Immediately after completing my educational courses in Grodno in the fall of 1909, I arrived in Vitebsk as a teacher in their Talmud Torah. This was a reformed Talmud Torah, i.e. not the same as the old traditional Talmud Torahs, but a modern school with a broad spectrum of Jewish studies. Reformed Talmud Torahs such as this were present, at that time, in the larger cities, and they were under the directorship of modernists. In Vitebsk, the new administration of the Talmud Torah consisted of a banker, Finkelshteyn, whose presence at the school was very limited, three doctors: Neyfakh, Liberman and the well-known Zionist leader, Dr. Bruk. I do not recall any others. In addition, there was also Mrs. Berenshteyn, whose husband owned a pharmacy near Mahilever Street and the Smolensky Way. Of course, it is understandable that such an administration would fire the `old' teachers and bring in modern studies and modern teachers.
By the time I arrived in late fall, all the changes had already been instituted, but the school was still not functioning because of a cholera epidemic in town. True, it was not a bad epidemic and it did not affect the more intelligent and aware circle, but the schools remained closed until November.
The Talmud Torah had two sections: the main section was in the city center with several very well-attended classes and a number of teachers. The second location, near the station, had a section with two classes and two teachers. The third section was very small -- a Talmud Torah with one teacher for two classes (because of poverty, they would often just practice.)
The program of the Talmud Torahs was very similar to those in the elementary schools: Russian, arithmetic and a little Russian history. Jewish studies were taught in a much more flexible program: Khumash, Tanakh, and a little bit of prayer, and quite often, Hebrew was also taught. This depended upon the individual teacher's ideology. The administration had little to do with program and subjects. Yiddish was seldom taught, and that -- without permission. In the regular Yiddish schools of that time, the divisive flame of Yiddish vs. Hebrew burned brightly. This battle between the two was weaker in the Talmud Torahs. It is worthwhile to mention that the general subjects included nature-study, upon which the reactionary government looked with suspicion and, to some degree, they were justified because the progressive teachers (such as the intelligentsia) saw in the spread of nature-study a means of the people freeing themselves. This is not the appropriate place to explain the ties of science with freedom, although for people in the Americas it could probably be new and interesting. However, this was fact. The popularization of natural sciences contributed much to the rise of the revolution.
Prayer in the Vitebsk Talmud Torah was first instituted at the end of 1912 against the protests of the teachers, and this truly was the reason why the other teachers and I left in protest.
Two long-time teachers did remain: Briskin, a Jew with a large family and most probably not a wealthy man... he taught Khumash and general Jewish studies; the second was Donde, and he taught only general subjects -- a Russianized Jew, a former commonplace rabbi. Outstanding among the younger ones was Zalman Avigdor Khrapkov (Khrapkovski). He supported a large family of brothers and sisters and his mother who was a widow. They lived in a basement apartment. He was very talented, with a cheerful personality, always joking, full of artistic ideas. Many years later, it came to my attention that he was an important part of the Communist party, holding a high office.
I just want to mention Donde, the elderly Russianized individual who had his ``pedagogic principles'': the entire new pedagogy which always speaks of ``development'' but has but an ounce of gunpowder in its guns. A teacher should enter the classroom with a ruler in his hand -- the students always need to be aware of this ruler, and thus the teacher will have good discipline in the class. The most important thing of a child's education is his handwriting. When a child learns proper penmanship, he even can become a bookkeeper. And what can you possibly accomplish with your ``development'' if your students cannot even write properly or even sharpen a pencil properly? Do you know how one must sharpen a pencil? A clever child will always have a sharpened pencil, cut at an angle. If you want to write with a thin line, use the point, if you want to make a thick line, use the flat part. Do you understand?
All of this he taught me quite often and he was proud of this. We used to meet every day in the small division where he taught general studies as well as Jewish studies. He kept good discipline -- the children were afraid of him, and as for me, they were just the opposite -- so do you think that he was wrong in his pedagogic ideas?
