Memorial to a Shtetl

Hillel Zeitlin



Far, far from the paved roads and broad ways, far, far from the ordinary shtetls, stood isolated villages that had a different sky over them and a different sun.

The God of heaven in His mercy made their faces glow, His sun shone more brightly and with splendor on their wooden roofs.

Their weekdays were different, and their holidays and Sabbaths were different.

The village of my youth! I see it while awake, I see it in a dream.

I raise my soul to you among the walls of the city, among the stone pavements, with my head teeming, among the streets lit with electric lights, and their shadow-people.


At night, every night, the dead come to pray in the high synagogue, ancient, in ruins. They bring Torah scrolls of fire with them. Our teacher Moses calls out: May Isaac, the son of Abraham, rise. . . .

At night, every night, the ancient, destroyed synagogue is full of saints, angels, and seraphim. The saints pray, the angels sing, and the seraphim say: Holy, holy.

At night, every night, when the burial society comes to pray, the birds accompany it.

And when the reader calls out: “May Isaac, the son of Abraham rise . . .” upon hearing about the bound son, and the crown the high angels placed on his head, the birds spread their wings and make a canopy over him.

And in reading about the Egyptians who drowned in the Red Sea and about the children of Israel who were redeemed—heaven and earth will rejoice, fathers will sing, birds will listen. [ . . . ]

Now the children [ . . . ] come to the nearby Hasidic house of study; there they will pray, there they will play music, there they will sing, there “they will cleave.”

Now, next to one of the benches in the center of the house of study stands old Rabbi Jacob. He is all wrapped up in a prayer shawl. His face is not visible, his words cannot be heard. Just a soft sigh is heard. . . .

Now all the worshipers leave. Only a few chosen ones remain. Rabbi Jacob chants his Habad melody. His voice grows louder—

And now—a multitude of voices:

“The Lord your God is truth.”

And the walls tremble:

Truth, truth, truth. . . .

And it is felt in everything—certainly, certainly, that is how it is, it is impossible otherwise—

Truth! . . .

And there, in a hidden corner in the second room, stands Rabbi Avremel and prays. He is a guest in our village.

His prayer is not in noise. He prays word by word and interprets everything.

Who covers the sky with clouds. [ . . . ] Why is it like that?

Because “He gives the animal its bread.” [ . . . ]

And here in another corner stands a young scholar of average height, his face is black, his beard is round and black, his eyes are fire, wrinkles of thought; he is entirely immersed in “meditation.”

Suddenly he leaps up as if a snake had bitten him: Ay, ay, ay! He runs from wall to wall, from one end of the house of study to the other, rests a little, stands, thinks a silent thought, returns to his place, once more sinks into meditation.

Behind the reading platform stands one of the worshipers, crying out bitterly, making strange contortions: he is fighting against some alien thought. He wants to eliminate it or to raise it up. For he is as one drowning in the sea, suspended between life and death, crying for help.

Near the eastern wall stands the singer himself. He, too, is a guest in our shtetl. He’s an “influencer” [mashpia]. He “repeats” the “words of the Living God.” He prays on the Sabbath until the fourth afternoon hour. Householders have already finished their meals, they stroll out of the village and return, coming inside to hear the prayer prayed by the “influencer,” for himself.

He’s not a cantor or the son of a cantor, but he stands there with his head bent to the side for whole hours without moving from his place and sings to the Lord.

He has endless melodies. He invents new ones every day. They are called up from the source of his soul. In them is both exalted joy and deep sorrow, yearnings, despair, weeping, torments of the soul, soaring to the heights and falling, the pleading of a child, the solace of a mother, redemptions and consolations from the upper worlds.

Next to one of the tables stand two scholars who have already finished their prayer. They are well-educated Hasidim: their speech is in fragments of sentences, in hints, in secret.

—In the end I don’t understand, in what way the intelligent and informed soul at the hour when they are in potential—is it all one?

—Because then they are in “nothing,” and in “nothing,” everything comes in unity and simplicity.

—But after all then there is no intelligence, the intelligent and informed?

Next to another table two other scholars stand and speak humorously.

