Whereas Salek’s father’s appearance was rather modern for that period – sporting only a short beard, just like his cousins – his grandfather, Avrohom Orenstein, had a flowing beard and wore a shtreimel on Shabbos. Reb Avrohom could always be found sitting in front of a Gemara or other sefer. Invariably, the pages were torn, the edges were missing or donkey-eared from so much use, and the folios were brownish-black.
Salek once questioned his grandfather, “Why don’t you learn from a new book that isn’t tattered and is in one piece?”
“I know this Gemara,” the wizened grandfather replied, “and this Gemara knows me!”
When Salek would visit his grandfather on Shabbos afternoons, a review on what was learned that week in Chumash and Rashiwas conducted. Avrohom always gave his grandson a sweet for coming, and if he scored well he would also earn a sweet upon his departure.
Avrohom Orenstein lived outside the gate of Apt in a house with a partially thatched wooden roof. He was married twice. Tzvi Alter, better known as Reb Hershel (Salek’s father), was the product of the first marriage. Avrohom’s second wife, Sarah, was a widow when she became an Orenstein and had a son, Moshe, from her previous marriage. Ironically, Avrohom had a daughter of similar age from his first wife. The step-siblings actually got engaged, but it did not last.
Sarah came from a family that operated a textile business, and she opened a branch in Apt at the corner of the marketplace. She ran the business herself, and sold cloth to the non-Jewish customers from the surrounding villages as well as the farmers who came to the market each Wednesday. Salek’s job was to replace the bales of material back onto the shelves at the end of the day. Avrohom very rarely came to the shop, and if he did, he would sit outside and consult his holy book.
Although Avrohom was obsessed with his around-the-clock learning, Moshe did not carry on in his ways and left town to work in a Jewish bank. His style of dress was decidedly modern, in no way resembling the traditional, old-fashioned attire that was commonplace in Apt.
When Moshe observed Salek’s fascination with the klezmer musicians at his aunt’s wedding, he suggested to his step-nephew that he seek music lessons. Salek followed the suggestion and approached his father, who had no objection.
Reb Hershel went to see Chatzkel, the oldest member of the klezmer band, to see if he would be interested in a student.
A deal was struck, and every Thursday afternoon Salek went to the musician’s small one-room flat tucked away in an attic. A big double bed dominated the space, although there was no sign of a wife to share it. The bed was covered with a heavy red bedspread and thick fringes hanging down. Next to the window stood the music stand, always displaying sheets of music.
“Chatzkel,” Salek would beg, “Please play something for me. I can’t stand the music that I play; it’s so dry and has no beat!”
Chatzkel realized that the full-sized violin that Salek was training on was too big for a child. “I’ll talk to your father,” the ancient man with a flowing white beard promised. “I know someone who has a small violin, just right for you.”
In no time, Reb Hershel, who was very committed to furthering every aspect of Salek’s education, procured a small violin.
One day Chatzkel asked rhetorically, “You want to hear some music?” Without waiting for a response, the old musician pulled some tattered-looking music sheets from a drawer and placed them on the music stand. He then pulled himself up straight (not a simple feat for a man who appeared at least 100 years old) and performed a concerto by Weinarski that Salek remembered the rest of his life. The little boy closed his eyes and entered Heaven, for he had never heard anything so wonderful in his life.
On another day while Salek was having his lesson, Chatzkel’s son visited his father. The visitor found the scene rather humorous and commented derisively, “Why are you teaching him music? He’s got a rich father, so he won’t be a klezmer;he’ll be a businessman!” This fellow personally knew about the precarious lifestyle of a musician, for he earned his living wandering through the tiny villages that dotted the countryside near Apt performing at non-Jewish weddings and feasts.
The klezmer musicians were always looking for employment. They would perform at weddings and whenever there was a hachnasas Sefer Torah. They would also perform at non-Jewish weddings because the non-Jews did not play musical instruments. Violinists and trumpeters were exclusively Jews. It was a funny, nearly comical sight to see a Polish wedding procession framed with a priest, nuns and endless crosses of every size and dimension accompanied by Jewish klezmer bands straight out of a Kaufman lithograph.
Apt’s mikveh doubled as a bathhouse. The left side was the ladies’ section with two baths that were slowly filled by buckets, as there wasn’t a tap. The right side was for men, and – as a communal bath – it wreaked from a putrid odor. Few of the male clientele used it for ritual purposes.
Reb Hershel would descend the steps to the steam room and, for a few grosz, help himself to a bunch of leafy branches that he could wave to fan the steam up around his back. On occasion, he even paid an attendant to do this for him.
Salek enjoyed the steam room, as the oak branches emitted an appealing scent when they came in contact with the steamy water. Salek would wait for his father to finish, and then receive a patriarchal wash down.
Salek’s aunt lived near the mikveh, and if he grew tired of waiting for his father he would go and visit her. The steps leading to her door were made from shiny stones, which seemed unusual and exotic to the little boy, as virtually every other staircase in the town was wooden.
Salek’s aunt had such a gracious manner that he always had the impression that she was expecting him. Judging by the quantity of confectionaries and drinks provided, he had every reason to believe this assumption.
Chodesh tov – have a pleasant month!
(To be continued)