From My Childhood
By Rokhl Feygenberg, translated by Ruth Murphy
- Written by:
- Rokhl Feygenberg
- Translated by:
- Ruth Murphy
- Summer 2022 / 5782
- Part of issue number:
- Translation 2022
This excerpt comes from the autobiographical novel Di kinder-yorn, written by Rokhl Feygenberg (1885–1972). Feygenberg wrote the novel when she was sixteen, and it was published serially, when she was twenty, in the journal Dos lebn: A monatlekher zhurnal far literatur un visnshaft un gezelshaftlekh lebn (January–August 1905); this excerpt is from the March issue. The novel was published as a book in 1909.
Literate in Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian, Feygenberg was an avid reader of the only books available to her in her youth—the religious library of her grandmother, the rebbetzin. As described in this excerpt, her experiences with them were intense and deeply spiritual. She also treats us to an almost heartbreaking description of her relationship with her mother.
Feygenberg’s clear-eyed writing invites the reader to step into the early twentieth-century shtetl of Lyuban, Belarus, as seen through the heart and mind of a young Jewish girl. Her writing is youthful yet tinged with weariness and sadness, perhaps due to the extraordinary losses Feygenberg suffered growing up (by the time she reached adulthood, she had lost both parents and both brothers). Zalman Rejzen describes Di kinder-yorn in his Leḳsiḳon fun der yidisher liṭeraṭur un prese: "In this work, in a non-stylized, naïve openheartedness and with a direct, innocent sensitivity in a straightforward, rich Yiddish language, she tells of her childhood as a young girl."
This excerpt features some of Feygenberg’s happiest and also her most poignant moments.
My mother was a good and affectionate parent, but she didn’t pamper us, especially me. She would punish us severely for the littlest thing. She would particularly make me suffer for the thefts that happened in the store. The gentiles in our town were terrible thieves. For them, everything was there for the taking, even a bagel, and for each theft my mother would beat me—why hadn’t I prevented it? My mother’s blows made an enemy of the gentiles to me. I looked at each of them as a thief, a robber; I could in no way imagine that among them were also honest people. In those days I didn’t yet know the secret that all the sins that I attributed to the gentiles they attributed to the Jews. I didn’t realize that with the gentiles it was exactly the opposite—that it was the Jews who were the thieves and the exploiters of Christian people.
Aside from the troubles I had with the thefts, certain things weren’t so bad. I was better off overall than the other girls in town. I was even the best dressed of all. As a child I wore dresses that my aunt sent from Rishelevsk, and then later my mother would dress me herself. My dresses were brought over from Seltz already made, and were indeed very pretty. My mother would not sell in her store any of the calico used to make my dresses in Seltz; it was beneath her that anyone else should wear the same dresses as me. The loss of the sales didn’t bother her because, had she brought in the same calico, people would have snapped it up immediately without thinking of the cost, as long as they could be dressed the same as me. Where honor was concerned, money would not deter her. For her, honor was more important than money.
Back then I didn’t understand my mother. It seemed to me that there would be more honor for me with the opposite: if I, along with many other girls, wore the same type of dress I could hold myself high that, thanks to me, all the girls were dressed prettily.
In those days there were many things about my mother’s nature that I didn’t understand, so this was also a riddle to me. Still, I obeyed my mother in all things. I wanted to be like her—as smart as her and, most of all, as pious as her. I had no time to pray every day like she did because she would say the prayers by heart and at the same time get various tasks done. I was not yet able to pray from memory, and I didn’t have the time to stop in the middle of something and sit down with a prayer book.
Therefore I would devote the Sabbath entirely to God. In the morning I would pray with great fervor, and saying the blessings at the noonday meal was also a pleasure for me. After the meal I would begin reciting: first the Torah portion, afterward the Nakhles Tsvi, then a bit of Shevet Musar; and in summer Pirkei Avot or in winter the psalms from Borkhi Nafshi. Then I would say the prayers for Mincha, Got fun Avrom, and finally V’Yiten L’kho—“And He will give.”
The Sabbath day would give me strength for the entire week. Oh, how dear the holy day was for me! In it I found everything that I lacked during the week—tranquility, sleep, good food, strolling with my wealthy girlfriend, and above all the pleasure of reading. Reading was my entire life. I felt happy reading the Shevet Musar with the Kav HaYashar. I thought that there was no better thing in the whole world than reading. Torah was so dear to me, with its beautiful tales of our ancient past; and the Shevet Musar was also compelling, with its terrifying stories of Gehenem.
