The Rebbetzin’s Sense of Justice


The Rebbetzin's Sense of Justice

By Lili Berger

Translated from Yiddish by Ronnee Jaeger


He was small, skinny, timid, eyes always downcast. She the opposite, big, full-bodied, a Jewish Cossack who tolerated no injustice. A big talker! These were my teachers, Reb Fishel and his wife Khaye.
Behind his back they called him “Fisheleh hunchback”, although he was not a hunchback, merely bent over. And her they called Big Khaye. We, the seven-year-old pupils, called Big Khaye “Rebbetzin”.
How two such opposites were brought together, only God in heaven, knows. In our shtetl there was a story told that when Fisheleh saw his betrothed for the first time, under the bridal canopy, he almost fainted from fear. Opinion had it that this first scare pursued him all his life, not because Big Khaye was a miserable or wretched wife, quite the opposite. She had a good heart and could bear no injustice. She protected her husband like a mother hen protects her chicks, as if, without her, Fisheleh Hunchback would, God forbid, have drowned in the waves of life like a leaky ship in the ocean.
So what then? From their first moment together the contrast between the dreamy other-worldly Fisheleh and his down to earth Big Khaye terrified him.
It often happened that the absent-minded Rebbe forgot where he put things, and most often this misfortune happened with his eyeglasses.
Here we sat, the whole gang of pupils, around the long scratched table, waiting for the signal to begin, while the Rebbe wandered about, searching, sighing, and eyeing us with suspicion. Finally he mutters “No one saw the glasses? My glasses? Which one of you… didn’t see? How…?” “We didn’t see,” the children answered in chorus. Helplessness and sadness were etched on the Rebbe’s face, but we pranksters didn’t pay much attention. You couldn’t say we disliked the Rebbe and wanted revenge, we simply enjoyed these moments.
Whoever had anything in his pocket, pulled it out, and away we went: a button for a string, a string for a glass, a peppermint for a macaroon. We settled all the old accounts: whoever was owed a pinch, a jab, a quick punch in the nose — this was an opportunity to repay our debts. The victim took the gift with a quiet groan, with resignation, or hit back immediately. So, without the captain’s oversight, the gang around the table, quietly waved their hands about, whispered, and would have continued happily who knows how long, were it not for the Rebbetzin. In the kitchen, separated from the classroom by a folding screen, Big Khaye sensed that something was not right. Instantly she appeared before the unruly gang and with her thunderous voice shouted, “Quiet here immediately!” As though by a magic wand, all transactions, accounts, and tricks stopped. Three rows of urchins around the table were silenced, not so much out of fear, but because of the Rebbetzin’s authority. It didn’t occur to any of us that we could disobey Big Khaye.
Then the Rebbetzin went into the second act. She approached the table, where the rabbi’s chair stood, sized us up with a severe searching glance, lifted one prayer book after another, and then, turning to face the Rebbe, stuck her hand into the pocket of his robe and pulled out his eyeglasses. Once she had even pulled out a lost pointer from the Rebbe’s pants pocket. The Rebbe, standing like a lost lamb, like a strapped school child, looked even smaller and thinner. The Rebbetzin then faced him with these words: “Here are your glasses, clumsy, dummy. First have your glasses ready, and then seat the scamps at the table.”
In addition to the women’s work, of which the Rebbetzin had more than enough, she also kept an eye on the whole classroom, and on each pupil. She knew who was a blockhead and who had a quick mind, who was capable of sitting a whole day like a block of wood, who was up to nasty tricks; who brought fine food for lunch, and who, unfortunately, chewed a dry piece of bread.
More than anything she sought justice and righteousness; most important for her was righteousness. Even in figuring out the school fees, not the Rebbe, but the Rebbetzin, decided. “You say that Reb Fishel let you down? What does he know?” she answered the haggling woman with a question, and continued. “Why should you demand that Khana Dvora the widow pay the same school fee as you? You have a breadwinner, may he live to one hundred and twenty. Is it not fair that you should pay the entire school fee and Khana Dvora half? What do you think – has he become the decision maker? It is not his business for whom to lower fees and for whom not. His business is to teach the children!” And it remained not as the Rebbe had agreed, but as the Rebbetzin had judged.
