Memories of My Father's House

Aaron Kalir
Ramat Gan, Israel
(Translated by Alvin Collier)
by permission of his sons Elhanan & Zohar

A small village, Amstibava, was famous in an ancient era, it was a large city whose guard formed a union with three cities: Wolkavysk, Amstibovo and Svislotz, separated by a day, in the area of Wolkovysk in the District of Grodno. The center was in the middle of its villages. That is, as it is said, in an ancient era. In my time, there was not this but a small village and one long road served the village in its whole length beginning at the Jewish cemetery and the Catholic Church, and ending approximately several kilometers later, suddenly, at the town of Svislotz.

The Jewish homes were in the center of the village, surrounded by churches, Catholic and Russian Orthodox. There were also Jewish shops there, bakeries and several artisans' shops. On two sides of the isolated road lived farmers whose fields and orchards extended all around. A park was exactly opposite the Catholic Church which had on the top, the bell tower at a height of seven or eight stories.

The Catholics arranged all their religious processions for our eyes although separation between us was fenced with tall stones. The synagogue was far removed from the center of the village, it stood at the end of the village beside the vegetable gardens of the Jews. Beside the synagogue stood the home of the old rabbi of the village and the son. His wife, the rebbitzen's famous vegetable garden stretched out from the house and lo, from the crises of his drunken anger, it was possible to endure. The drinking of Rabbi Shulma arose from several roots: from the tax that was levied on the slaughter of fowl and its examination; from the payments of the endorsements for marriage; from circumcisions; from the salt tax, all alike. To all the taxes, he shouted "korovka".

After the passing of the old rabbi, there arose in the village, Rabbi Isser Judah Unterman who was Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv and, in that time, the Askenazi Rabbi of Israel. In general, it was thought, that among the rabbinate who officiated in our village, there always came great and important rabbis, for this station was important to all the rabbis who aspired to rise and progress in this priestly pursuit.

Father's house was the largest house and roomiest in our village. Father stood for ten years as head of the congregation. He was described by the Russians as "elder", namely "prince of the century". In our house was the Office of Civil registration which was for the inhabitants of the village and also those who left the village and those remaining were tied to this Office of Civil Registration by all who were concerned about being conscripted to the army or by marriages or the need for identity cards and so forth.

As a young man, head of the congregation, father worked very hard in his efforts for the Israeli boys who were called to the Russian Army and who hoped for the possibilities of rescue from the Russian strength. In order to be set free from the army, for example, one would have to be a first born son, a cripple, sole bread winner or to draw a lucky lottery ticket because the youth were part of the lottery that was attached to this district. Always were heard in the house pleas and shouts of those who my father could not succeed in releasing from the army or were in need to report waiting for the release of different children and were infused with fear for the maturing child.

We were a family blessed with children. My parents were Orthodox in religion, observing the commandments, however, they sent their children to revised cheders and even Gymnasia. The children were already liberal in their opinions and their conduct.

On this matter of earning a living, our father was not pleasant to us and even toward the great and preserved for whom he acted to help and to those he supported, those who were called to the army, or to those who had to be ransomed from the army. Added to all this were the urgent visits of the authorities of my district or the rulers of the villages and towns surrounding who came sometimes often, to visit the authorities of my place. Our homes were used as temporary stations regularly. In addition to this, were the Catholic Churches close to our homes, it was a great concentrated window for the Christians. And thus, it was every Sunday and several holidays.

We arranged sometimes food fairs in our village. Horse trading was widespread in our surrounding area and, for every sale of a horse from one owner to another, claimants were registered and given authorization in the Office of Civil Registration which was in our house. There was also, even according to the concepts of the time, in our house, a large and wide hall which was used to celebrate weddings - meaning that no peace reigned. Father, as head of the congregation, detailed the priestly function. Twice in the evening he led the prayers all year. He had the strength and reputation exclusively to lead the morning prayers on the Days of Awe and the Neilah service on Yom Kippur. He even assumed the function of Mohel and because of all of these priestly functions, became known and famous in all the surrounding villages. Also in the period that he was in Israel, father had the opportunity to circumcise at least about 5000 Jewish boys, in Petach Tivka and surroundings.

All simchas of the families of the village were not arranged without father. He was the unique leader of the seven blessings under the wedding canopy of all the cantors who celebrated weddings in the village. His participation in celebrations was obligatory, both in weddings and in circumcision. He was the head of the Burial Society in the village and for that mitzvah, he devoted himself with all his dedication, and his activity continued in Israel. The wedding canopy, at the time of a wedding in our village, was set up outside beside the synagogue. Young Christian boys and girls gathered to see the canopy. They used to balance on the edge of the parapet and cast snowballs in the winter and, in the summer, stones and branches. Often, at times, expert boxers were present among the peace keepers and they used to strike them with blows and drive them out. However, we used to be astonished at their chutzpah and impudence. My father used to be irate and angered at the sight of the phenomenon and many times used to participate mightily in the removal of them from the synagogue.

