Mordechai Katznelson, The Jews in the Villages
Translation: Daniel J. H. Greenwood
The original text is in Hebrew with occasional Yiddish explanations. I’ve translated the Hebrew but transliterated and italicized the Yiddish parentheticals. Translator’s notes appear in square brackets; other parentheticals are the author's. Bobruisk is in the Minsk district of Belarus.
Many Jews lived in the villages in the Bobruisk vicinity. They can be classified into three groups based on their livelihoods: (1) overseers for the landlords (the “Paritsim” [Trans: Yiddish for noblemen, with an echo of a Hebrew word meaning a violent lawbreaker]), (2) small merchants, making their living mainly from the peasants, (3) artisans and craftsmen of various types, also selling mainly to the peasants.
The Paritsim who owned land along the rivers had water-powered flour mills. These mills were leased for extended periods to Jews. They milled the produce of the Parits and the peasants. The peasants were poor and struggling, their land infertile and limited and their agricultural methods faulty, using primitive tools and without manure. Often, they were forced to buy flour from the Jewish mills.
Up to the end of the 19th century, sale of hard liquor was freely permitted and the majority of pubs in the villages were in Jewish hands (the “sheinkers”). Usually, the mill-lessee would open a pub as well. However, at the end of the century the government established a monopoly over the sale of liquor and this source of livelihood was taken from the Jews.
Another important economic branch was leasing fruit tree orchards from the Paritsim and buying and selling fruit. Generally, the mill-lessee would also lease the Parits’s orchard. However, some rich merchants from Bobruisk – Mariasin [?], Slavin, and others – would buy fruit. They would buy the fruit in the spring, while it was still on the trees, based on an estimate of the likely harvest in the summer, post guards around the orchard, and then pick the fruit in August. Russian wholesalers would come from Petersburg and Moscow to purchase the fruit, which was packed in a primitive fashion.
Yet another important branch was lease of the Parits’s cattle herds. The Jews who worked in this were called “Factors.” They would make the milk into butter, cream and so on. The work was done by hand, either just the labor of the lessees themselves or with the aid of their children or hired workers. The work was physically difficult, but its pay was good. At the beginning of the century, the Paritsim began to introduce mechanical separators (to separate the cream from the milk) into their farms. As a result, this branch left the hands of the Jews, and many families were left with no livelihood.
Some of the mill-lessees began to buy forests from the Paritsim and quickly transformed trade in forests and wood into the first and foremost branch of livelihoods.
This class of traders with the Paritsim was the most “established” of all. Some of them achieved genuine wealth. With their economic advance, they also advanced culturally – some of them studied in a Gymnasia [high school] in the city and a few even reached higher education.
The grocers and peddlers in the villages were poorer. Sometimes the peddler would go with his wagon to peddle in the nearby villages and sell them whatever they needed, while his wife stayed behind in the store and minded it.
The situation of the craftsmen – tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, tinsmiths, repairmen of pots who used iron threads (“dratvin de tep”) – was extremely difficult. The peasants were so poor that it was not easy to get them to pay the value of the work done for them. Among the tinsmiths, for example, it was customary to agree with the peasants that the tinsmith would do all the work the peasant needed over the course of the year, receiving payment only after the harvest -- and even then not in cash but in agricultural produce. This poverty brought cultural decline along with it as well.
Village Jews who lived in the forests worked in removing pine roots. They would erect factories for processing resin (“smaliarnes”) and they manufactured, in special ovens, turpentine (“skipirar”). They would bring this material to Bobruisk. I remember one by the name of Feinstein, who would clean and purify the turpentine to prepare it for sale in the great markets of Russia.
The profession of “dreyen di lazen” was quite popular among the village Jews who lived in the villages along the river Berezina. This involved producing special ropes from wood, with which they would bind bunches of trees and rafts in the river. Jews engaged in this difficult work for generations and generations.
Children’s education was the responsibility of melameds [elementary school teachers of the traditional religious curriculum] who came from Bobruisk. They would rent a house and open a heder [a one room school for teaching boys to read Torah and a little Talmud]. Tuition was according to the number of boys – approximately 10-12 rubles for the teacher’s time, and in addition to this, they would receive kest, that is, each day  they would eat at the table of a different student’s family. There were also a few villagers who had acquired some Jewish education and worked as melameds in elementary education.
On Shabbat and Jewish holidays, all work stopped. There were no synagogues in the villages, but there were houses with a room that was used for prayer, with a Torah scroll. Purchase of a Torah scroll was thought of as a major mitzvah [commandment or good deed]. My father, who was a rich miller in the villages Kochinka and Berezina, bought skins, had them worked and brought a sofer [ritual scribe] to write the Torah. The sofer took two years to complete the work and all that time lived at my father’s expense. When the Torah was finished, an elaborate celebration was held, and many Jews from the surrounding villages gathered at our house. From then on, our house served as a synagogue for Jews from the vicinity. On Shabbat and holidays, 40-50 Jewish men and their wives would gather at our house.
On the Days of Awe [i.e., Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur], you needed a chazan [cantor]. So, they would travel to a nearby municipality to find someone who knew how to lead prayer (a baal tefila). To us came a chazan from Omelinu named Gershon der Ganer [Gershon the Gander]. He got this nickname because of his huge Adam’s apple, which would jump when he spoke or sang. He would receive 7-8 rubles for praying on the Days of Awe. Half of this sum my father paid, and the other half came from the rest of the congregation. This cantor would live in our house from before Rosh HaShana until after Yom Kippur. There was also a shofar-blower who knew how to interpret the Biblical verses, and the congregation enjoyed his interpretations. From the evening of Yom Kippur, an atmosphere of sanctified celebration filled the house. Straw was spread on the floor and we would keep our shoes off. Everyone who came to pray would set out a large beeswax candle and light it. And the candle would remain lit for more than 24 hours.
The pioneers of the new Haskalah [“enlightenment” movement] in the villages were the “externals,” who came from Bobruisk to gather a little money in order to be able to continue their studies. Among these were excellent and well-educated teachers. These teachers brought news of Zionism to the village Jews. Different private teachers regularly lived in our house, and they taught me and my two sisters. The teacher would receive 120 rubles for his time – four and a half months – as well as room and board. They taught us Hebrew, religious and general studies. I remember that I regularly read the Hebrew newspapers “Olam Katan” (Small World) and “HaHayim v’haTeva” (Life and Nature) to which we subscribed at our house.