My Return Home

Wandering, roaming
My alienated life was spent,
Weary and downhearted,
The many years went…
Oh, those great cities
With their avenues and broad streets
Their gigantic looming buildings
Made me yearn for my shtetl, insignificant and sweet.
My beloved shtetl,
Her narrow streets, struggling to survive,
Tiny houses, poor and precious
Crooked graves, wonderfully alive.

Yes, graves! Tugging and beckoning
My heart to the old cemetery,
Oh how many memories
Lay hidden there for me.
Deeply buried, yet
I will unearth them and sing.
Reconnect with the dead
And revel in the joy they bring.

So, I left that great world
Speedily, as if on wings
To my shtetl where I would find
My cradle and other childhood things.


I knew you at once, dearest shtetl.
You hadn't changed very much.
I recognized your streets,
The market stalls that I'd touched.
Oh, how sad you looked now:
Houses grown quite old
Dust filled window panes,
Dark, forlorn and cold.
Khayim Leyzer's house- where is it?
With its balcony wrapping around
Good times, friends, family singing,
Happy laughter, joyous sound.

Ever so rich was Khayim Leyzer,
A true master of his home,
A home well appointed,
Two young daughters of his own.
I recall the oldest, Bayle,
With her large dark eyes.
They emanated laughter,
Always took me by surprise.

I'd often go to that balcony
To sit on a summer's night
With those girls, the beauties,
Mocking, joking, left and right.
Their laughter used to ring out
Like the song of the evening bird,
Oh where are you dear daughters?
Why isn't your laughter heard?

Bad times! Khayim Leyzer
Fell into poverty.
He had to send his daughters
To America, across the sea.
This is what my mother recalled,
Her eyes, red and teary:
"My two happy birdies
Went on a journey, long and weary."
Wringing her hands, she slowly spoke,
"See what's happened to their home,
To that balcony; it all has broke."


Nor did I forget the schoolyard
Where we learned and prayed.
I gazed at it from afar
Because up close I was too afraid…
I recognized the poor children,
Barefoot, ragged, downcast.
Touched by their alienation
My heart spoke out fast:
"Oh you Torah learning children,
I see you through damp eyes spent.
You're not carrying books in wooden yokes
Why are your backs so bent?"

"Which difficult burdens twist
Your backbones which are young still?
Is the Torah too much for you?
Or is it the lack of food that slowly does kill?"
But they never did respond,
Not understanding amidst the humdrum,
Simply staring, eyes wondering:
Where did this stranger's concern come from?
Oh, the poor and orphaned
Have never known anything mild,
Only screams, blows, and beatings,
Not tenderness for a child.


I wanted to see our old shul,
So I entered that special site.
Oh, how warm and friendly
Everyone greeted me that night.
Both the friend and the stranger
Extended his right hand to me
The "Sholem Aleykhem" in his eyes
Was evident and clear to see.
I recognized my poor brethren,
Among them Khayim Bern;
He was my former teacher
With whom I used to learn.
Seeing his deeply wrinkled brow
I asked "How are you, dear Rebbe?
What are you doing these days in shul?
Do you still teach students like me?"
I saw that something was amiss;
My senses felt his message reaching.
Had he become very rich?
Was he, therefore, no longer teaching?

"Dearest Son!" He replied at once
"No, I'm not rich at all,
But yes, I'm no longer teaching,
Our town has taken a fall."
Dearest Son, our fellow Jews
Have had troubles more and more
It's no longer like it used to be
No one cares to study as before.
Nowadays boys just learn
Simple prayers, a few blessings made.
By the time they reach bar mitzvah
They're off to learn a trade.
"So what are you doing dearest Rebbe
How do you earn a living?"
My son, I've sold my little house
And to marriage, my daughter I'm giving.
You recall my little house,
Rundown and a rebuild it did need
Nonetheless my heart aches as I remember
All that happened there, in mind and deed.
Foolish recollections! Yes, I had to sell…
Do you remember my young bride?
Although so many years have passed
Our talk awakens old memories inside…
She really was quite a substantial girl,
But that didn't take care of the table.
Beauty without money
Doesn't make life stable.
Well, for a tradesman, maybe…
"So what do you do daily, dear Rebbe?"
Afternoons, I sip on Kabala…
"No - I mean to make ends meet…"
"Don't ask my son,
Don't worry, fret or rue.
With God's help, I manage
Just as all the others do."