The other teachers were not outstanding in any way - it was a time of reactionary ideas. More interesting were the members of the administration whom I knew. These were Mrs. Berenshteyn and the Doctors Liberman and Bruk. Mrs. Berenshteyn lived near the small section where I was supposed to teach two classes at the same time, and experienced terrible troubles because of the lack of discipline. She would appear at the school almost every day and comfort me, try to encourage me, that I should not take this to heart, not so terrible, it is worse for others... She was cheerful, full of laughter. Many times I would find a book on my desk. The clerk would tell me that it had been left for me by Mrs. Berenshteyn. To this day, I am thankful to her -- she made my difficult experiences easier during my first years as a teacher.
A person from a high station in life was Dr. ``Zvi ben Yaakov Bruk'' -- this is what the small sign upon his door read. However, we called him Grigori Yakovlevitch in accordance with the Russian style. At that time, he had no family. For a long time, his mother lived with him. She would beg him: ``Hirshe, go eat'' -- not Grigori and not Zvi. He was one of the first Zionist-activists in Russia, always sought out by the Zionist Congresses, a deputy in the first Russian Duma (Parliament). Along with all the other radical deputies who, in Vyborg, signed the call to the populace after the government disbanded the Duma, Dr. Bruk was not allowed to participate in the political life of the country. At that time, Dr. Bruk occupied himself only with community work, and most particularly, with the literary community. This was a legally recognized society which held open meetings and lectures. These actually took place almost every week. Dr. Bruk was always the chairman -- dynamic, energetic, he was pleasant, humorous and a masterful participant in discussions. He did not tolerate ideologic differences. I can remember an occasion when a Jew, a writer in Russian, Okuniev, wanted to address the society. He spoke pathetically about those who did not attempt to change their lives, who continued to live in dire circumstances... Bruk lit into him: ``We do not need those Jews who come to give us compliments.'' And this was spoken with such fervor and fire! I remember that he had to deliver a lecture about Bialik. He asked if he could visit him one evening in case he needed a Hebrew word that he didn't know, while preparing for his lecture. I arrived to the lecture earlier than he. The large apartment was occupied: in I room there was a committee meeting, in a second room there was a rehearsal for a performance, people sitting around somewhere else and he exchanged a few words with me:
- ``Where are you going, Doctor?''
- ``Where am I going? I am making house calls. Come, sit near me. We will ride together and have a good discussion. It is so lonely.''
- ``You go - I am tired. I want to eat,'' I tried to beg off but it did no good.
- ``That's nothing now. I, too, am tired. One should not eat when one is tired. You will rest while riding with me before you eat.''
How can one refuse? He was rarely in a good mood during the ride. ``Such poverty! Such poverty! Rich folk never call me, only the poor do... when I enter such a house, I don't know what to do -should I write the prescription first or should I leave a ruble for bread or for wood?''
And he would often leave both for the patient -- for the prescription and for the bread. Once, on a cold winter's day, I spotted him riding without his winter fur hat.
- ``Doctor, where is your hat? It is so cold.''
- ``Since my luck seems to draw me to indigent people, I wound up in the early morning at the bedside of a sick poor man. There was nothing in the house: no medicines, no bread, no wood. And even my pockets were empty. What should I do? So I gave them my hat so that they might sell it. I will manage -- what could I do?''
Once, while riding in the sleigh, he spoke to the driver and told him where to go, but he received no response. ``It is always like that,'' Bruk said. ``The Christian drivers, when they drive me, they remain silent. They know that I give the Jews an extra ruble.''
When we arrived, he paid the driver, and the driver said to him in Yiddish:
- ``Thank you, Doctor.''
- ``Oh, you are a Jew, so why are you silent? I thought you were a Christian.''
- ``You shouldn't know from it, Doctor, I am a little deafi.''
- ``Oh, so here is another ruble and be well.''
A legend about him circulated around town -- how he saved a child from choking because of diphtheria.
Once on a Friday evening, I went to his home about a particular item. He was lying on a sofa, barely breathing, panting.
- ``What is wrong, Doctor?''
- ``Finally, G-d sent me a rich patient and she turned out to be an idiot. I wrote her a prescription for iodine and she drank the entire thing at one time. I barely saved her life. Who has the strength for them?''
- ``So, I will come back another time. Rest.''