In only one aspect of the school did Big Khaye not interfere: the pedagogical side, in the teaching method. Perhaps because Reb Fishel had a reputation in town as a God-fearing, honourable Jew, or perhaps because she respected him as a Torah scholar while she was a simple, unlearned woman, Big Khaye gave no suggestions regarding her husband’s pedagogy and methodology. And Reb Fishel had a brilliant teaching method: he put the greatest emphasis on the individual child. The whole group was arranged sitting on the floor against the wall, and the Rebbe called each one to the table, and kept each little prodigy until he was certain that he had knocked some learning into his head.
Only once a day, the Rebbe seated all the children around the long table and taught them as a group, repeating the lesson in unison. This was indeed the Rebbe’s most difficult task. We, his pupils, knew the Rebbe’s weaknesses, his helplessness when he had to deal with us all together. “Why are you looking out the window?” “And you there, why are you staring like a clumsy fool?” “And you, why are you squirming like a worm?”
“Yankeleh always has a drippy nose.”
“Rebbe, Shloimeleh pinched me.”
”Dovidl made fun of me. Dov v id dle m-m-made fun of m me,” stuttered Faivel Sepliak.
From words, the Rebbe moved to action. He didn’t have a strap at hand, the reason being that it was against his pedagogic philosophy. But he had two thin bony hands and, whether he wanted to or not, he had to use them at times. He slowly shuffled over to the guilty ones, to one he gave a tweak on the ear, to a second he gave a light slap, to a third a whack; then the Rebbe returned to his place with a pained look, as though use of corporal punishment was a hard experience for him. Even Dovidl, the mischief-maker a nickname the Rebbetzin gave him used to say that the Rabbi’s smack really didn’t hurt.
I don’t know, because his punishing hand never fell on me. I was the only girl among the entire group of boys. It is very possible that the Rebbe, Reb Fishel, was a gentleman, or wouldn’t want his hand to touch a female, because actually I deserved it. The Rebbe used to say that I was worse than a boy. Oy, you will say, how does a girl get into a boys’ classroom? About this I only know this answer: it was arranged between my mother peace be with her and Big Khaye; and when the Rebbetzin agreed, the Rebbe had to agree. For me it was generally good: I was a girl and never received my earned punishments.
But the Rebbe’s punishment would have been useless, were it not for the Rebbetzin. She always knew, from behind the folding screen, that something was going on in the classroom. She appeared in full majesty to quickly make order.
“What? Again? You are as pale as a corpse.” She looked at her foolish husband.
“They drive me out of my mind,” the Rebbe responded with a tearful voice.
“Well, woe to him who allows himself to be driven out of his mind. And from such unruly types. Is it worth raising a hand to them? You have to yell, such a look give them that they will feel it in their belly.” After this lecture that she gave the Rebbe, the Rebbetzin turned to us, gave a look that actually cut through to the belly, and ordered: “Silence, do you hear?” Is there any a question that we listened?
In addition to her inborn abilities to control people in times of upset, the Rebbetzin had many more talents. She showed great womanly skills in baking macaroons and fefferlakh (gingerbread cookies), which the students purchased, some for one groshen, and some for two or three groshen. Faivel got them for free.
In the kheders of our shtetl, there was a tradition for which a rebbe’s wife was responsible: she baked macaroons and fefferlakh that melted in your mouth, and looked like little yellow geese with red eyes. But none could compare to our Rebbetzin’s macaroon and fefferlakh that melted into all your limbs; Big Khaye outdid them all.
But mostly our Rebbetzin had a reputation with us for her sense of justice. First, she didn’t see it as fair that the littlest pupils should be stuck in school from early morning till evening. Every day, at a certain hour she sent us outside for a bit, and kept an eye on us through the little kitchen window. “Let’s go! Be on your way, air yourselves out!” she ordered, opening the door wide. She didn’t have to ask long. But the Rebbe occasionally protested.
“You’re already chasing them out? I haven’t accomplished the day’s work, I need more time.”
“It’s okay, tomorrow is also God’s day.”
“You are breaking up my classroom, you are destroying the, the… you don’t let me…” whined the Rebbe with his weak, crying voice.