Further into the shul, off in a corner
A boy managed to seclude himself.
With great feeling and great passion
He stood and wrote, as if in stealth.
I looked him over, skin and bones
His cheeks sunken and drawn
Features barely present,
Only eyes sparkling like a fawn
I eased over to him,
Asked, "What are you writing, dear?"
He was embarrassed and frightened
And trembled as I stood near.
"Nothing," he barely answered
"I simply like to draft,
So I make pictures of the great ones."
I pray and do my craft.
At home, it's dark and crowded
Crying babies make drawing unstable,
So I stand here in the shul
And sketch "Cain kills Able".
The doctor saw my work
And on my behalf pled my case
To have me study and learn,
My talent not to waste.
My father simply laughed
At what the good doctor said.
"Send my son to school?
Maybe I should learn to dance instead."


I left the shul sadly.
Grieved, I walked out the door.
Full of heartache, full of worry,
Filled with foolish wishes my heart bore.
I took to walking
On and on… to try to forget
The depth of pain
That into my soul had set.
Profoundly lost in sadness,
I came to the river bank.
Wrapped in an old time shiver
Onto my knees I sank.

"Greetings, Dearest River,
Oh how I've longed for you;
I've stood before mightier waters
But I knew where my heart was true."
Peaceful and quiet is your flow;
There are no waves breaking rounds.
Your ships are rags floating,
Signs of poverty that abounds.
In the summer, in your waters
Anyone can find deep pleasure.
Were you to dry up completely,
Heaven forbid, we'd lose this treasure…
In winter, your waters become icy
Covered with snow are your banks
But I will always love you Dearest River,
Never cease bestowing thanks.
True, I've seen rivers
Where waves toss and heave
Where waters are tough and mighty
But you, I can never leave.

Yes, to you I've always been drawn.
I've stood on your shores with my pain
I've watched the mothers from town
Wash family clothes, and hum a sad refrain.
As I think of my mother,
My eyes fill with tears.
Take them and use them, Dearest River
And you'll stay filled throughout the years…


Coming home to grandfather's
Which was where I laid my head,
Where grandma wanted to greet me
But lectured me instead:
"Where in the world have you been?
Did you totally forget about us?
Did you come back only
To eat, thinking that I wouldn't fuss…?"
"Well, of course I forgive you."
She lovingly added to say:
"A young man wants to roam
To find life in his own way.
I was also young once
And I also loved to play
Oh, the hours I spent walking,
Never tired at the end of a day."
Now… it's over, existing only in memory,
But see, I've over spoken, totally lost in thought
While you stand here starving,
About your hunger I forgot!

How I loved the flavors
Of Grandma's simple meal.
Her schmaltz and radish were quite delicious
No better could I feel.
Laugh if you will, friends
About this very simple fare,
I stand by my taste:
Schmaltz and radish, I do swear!
"A bit of meat…" - grandma added softly,
"Don't worry, don't be concerned.
You'll never find anything so delicious
No matter how much you might have earned."
The butchers complain and argue,
Try to play it safe.
The meat they've prepared for Sabbath
The rabbi has deemed "treyf".
The butchers grumble, common and coarse;
They don't know the laws; they've little schooling.
How can they pretend to be pious
And want to ignore the rabbi's ruling?


Shabbes morning I was off
With my grandfather to shul
To the very same place
Where once with my heart full,
I prayed as a child standing
Next to my father and his prayerbook.
I remember those days with joy
And my heart rejoices as I look
And feel as if God's angels
Were stroking and kissing my face
In this very same shul
In this very same place.
I look up ahead and see the altar
Where the cantor stood and sang,
His woefully sweet voice
Full of prayer to the Almighty rang.

