Tuesday, October 6, 2009
On the advice of a good friend I broke the bank and paid the $5.51 including shipping to buy this book from Amazon. The friend had told that it was good but I NEVER expected it to be a can't-put-down book. And books like that can be difficult and complicating when the kids need to be put to bed, or the time for Maariv comes around... What can I say? there's something about reading first-hand experiences from years past that makes it irresistible, despite the fact that my ancestors may not have been from those parts. Reading about customs and laws that you recognize and practice, especially when there are these very boorish mistakes, makes it especially delightful. She knows about Tikkun Leil Shavuos but thinks there are only three Aroves in the Hoshaynes. She also thinks that on Hoshanoh Rabboh the men read Mishneh.... The editors/translators (from the original German) sometimes catch the mistakes (like the Hoshanoh Rabboh Mishneh mistake) and sometimes miss it (like the 3 Aroves in the Hoshanes mistake.) I haven't gotten very far in the book, but there's lots to talk about even a quarter of the way through.
Pessel (Pauline later) Epstein was born and raised in Brisk in the earlier half of the 19th Century. She was a close relation to the Torah Temimah, and the Chossid Reb Eizel (Epstein) Homlier was also in her family tree. Her father was a very wealthy man, I'd say even by today's standards, a man who's home was frequented by aristocracy constantly, yet who lead a very Torah'dige life despite that. He even was a mechaber seforim! According to Pessel he would rise at 4am, learn Gemoroh until 7, go to shul, come back after 10, conduct business for a few hours, and then was back to the Gemoro again. Her mother, despite living like a queen with the finest clothes, servants and maids galore was a frumme Yiddene to the extreme, no different than the simple folk of her day, even with all the contacts in the aristocracy they had, all the money and comforts not withstanding. She worked very hard, leading the kitchen staff, but doing her share, watching everything going on in the house like a hawk. Her (Pessel's) sisters married the best YESHIVEH bochurim and the young men continued to learn while getting kest from their shver. But when the mother suspected them of being influenced by HASKOLOH she took action and berated them, despite it not doing much good.
The memoirs were written when she was at the end of her life, having lead a very "enlightened life." Yet she writes so respectfully and so longingly, as if she was doing Tshuveh for not behaving like she was raised. And it's not for the riches that she longs, but rather for the practice, the laws, the preparation, the joy and the awe. She misses the cleaning and scrubbing for Pesach, the Brokhes Erev Yom Kippur and the Kalte Kapores she ate on YK as a child; the Tashlich and the sedorim, the drunk men on Simkhas TEYREH, and even her mother reading Kinnes for them on Tisha B'Av, when she cried over the Churban Beis Hamikdosh like it was just happening, and for the Tsores the Jews have endured over the centuries. What I found amusing/strange was the fact that she went to Kheyder, with her older sister, and had a melamed, Reb Layzer, teach her from morning till night. Only during Tishrei and Nissan did she have off. It seems like it was normal practice in those areas; she makes no mention of her and her sister being the only girls, which would leave me to believe that there were others too.
All in all she makes a very good case that Jews could be G-d fearing and be wealthy at the same time, despite the fact that she had three children convert r"l to Christianity just to be able to "fit in" to Russian society, where a Jew couldn't get a job. I realize that sounds weird, but hear me out. Pessel speaks at length about the LILIENTHAL reforms of the 1840s, when he traveled across the Russian Empire inspecting the learning conditions. She also speaks of the sweeping haskoloh winds that engulfed her family, despite the fact that they were wealthy and didn't "need" haskoloh and knowledge to get out of the scum and filth of the ghetto like most of the others. What I guess I'm saying is that people with money and connections could be tzu Gutt un tzu leit because they have the means to be with "LEIT." Often times it's the Orimman that has no choice - eyb m'ken azei zoggen - but to leave. Take that for what it's worth, it could my avocado lunch talking... You could do worse than buy this book, is what I'm saying. You'll laugh and you'll cry with real people who had real issues, many of which we can identify with, albeit more advanced ones.
Go get it. Tell them the Tzig sent you...