Page 86 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 24

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78
J
e w i s h
B
o o k
A
n n u a l
darkest period in the history of Jews in Czarist Russia, the reign
of Nicholas I (1825-1855), which saw the promulgation of one
anti-Jewish law after another. It was the time of the Cantonists
and “ snatchers,” the time when the Kahal, the very limited
Jewish self-government, was in a state of decay, and when the
economic status of Jews confined to the Pale of Settlement was
worse than ever before. Jews had to earn a livelihood from the
peasant who was still a serf, and the industrial revolution had
not yet reached Russia. Jews suffered poverty, had no civil rights
and were isolated from the world.
Maskilim
(enlighteners) were
“ one to a city and two to a family.” Sholem Yakov’s father was
sort of half a
maskil.
The father died soon after the boy’s Bar Mitzvah and left his
widow with a house full of children. So that his mother would
have one less mouth to feed, the fourteen year old boy left
home and lived in the
bes medrash
(house of study) of a
number of towns. Later he studied at the
yeshivos
of Lutsk and
Vilno, lived the life of a poor student unsure where his next
meal was coming from, and slept on a hard bench in a house o f
study. We do not know how many years he lived this hard life.
When he was seventeen or eighteen, he could stand it no longer
and returned to his “ home.” Meanwhile, his mother had married
a widower who also had many children. The family lived in a
village not far from Kapulia. Sholem Yakov became the tutor
o f his little step brothers. The time he spent in the village brought
him close to nature, which became his great love in life. He
began to write in Hebrew and of course poetry, but where did
all this lead?
Training for a Literary Career
T o Kapulia there came a wandering beggar called Avreml
the Lame. Such Jewish itinerants brought news of the outside
world. This lame beggar told of the wonders of “Volin,” all of
southern Russia, where Jews eat white bread on week days and
young scholars are snapped up as soon as they arrive. This fired
Sholem Yakov’s imagination. However, how does one get there?
The young man decided to join the beggar and travel with his
band, an “ aristocratic” group, which had a cart drawn by an
emaciated mare. Nevertheless, most of the time they walked from
town to town and from city to city. This was Sholem Yakov’s
university training for a literary career. He became acquainted
with a large segment of Jewish life and observed many different
types of people. He lived from the beggar’s bag, which he later
said weighed on his soul like a millstone hung around some
unfortunate’s neck.
T o be sure, the frivolous young man soon regretted his im­
pulsiveness. The adventure was not to his liking; but how was