—What’s the concern of a misnaged? In fact he’s like that goy (not to compare them), who says: [in Russian in Hebrew characters] I didn’t steal anything, I didn’t murder, I’ll go directly into paradise. The misnaged thinks: I prayed with a congregation, I didn’t recite the Shema too late—all of paradise is mine!

Gradually the House of Study empties of those who came to pray late. In place of them come those who study Torah.

Here are the argumentation, the noise, the disputes on Jewish law, queries, answers, it’s just the opposite, and let’s compare the two—

And here the chants of the Gemara quaver.

Rava said: a lung has five lobes . . . five . . . five . . . two on the right and three on the left . . . well . . . once again: two on the right and three . . . three . . . three. [ . . . ]

And in the noise from one of the tables is a still small voice, the voice of a legend:

In the hour when Moses went up to heaven, he found the Holy One blessed be He was sitting and attaching crowns to letters—

And from the second table—:

In the hour when Moses went up to heaven, the attending angels tried to reject him: what is someone born of woman—immediately He spread a cloud over him—

From a third:

The Holy One, blessed be He, said: I set a fire burning in Zion. I must conclude the burning. . . .

Behold this—Sabbath in the shtetl.


When the “three days of restriction”1 come, the children race about in the surrounding fields, climb the one tree in the village, and intend to strip it. It is a pear tree, and it belongs to Shimen the Chief (the biggest beggar in the village). Shimen’s wife screams bloody murder. The children come down one by one, give the appearance of departing, then they come back, one with a stick, one with a stone, one with a piece or iron that he found, and they slowly approach the tree—and the fruit falls.

Shimen’s wife sees it and curses; but who listens to her?

The war between her and the children grows fiercer. She grabs one of the children, hits him, takes off his hat, but while she’s struggling with one, the other mischief-makers climb up the tree and make the pears fall to the earth.

From there the band goes to the river at the edge of the village, climb onto the bridge, look at the foaming water, and throw wood chips and stones, make their way up to the mill, come down from there to sail paper boats on the river below, wrestle, push one another into the water, roll about in the green grass, play wildly and race about.

They’ll get tired of that too. The “white band” then turns to the other end of the village: there stands Mishke’s mill, and the brick kiln.

There, in that place, there is an uncommon silence. A hush falls. The field is mute and broad, very splendid. No one is working there. The road is straight—and the distances. The windmill is not grinding. Mishke and his sons are absent. Ho, freedom, ho liberty!

True, Mishke’s guards, two courageous dogs, were not displaced. But they’re quiet, too, now, and don’t harm anyone. They rest indolently. They only wag their tails—slowly, heavily—and grunt.

Then the gang climbs up to the mill, to Mishke’s windmill. They try to move the wheels with their arms. Then they go down, and on their way down they go up on the roof of the neighboring house.

Others walk over to the brick kiln, where they go into the very inside of the lime box that stands in the center of the courtyard, and they dirty their faces and hands, until their features are whiter than white. They go down to where they fire the bricks, spend some time there, and come out disheartened.

Suddenly, one of the gang gets angry at the dogs because they are lying there so restfully. Look for yourselves! They aren’t dogs at all!

The mischief-maker takes a stone up in his hand and throws it at one of the dogs so that it will notice. The dog growls a little and lies down again indolently.

Naturally things can’t end up in that fashion. The boys throw a larger stone than the first one at the dog, and the dog challenges them now.

The gang sees that’s how it is, and immediately one of them starts to throw his own stone at it, and then the dog becomes a proper dog; he leaps up, barks loudly, and runs after his enemies, and his friend—after him, and we all run for our lives in despair, with torn cuffs and drenched with sweat.

Some jump into a nearby pit, a lot run from the oppressor to the gentile cemetery, until the rage of Mishke’s guards dies down.

After this holy war the gang goes elsewhere, and that’s how things proceed until the stars come out.

Only toward evening does the gang remember that their parents are waiting, that they have to go to synagogue.


And here is the village on a holiday—and the holiday is the giving of the Torah.

The day is jubilant, and the young person tries to conquer the depth of the night. Through the window the sunrise is visible. In the vegetable garden next to the house, softly softly the plants move, plant after plant speaks and goes on, goes and tells the secrets of the night.

