Shabbat, the food, protected with a special cover, was placed in a preheated brick oven on Friday evening.  The house spotlessly clean, the table covered with a white cloth, two challahs, the wine, the lighted candles in the brightly polished candlesticks, four silver and two copper, transformed our home into a palace fit for a prince.  Before and after lighting the candles, Mother chanted a prayer in Yiddish pleading not only for the welfare of her own family but also for [Yiddish script], for all the people of Israel.  Washed and dressed in our Sabbath clothes, we children waited for the return of the menfolk from shul.  Our older brother acted as the head of the family.  Father was away most of the time, either in far places in Russia, where he supervised the cutting and transporting of lumber to Germany or in Germany proper.  He only managed to come home twice a year for the High Holidays and Passover.  His absence did not in any way hinder us from carrying on our normal family life.  It was our mother who saw to it that everything should function normally.  She was a clever, courageous and energetic woman, a real woman of valor [Yiddish words], and so with Mother at the head of the table, the family welcomed the Sabbath.  On Sabbath day Mother and the boys went to the synagogue.  The girls, Libby and I, stayed home with the maid. 

        In the afternoon, friends visited us, and they were treated to tea, homemade preserves, cake, nuts and wine.  Very often, we children visited our grandparents.  Our paternal grandfather was the cantor in our town.  We loved to listen to the choir rehearse, particularly before the holidays.  We also liked to watch our grandfather play chess on Saturday afternoon with his friend, the father of professor and Talmudist Saul Lieberman of the Jewish Theological Seminary.  Every contemplated move was accompanied by the humming of a Talmudic chant.  It was exciting and fascinating. 

        As the dusk began to fall, the mood changed.  In the twilight Mother sitting at the window, reading the [Yiddish definition] (Z’eneh V’renah), an haggadic interpretation of the Five Books of Moses [Yiddish word] and then sadly chanting a prayer: “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, now that the Holy Sabbath is about to end, please, send us a new week with health, sustenance and [Yiddish] pleasure of children.”  A feeling of parting with something precious was in the air.  Dark fills the room until three stars appear in the sky and [Yiddish expression] Havdallah light is kindled.  A new week began.  For many it was the beginning of days of struggle, hard work, even days of hunger until the following Sabbath.  Even the poorest Jew managed to scrape together a [few] kopecks (cents) to usher in the Holy Sabbath. 

        The preparations for the holidays were similar to those for the Sabbath.  The same spirit of holiness prevailed.  Each festival had its own symbolic food and was steeped in its own atmosphere.  For Rosh Hashanah, Mother used to bake the challah in the form of a ladder to symbolize the ups and downs in the life of a person whose fate is judged and decided on Rosh Hashanah.  For Yom Kippur and Succoth, the challahs were made in the shape of a bird about to fly to receive the verdict; for Purim, an oversized twist and Homentaschen for the Purim feast; for [Yiddish word] Shavuoth, dairy meals, delicious cakes and delicacies made with cheese, and so on. 

        On Rosh Hashanah it was the same as on Shabbat.  The whole family (but not the firls) went to shul.  We girls just went there to listen to the sounding of the shofar.  It was  a [Yiddish word] (mitzvah).  After Kiddush and the [Yiddish word] (Hamotze), it was customary to dip a piece of challah in honey and make a blessing for a sweet and good year.  Another custom we observed was to go to [Yiddish word] (tashlich).  On the first day of Rosh Hashanah right after the afternoon service [Yiddish word], young and old went to the lake and emptied out their pockets, ridding themselves of their sins, chanting some psalms and the last three verses of chapter seven of the Book of Micah where it reads:  “[Hebrew words] and they will cast all of their sins into the depths of the seas.”  Hence, the ceremony is called Tashlich. 

        The ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur were days of repentance and anxiety.  There is an expression in Yiddish, “Even a fish trembles in the water on these days,” and no wonder”  the deeds of each individual are weighed and measured, and his destiny decided accordingly. 

