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by Yaffa Eliach

The Shtetl Household

Editor’s Note: The following is
chapter 15 excerpted from There Once
Was a World: A Nine-Hundred-Year
the Shtetl of Eishyshok, by
Yaffa Eliach. (New York: Little Brown
and Company, 1998). This excerpted
chapter is reprinted here with permission
of the author, Yaffa Eliach.

It should be noted that while "
Shtetl Household"
was written with
a focus on Eishyshok, a town in
Lithuania, the household members
described here are typical of shtetls
found throughout Eastern Europe.

Author Bio:
(click to go to Bio)
"Three things increase a man's self-esteem: a beautiful dwelling,
a beautiful wife, and beautiful furnishings."

Brakhot 57/B
THE FAMILY UNITS OF THE SHTETL WERE USUALLY MATRILOCAL IN NATURE: The pattern in Eastern Europe, dating from at least the seventeenth century, was for young couples to establish their first household in the home of the wife’s family.

From the sixteenth century on, the ideal husband for an Eastern European Jewish girl was the scholar, the diligent, promising yeshivah student. Hence the criteria for the bride were that she be the daughter of well-to-do parents who were eager and able to support the scholar and his young family during the early years of their marriage, in an arrangement known as kest. Offering kest allowed the husband to continue his studies, while the bride, ideally an industrious, strong, healthy young woman, established a business of her own that would eventually enable her to take upon herself the financial responsibility for her husband and their children. During this period, the wife (and sometimes her husband) might receive training in the family business, as preparation for becoming a worker or a partner in it, or might learn a craft or a trade, or might do agricultural work. The duration of the kest period was according to the husband’s level of scholarship. The greater the scholar and the higher the hopes for his intellectual growth and achievements, the longer the kest.

If the newlyweds did not actually reside there, they usually lived close by and ate their major weekday meals as well as all their Sabbath and holiday meals there. Instantly the bridegroom became a member of a new extended family, with its own customs, quirks, and complexities. [1] Often it included three generations under one roof, for kinship responsibilities were extensive, and often the mix was further complicated by stepchildren from earlier marriages that had ended either in death or — rarely — divorce.


For the new husband, this period could prove a very difficult adjustment. Though a proverb held that “a son-in-law can do no wrong,” this was one of those sayings more honored in the breach than the observance, describing an ideal but seldom realized situation in which the bride’s parents endlessly admired and pampered their beloved son-in-law, the highly esteemed scholar. In reality, sons-in-law were perceived as doing wrong much of the time, and treated accordingly. And the treatment must have seemed all the worse by contrast with the adoration they had received in their own homes growing up.

Thus many a young son-in-law found it difficult to fit into his wife’s family. The letters that one Shmuel of Kelme, Lithuania, wrote to his newly-married son, Arieh-Leib, in the nineteenth century offer a glimpse into the resulting pain of both the young man and his parents.

  My son, beloved of my soul! I heard a rumor, and
  my stomach was upset, that your father-in-law and
  mother-in-law (perhaps your spouse as well), and your
  father-in-law’s entire household, are at odds with you.
  You never mentioned it to us — and you did not tell us
  that you are belittled in your father-in-law’s house, and
  they do not pay attention to you.

In this case, it was the mother-in-law who played a major role in the problems. She insulted Arieh-Leib by casting doubt on his scholarly abilities, which she deemed inferior to those of her own sons. And she so upset her daughter that Shmuel believed the miscarriage the young woman had recently suffered was the result of all the grief her mother had caused. [2]


The Talmud dictated that the father of a daughter should seek to marry her off at a young age, anytime from twelve on; if she did not marry young she might break the commandments and become unchaste. [3] This practice of encouraging marriage at an early age has remained a constant feature in traditional Jewish society, owing not just to moral concerns about chastity, but to a variety of economic, cultural, and political circumstances. For example, during the cantonist period 1827–1856, when the tsarist army was drafting
Hayya Sonenson
Jewish males as part of a pattern of anti-Semitic persecution, boys as young as their early teens, and sometimes even younger, were married off so that they could avoid army service. Fear of government decrees attempting to delay Jewish marriages — some of them real, some only rumors — merely results in a flood of such rushed early unions. The legal literature of the time reflects both the public and private aspects of this phenomenon, and the considerable suffering it caused. [4]

The younger the son-in-law, the harder the adjustment was likely to be; a groom who was virtually a child had few defenses or resources to fall back on. A teenage husband who was regarded as a budding scholar of promise at the yeshivah might be treated as a spoiled brat who needed to be disciplined in the home of his in-laws, with mothers-in-law often doing the disciplining.