Now at last the first sunbeams move across them, and the plants prepare themselves to receive the splendor of the day’s countenance.

The village’s air is filled with a splendid fragrance from the nearby forests and fields. The sound of a shepherd’s pipe is heard, the voices of Hasidim from the house of study, everything rises mixed together, song is in everything, melody is in everything.

The morning breeze flutters, the plants whisper, children, little Jews, are still reciting the tikkun.2

Very gradually the morning passes, the voices in the house of study grow stronger from minute to minute, the birds on the ancient synagogue have already begun singing their “psalm of the day.”

Jews, small and grown up, come out of the house of study. Boys race in joy. The sun floods the roofs with its rays. Jews go to bathe in the river—

Pair by pair, they walk and talk, a Jew with a Jew, a silken scholar with a silken scholar. Pleasant conversations. Calm is spread over everything, the repose of the holiday holiness.

They talk about the giving of the Torah, about the influence of the Divine Presence, about the holy rebbes of past times, about the fresh air, and also about the month—the month of May. [ . . . ]


Jews of high lineage, learned Jews and Hasidim, stand on the eastern wall, and the sun pours its light on the ornaments of their prayer shawls. [ . . . ]

A gnarled Jew, short in stature, goes up to the prayer platform. He opens the prayer book, and he begins to sing the melody, steeped in joy and sorrow both together, of the akdamot.3

The congregation follows after him. The heads and selves of the worshippers are given over to the akdamot. Whoever doesn’t understand [the Aramaic] looks at the commentary.

Like the pure wind of the morning, like a pure angel born of the holiday, the melody hovers.

The congregation immerses itself in the holy spirit as in deep water—“He leadeth me beside the still waters” [Psalms 23:2].

The whole congregation is full of joy, gaining pleasure because of the great honor that God has given His people of Israel, his chosen people, and because of honor that Israel will receive in the future.

For at the moment when the Israelites said, “we will do and we will heed” [Exodus 24:7], the exalted angels made crowns for them.

And when they heard the word uttered by the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He, their souls flew up from them, and the Holy One, blessed be He, in His great mercy and love, brought dew down from heaven, which brings the dead back to life, and their souls returned to their bodies.

Angels bore them on their wings; they brought them to Mount Sinai, to the mountain that was burning with fire.

And the angels will serve them in the future, too, the Holy One, blessed be He, will give a banquet to the righteous, on chairs of gold they will be seated, and they will drink fortified wine to slake their thirst.

And now the prayer is coming to an end. Every man goes to his home—and his heart feels good.

After a dairy meal—young and old head to the fields.

In the fields, on a broad meadow, they will rest, speaking very slowly and at ease, and not all the Jews are equal:

The honored among them, the learned, and the pious among them, speak about Hasidism; ordinary Jews—are occupied with daily concerns. Boys are rowdy, and girls walk in pairs, setting their eyes on a boy, one or another—and lowering their eyelids.


Now it is a weekday in the shtetl.

Rows of low wooden houses, narrow streets, rows of wooden shops, and the market area in front of them, peasants stand next to their wagons, the horses are freed and eat the straw that’s on the wagons, Jews approach, sniff, look in the wagons, ask the price of merchandise, bargain, make claims, buy and sell.

Women shopkeepers stand in the stores, their hands weigh the merchandise, wrap it, tie the bundles, and their mouths are full of words to seduce the buyers, sometimes with soft words, with requests and entreaties, and sometimes with harsh words (for a buyer who rebels or a competing storekeeper), and sometimes—with scraps of idle speech, with stories and jokes to win the buyer’s heart, asking after his health and the health of his household, and his fruit and horses and everything he owns. At that time the men storekeepers help their wives, but their hands don’t seem made for that. Their faces—the faces of scholars in the house of study, the faces of silken scholars. This is not their place. What can be done? Making a living!

Now a storekeeper is standing in his long coat, with his long, sharp nose, with his bent backbone and his sidelocks swinging back and forth. When the store is full of customers, male and female, and his wife rushes in a tizzy from corner to corner, from goods to goods, from speech to speech, from blessing to curse and from curse to blessing, he stands in a corner and recites the rest of the praises and exaltations that he didn’t manage to recite during the hours he was sitting in the house of study, or the “portion” he didn’t manage to finish there.