        Two days before Yom Kippur, the most sacred and awe-inspiring day of the year, preparations began, getting ready for [Yiddish word] Kaporoth, the atonement sacrifice.  This consisted of taking a fowl, a cock for males and a hen for females.  It was preferable to use a white fowl for this purpose in accordance with a line in Isaiah, chapter 1.18:  “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall become white as snow.”  The fowl, legs tied, was held in the nahd, circled over the head several times while reciting at the same time, “This is a substitute for me; this is in exchange for me; this is my atonement for my sins, so that I should have a long and pleasant life and peace.”  Often this entire ceremony was performed with money that was later given to charity.  The distribution of charity was always regarded as one of the most important elements in obtaining divine mercy and forgiveness.  And I remember in the shul at minchah afternoon service, tables were set on which were placed plates with inscriptions of various charitable institutions of the community, and every person was expected to give his contribution. 

        Another beautiful custom was the blessing of the children before going to the Kol Nidre [Yiddish words] service.  Our father (or grandfather, as often happened in our case), put his hand on our heads and blessed us and prayed that we be G-d-fearing, do good deeds and be rewarded with long life, health, wealth and happiness.  Very often, we felt a tear on our heads.  It was a solemn moment. 

        In our town, on Yom Kippur Eve the street seemed to be deserted.  Most of the people were in shul.  A special holiness was felt in the air.  The following day for the musaf service, I went to shul to see Mother in the women’s section on the upper floor.  Most women wore white dresses, signs of purity and forgiveness.  Many were sobbing and sighing, imploring G-d for forgiveness and to be inscribed in the Book of Life.  Mother’s seat was in the first row next to the carved partition.  I had a full view of the men’s section, and I watched my grandfather.  Dressed ina white kittel (robe), white cap and in talit, with his beautiful long white beard and earlocks, he looked like a real High Priest, and he and his [Yiddish expression] (choir) performed [Yiddish] avodah, in the Temple.  Their singing was superb.  I still remember the melody with nostalgia. 

        After the evening service, the men did not rush home to eat.  If the sky was clear, they first recited an appropriate blessing for the appearance of the new moon. 

        It was also a custom after breaking the fast that pious Jews began preparing for the building of the Succoth.  We had a permanent, built-in one.  We kept our library there during the rest of [sic] year.  It was a large room.  The wooden roof was built so when pulled with a rope it opened and exposed the sky.  There was a place for putting green branches.  We decorated it.  We had all meals there for 7 days, no matter how cold it was.  We had our own etrog and lulav and took pride in their beauty. 

        On Simchat Torah, dressed in our yomtov clothes, we went to shul.  With flags, an apple with a candle in it, the children followed the Hakkafot (ceremonial procession) with the (Sifrei Torah) [Yiddish words] and danced and rejoiced with them.  Even the girls were allowed to enter the men’s section to kiss the Torah.  The boys very often played a trick and covered the Torah with their hands for the girls to kiss.  The rascals! 

        There were certain holidays that left a more lingering impression.  Purim was one of them.  Purim is not among the major festivals, but for us it was the merriest of all.  There are many folk customs connected to it:  Giving gifts, charity, merriment and pleasure to such an extent that on Purim one should drink until he knows not the difference between “Cursed be Haman” and “Blessed be Mordecai.” 

        On Purim morning, after returning from listening to the reading of the Magiloh, Mother got busy arranging [Yiddish words] (shaloch monot), sending gifts to relatives and neighbors.  In turn, we received gifts from them.  The gifts consisted mostly of all kinds of delicacies:  honey cake, mohn cake (poppy seed), dried fruit, nuts and often money.  In another custom, men and women went from door to door to collect money in a kerchief for the needy.  Many poor made the rounds themselves.  A little song circulated:  [Yiddish words to song] “Today is Purim, tomorrow not, give me a groshen (penny) and chase me out.” 

        The highlight of the days was the Purim feast [Yiddish expression].  The table was more richly prepared than for any other meal of the year.  Candle light.  It was a real [Yiddish words] (sason v’simchah), real joy and gladness.  The story of Purim that tells how the Jewish people were saved from annihilation at the hands of Haman, the Jew-hater, kept the Jews from despair all through the dark days in history when enemies tried to destroy them.  Thee were many Hamans, and the Jews survived them. 