Oh how passionately did that cantor sing,
Assisted simply by one young fellow.
So why is the cantor mournful?
Does he find his assistant too mellow?
Why are his tenor tones straining
In his prayers and devotions?
Perhaps his schnapps was hard to come by
Or did the gabbi short his quotient?
Why does he spread his arms,
As if entreating all who pray and sing?
Perhaps he's lamenting because he knows
The cemetery is what Elul will bring.
Once the cantor ended
Singing his heart out completely
The gabbi started selling
Aliyas fast and sweetly.
Just as always…
Moshe's Torah is being sold
From the high altar
For a ruble, or a little gold.
The sixth Aliya still gets the most
With its sky-high price.
While the Fourth and the Fifth
Take bids that really don't suffice.
And yes, Reb Ber still takes a fancy
To the Sixth, even today
As he walks from the alter
Pompously leading the way,
Patting his round belly
Putting on airs before he takes his seat
As if he were saying:
"Gentlemen, the Sixth Aliya is quite a treat
For me, a man of means.
I am, after all, Reb Ber
And I am all that I seem."
The cobblers and tailors,
Watch him and envy his status and money
Wondering when their time
Will come to also taste a bit of honey.
Why are they fated
To spend their lives in need?
Even the sweetest part of Torah
Can't be theirs to read.


Sunday morning, off I went
To the market, here and there
To look around and observe
How life for my people was unfair.
Yes, that market full of mud
Was what we had been given.
Yet were that muddy market to be lost
To our end, we'd be driven…

Among the many merchants
There was only one I could recognize
Could it really be Rokhel
Who had been both beautiful and wise?
Rokhel, Rokhel, on my word!
I immediately recognized her face.
Although she'd changed quite a bit
It was surely her… without her lace.
I remembered those perfect eyes
Their glances sharp as arrows.
Could this be she standing here?
Those eyes now full of sorrows!
Rokhel - a shopkeeper - tell me how
Did this all happen to you?
You used to read so many books,
Believed good things would come true.

I remember the dreams you entrusted to me
When I walked with you as a boy,
You dreamt of a world full of flowers,
Of a future filled with joy.
How did you come to be here?
Your free, lithe soul covered in armor
As you sit in this dark crowded shop,
Your beautiful eyes, awaiting your farmer…
Your tender voice that used to sing
A sweet romantic song
Is now hoarse and tired
Haggling with customers all day long.

She responded terribly sadly
"The past is gone, as well as the time.
I once was foolish, hoped and believed,
That all I imagined would truly be mine."
My spirit was full, my dreams vast
My heart knew there was nothing I couldn't do
What I didn't know was how
The limits were drawn for me as a Jew…
So the years went quickly by
As I grew older and older
And the passions of a bold girl
Grew steadily colder and colder.

I heard the women in town whispering
About my aging, about my fate.
I felt myself wither more each day.
My heart feared it would soon be late…
I heard it all and silently wept
Vowing to marry quickly before
My youth was completely gone,
Before I had lost it all and more.
Yes, I had to -my good mother
Needed to see the fruits of her life
"To spite our enemies, my darling child,
Become a mother and a wife."
Mother lived to reap the pride and joy
She had waited for so very long
Now, he - works in town by the hour,
And I - keep the shop,
Sweep the flour and sell the flour.

Very little joy, my dearest shtetl,
Did I find in my return.
The little charm you once held for me
Has long ago waned and worn.
I ached and longed for you, from afar.
Finally I returned to see you again,
I found you so much poorer now
Than you were, for me then. ones scream,
So I sit here with this work I hold.

A Circle of Songs

"About My Shtetl"

I walk into the old Shul,
Sad, dark, and forlorn.
All the benches bare and empty
But for the caretaker, tired and worn.

Where are all the young men
With their Gomorra and its tune
Who used to stir our souls,
Cradle us softly and lift us over the moon?

Where is that tall leader
Of the Kletzker and the Belzer[1] boys?
Whose melodious tones
Made stirring music out of noise.

Where are all those voices?
How the Shul misses their souls beating…
Now I see the caretaker stirring,
Murmuring a muffled greeting:

"Good of you to visit, welcome guest, You remember the good old days we had?"
Now those Kletzker and Belzer boys
Have grown and become children's dads.

Nowadays they strive and compete
In the outside, forsaken world.
Their khasidic children, you call Bundists
To damnation have been hurled.

Dark red shirts they are wearing.
Hard to know them as Jews by their manners
Whenever the mood strikes them
They march through the streets waving banners.

Now and then they hold a party,
Like Simkhas Torah - but more strange…
Should you ever want to engage them,
You'll find them at the stock exchange.

Life there is a harried bustle.
They move like swarming bees and noisy flies.
Yes, there's learning going on there,
But without truth or tunes, - just lies…

Translator's Footnotes

1. Khasidic sects in Eastern Europe

A Circle of Songs

This poem and song is made for singing Friday nights.