“Destroyed? Destroyed? And where is your justice? To keep children locked in the whole day, in such a heat?”
“We are still, heaven forbid, not Gentiles. Jewish children sit in school a whole day. Are you raging against heaven? And what in heaven has been…” The Rebbe gathered his courage.
“When God almighty sends us such a beautiful day, with such a bright sun, He wants his children to enjoy it.”
“You are a woman and…” the Rebbe could not contain himself, yet he was not bold enough to speak his mind.
“And if a woman, so what? Just look at him, my big shot!” And the Rebbetzin gave him such a look that the Rebbe was immediately silenced.
On such a heavenly day, we used to stay outdoors longer than usual. When the Rebbetzin considered that we had had our fill of air and sun, she again opened the door wide, and ordered “Into the classroom.”
The object of the Rebbetzin’s greatest concern was Faivel Sepliak. Faivel was the young son of Hanah Dvora the washerwoman, a widow. He was called Sepliak because he had been nursed a long time. Therefore, he started school late and was the eldest among us. It seems something was wrong in his head. When he spoke, his entire face moved, as did his hands. No one knew exactly what was wrong with him. We all had an affection for Faivel. Maybe the Rebbetzin’s concern affected us. Nevertheless, it was difficult to keep ourselves from laughing. Big Khaye forbade us from making fun of him, so sometimes we would choke with laughter, covering our mouths with both hands, and giggling. We had to be very careful not to call him by his nickname. If the Rebbetzin caught someone calling Faivel “Sepliak” or mimicking his way of speaking, he got such a gift that he would be careful not to repeat it again. Faivel was given special privileges in the classroom. Like all the children, he brought lunch to school, but his lunch was dry dark bread.
Yoyne, the butcher’s son, shared his warm lunch. Shakhne the butcher was more of a cattle dealer than a butcher. People used to say about him that he was a schemer, an “operator”.
It seems that his youngest son Yoyne didn’t take after the father. He was a round chubby boy with thick red cheeks and clumsy hands. He carried himself like a leaden bird.
“A blockhead, nothing goes in, go do something about it,” the Rebbe complained.
“A child shouldn’t stuff so much into himself. He must have a hole in his stomach, or an endless intestine,” the Rebbetzin explained.
Yoyne used to bring a red linen bag of all the best foods for lunch. Big Khaye gathered the warm lunches together in the morning, and put them on the high cupboard so that the children shouldn’t “peck like hens at their lunches.” At noon, each child received his lunch. Big Khaye was never mistaken; with closed eyes she knew what belonged to whom. Faivel Sepliak usually chewed a dry crust of bread, occasionally he had a piece of sugar which the Rebbetzin had given him. Suddenly he was restored by a piece of stuffed chicken neck that came into his meager portion, or a roasted chicken liver. Faivel asked no questions only his eyes shone and his mouth swallowed.
Everyone in the group of rascals knew from where Faivel’s good luck came. We were happy that Faivel Sepliak also had some pleasure in life. Only one, Yoyne, sat sulking, chewed, and looked at Faivel angrily.
Once at lunch, Faivel enjoyed a big yellow pear, chewing with obvious delight and relishing each juicy bite, maybe for the first time. His entire face ate. Every feature was at work. Often when he spoke, his eyes silently wept, but now they sparkled with glee. Yoyne also chewed a pear, chewed, looking angrily at Faivel. Suddenly he shoved his hand into the red bag and blurted out: “There were two pears, two, now there is one.”
“One is not enough for you?” the Rebbetzin spoke out from behind the folding screen. “That’s why you are a blockhead, you stuff too much into yourself.”
“One is not enough for you,” the children repeated the Rebbetzin’s words, and took revenge on Yoyne, who was not liked by the pupils.
The next day Yoyne’s mother appeared. A short woman, heavyset, her big belly preceding her. She rolled into the school, angry, and, without a “good morning,” went straight behind the folding screen, where the Rebbetzin, with a master hand, was preparing the macaroons and fefferlakh. The Rebbe paled. Yoyne, learning at the table, turned his head away. Our unruly gang, seated against the wall, began stuffing into our pockets little buttons, pieces of string, small stones; we perked up our ears. We children knew that something would play itself out here, as soon as we heard this dialogue:
“Tell me, my dear Khaye, if it’s true, what my Yoyne tells.”