        In our family this celebration also had an extra meaning. Zeide and I being descendants of Rabbi Tosfot Yom Tov Heller, observe (in Zeide’s home more than in ours), the release of the Rabbi from prison where he spent 40 days.  Yom Tov Lippman Heller was born in Germany in 1579.  He was an authority in matters of ritual, well versed in secular sciences, a good mathematician and linguist.  He was a prolific writer and is best known for his commentaries on the Mishnah (collection of oral laws compiled by Rabbi Judag Ha-Nasi, which forms the basis of the Talmud) under the name of Tosfoth Yom Tov. 

        When he was Chief Rabbi of Prague, he was compelled by the government, against his will, to preside over a commission which had to apportion the heavy taxes imposed upon the Jewish community to cover the expense of the Thirty-Year Religious War, 1618-1648, between the Protestants and the Catholics.  The Rabbi gained many influential enemies who charged him with favoritism.  He was accused before the emperor of having written against Christianity.  He was arrested, put in jail, and was sentenced to death.  He was later freed through the payment of a large some of money.  In the Megillah in which he gave the details of all his troubles, he commanded his children to observe his release as a Purim, a day of rejoicing and merrymaking.  He died in 1654. 

        The climax of the Purim evening for us children was the appearance of the [Yiddish words], the Purim actors, all men, even the ladies’ parts were played by them.  They gave two performances, the story of Esther and the selling of Joseph to the Ishmaelites by his brothers.  The homemade costumes, the wooden swords, the flaxen beards did not in any way dampen our enjoyment and imagination.  The performance looked real and the portrayal of events convincing.  The same plays were repeated year after year and were always received enthusiastically. 

        Unlike Purim, Hanukah was observed modestly and with few preparations.  Though it commemorates great events – the victory of the few over the many; the gaining of religious and eventually political freedom – its symbols are not elaborate.  Tiny candles in a simple, charming menorah tell the story of bravery, courage, and determination.   No big feast, just latkes; no expensive gifts, just Hanukah gelt, three, five or ten kopecks.  We were especially happy when they were new and shiny.  No variety of games, just a small dreidle on Hanukah.  We were also allowed to play cards and for money.  Of all the games, I remember one.  It was called Tertle-Mertle or, as we called in Russian, Devaty Veal (the ninth wave).  It was a family game.  Even Mother joined in.  It was a lot of fun. 

        It seems we did not need much [to] make us happy.  There was something that filled our hearts with joy and pride. 



        The weeks before Passover were most exciting.  A lot had to be done to usher in the festival properly.  Right after Purim Mother put up beets to ferment, [Yiddish word] (russle), for Passover herself.  She also made mead, a sweet, non-alcoholic drink made of honey, water and hops and put them away in a safe corner, covered with a cloth, not to be touched to avoid contamination.  Then everything in the house had to be washed, polished and scrubbed, the walls whitewashed.  Even the books got a good airing.  All year-round dishes were put away to be replaced by those reserved for Passover.  Some items had to be “koshered:” silver, certain pots scalded in boiling water; glasses soaked in cold water for three days. 

        Because there were no matzoh factories, the matzoh had to be baked at home, mostly in our house as we had a large kitchen, dining room and good oven.  We also had large brass mixing bowls.  (They were taken away by the Russians in the first World War.)  Long, improvised tables made of smooth wooden boards for rolling the matzot were put in the dining room.  Several families made use of the facilities, and they pitched in because the baking had to be done in haste.  The work was divided, a person for each of the following tasks:  to measure the flour, pour the water, knead, divide the dough, roll the dough into round cakes, to smooth the cakes with a little cog wheel to prevent its rising in the oven, to keep the oven hot, to shove the cakes in the oven and a carrier to put the baked matzot into a white sheet.  The following days we were busy pounding matztat [sic] in a wooden mortar to make farfel and matsah meal. 

        When we moved to Pinsk, there was a matzah bakery with hired help.  But we had to pitch in, too.  We carried the matzah home in a large wicker basked lined with a white sheet.  The matzot were kept there for the duration of the holiday. 