In the Shevet Musar, I would read that at the door of Gehenem you could already see what terrible things were happening inside because on the door people were hanging by their feet, by their hands, and even by their hair. These last ones were women who received that terrible punishment for going about with their own hair. Reading about this, I would think about how wretched it was for the people who ended up there.
My own devoutness came from this terror of Gehenem because I feared such punishment. I thought that as I got older I would become continually more pious, and, especially when I married, I would certainly then be devout. I would see to it that all the mitzvahs were fulfilled. I planned to pray three times a day, not to eat without reciting the blessing; as best I could, I would try to say one hundred blessings every day. By then I would assuredly be most fortunate! I would continue to bring in the Sabbath with beauty, and the same for holidays. Should I be rich, I’d place Sefer Torahs in the synagogues with great fanfare; I would help the poor as much as I was able. Charity was for me the most cherished and best mitzvah because the mitzvah of prayer would be challenging for me. And the mitzvah of charity, I thought to myself, is so easy and good. Before I would begin to pray, there would be an entire war in my heart. My yeyster tov, my inclination to good, would struggle against my yeyster hore, my inclination to evil—the mitzvah to pray versus the craving to read books.
Sabbath morning, I would get up well-rested with a tranquil mind and drink a nice glass of chicory mixed with milk and sweetened, and it even had a thick skin on top. My mother would prepare all this for me before she left for synagogue. In the house it was clean and quiet. I felt sure that now I wouldn’t see any gentiles, those thieves. It felt so good to me. If I could make it through the week to this one good day, I wanted to enjoy it as much as possible: skip about town, go strolling in Yashtsikover forest, or read a fine story from the books that my grandmother, the rebbetsin, used to give me. My grandmother had an entire library—not of novels, God forbid, but of wonderful books, descriptive stories, tales from the rabbis, from our saints, the tsadikim, and the same from the Hasidic rebbes.
These books were very interesting to me. I could barely wait for the Sabbath, when I’d be able to read something again, but one must also not forget about God; before anything else, I would pick up the Korban Mincha. But my yeyster hore wouldn’t leave me alone. It told me that my books were better than praying and that such a young girl isn’t even required to pray yet. Besides which, it said to me, who is going to know if I’ve prayed or not? After all, my mother wasn’t even here. I could tell her whatever I wanted. And thinking this way, I would put aside the prayer book and find myself picking up the book of stories. But suddenly I would catch a glimpse of the Shevet Musar and recall the bitter suffering of those in Gehenem, how the wicked are tortured there; my heart began to thump and a chill of terror ran through my bones. Then my yeyster tov would come and tell me how wonderful it is to pray, to serve and praise God for all things, and that as a result in the World to Come I would be worthy of Heaven. And it presented to me beautiful pictures of Paradise, just like I read about in one of mother’s prayer books. In these thoughts I would see how beautiful it was: a large garden with fine fruit trees. Under each tree sat a tsadik in a golden chair, near a golden table. On the table lay unfurled a Torah, and the tsadikim sat there and studied its secrets. The sky above their heads was blue, and the sun shone down on everyone. In the middle of the garden stood the Eyts HaKhayim, the Tree of Life, an enormous tree with so many branches that it covered the entire garden and its shade protected the tsadikim from the sun’s heat. The brightness of the sun’s beams filtered down through the leaves of the tree. From this tree emanated such a delicious aroma that it satisfied your appetite just to smell it. Consequently, the tsadikim didn’t even need to eat in Paradise.
This is how I used to imagine everything, standing on Sabbath morning next to the cupboard of books, holding in one hand whichever storybook and in the other the Korban Mincha. I would be just about to set the storybook aside when a glimpse of the title would pull me to just take a look at the first page to see how the story began. But quickly I would toss it aside and by doing this reject my yeyster hore. I would open the Korban Mincha and begin to pray, and it was just in these moments that I felt good. I would pray with fervor; during the Shema Yisroel, I would raise my eyes to heaven and say the words slowly, just like my mother did. Later, at the Shemoneh Esrei, I would stand as I had once read in the Shulchan Aruch—that you must stand just as if you were before a king. I would lift up my hand to my heart to show God that I praised him with my entire being. Afterward I no longer thought of anything but God. I felt that my yeyster tov had triumphed, it had expelled its adversary, and now it stood in charge of me. It alone sat in my heart and persuaded my thoughts toward good, toward how to be pious and honest and to serve God. Oh, how far I would travel with my thoughts in those days, far, far up to the heavens, up to God’s chair itself—there where all prayers stand and plead that they be granted. The angel takes all the prayers and from them makes a crown to place on the head of the heavenly king. And to me it appeared that among all the prayers that made up the crown, prayers that glittered like diamonds, there shone forth also a tiny diamond from the prayer of an eleven-year-old girl, upon which the king himself looked with pleasure and rejoiced. Oh, most certainly will He, the king of all kings, send happiness upon the world because the people send him such marvelous diamonds for his crown.