We want the holy Sabbath
To begin with joy and respect,
To dress him in splendor
We will not neglect.
Good food, good drink, that God has bestowed
Neither pain nor anger to be heard or shown,
Only Torah study to honor our loving God.


This is how our people should rejoice:
Engaging the Sabbath with the very best,
Being happy and joyful on this day
As God gives us bounty and rest.
Good beer, fine wine we will put out
Good meat, tasty fish prepared on time,
And beautiful candles lit throughout.


Sing this song Shabbes morning with no worries in mind.

The Sabbath day is a splendid bride
Therefore gather together
All of our people, old and young
Give praise to and greet our God.
The Sabbath day is queen of the land,
Dearest God of mine,
Everything of yours is at hand.
There is only one light that shines on
All we own and possess.


Sing this song as the Sabbath departs

The holy Sabbath is a wonderful repose
When man receives a second elevated soul
Which a righteous man can feel,
And then, after Sabbath leaves him again.

Dear God, you honor the whole world.
Because of you we are secure
Knowing our daily bread will be provided.
We ask only that our sustenance
From your hand be guided
And not from the hand of mortals
As that would embarrass and shame us.

Homey Songs

"In The Evening"

In the small white room my grandma sits,
Frail hands folded in her lap.
Her shadow rests on the wall,
Watching as she takes her nap.

Her grey head bobs a little
Behind a face creased with woe.
Housing faded silent lips
Finished speaking long ago.

A little lamp, dark and tired
Sends out its yellow light, opaque
Grandma sits alone and rocks
Until a dream her consciousness takes.

Her head hangs low. She's tired.
There's a smile, then a fright,
Dreams around her face draw circles
Here for a moment, gone in the night.

Off in a corner, a fly's buzzing
Caught forever in a spider's net
In the small white room
A groan's been stifled, a sigh silenced to forget.

Is it from a heavy heart
That aches while bearing a weighty stone?
Or is it simply a bad dream
That evokes that quiet moan?

Suddenly, grandma lets out a yawn,
Murmurs something regretful,
Stirs and gazes for a moment
Lost in a daze, somewhat mournful.

A tired eyebrow rises
To let a weary eye take a peek.
But her brow drops quickly
When a twitching lip tries to speak.

Very lonely, sits my grandma,
Frail hands folded in her lap.
Rocking slowly with her shadow
As bare, white walls watch her nap.

*Talented writer and poet, born and raised in Koydenov.
In America, he wrote poetry as well as longer stories.

Meine Shtetle

[My Little Town]

To Koydenov, my dear hometown
I still keep a cord tied
Attached to a cradle there
Standing peacefully by a side.
Pictures of childhood long ago
Deep in my memory remain
Sounds of your lake, your hills, your valley
Ring a constant refrain.

I see the market with the church in place
Shops planted as if a garden.
I see the schoolyard with its water well
I see the public bathhouse, if I may beg your pardon.

Ordinary people walk your streets
Not to buy or sell anything.
They're off to shul to pray and bow
To bless God, to joyously sing.

Now autumn has arrived,
With hard work and worry at every morrow.
We strive to earn our bread,
More easily, without loans to borrow.

Along with autumn comes the mud,
When fields lay barren and unsown
The weighty footsteps of water carriers
Can be heard beneath the carriers' groan.

Yes, I see you clearly, little town
You're still my dream, you're not alone.
Although vile depraved hands
Ravaged you, leaving barely bone.

I am pained to have been far away.
And not have protected you.
My mind is aflame, my heart ablaze,
My soul demands its due.

My hand can't shorten the distance
Nor seize the cursed enemy.
Nothing on earth I would not do
To ease your pain and set you free.

Once I walked in that place
With childlike love and trust
Now it calls, "Brother help me.
Rebuild me, you must."

Far gone is now the beastly enemy
That tore my limbs apart.
But help has come to cloak me
And banish pain from my heart.

Let life pull us up again,
Feed troubled children from above
Enmeshed in my being,
Entwined in my love.

Yes, everyone - without exception
Will build life anew.
Time will strengthen our souls
Because nature has designed that too.

The stream will flow again
D reams I will weave once more
For people and my children
To live life as before.