In another store an important store-keeping matron stands, with a double chin, a full and noble face, and she is of distinguished lineage. Her words are few and measured, and with her few words she does more than other women with their abundant words. It is restful here, and full of abundant blessing. In the corner of the store stands her husband, short of stature, his earlocks small and curly, from his eyes the splendor of purity is reflected, delicate features, a small beard, through the few whiskers of which the sharp chin can be seen. His head leans a bit to the side, and his lips murmur some mishnayot from the chapter he was studying.

Now a tall Jew is running in the market, his forehead high and broad, his darkened face sad, his eyes look toward a distance which is not now, his earlocks are scattered, his coat isn’t buttoned, he grips one flap of it and waves the other flap back and forth, as though he wanted to test the strength of the wind, hurrying to a hay wagon that belongs to one of the peasants, asking the seller—what is the price, he doesn’t hear the answer, he runs to another wagon full of straw, feels it, smells it also, exchanges words with the peasant.

The deal is done. The seller slowly brings the merchandise. Before he manages to take a few steps—the buyer is already sitting with a group of scholars, with whom he is studying the Maharsha on the topic of “exemption of damages. . . .”4

Because while he was standing with the peasant, in purchasing, in bargaining, his thoughts were on that passage in the MAHARSHA, and when he returned from the purchase—he began with the very word he had said before going to purchase, as though there had been no interruption, and as though his study had not ceased even for a moment.

And here is another Jew, his hat back on his head, his hands stretched before him, and he steps from group to group, discussing, arguing, and reasoning, proving with all sorts of sharp insights that the simple meaning in the matter of the wax, which he had given to someone else to sell, trusting him, and that “trustee” had gone bankrupt, and it is as he says—and not as the other says—and not as that trustee says, that he has an old debt with him. . . .

And there, next to the market area, two large stores compete with each other. Their owners deal in “fine things”: in goods of wool and linen, silk and embroidery, cloaks, yarmulkas, lamps, all sorts of ornaments for brides and grooms. The two competitors are among the notables of the shtetl, but one is not like the other: one of them is an old, experienced merchant, composed, counting and weighing every word, walking heel to toe, never going to the market without a silk outer coat, his shoes always shined, his clothing from expensive material, clean and neat, his hat of silk, and he is all silk, speaking only with the select few, regarding himself as the “wise man of the state,” secretly reading the books of RIBAL,5 his snuffbox, from which he always sniffs, and which always lies with him in synagogue, is of silver, and his prayer shawl is decorated with silver. On the Day of Atonement he wears a yarmulka of white silk, enters the synagogue as though walking on tiptoe, bows courteously, steps to his place on the eastern wall, and does not move from there, with a splendidly bound Bible with commentaries lying before him, and while the Torah is read, he reads the portion and sings the Haftarah with a pleasant voice. He does not like to reason and argue, and when you ask him something—he answers with few words, as though doing a favor to the inquirer.

The other one is a scholar from head to foot: he buys in erudition and sells in erudition, argues fiercely and disputes with heat. Sparks fly from his mouth, and his hands grasp his disputant’s button; in his youth he studied, along with the Talmud, the Turim and the Shulḥan Arukh, the Guide of the Perplexed as well, and also Ralbag, and had there been another one like him in the shtetl, he would argue with him about “the necessity of reality,” the way he now argues with the scholars of the village about the topic of “his fire is like his arrows.”6 His gait is always rushed, he speaks hurriedly and all of him is in a hurry. He knows neither pride nor humility. He is entirely given over to business, though he may close his store in the middle of the day, even on a market day, to consult a book in the house of study, if some severe difficulty won’t give him rest.

And here are a few of the clumsy men of the village, here is the baker with the thick neck, and here are his sons, all of whom are stout fellows, who fight with a whole camp of young peasants and overcome them. And now he comes out to the market with his sons, and woe to anyone who dares to approach the wagon around which his sons are standing, and sets his eye on the merchandise they are buying. He would be risking his life.

