The Life of Aaron Kriwitzky

Aaron Kriwitzky from the title page of his book

Here's a surprising way for a story of Yiddish cultural recovery to begin: with two thirteen-year-old girls at an eighth-grade sleepover party.

One Saturday evening, I drove my daughter Mira to the home of her friend Alison and afterwards heard no report as to what went on except that, at some meal or other, the conversation turned to the question of what Mira's parents did for a living. When Alison's father, Ron, heard that I worked for the Yiddish Book Center, he suddenly got very excited, and when I picked my daughter up, he came to the door holding a Yiddish book.

As it turned out, the book was "Mayn lebns-veg" ("The Path of My Life") by Aaron Kriwitzky. I'd never heard of the author and, precisely for that reason, I thought I might as well do my best to find out something about him. Interestingly enough, the book was already in the Book Center's collection. Now I had a unique chance to do what Aaron Lansky loves to talk about as one of our main priorities: to "Open up the book and see what's inside."

Given the local family connection, it wasn't very hard to piece Mr. Kriwitzky's story together. Born in Motele, a small shtetl (town) in the province of Grodno, Lithuania in 1883, he attended kheder (Jewish primary school) with none other than Chaim Weitzman, the first president of the State of Israel. At age 14 he enrolled in the "Yavne" Hebrew Institute in Bialystok, where at age 18 he received his Hebrew teacher certification.  While he was launching his teaching career, his entire family emigrated to America, settling in Hartford, Connecticut.

Kriwitzky married in 1907, and remained in his teaching position until the outbreak of World War I. During and after the war, things became very difficult, and in 1922 he accepted his family's invitation to come to America. After a few years of teaching (at the Beth Yakov congregation) he became principal and teacher at the Nelson St. Talmud Torah where he worked for 30 years, becoming a local celebrity and a popular khazn (cantor) on the High Holidays. Meanwhile, he spent much of his free time writing Yiddish poetry - 178 poems of all kinds - about his childhood, his life, his family, Israel, current events, Jewish holidays, love, all the things that made his world come alive and which he hoped to pass down to future generations.

Sitting with his youngest daughter, Edith Gittleman, in her West Hartford split-level, Aaron Kriwitzky's world seems eons away, but in her mind it still lives on.  "My favorite memories are those of the Holiday plays in Yiddish that my father wrote and directed.  I will always remember papa's daily ritual of spreading the Yiddish newspaper ("Der Tug" - The Day) across the kitchen table and proceeding to read about the events of the day.  As he read, papa provided a running commentary all his own.  He would mumble or chuckle or sigh, muttering approval, disapproval, or even astonishment at the events that had taken place.  Another one of my most vivid memories of all that is of my father poring over the gemora (torah commentary), engaged in passionate discussions with his scholarly peers."

Every Rosh Hashanah, members of the Kriwitzky extended family and rabbis and colleagues in the community would receive an original handwritten personalized New Year's poem in Yiddish or Hebrew.  But it wasn't until visiting Israel in 1972 at the age of 89 that Aaron Kriwitzky officially became an author, bringing his manuscript along to have it published in Tel Aviv. And so, here are some glimpses into the life of a Yiddish author who spent most of his days only an hour or so from our home in Amherst, Massachusetts - for you to discover for yourselves.

By Hankus Netsky, with help from Christa Whitney and Gergana Karadzhova.

April 21, 2010