Vignettes and Reminisces from before World War I
by Nisin Tuchachinski, translated by Wilfred "Bill" Kay, 2008
This is a page in our Biography section. Click on the "Biography" button in the left-hand column to read other articles in this section.
By Nisin Tuchachinski
One Wednesday at around 12 noon, as I entered the Koidanover Synagogue, I noticed my brother Avromel with his friend Aharl Kinig, sitting at a table and studiously rocking back-and-forth over a Gemorah book. Near the stage, a boy of 14 or 15, is pacing back and forth. He holds a large book of Gemorah under his arm and, moves his lips and constantly mumbles something. His eyes aimed straight ahead and every once in a while he would raise his eyebrows for a second. The pacing continued for a long time. When my brother and Aharl Kinig observed this, Aharl got up, went up to the boy and asked him, "what have you been whispering all this time ?"
"I am memorizing the Talmud"
"Memorizing the Talmud? Nu, how much have you memorized so far?"
"Not much. Masichta Gitin, Masichta Pashchaim and all three Vavas".
"You can test me, here - I am holding the Merichta Paschim".
They called him to the table and started testing him. They started with the Gemorah, the book he was holding under his arm. Aharl opened the book randomly and said: "just tell me the first word from a paragraph. The boy recited the entire paragraph. Aharl tried him on another paragraph; the boy again recited it exactly as if reading it from the book. We sat there spellbound.
" Isn't this difficult for you ?"
"Not at all".
"It is enough for me to read it with my eyes. Not only that, you read to me any part and I will repeat it from my memory. You don't believe it, try me?!"
We tried one thing after another; Aharl even tried it with books off the shelves; he tried one book, another and a third. The boy listened intently, his head slightly leaning towards Aharl, he repeated everything exactly as if reading from the books. We couldn't believe our ears; such a wonder, such a rare talent.
To my great regret, I can't remember the boys name.
I later encountered other phenomenal Lyakhovicier minds of young people and adults. A 12 year old friend, Moshe Chorts, studied with me under teacher Gedalia; the boy could recite all 24 books of Tanach from memory. Old Elle, the furier, would conduct the services at the synagogue, all from memory. Lyakhovicier shopkeepers used to do the most complicated calculations in their head, never used a pencil. I always wondered how my mother managed to figure in her head: 10+10, 8-6+20-25 etc. and always come up with the right answer. I couldn't do such lengthy calculations in my head.
I knew another "wunderkind" in Lyakhovici; I never met another like him.
I can picture him now: short and broadshouldered, a man of about 40, a hunchback on one side, with a funny wrincled cap with the visor tilted to one side, a little beard, always carrying two baskets full of rolls and bagels. He didn't walk like other people; he would always run with little steps, like a little birdie. His real name was Zhenia. But everybody called him "rolls and bagels" or the "gentle-man". Why? While running around, he would softly yell - rolls and bagels, to advertise his marchandise. You never heard another word from him. That is how he would approach his customers: "rolls and bagels".
His spot was always in the corner between Feigl's butcher shop and Yitzhak-Yosel's shop, the spot where every baron used to stop. Zhenia, the gentle-man, would always rush over with his wares, the baron, with a wave of the hand would stop the horses, Zhenia would place one basket in front of one horse and the second basket in front of the other horse and watch with pleasure the horses chewing his marchendise. For Zhenia, that was a good day; he earned a good day's income. Often, Zhenya would leave in the morning for the baron's estate with full baskets and return in the evening with empty baskets, but with money in his pocket.
The barons realy didn't need the bagels; there wasn't a baron who didn't want to see Zhenia. He became well known througout the area; he was sought out by all the barons. Why? Just hear this: Zhenia had a very keen mathematical mind; he could calculate the most complicated bill, all in his head, without using a pencil, and the amazing thing is - the man didn't know how to read or write.
I thought it was fairy tale until I saw it with my own eyes. I realized that the barons didn't come for Zhenia's bagels, the barons came to be amused.
Once, two barons with their wives were at our house, talking to my father and brother about various subjects, suddenly one baron jumps up when he saw Zhenia with loaded baskets, knocks on the window, "hey, rolls and bagels, come in !'` When Zhenia saw the baron, his face broke into a smile; he didn't need another invitation. He came in to the house. The mood in the house turned livelier and soon an interesting event was underway.
-"Zhenia, will you answer my question?"
-"Nu, will the gentleman buy my bagels?"
-"If you give me the correct answer, both baskets with bagels are mine; how much are the bagels?"
-"One ruble, baron".
-"Agreed, but Zhenia, if you are wrong, you don't get a penny".
-"Go ahead, ask".
One baron winks to the other, gets up and asks:
"Listen Zhenia, listen carefully!"
"I am 47 years old, 9 months, 29 days, 7 hours and 49 minutes. How many seconds have I lived?"
The baron read the numbers from a prepared piece of paper.A shudder went through my body; I felt sorry for the poor man! How can he know the correct answer? He can't even read or write? I, a university student, would be very intimidated answering such a question. Zhenia obviously is used to such exercises. He leaned his elbow against the tiled oven, his face against the arm, just like at prayers. Dead silence fell on the house. Everybody was furiously trying to figure out the answer with paper and pencil, thinking that Zhenia can't possibly get the right answer. All you could hear was Zhenia mumbling under his nose, exactly as at prayers. Suddenly he lifts his head.
-"Baron, please repeat the question!" The baron repeats... etc."
-"Wait baron, wait; write down what I am going to tell you!"
Everyone was writing. From Zhenia's mouth came an astronamical figure. Zhenia's little eyes sparkled.
-"Nu baron, am I right?"
-"Correct: Rolls and Bagels, correct Zhenia!" as he pats Zhenia on the back.
I couldn't believe it!
Zhenyia left the house with empty baskets and very happy; he got a whole ruble!
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Nisan Tukachinsky was a master story-teller. He took dry biography and made it sing. Do you have stories that someone told you about your Lyakhovichi relatives? They can be funny, sad, important, petty, the only criteria is "real." What if you can tell a story but not write one? Then record it and send it to the webmaster! What if you have the raw materials - letters, diaries, or anything that could help us dig out such stories - then send them to me and I will try to help tell the stories that you want told. And if you have a story that you recorded from a relative now deceased, I can even post that recording itself on our site.
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Zhenia "Bagels and Rolls"
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