A Dream

Once I had a dream
About a lengthy visit to my home town.
A room full of people to see me
From near and far friends and relatives came down.
Everyone came by to see the boy
That had left his hometown years ago.
The crowd wrangled to have a look
At the child they used to know…

The pack was noisy, the room crammed full
Everyone asked where I'd been
They pushed to shake my right hand,
To hear news of relatives I had seen.

I shook the hands they did extend.
Their feelings were honest and dear
(The master of dreams wove without end)
My dream was alive and clear.


I stood near grandpa in the great shul
Praying with my heart devout and sweet
The men go outside in the highly lit night
The new moon to ritually greet.

Suddenly, I hear an old preacher
Preaching his Shabbes best
There I sat at the rebbe's table
Singing Shabbes songs with great zest.

The master of dreams carried me further
To a group praying at the new Shul.
There was Meyer the teacher telling
A wondrous tale he interpreted to make our hearts full.

At Father's grave I stood head bent,
At the new cemetery cool and dark,
My heart broken, tears in my eyes,
I whispered the memorial prayer, quiet and stark.


I burrowed deeper into my memories
Perhaps something else I might find.
But the years had faded so very much
There was not a trace left in my mind.

My little hometown had never given me
More than a sliver of hardened, dry bread.
So how do you take the hunger and pain
Out of your heart and out of your head?

Still, off and on, thoughts come along
About childhood years, even hard days.
Old memories swim to the surface
As a deep, quiet longing in my heart stays.

Little sweet town of my youth
My heart aches thinking it all through.
Only God knows what's happened there
But I know I can never forget you.

"My Town, Koydenov"

After Purim, storks begin flying
through our town.
Circling the air
majestically light,
they weave their nests
on tips of towers.
Yet deep in the valley
snow still dazzles our sight.

The copper sky
turns blue and bluer
as winds no longer
blow by with haste.
From behind the landscape
cloudy and gray,
spring strolls in
while winter lays waste.

Spring, our honored guest, arrives,
turning dull plains green,
bringing blankets of grass
to steep hill and valley.
But spring can't find
her hosting Jews, anywhere -
not here, not there
not in the market, nor alley.

Right here, where the hill
dips down low
a stream gurgles close
to those laying dead.
Here my brothers'
bodies rest, covered;
their hearts hollowed
by bullets of lead.

Above them trees sway
their branches pointed
while winds groan
in the gloom of night
as "holy" figurines on the "cathedral"
witness in silence-
a community
murdered outright.

I close my eyes
and see you dear town:
your streets, your schoolyard,
your stores without frill.
Nothing is left but
a note from the martyrs,
their graves planted
at the base of a hill.

"Arah Yekels"

His right hand holds
a red scarf;
his left, a staff.
In his home town
troubles abound,
so community he must craft.
His beard is red,
his face - pale;
his eyes ablaze with fire!
He rushes with haste
through every street.
He knows the times are dire.

At every house,
he's in, he's out,
gathering charity for the needy,
easing poverty
as angels pray
that God help him be speedy.

The morning sun
rises anew
in the sky, perfectly clear,
a ray of light
embraces Ara,
infuses his soul, devoted and dear.

His heart ablaze,
he continues on,
red scarf and staff in hand.
The day is short;
the need is great.
His task, it so demands.

"When Summer Arrives"

The ocean is not
precious to me
in the same way
trees and grasses are.
I never realized this
until the day
I left
my home afar.
I set myself sailing
on ocean plains
Yet nonetheless
alien the sea remained.
In my heart were etched
Dirt roads, trees above.
It seems that these
Are the only things I can love…

And when
Hot summer arrives
I leave the ocean
To make others sate.
A quiet corner,
With trees around me
That's my solace,
My pleasure, my fate.

Birds tweeting
At early dawn,
Screeching cries
Of roosters and hens
They bring me joy
Greater than all
Sounds I've heard since
I know not when.

The ocean wields
A world of charm
Yet I leave her
For others to cheer.
A tree, a leaf,
A field of wheat
That is for me
A thousand times more dear.

                                      Compiled by Jeff Ferber
                                      Copyright © 2016 Jeff Ferber
Website is created by Adam Trubnikov
Historical content is produced by Jeff Ferber.
All content is copyright of its respective owners and has been used with permission.

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Last updated on August 13, 2016

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