The philosopher Salomon Maimon (1753–1800) was a child prodigy who was born in Lithuania and married off –being quite a prize – at the age of eleven. In his autobiography, he described himself as “under the lash of my mother-in-law” and recounted the indignities she visited upon him, which included not just her refusal to honor her financial obligations to him and the way she begrudged him his very meals, but physical attacks as well. “Confident by reason of my youth and want of spirit, she even ventured now and again to lay hands on me.” [5] Another story, dating from around the same time, concerned a twelve-year-old boy (referred to in the responsa literature describing these events as a “babe”) who married an equally young girl. Since the bride would not permit her husband to touch her, the marriage remained unconsummated. When their failure to have sexual relations was attributed to her husband’s refusing her on the grounds that she wasn’t a virgin, however, she yielded to pressure and agreed to fulfill her marital obligations. Unfortunately, the couple was interrupted by a knock at their door as they were trying to perform the act, and from that day on, the humiliated youngsters avoided each other. Shortly after his fourteenth birthday the husband disappeared, leaving his wife an agunah (a deserted woman who cannot remarry since she was never granted a divorce.) [6]

Even the brilliant scholar Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin (1817–1893) was not immune to the miseries and mortifications of early marriage. When the Neziv, as he was later known, was a thirteen-year-old student at the Volozhin yeshivah, he married the daughter of the head of the school. The young man’s intellectual development was very closely supervised by his in-laws and, alas, found wanting, perhaps because the pressure was simply too much for him, with the result that he was not allowed to sit at the table with the family for Sabbath and holiday meals. His humiliation seems not to have robbed him of hope, however, for he worked all the harder at his studies and finally succeeded, at age sixteen, in being re-invited to the family dinner table. In later life, as a world-renowned scholar and religious leader, now head of the Volozhin yeshivah he had once attended, he used his authority to speak out against early marriages, which he opposed on medical grounds. [7] His father-in-law, Reb Itzele, continued to favor them. Attending a conference of rabbis in St. Petersburg in 1843, Reb Itzele was questioned about the practice by a priest who was well known for his hostility towards Jews. Rab Itzele responded with a smile: “Ever since the events of some 1,800 years ago when a Jewish girl reached maturity and did not marry, with results that have been calamitous to us from that day forth, we have been seeing to it that our daughters are married off young.” [8]

In the closing decades of the nineteenth century, the phenomenon of early marriages sharply declined. The average age of unmarried students at the Lithuanian yeshivot rose to twenty, and eventually twenty-five. Older grooms found it much easier to be more assertive with their in-laws and with other members of the extended family. And if life at home was still unbearable, there was always the option of spending most of one’s time at the yeshivah. This conception of the academy as a refuge from an unhappy marriage is reflected in the old Lithuanian proverb “A man does not become a parush if he is married to a pretty wife.” [9]

In many households, of course, sons-in-law were warmly and lovingly welcomed, even in some cases held in so much esteem that their in-laws tried to keep them in the family after their wives had died. When Reb Hayyim Paltiel, the shtetl dayyan, lost his wife, her parents acted swiftly, matching him up with a cousin of their deceased daughter. His marriage to Alte meant that they would continue to have a renowned and saintly scholar in their family, for which they were most grateful.

For David Kabacznik, holding on to a son-in-law was a matter of good business rather than scholarship. When Reuven-Beinush Berkowitch, son of Reb Itche der Shammesh, married Golde Kabacnik, the beautiful blond daughter of Reb David, he proved a great asset to the family business, which consisted of supplying the Tzar with horses and fodder for his stables, and geese for his table. With his fluency in Russian and Polish as well as several local dialects, Reuven-Beinush made an excellent buyer, and when his wife died in childbirth, her father immediately married him off to his other pretty daughter, Rachel. Not that Reb David’s appreciation for his son-in-law found any material expression. The Kabacznik family exploited their great find, paying Reuven-Beinush meager wages, sending him out on lengthy buying trips, and keeping him and his family, which came to number five sons and a daughter, in a state of abject poverty. When it came time to find his own daughter a husband, Reuven-Beinush had to sell his home to provide a dowry for her, after which he lived in a small rental apartment on one of the side streets. Since he was not flesh and blood of the Kabacznik clan, they never made him a partner. But the unhappy son-in-law in a matrilocal family structure had few options — for all that the larger structure of the society was patriarchal.