And here is Moshe-Yitsḥak and his five sons, who conquered a place for themselves at the eastern wall without paying any price, and if they wished, they would take for themselves every third and sixth aliyah [the most prestigious—Eds.], and recite the haftarah, but there is honesty in their hearts, and they know that matters like that belong to those who know about “the black dots” [finer points—Eds.]. Woe to any man who dares to trespass on their place in the east [the eastern wall of a synagogue, the most prestigious], or who takes the merchandise they are considering.

And here are the village butchers, whom the tax collector fears more than he fears the policeman—and still both the slaughterer and the rabbi are not threatened by them because they fear sin as they fear death.


Behold, they are all before me, all the Jews of the village, as they pray, study, discuss matters of Torah, wrapped in their prayer shawls, weep, implore, sing, cleave to the infinite with their Habad melodies, are occupied with the commandments, turn to their business, work, trade. Preoccupied Jews, rushing, eating their bread in panic and running to learning or to earning—

Here are those very Jews before me in the circle of their family on the sabbath. Before me sabbath-Jews full of song and melody and yearning for the living God. Jews in silk and broad cloaks and new velvet yarmulkas, sitting at the Sabbath meal, eating expansively, sitting and wiping their faces with handkerchiefs and enjoying the tsholnt [Sabbath stew] and making their wives happy, women who cover their hair with silk scarves, wear white robes and silver earrings, and gaze at their husbands and the fruit of their wombs, and derive pleasure.

And the song-Jews do what they do. They open up the “selections of the Torah” or the “Torah of Light,”7 and after a melody of the Ari, and a little bim-bum, tapping with a finger and a slow tune, comes going deeply into the book, very slowly—and the transition to another world, exalted and holy. The porridges and kugels [ . . . ] are forgotten. Very slowly the wives and children who sit all around are also forgotten, and the brain is immersed in deep Habad thought, and the heart sings a Habad melody that comes on its own from the teaching of the angel. [ . . . ]


Thus I see in my mind’s eye the shtetl of my childhood, which since then has been overturned ten times, and who knows whether the blood-soaked war, the world war of the last years,8 has left a remnant or survivor. Where are you, my village? My heart yearns for you, the way a man’s heart yearns for the mother of his childhood. What have they done to you from then till now, all sorts of intellectuals and all sorts of world reformers, and all sorts of battle-seekers, and bullies from left and right? And what has cruel chance done to you since I abandoned you, since time uprooted me and banished me to exile after exile and scattered me over and over, and stole my repose and shattered all hope?

Where are you, my shtetl? With a heavy spirit I returned to you. I have already returned to your God in truth and innocence. But you, where are you? Where are your low houses? Where are your fences, on which I climbed in my childhood, where is the great house of study and the many bookcases, and the books that I pondered for days and years? Where is the light-flooded house that stood in the middle of the market, where I once studied Torah? Where are the fields around you?—

Shtetl of my childhood! There was not much nature in you. Just one tree was in you, which belonged to Shimen “the Chief,” and only a few vegetable gardens around a few houses. A living, pleasant fragrance reached you from the nearby fields, but it was hard for it to compete with the neglect in you and with the streets that were never cleaned.

Behold, a beautiful river was around you, and behold the courtyards of the landlords and the flower gardens around them, and here are woods around you and a meadow, that extends for many leagues. But you had very little interest and desire for the beautiful meadow and the beautiful tree, and especially—you had no free time.

For you were entirely given over to learning and earning, and whence could nature come to you? No planting hand was in you, and only seldom would a sowing hand appear in your gardens.

But the light of God was poured upon you, the light of the spirit, the light of Torah, the light of purity.

The angels of peace spread their wings over you, the glow and illumination of infinite light entered the hearts of your sons, awakened them, called them to the Torah and to repentance, wrapped the face of your great ones with the highest splendor, poured innocent grace on all who dwelled in you.


From time to time great pain attacks me, unbearable pain. Grief in my heart and longing for the village that no longer exists.

And when my heart is full of pain, I sometimes fall asleep and in a vision I see the shtetl of my youth, and it is enveloped not only with heavenly splendor, but also with earthly glory, with the glory of garden and vineyard, furrow and meadow.