“What, for instance, does your Yoyne tell?”
“He says that you give half his lunch to Sepliak.”
“Your Yoyne exaggerates. A half, no, but something yes.”
“So tell me my dear Khaye, is it right to take from my child’s mouth and give it to another? Is it fair?”
“So tell me, my dear Bryne, is it fair that your Yoyne should eat so much, that it actually gives him a stuffed head? And a poor orphan should waste away?”
“Khaye, what are you thinking, Khaye? You think there are no rules in this world?”
“What I myself think? I think that there should be a little justice in the world. Meanwhile you stuff your Yoyne. Because of this, nothing goes into his head, his stomach is always so stuffed that he moves like a leaden bird… and… and, don’t take offence, he fouls the air. One shouldn’t overstuff a child this way and a poor orphan should…”
“What are you saying, Khaye? It is not yet a lawless world. We’ll see about that, Khaye, we’ll see…”
The butcher’s wife was not finished. She was probably afraid that with big Khaye none of her arguments would do. Pushing her belly forward, she left the school in a burning rage, and repeated “We’ll see yet! We’ll see...”
The Rebbe, pale, frightened, arose from his bench, took a few steps to the folding screen, and sighed. “You will… you will yet, God forbid, bring a tragedy with your mouth, with your ways, with… with… Horrors, such a tongue.”
“You’re already frightened? By whom? By Bryne, the butcher’s wife? Just look how pale you have become.”
“She is basically right.”
“How is she right? Is this how you judge? Is this the way you have God in your heart? Where is your justice?’
“Justice, justice. Even in a rabbinical court she will… she will perhaps be found to be right.”
“So let her take me to court! Am I afraid? Let her. I will prove to the rabbi that it is not according to law and not according to justice that one should eat to the bursting point and another should starve. Is it right that Bryndle’s young son should stuff himself and an orphan shouldn’t have enough to eat? There must still be a bit of justice!” the Rebbetzin announced with such conviction and resolve that the Rebbe went silently back to his place. It seems he understood that big Khaye was prepared to stand not only before the law, before the rabbis, but even before God Himself in order to demand that there should be some justice in the world.
Copyright © Ronnee Jaeger 2020

Lili Berger (the author) (1916-1996). Born in Malken (near Bialystok), Berger was a prolific literary critic and essayist, as well as a novelist and playwright. She received a religious education, completed high school in Warsaw, studied in Brussels, and settled in Paris at the end of 1936. She taught Yiddish and contributed to important periodicals. During the Nazi occupation of France, together with her husband, Louis Gronowski, she was active in the Resistance and was involved in the rescue of Jewish children from deportation. She returned to Warsaw after the war but was forced to leave in 1968 during the great exodus which she bitterly referred to as the ‘trikener pogrom’ (the bloodless pogrom). She resumed her literary activity in Paris, living there until her death in 1995.
Her articles and essays were often about writers and artists, including Franz Kafka, Janusz Korczak, Simone de Beauvoir, and Chaim Soutine — people she had known personally, who had experienced the horrors of the Holocaust, Soviet Gulag, or other ordeals in post-war Communist Poland. Her fiction depicted characters scarred by the Holocaust. Her collections include Today and Yesterday (1965), Essays and Sketches (1965), After the Flood (1967), Broken Branches (1970), In the Course of Time (1976), From Near and Far (1978), Incomplete Pages (1982), and Echoes of Distant Times.
Ronnee Jaeger (the translator) was a social worker in the Jewish Community until her retirement in 2000. She was a teacher at the Toronto Hillel Sunday School, fondly remembered as a gifted teacher by her young students (now middle aged!).While politically active in Israel for many years, she also served as the Jerusalem culture/political correspondent for Outlook Magazine, 2005-2015. She has been involved in Yiddish poetry, literature, and translation since her arrival in Toronto in 1970. She has participated in translations to Found Treasures (1994, edited by Frieda Forman), and recently translated several works by Lili Berger, as a member of the Toronto Collective of Translation of Yiddish Women Writers.

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