Every evening, in my attentiveness to the voice of my father, I heard his proclamation of the Seven Blessings: "Soon, Lord my God, let it be heard in a Jewish city and the environs of Jerusalem, a voice of joy, a voice of happiness, a voice of the groom and a voice of the bride, a voice of jubilation form their canopy and the music of young men feasting and drinking." I lived sustaining that desire and a hope to find it among the joyous and happy young men. Our house was a house of Zion. However, my father tried always to leave his contemptible slice of bread. He wanted with all his might and soul to distance himself from the business of the village and to go up and settle in Eretz-Ysrael.

The situation in the village was becoming stricter. The wars that began in 1903-1904, and especially the Russo-Japanese War, strengthen the pressure for the Jewish boys to liberate themselves from the army of the Czar. On account of the persecution of the Czarist government against the Jews, anti-Russianism was publicly strengthen and planted in the Jews. This situation strengthened father's decision to leave Russia at the first opportunity. In those years, 1904-1905, there was a great emigration from Russia to America and Argentina. The older brothers, who immigrated to America several years before, pleaded with their brother that it was necessary for them truly but the desire of our father's soul lay in Eretz-Yisrael. He longed for to go up to Eretz to visit the grave of his mother, who was buried in Jerusalem and her grave was in the Mount of Olives. Thus, the decision of my father ripened with several of his friends to send a delegation to Eretz in order to inspect and examine the possibilities of settling down in Eretz Yisrael. In the delegation were two friends, one the son of the Rabbi of the village from the rabbinical family Rabinowitz and the second, the head of the Sharmeister family from the village of Smucha. The second brought back on his return from Eretz, different reports. The first, son of the rabbi, loved all that his eyes saw and his ears heard in Eretz. The second, Sharmeister, saw in the land severe defects in sustenance, and postponed the decision to go up to Eretz. On of his claims was that potatoes were lacking in Eretz and the few that were there were sweet potatoes. (It seems his food consisted of sweet potatoes). It is interesting to say that he, Dovka Sharmeister with all his family, went up to Eretz before the First World War, and they became renown in Eretz: the ruler Sharmeister, another brother in Tel-Aviv was a well known teacher, a third brother, Superintendent of the Public Works of the Mandate Government and also two brothers were famous athletes. Even though the children of the Rabinowitz family remained outside Eretz, and only after the World War the brother and the son come here. (The father was buried outside Eretz).

The situation in our family was this: Three older brothers were in America , the brother Eliezer studied at the Gymnasia in Grodno, brother Nehemia studied in the Real School in Slonim, sister Sarah attended the Wolkavysk Gymnasia; the small sisters, Hannah and Rebecca, attended in the village of Smucha, in an elementary girls' school (because in our villages, there was only a mixed school wherein were strange boys and girls).'

My brother Moses and I didn't want to study with an outside teacher but wanted to continue with our Jewish studies. At first, we studied together in Slonim with one of the rabbis but decided to travel to study at a nearby yeshiva in Lida that came to our attention. Our youngest brother, Elhanan, studied in the village. In the Lida yeshiva, I studied for two years. Finally, I was satisfied that I had benefited enough from the splendor of face of Rabbi Isaac Jacob Rintz, and had heard enough segments of explanations of the events of the era. This was after the death of D. Hertzl. I benefited during those two years to see the appearances and visits at the Yeshiva of the exceptionally great of those days, for example: Rabbi Mazzaih from Moscow; the groom of Vigadaisky, Rabbi Gootz; Baron Gunzsburg and other rabbis who returned to Lida from the preparatory class of the rabbinate in Kovno.

The principal theme of the discussions at the yeshiva during the leisure time were Zionism and the land of Yisreal. While I returned from yeshiva after two years, I didn't want to go back again to study at the Lida Yeshiva. I decided it was imperative for me to travel to study at the Hertzliah Gymnasia in Tel Aviv. Many of my friends in the studies at the yeshiva traveled to study at Hertzliah. In the meantime, because of different complications, father decided to leave Russia to travel alone to Eretz, to seek the possibility of settling down there. Therefore, my travel to Eretz was delayed. The family tarried in Russia another year and a half, until two of us went up to Eretz.

In the period that I waited before going to Eretz, I was received by myself at that time, to be a teacher by a Jewish tenant at one of the properties of a Polish nobleman. The tenant, son of the Korngold family, uncle of the watchman Korngold who was murdered at that time in Eretz. As I was a student at the Lida yeshiva, I knew Hebrew well, Russian and also Talmud. I was received with favor as a melamud to the children who were not much younger than I. At the conclusion of half a years instruction of the children of the Yishav, I returned home. Here I found letters that arrived, meantime, from father and they were full of love for Eretz Yisrael. He succeeded in acquiring several houses in the center of Petach Tivka, and the rent, thus he wrote, was sufficiently good and rewarding. He was received warmly at the shul and was honored with the morning prayers during the Days of Awe and all considered the possibility for him to continue in his great mitzvah to circumcise the Jewish boys of Eretz Yisreal, and he recognized that he was quite capable of performing this mitzvah.