Behold long avenues of tall trees, avenues shading the village. The whole village—as though drowned in the green of the trees. The streets are broad and very long. The houses are of one story, small and low, but carved with artistic skill. Around the houses—sculpted balustrades and finials and all sorts of enchanting decorations on top of them. A small vineyard to the right of every house, a small garden to its left, flower pots full of glorious flowers on the sill of every window. The windows are open on the broad avenue of trees. Boys and girls play among the trees. Tranquility not of this world is spread over the village. People discuss things, but everything is almost without saying words. Repose and silence virtually bear people’s thoughts and wishes from one person to another. Abundance and happiness are all around. The people see one another’s faces with joy and love. The joy is of the soul, the happiness cannot be expressed.

And I wander in that dream-town. I know that it is the town of my youth, but where are my relatives and friends? I look for them with pain and eagerness, inquire and seek after them. It seems to me they are sometimes shown to me: here and there they are, but I can’t find them. I look for my father and my mother and can’t find them. I look for the house where I was born and where I spent my childhood, and I can’t find it. I look for all the people I knew in my childhood—and I know that all the people of the village—there is no remnant of any of them. In their place—people who are strangers to me. I stand and wonder: where did all those people come from? Are they the children of the people I once knew? No. I mention the names of people who were known to me in my childhood, and they know nothing about them. The sons do not remember their fathers—and they know nothing. They are certainly total strangers. Where, then, are all those who used to be here? Did they die? Were they exiled? Lost? Did they all really die? But there were a lot of young people among them! Where did they all go? Where were they exiled to? . . .

I wander around the shtetl, walk around in the forests and villages, look for the mill, the brick kiln, the meadow, the hill. I meet people, ask them: where, tell me, good people, where is my village?—there, there it is. And where is the dwelling of my fathers? In such and such a house. I seek and I seek and I do not find my ancestors. I do not find any acquaintance. Everything is new and renewed. But this is my shtetl, and yet so distant, so distant and so exalted. . . .

I leave my shtetl, I stroll in a glade—the glade stands on the bank of the river. I wander among the trees, but the trees are not thick, they aren’t dense, and they aren’t close to each other. There is a great space between them. The walker sees the rushing river through them. I see the waves of the river, and I see steamboats borne on them, a large wheel on the boat, and on the wheel are carved dreadful and holy verses. They speak of great awe and great hope. . . .

Sometimes I myself am borne on that steamboat. Distant stars give signs from the high heaven, wave upon wave speaks from below. Where is the ship going?—–

It comes to a bridge, whose beginning and end I cannot see. Multitudes and multitudes of people cross it, and they carry bundles with them, their worries and their sins; they bear with them their inherited suffering, the sins of their fathers; they bear with them high hopes and high longings; they bear with them the dreams of their youth and the images of their life of vanity.

Some of them cross restfully: they always strive for the other side. . . .

A new sun is seen in the distance. The sky opens. Cherubs burst out in song.

Translated by
Jeffrey M.


[The three days before Shavuot, when the Torah was given.—Eds.]

[The collection of quotations from the traditional literature that is recited all night long on Shavuot.—Eds.]

[A hymn in Aramaic recited before the Torah reading on Shavuot.—Eds.]

[“HAMARSHA”: Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Edeles (1555–1631). Exemption of damages is discussed in the Babylonian Talmud, Baba Kama 29b.—Eds.]

[Isaac Baer Levinsohn, an early proponent of Haskalah in Russia.—Eds.]

[Reference to various halakhic treatises. RALBAG is Rabbi Levi Ben Gershon (1288–1344). The necessity of reality is a term of medieval philosophy.—Eds.]

[Liqutei-Hatorah and Tora Or are mystical biblical commentaries. The Ari was the founder of the mystical school of Safed.—Eds.]

[World War I.—Eds.]


Hillel Zeitlin, "Tsiyyun le–ayarah" [Memorial to a Shtetl], from Al gevul shenei olamot (Tel Aviv: Yavneh, 1997), pp. 15–44, 49–50, 53–56, 58–59, 113–26, 158–62, 257–62.

Published in: The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, vol. 8.

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