Indeed the Jewish family has been described as basically patriarchal from biblical times on, though there has always been some degree of acknowledgment of the wife’s role. [10] After all, God did tell the patriarch Abraham, with regard to the first Jewish matriarch: “In all that Sarah hath said unto thee, harken unto her voice. [11] Through the millennia, God’s conversation with Abraham has received many interpretations, depending on both time and place, and both the position of the Jewish matriarch and the pitch of her voice have varied accordingly.

In the Eastern Europe of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, as many generations of sons-in-law were quick to discover, the shulhoyf and the larger worlds of business and public affairs were, as ever, the man’s kingdom, but the home and its more modest commercial enterprises were definitely the woman’s domain. Indeed, the matrilocal organization of the shtetl household was at the core of the kest system, and thus a woman in the household of a family oriented toward scholarship was in a particularly strong position. [12] As the main breadwinner, she had considerable power, power that had its roots in the early days of her marriage, when she was just beginning to develop some kind of business with which to support her family and thereby enable her husband to study without interruption. Even if she turned out not to be the sole breadwinner in the family, it was expected that she supplement the income of her husband. This expectation was so much the norm that the appointment letter for a shtetl rabbi, for example, usually stipulated the economic enterprise that would be allotted to his wife. Typically the rebbetzin was given exclusive rights to sell yeast, or candles, or kiddush and havdalah wine.

While it was particularly common among the klei kodesh (holy vessels) and the lomdim (learners) for the wife to play a pivotal role in economic matters, women were important economic partners in all social classes of the shtetl from at least the seventeenth century. The strong-willed, outspoken Jewish woman has been a staple of Jewish humor and literature ever since, an inexhaustible source for East European authors and their literary descendants. The nineteenth-century Yiddish playwright Jacob Gordin, who was as popular in Eishyshok as he was on the stages of Warsaw, Vilna, and even New York, made a notable contribution to this genre, the much-beloved Mirele Efros (1898). Based on the true story of a woman from Grodno, his play recounted the decline and fall of the fortunes of a very wealthy woman who ran the family business with a strong hand, and managed to remain the practical as well as the emotional and spiritual center of her family even as her financial base dwindled. Though few women had Mirele’s kind of money, many displayed the same kind of strength. And always there were mixed feelings about such women.

Haskalah writers advocated taking women out of the marketplace and letting men assume the financial responsibility for their families. (This didn’t stop the acclaimed Hebrew writer Avraham Mapu from commending a young woman’s business skills as one of the qualities that would make her a suitable match for his brother in 1862. Presumably he was a practical man, who was able to overlook certain principles of the Haskalah when the well-being of his brother was at stake.) [13]

  Reuven-Beinush Berkowitch and
  his wife Rachel Kabacznik, whom
  he married after the death of his
  first wife, Golde, Rachel’s sister.
  David Kabacznik was eager to keep
  Reuven-Beinush as a son-in-law
  because of his outstanding business
  talents. Reuven-Beinush and Rachel
  were killed in the September 1941
  YESC, Berkowitch.

Some later writers, like Chaim Grade (1910–1982) and the Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky (1880–1940), overflowed with praise for their hardworking mothers, recalling them as vigorous, vital women who had been willing to take on difficult and even demeaning work in order to provide for their families and, specifically, to earn money for their children’s education. [14]

Shtetl humorists had a field day with the phenomenon of the powerful woman, their jokes reflecting the discomfort men felt in the presence of such women — though the women they disparaged were always wives, not mothers (power in a wife being much more unnerving, apparently). Lines like the following are representative of their “wit”:

  Even a wife as big as a flea can sting.
  One could live in peace, if not for the wife and the flies.
  Eve had long hair but she made Adam’s life short.
  Twice in a lifetime a wife is dear to her husband: on
  her wedding day, and during her funeral.

  When a wife wears the pants, the husband launders the dress. [15]

Perhaps an old Romanian proverb best sums up the traditional man’s view of the ideal woman, who was not at all like the women of the shtetl: “A woman should be like the moon: shine at night and disappear during the day.” The shtetl woman had too much to do to disappear during the day, as those who benefited from her efforts knew very well.