Seeing this in my mind, I would soar across the entire world and all of its seven heavens. I felt so wonderful there that I had no desire whatsoever to come back to the foolish, sinning world. I was so engrossed in my thoughts that I wouldn’t realize that the prayers had concluded. Come the Aleinu, I would feel as if I were somehow descending from a high, green mountain to a gray, impoverished valley. Yet soon I would be back to the land of the living and run out to the porch to see the people coming home from synagogue and tell each of them: Gut Shabes! Soon I would catch sight of my mother with the new blue calico dress, with the silk scarf of large flowers. This scarf is still with me, stashed away. And my mother would glow so that you wanted to look at her over and over again, although her face was somber. My mother rarely laughed or smiled, but through her sadness her beauty was even more apparent.
My mother was always sad and didn’t like it when we would shriek and rollick about. One of my younger brothers, a real scamp, would put on an entirely different air of good behavior when my mother was at home.
My mother never made any allowances for us. Though we were small children, she wanted us to show the judgment of grown-ups. She couldn’t bear to see any type of defect in us; she never wanted to consider that all people have flaws, and she wanted her children to be the best in the entire world.
My mother was strict with us and never openly showed us her love. She never kissed or caressed us. She loved us like life itself yet never said a loving word to us. This stemmed from how children were raised in Lithuania; they were brought up in severity and coldness. The Lithuanian mothers hid their love away in their hearts and didn’t display it to their children. This was so that they wouldn’t become spoiled nor lose their fear of their parents, because the result would be indulging them in everything. Yet what a false perspective this was! Such mothers didn’t understand that doing this made things worse: they distanced themselves from their children, and the children became alienated from them and all the more uncommunicative. They wouldn’t tell their mothers anything, and the mothers knew nothing about them, not knowing when things were going badly for them and when they were going well. They would rather tell their secrets to outsiders, not their mothers, who became all the more a stranger like any other, one who has never said a loving word to them, never given them a kiss, never a caress. When a child was bad, they used force and made it even worse. The greater the punishment, the greater the resistance to obeying. Yet a disobedient child can be corrected with goodness, with love, and the entire fault for the injurious upbringing lies with the mothers. With a motherly kiss, with a loving smile, she can convince the child of anything, even a misbehaving one. A mother’s loving words, along with a warm kiss that she bestows upon her children when they’re young, stay dear to one’s heart until death. You can find delight in them for your entire life.
I remember that I would often pretend to be sick and not eat for a few days so that my mother would think that I was ill. She’d come up to me, feel my head to see if it was hot, and give me a kiss on the brow. She would sit next to me and question me with soft, loving words, asking me what was the matter. And when I would feel my mother’s kiss and my mother’s hand on my forehead, my eyes would light up. I wanted to dance and jump for joy, do all things, follow my mother through fire and water, so long as she would look upon me lovingly that way and give me those kisses at least once every three days. Oh, if it would always be this way, how happy I would have been! I always wanted to stay sick for several more days, but I would crave food, and moreover my heart hurt for my mother: I saw how she would sit and look at me, her eyes full of tears, and tell me that she’d go call Khone, the country doctor—this made me really scared. I wasn’t afraid that he would be able to tell that I was faking but of the bitter medicines that he always gave me.
When Khone came, my mother would ask him what he thought—was it, God forbid, something serious? If it was, she would say, “I’ll go straight away to the doctor in Seltz,” and tears would immediately begin pouring from her eyes. But she would quickly wipe them away and rush up to me: “My child, it’s time already to take the medicine; today you must drink down the whole bottle. Khone has said that tomorrow he’ll give you another bottle like this. When you’ve taken both of them, you’ll be all better.”
Meanwhile, everything around me turned dark—to take two bottles of bitter medicine, and for what? I desperately needed to eat, I was starving, and Khone had ordered that I not be given anything to eat if I didn’t drink the two bottles. So there was nothing to do but lie in bed for another two days without eating—and all for a kiss from my mother and a caress on my head!
How dearly my mother’s kiss cost me, yet the happiness it gave me kept me going for months, until I would once again yearn for her kiss and repeat the same performance.
Oh, forgive me, dear, beloved, devoted mother for my childish follies that cost you your health. It wasn’t my fault; it’s my nature. I love to see loving, smiling faces around me; I love to hear soft speech. When I have this about me, I feel happy. Today good words and a cheerful face still go a long way with me. I believe that a joyful face and kind words are linked to a good heart. Even now I can’t understand how someone’s face can smile and their mouth say all types of good things when in their heart it’s exactly the opposite. This I’ll never be able to comprehend.