He summoned mother to liquidate all the property we had in the village (we had houses, fields, gardens and animals) and to go up to Eretz. Our mother was a woman of valor. She managed the agricultural farm as a marvel in all its branches: milch cows, vegetable gardens, fields of potatoes and grain, chickens, fattening the geese and taking out the feathers. Mother agreed as it was understood: to liquidate the property and pack our compensation. And in the first days of winter in the month of Shevat to go down to Odessa and from there sail on a Russian ship "Tsaritza" to the port of Jaffa.

In Russia there remained, for different reasons, three brothers: Eliezer, Nehemiah and Moses. Eliezer tarried there because it was incumbent upon him to complete all the matters that mother didn't have an opportunity to eliminate. Nehemiah and Moses were then officials in Lodz. With us in Eretz were six souls: my mother, three sisters, Sarah, Hannah and Rebecca, myself and my brother Elhanan. We arrived in Jaffa after a two week journey before the holiday of the trees (Tu B'Shevat). We had the opportunity to perceive the parades of the children of the kindergarten and the students of the schools in Petach Tivka, and it was an impressive experience for us. Our father welcomed us at the port and led us to one of the hotels in Neve Shalom, opposite the hotel of the well-known Chaim Baruch. We were in the hotel three days. We rested from the anxieties of the trip and , afterward, we loaded up for Petach Tivka. We settled ourselves in one of the locked apartments in the houses that father bought for our sake.

In the letters that father used to send from Eretz, to influence mother who was involved in liquidating the property to come to Eretz, (that it was the land of milk and honey), he hinted to her about the praiseworthy fruits and vegetables from here and emphasized that only here does one feel himself Jewish like a free man. In coming to the land, it brought near to mother the "prospectus" and desire that he would honor her in the midst of the "tastes" that would arrive in their old age. Father was not lazy, he nurtured the "generations" of olives and took a handful of olives and preserved from the famous Arab olives, salted and peppered, and approached her to taste. When mother tasted that fruit, suddenly she decided to pack her bags and to put immediately time into her return to Russia. Father urged with laughter and promised her faithfully that she would become accustomed to the bitter taster and that she would change her mind and truly she changed her mind about the agreeableness through the years and grew accustomed to the food or Eretz. At times guests visited mother and in her pockets were crushed olives which were pressed like other cracked nuts and seeds. I recount this one small incident because she was the instructor.

Many of the difficulties of aliyah to Eretz were revealed from the 'high born" of the "good mothers". The changed conditions of the climate, the food and other rules, caused fear in them and they were delayed and neglected the process of the aliyah and absorption.

I remember the preceding because in the letters between us when we were still in the old country, father used to feel that here in Eretz one feels himself a Jew of Jewish people. As it is said in Yiddish, "frank and free". When we came to Eretz, and asked, what is the meaning of this expression, they answered us with the typical humor:" "The worker in Eretz, he is a French franc, and you are educated to be free to do all that you can do."

I will consider here several details about the experience that influenced me in all my ways and undertakings in Eretz. Over that period, there lived in Eretz people who experienced the first World War, Balfour, all the years that the British Mandate was empowered, the second World War, the struggle, the War of Independence and the founding of the State, and all the contests of the community and the individual, and they had to cope with all this in their lives and their deeds. After we first came to Eretz, our father sold all the houses acquired in partnership with one veteran of the Moshav and also a portion of the fruit field.

I stumbled then in the problem matter of the Arab work in the fruit orchards of the Jews and I joked about the species who fought for Jewish work in all branches of the Jewish farm. The matter, as it is understood, don't be pleasant to the farmers because one of them stands to the right of the workers, against them. I used to work well and proved that it is possible to work orchards with Arab hands and that it is possible to make a living also with Jewish workers in the orchards. I was influenced by a segment of an article by Moses Smilanske in the Young Worker. In it he related words worthy of repeating: "All the time that Jews will plant orchards along with scattered work, they will not pay attention to them. Only when "barefoot Jews appear to begin to work by themselves, will be seen the danger that the Jews will materialize the dream."

I decided in my heart that even I can be one of the barefoot widowers and for this, I was in the midst of fifty-six years that I worked daily. This war of mine for many years raised the problems in the midst of workers in public, and from their taste, I was chosen to that local council of Petach Tivka. I quickly became expert in all the categories of work in the orchard. There were those who educated mne in the job and in the work of the nursery and after only three years passed learning I found myself supervising on the side. It was the Interior Superior who directed me to integrate into the profession what was the formation, afterwards, of a branch of my principle that turned out to be rewarding to the Jewish farm. I invented also a new innovation to rescue young orchards by a new nursery system. I met at first with the desert which spread over Eretz and destroyed a large portion of the plantings of the orchards, the fields and the vegetable gardens during the organization. I battled to erect an independent special foundation that would undertake by itself to prepare and to accomplish planting orchards for Jews who lived outside Eretz.

Until the time when my work began, all nursery matters were to be transmitted to the farmers of the collectives and they used to execute this with Arab work. In addition to this, they would finance each youth who excelled in work to oversee the strange workers.


Aaron Kalir was one of the founders of an agronomists group in the Center of Agriculture.

Copyright © 2001 sons of Aaron Kalir