        It was a custom for Passover to have new clothes made for everybody, everything from head to foot.  What made us children the happiest was the squeaky sound the shoes made when stepped on, a sign of newness.  G-d forbid if it failed!  It was almost a tragedy. 

        Passover was the most beloved and happiest of the holidays, especially for us because our father was with us to celebrate it.  With joy we followed him on the night before Passover as he, with a wooden spoon, stiff goose feather and candle, made the rounds in search of chometz, pieces of bread placed beforehand on the window sills and shelves [Yiddish phrase] (b’diket chometz, the final ceremony of cleaning the house of everything leavened).  The spoon with the bread, covered with a piece of cloth, were burned the following morning, together with any bread left from breakfast. 

        In the afternoon, the children had to take a nap to be able to sit through the seder, but we could not rest long, as we were anxious to put on our new clothes.  Father was busy making the final preparations – horse radish and charoset.  Everything was ready now for the big celebration.

        When father and the boys returned from shul, we sat down to the seder ceremony.  The table covered with the nicest white cloth, sparkling glasses, wine, candles, matzot, the plate with all the Passover symbols, and Elijah’s cup all created an atmosphere different from all other festivals.  Father, the king, sat at the head of the table on the pillows, his queen next to him, looking a little tired from all the preparations but radiant, happy to abdicate her all-year role to Father.  Father conducted the seder with dignity and without haste.  He took time to explain and asked us if we knew the background of the Biblical events and where they were mentioned in the Bible.  After the meal and Mother’s delicious kneidlach, the singing part of the Haggadah began.  We all joined in.  Daddy’s melodies were beautiful.  They reflected the meaning of the words.  I remember some of them.  They are recorded on a tape. 

        A little drunk from the four cups of wine, tired and happy with the bargain made with Father for the return of the afikomen they so skillfully stole before from under his pillow, the children participated in an experience they would remember all their lives.


        It was traditional on Passover to play with nuts, Brazil and walnuts.  The games were numerous.  One game was similar to bowling.  Nuts were placed in a row.  From a distance one had to try to hit them with a small ball or nut.  In the boys’ favorite game, one put some nuts in his hand, and the opponent had to guess whether it was an odd or even number he held.  Another was similar to a marble game played mostly by girls.  A little hole was dug in the ground.  From a distance with the finger one had to aim the nut at the hole.  The one whose nut fell in the hole, or closest to it was the winner.  There was an indoor game we called [Yiddish word], chuk-chek.  Nuts were placed under one in a line of hats or plates; the one who uncovered the nuts was the winner.  There were several other games, but I can’t recall them.  Simple games, but oh! How we enjoyed them!



        Shavuoth, the holiday of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, is also the festival of the first fruits [Yiddish].  When the Israelites lived on their own soil, they used to bring their first fruit to the Temple.  To recreate the atmosphere of that period and to bring in the scent of the gardens and fields, we used to decorate the wall, the tables and floor with lots of green.  It was colorful, pleasant and filled the house with a fresh fragrance and the serenity of pastoral life.

        The days were sunny and warm.  We spent a lot of time outdoors having fun playing hide and seek.  I don not remember the other games special for this festival.

        It was a custom to eat dairy food on Shavuoth.  I do not know the connection.  No matter what the origin, however, the blintzes tasted more delicious than on other days of the year. 



        Because we had been brought up in such an environment, it was shocking and disappointing to us to find a different attitude towards Shabbat and holidays in the U.S.  Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur seemed to be the only holidays observed, though very superficially.  The other festivals were considered minor or completely ignored except in the synagogue or by some observant Jews.  The Jewish community is, as a whole, poorer for it.  The Jewish holidays are based on events that occurred in the history of the Jewish people.  By observing them, we enriched and added more meaning to our lives.  I still continue to practice and observe the holidays and festivals, but they lack the beauty and the spiritual uplift we experienced in the old country, in the shtetl.


Read more about the experiences of Sarah Heller and her family in the Sarah HELLER memoirs section of the site

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