Still, dear mother, you were wiser and more practical than I was. You knew that a good heart is more important than a happy face. You didn’t show us your motherly love but rather carried it as a treasure hidden in your heart. Certainly you thought that your children knew for themselves that you loved them with all your heart. I remember how you would not take any meat for yourself and give your share to us because you needed to save up for my tuition, which was an entire seven rubles a semester.
My mother did devote herself to me. She wanted me to have all types of delights; she even wanted me to be able to dance. To that she would turn to Khaye-Beyle, who had a reputation in our town as a dancer, and ask that she take me with her to all the weddings. Consequently, Khaye-Beyle would also dance, for which my mother paid her. I was, of course, in seventh heaven.
Because of her good dancing, Khaye-Beyle was a star at every wedding. No one would start the dancing at a wedding without her. Let her come at midnight; they waited for her, and indeed, without her the wedding would seem a bit dreary. Upon her arrival everyone became merrier. The klezmorim would strike up a tune when she was spotted because they already knew her well, and, truly, Khaye-Beyle would immediately take up a collection of money for a quadrille. The price for a dance in our town was not always the same because there would be various klezmorim at our weddings. When Shimen the blacksmith would play, it cost three kopeks a dance; when Seltzer klezmorim were brought in it would cost a ten-piece per dance. [. . .]
Khaye-Beyle was very dear to me because of the weddings she took me to. To tell the truth, it wasn’t the dancing that made me so keen on the weddings but the music. When I detected the sound of Shloyme’s fiddle, I would go almost crazy with delight. To me, it sounded like the fiddle sang and spoke. You didn’t hear words, it seemed, but it felt like it was telling beautiful, delectable stories. There was no greater pleasure for me than to hear it play. Fortunately, in this there was plenty around to keep me happy. In our town there was Shloyme the blacksmith with his violin, Ivan’s boy with his accordion and pipe, and the priest’s young ladies with the piano. The priest’s grand piano was actually broken, but my ear wasn’t hard to please—as long as it was music, it didn’t matter what it was.
I remember those happy summer nights so well when I would stand in the street for hours and listen to the music playing. The moon illuminated the entire town. The sky was blue, clear. In town it was quiet. Everyone was already asleep; only the gentiles still sat in the tavern, and at my house my mother was bustling about. At the priest’s, however, all was merry; his house was all lit up. The girls played the piano so beautifully that one would never want to leave. My mother yelled to me to go to bed because tomorrow she had to wake me early, but I pleaded with her to let me stay up a little longer. I couldn’t tear myself from my spot and leave. To me it was so nice, so delicious. I listened to the music and looked at the beautiful moon. Oh, how beautiful the moon was! I would sit watching, thinking perhaps I would see a face in the moon. I would pay close attention and indeed a face would emerge, then it would be gone, and then it would show itself once again.
I would be so engrossed in this, looking at the moon’s face and listening to the piano, that I forgot where I was. All my limbs would become hardened together and I would sit welded to the bench as if I were made of stone. Sometimes also on a moonlit night a boy would play for himself a pipe, and this would fill my entire heart with sweetness and pleasure; with the tune I would soar up to the face of the moon, and the notes of the piano would accompany me there. Had my mother not brought me into the house herself, I probably would have fallen asleep outside. But my mother would lead me off, and having come into the house, long did I look through the window at the poetic, beautiful night.
Rokhl Feygenberg (1885–1972) was born in the shtetl of Lyuban, Belarus. Feygenberg’s father died when she was young, and she was raised by her paternal grandfather, the Rabbi of Lyuban, and her mother, Soreh Epstein, niece of the Hebrew-Yiddish writer Zalmen Epstein, who supported her family with a store. As a child, Feygenberg studied Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, arithmetic, and the Torah. She began writing at age thirteen.
Feygenberg was a prolific writer throughout her life, first in Yiddish and then in Hebrew after settling in Israel in 1933. Only one of her books, Af fremde vegn (Strange Ways), has been translated into English.
Ruth Murphy’s translations have appeared in the Jewish Review of Books, Metamorphoses, Pakn Treger, and the Yiddish in Translation section of the Yiddish Book Center’s website. Her translation The Canvas and Other Stories by Salomea Perl was published in a bilingual edition by Ben Yehuda Press in 2021. Upcoming works include a translation of Hersh Smoliar’s Yidn on gele lates (Jews without Yellow Patches), also published bilingually, and further works by Hersh Smoliar and Jacob Gordin.