- ``Oh, no, I haven't even seen a newspaper today. There is a new `Rassvet' [sunrise]. Please read it to me.'' (Note: I think this was the name of the newspaper)
There was a Yiddish theatre in Vitebsk. This occurred in the fall. Lipovski's troupe usually performed in a summer theatre out-of-doors, but it was quite cold. However, Bruk would attend the theatre every evening, and not by himself -- all of our group of young men also attended, and all at his expense. He was certainly not a rich man, but he liked the young.
He found the office hours interesting. He cured me of my discipline troubles and then I got a nervous stomach. Not wanting to exploit Bruk, who would certainly not accept any payment from me, I went to another doctor (Shaynes or Shaynim, I don't remember) and he gave me such a cure that I would require a cook and a nurse and also to be off work to do this. So I consulted with the best of my fellow teachers, with Khraplovski. He forced me to go to Bruk. I came to him at a time when there were office hours being held, a room full of Jews complaining and sighing from pain. Next to me, on a round table, lay a parchment with a ``Song to Zvi ben Yaakov'' in the style of a chapter Tehilim (psalms), written by the well-known Hebrew writer, Mordekhay ben Hillel Ha-Kohen, when Dr. Bruk left Gomel to come to Vitebsk.
There was no nurse to register the patients. The patients themselves kept track of whose turn it was. From the study (in Russia, a doctor was not allowed to exhibit any commercial signs nor have an office, only a study) one could often hear the doctor shouting at a patient: ``Don't sigh. I am more sick than you are!'' or ``I asked you to say YES and not OY!''
He opened the door to the waiting room and saw me: ``You too? Wait. I will attend to you last.''
Finally, I went into his study. He asked me to allow him to rest. During this time, he led me into a discussion: How is my work progressing? What do I have to say about this or that article?
Finally, he examined me and said: ``You went to Shayn? And he told you such and such (as if he had been present there). Such a genius. You cannot do what he proposed, so you know what? I will cure you. Instead of compresses, tie a towel around you at night...'' and so forth, ``...and if this will not help you, I will cure you with medicine.''
Once Jews had such doctors. There is a side street in Tel Aviv which carries the name of Dr. Bruk.
He participated very little in the day-to-day running of the Tahmud Torah.
There were no major developments with regard to pedagogy vis-a-vis the Talmud Torah, but even less occurred in the elementary school (Gotchalgaye [?] Uchilische) for Jewish children even though one of the best teachers was Yaakov Gershteyn, who in later years became one of the most important figures in the schools of Vilna.
Bureaucracy did not permit the introduction of any new ideas, no modern pedagogic thought. In this sense, the Talmud Torah was a lot freer and forward-moving: here the hackneyed routine did not prevail and the teachers had more freedom. It was even permissible on a free Sabbath, for the children to come to the teacher who would read them one of Sholom Aleikhem's stories in Yiddish. However, such violation of the Sabbath was kept from the members of the administration, probably not even all the teachers knew and certainly not the director of the Talmud Torah.
No matter how difficult the reaction was, to read in the newspapers that brought the news that Tolstoy had died so dramatically -- an old man who ran away from his home and died somewhere in a forlorn spot, was startling. I made a promise to myself that in the Russian class I taught, I would read aloud one of Tolstoy's children's stories. As it happened, first thing in the morning, an inspector arrived and he requested to be present at an arithmetic lesson and to have the Russian class afterwards. Following the arithmetic class, he engaged me in a friendly discussion, and I told him that I planned to devote the following class to Tolstoy's death. He said to me: ``There are no ordinances forbidding this, but you are still so young, why do you have to look for trouble. Better not to do this...'' He wanted to prevent me from committing a sin. This was during the period of terrible reactionary thoughts.
