In preparation for Shabbos, Salik Orenstein’s (our protagonist, and through his eyes and his memoir are we viewing the shtetl) mother baked challos. This was a talent that required far more skill than ordinary bread-making for just as the dough began to rise the process had to be interrupted by additional kneading followed by plaiting the strips of dough into the unique challah shape. The interlocking of the strips required finger dexterity and great precision, with which Salik’s mother was richly endowed.
The job of brushing the bread with egg yolk was left to Salik, and he took great pride in the special shine that the challos radiated. Salik would also carry the finished product to the baker who, for remuneration, baked them in his oven.
All the baker did was provide the oven, and Salik (and the baker’s other customers) were fully responsible for removing the bread at just the right time. If one tarried in removing his own challos he was left with no choice but to purchase the commercial challos that the baker produced.
As far as Salik was concerned, Shabbos began on Thursday when he had to go to both the shochet and the baker. It was also on that day that his mother would go to the marketplace and buy a live carp that would move into the Orenstein’s washing bowl.
Salik loved to throw breadcrumbs into the water and see them consumed by the fish. It was far more exciting than cheder, and whenever he could get away with it he would claim that he was ill on a Thursday so he could stay home and engage in this thrilling pastime.
On Fridays, a short man named Reb Moishe visited the Orensteins with a small bottle of wine that he clandestinely hid within his kapoteh. “Why are you hiding it within your coat?” Salik wanted to know.
“I wish to keep it out of sight of the non-Jews.” The little boy deduced from this that if the wine was ever exposed to non-Jews, it would not be fit for kiddush.
Reb Moishe would pull a little cup out of his right pocket, from which he gauged four measures of raisin wine. He would then pour it into one of the Orenstein decanters. Salik watched him intently and would then challenge, “You haven’t given us a full cup! Your measures aren’t accurate.”
His critique was based on the fact that Reb Feivel, the milkman, had a much larger measuring cup.
“You should see Reb Feivel, our milkman’s measuring cup!” the young boy protested. “It is much bigger than yours!”
“Oy! Red nicht kein narischkeiten! (AAAARRRRGGGGHHH! Don’t prattle such idiotic silliness)” Reb Moishe snorted with the dismissal of his hand. “Er hot sore milch; ich hob gutten wein! (He sells sour milk, while I provide quality wine!)”
How exactly the quality of the product impacted upon a different standard of measurement was beyond young Salik, but he was certain that his protest was not as “silly” as Reb Moishe contended.
Everyone knew when old Feivel was coming in the morning to make his deliveries. He would trudge from house to house every morning – no matter the weather – hauling two large buckets of milk with a zinc-measuring cup attached by a chain to one of the buckets. The cup would rattle and thump as Feivel shuffled around town making his deliveries.
The other way you knew he was coming was his unmistakable visage that always drew attention. Feivel was a small man with broad shoulders and a long, wide, red beard that practically covered his entire face. When he spoke you saw the beard moving up and down, and you could hear a voice. But you could never quite see through the crimson forest to pinpoint where his mouth was.
Feivel’s attire consisted of a sackcloth apron tied around his belly with a red hand towel-of-sorts oddly attached. This cloth was multi-purposeful. It was used to wipe his beard, and it also had two knots within it that functioned as a bank. One knot housed the coins he needed to provide change for his paying customers, and the other knot was allocated for coins he would save for his personal Shabbos purchases.
Whenever Feivel was running late with his deliveries, he would declare: “I first went to the ladies who have just given birth.” He would base his tardiness on an elusive text, Azoi shteit geshriben -Is this not what it says? All members of a kindly, sharing community understood that Feivel was loosely ascribing his action to a Torah precept that mandated looking after the needy first. Factually, had there been as many new births as Feivel claimed, then tiny Apt would have been triple Lodz’s population!
In Apt, every single shop was closed on Shabbos – indeed by Friday afternoon the main street resembled a ghost town. Inside the Orenstein home, like every other Jewish residence, the table was adorned with the family’s finest tablecloth, plates and cutlery. Any attractive item in the house made it onto the table to grace the atmosphere with specialness and sanctity.
The home possessed a unique aroma as the freshly baked challos emitted a heavenly scent that fused with the sweet wine and the pungent dishes stewing on the stove. As the stove was not very large, Mrs. Orenstein pre-arranged for a non-Jewish lady or man to come up and add some wood to the fire so that it would burn for the duration of the Shabbos. The non-Jew would be compensated for his or her efforts with a large piece of challah, and sometimes was invited to join the family for a glass of tea.
This seemingly paltry remuneration was greatly valued by the local peasants who dined on poor, tasteless, rough, black bread. Challah was a delicacy of the highest order, and they cherished a hot drink no less than Zisskind.
The apartment was bathed in a romantic glow emanating from the candles, whose number correlated to the number of children. The nest of warmth and tranquility was shared with guests that could either be poor strangers passing through town, local indigents, or neighbors and friends that would join the Orensteins for Russian tea and plenty of cake.
The custom in Apt was that the truly poor would gather in the synagogue Friday evening and wait at the door to be invited for a Shabbos meal. At least one from this group would always come home with the Orenstein family. These people came in all sizes, dimensions, personality types and temperaments. Some were clean-shaven, others had scraggly beards; some had closely cropped haircuts and others hadn’t seen a barber in years; some were as thin as rails and others were so heavy that it took great effort for them to scale the steps up to the apartment.
Salik would like to reminisce about a man who – so different from the rest -would never plunge directly into his meal but would wait, courteously, not partaking of a morsel until everyone else had been served. There was no question that he was just as hungry as all the other guests, but his polite disposition always governed his behavior and endeared him to the Orensteins. Salik’s father would usually invite this gentleman to attend the subsequent meal on Shabbos.
On one occasion, a beggar came for the meal wearing just tatters – gaping holes puncturing both his shirt and trousers. When Salik’s father got one look at him, he beckoned, “Reb Yid, come with me.”
The family remained at the table, but Salik was curious why his father had taken the poor man into his bedroom. Salik parked himself next to the crack in the door and could not believe his eyes. Without saying a word, Mr. Orenstein shed his trousers and handed them to the indigent. He then caught sight of his son and said simply, “Ask your mother to come in.”
Mrs. Orenstein came in and removed another pair of trousers from the closet for her husband. “Are you mad?” she then scolded. “You should have given him these trousers, as the other ones matched your kapoteh perfectly!”
Before any of the visitors left our Shabbos table, Mrs. Orenstein would distribute a piece of challah or cake so they would have something to eat when they woke up on Shabbos morning.
(To be continued)
Chodesh tov – have a pleasant month!
Note to readers:
1) Although Apt was a small place, there were several different Zionist affiliations – Mizrachi, Agudah, Shomer Hatza’ir. They were very active, especially as there was no television and hardly any access to radio for entertainment.
2) During the war we were not allowed to own radios, but nevertheless, we would listen to the news from London on Zeifman’s radio.
3) It did not take long to walk anywhere, as the cheder, the mikveh and the beis ha’kvuros were all concentrated in a few streets.