The elementary school was ``state-run'' but actually was supported by the tax monies on kosher meat. All the teachers were former pupils of the ``state'' Teachers' Institute in Vilna. The government supported this Institute (from specific Jewish monies). From 1873 up to the evacuation of Vilna in 1915, its purpose was to prepare teachers in the Russian manner in order to tear them away entirely from the Jewish way of life. Therefore, they kept them there for a full five years in a supervised environment. They gave them scant courses relating to Jewish subjects such as the ``new Yiddish language'' (Hebrew), and they studied in Russian. They also studied a bit of Bible. The majority of those who graduated as teachers turned out quite Russified. However, there were notable exceptions as well. One of these was the previously mentioned Yaakov Gershteyn. Many years later, in the archives of the YIVO in Vilna, we found an interesting fact: after being in the Institute, he enjoyed gathering friends together to sing Yiddish songs. In the elementary school in Vitebsk, however, he was not able to exhibit his love of Yiddish. Therefore, when he became part of the literary community, he felt quite differently; tall, healthy, with a resounding clear voice, always joyful, always in a good mood... Later on, I had the opportunity of working with him in Vilna in the Teachers' Seminary. For the entire time that I was there, I do not remember that he was ever in a bad mood, unless someone from the large Seminary which Gershteyn led used an angry tone with him. In 1907 Yaakov Gershteyn was arrested for his participation in the illegal teachers' gathering in Vilna. This teachers' conference was virtually his work while he was in prison and it was there that he formulated the proposition of a Jewish school to be taught in Yiddish. Yaakov Gershteyn was one of those who could not change his ways. He died in the Vilna Ghetto in the house where he was born, the house where his mother was born and died. He did not compromise his ideals his entire life and always had a smile. His resounding silvery laughter could cause walls to tremble. In the Vitebsk elementary school he was not permitted to exhibit his total devotion to Yiddish.
His direct opposite was the director of the three-grade Jewish Folkschool, Yanevitch. His school was a sad-looking building with large words on the walls, parts of the Khumash or Tanakh, in Russian. He spoke only Russian and with the proper Russian inflection in the Moscow manner. He despised Yiddish as a religious Jew hates pig. I remember he invited us once for a glass of tea. He had heard that we young teachers were hanging around the literary community and that Yiddish was quite often spoken among us. ``I cannot understand this,'' he said to us, ``Such an old-fashioned thing to do.''
And this attitude did not prevail only during the dark reactionary times. During this period, preparations were being made in the ``underground'' of Russian life for the forthcoming revolution.
In 1910, summer courses for teachers took place in Vitebsk under the leadership of the Petersburg professors whom the Minister of Public Education had taken away from the universities. So much courageous energy these couple of hundred Russian teachers exhibited and so much love towards the people -- to the poor peasants and to the care of their souls, they were the best of the Russian intelligentsia. To this day, I remember our intimate and private discussions. We were (barely) a minyan of Jewish teachers with a professor Dehezhkin [Denezhkin?] (literature), Moychevsky (chemistry) or Lyavshin (history). As much devotion and love to the ordinary human as they had, the deepest impression was made on everyone by the apostate-Jew, Shokhan Trotsky (Methodist mathematics). As many beautiful lines of prose he had for everything and everyone, he was deeply hated by everyone. And no matter how deeply he was despised, there were many apostate-Jews... not worthwhile mentioning them. During those same summer courses, we became friends with a couple of teachers from the girls' high school of Alexandra Varvarina. We would sneak in there quite often, most especially into the laboratory of physics teacher Vladimirov from whom we learned much. These were types of Russian folk intelligentsia -- dedicated, devoted, who regarded their work to be for for ``His Holiness, the People''. Perhaps the seeds of devotion to our people and our folk-``ness'' were sown in us at that time.
Fourty-three years have passed since those times. We have grown a bit older, traveled the world, worked in almost all countries containing Jewish life, but have not forgotten the three years in Vitebsk, the first three years of my teaching career. Almost half a century has passed and I still remember the streets of the town, remind myself of the people, the personalities and troubles I endured, as well as the little bit of teaching joy I experienced. I remember our rides in the small boat on our little lake Vitbe. I also remember how we ran to get tickets to see for the first time how a person could fly in an airplane.
We once were young, the birth and building of a Jewish school presence was a dearly-held dream. Someone, somewhere has already taken the first steps, weak first steps and strong, heated discussions surrounding the language.
We saw such broad horizons in the future... Now we look back -- an ocean of blood, death and destruction. Lives and dreams, all perished, and a forlorn Yiddishkayt about which Yizkor books are written.