Nonetheless, her position was ambiguous, for her prominent role in the household and the marketplace was not reflected beyond those confines, nor was it officially acknowledged within them. Shtetl women were identified as housewives, and rarely appeared in any official documents as the proprietors of their businesses, even when they owned those businesses and ran them single-handedly. The clarity with which all the shtetl’s social and religious roles and responsibilities were defined for men and women, husbands and wives, boys and girls gave way to gray zones when it came to the home. Family life with the exception of those religious rituals that were part of it, was left to the discretion of those who lived it, which did not necessarily benefit women. Even as late as the seventeenth century there still lingered a perception that a woman was simply property, that a man owned his wife (and children) outright — an error that seems to have been common enough that the Lithuanian Council made a point of condemning it, and in very harsh terms: “A man who will commit evil to enslave his wife, son, or daughter in a debt to a non-Jew or who, even worse, actually hands over his wife and daughters to a non-Jew because of debt — his blood is on his head.” [16]

By the nineteenth century, woman’s legal status may have been clearer, but her image was still problematic, current realities not matching up with the ancient customs and beliefs. Hence the complaint of Reina Batia, first wife of the Neziv, who objected to the blessing recited every morning by the men in the synagogue: “Blessed are you, Our God, King of the Universe, for not having made me a woman.” Speaking not just as a woman but as an accomplished scholar and an important participant in the administration of her husband’s yeshivah, she was indignant:

  Every man, including the simplest, most uneducated man who does not
  even understand the meaning of the blessing, who would not dare to cross
  the threshold of my home without my permission, proudly recites that
  prayer daily. To add insult to injury, I must respond “Amen!” Who can
  sustain such an eternal insult to women?

It’s not surprising that the result of these mixed messages about the role of women was often frustration and resentment on the part of the wife, anger and insecurity for the husband. Many a marriage was marred by years of silent brooding, or harsh verbal exchanges — or worse.
The strains only grew more severe in the twentieth century, especially after World War I, when the majority of shtetl men emerged from the cloistered depths of the beth midrash and the yeshivah to go out into the marketplace. With women proving reluctant to yield their prominent place in the shtetl economy and the world beyond, and men eager to consign their wives to the homemaker role as they took on the breadwinner role, the competition between the sexes was heightened. Women who refused to cede power were looked upon with contempt, and labeled shrill, aggressive, even ruthless. Hence the increasingly common portrait of the Jewish woman as a shrew, a conception that lives on to this day, passed along by writers who might seem far removed from the shtetl, but are nonetheless carriers of its legacy. In a work like Philip Roth’s novel Portnoy’s Complaint, the resentment against women has generalized beyond wives to mothers — perhaps because at the time Roth was writing about, the 1950s, the once-powerful Jewish woman had been effectively eliminated from the marketplace and therefore had no outlet for her considerable energies and talents.

No doubt the American immigration process contributed to the problem. For reasons that are not entirely clear, women who emigrated from the shtetl to America were glaringly absent from the public worlds of business and philanthropy in their new land. Perhaps because their husbands usually preceded them there by some years, it may have seemed natural for women to allow their more acclimated, experienced spouses to assume the major responsibility for earning a living, while they themselves were relegated to supporting roles. Having made up the majority of the shopkeepers and been the very backbone of the market-day economy — in Eishyshok as in many other places — they disappeared from sight in America. [18]

One of the very few émigré women from Eishyshok who retained that special shtetl flair for business was Lena Kaganowicz, who moved at the age of fifteen in 1909. She began as a seamstress living on the Lower East Side and doing piecework at home for $3 a day. Later she became a contributor to “A Bintel Brief” (A Bundle of Letters), the letters column that ran in the Jewish Daily Forward, her special subject being the plight of the working woman on the Lower East Side. [19] Ostensibly a forum for recent immigrants to ask an editor for advice about their various problems, the column sometimes ran short of real letters, in which case it commissioned them. Lena, a woman with an excellent command of Yiddish and a fine epistolary style, was one of their writers. She and her husband later moved to Spedden, a small town near Edmonton, Alberta, where they opened a general store that was highly popular with the local Ukrainian settlers as well as with the Cree Indians who lived on two nearby reservations. Although she was a very successful businesswoman and the mother of four daughters, Lena was one of those shtetl-style women who always had time for everything and everybody.

Of course, this could only have been because she worked incredibly hard. For the women in the shtetl there was no pause in the demand for their labor, no escape from the relentless grind of daily life. Regardless of class or even of individual temperament, the shtetl woman worked virtually nonstop, from early dawn until late at night. When shopkeeper Malka Roche’s Schneider opened her store in time to serve the members of the minyan vatikin, those pious men who prayed each day at sunrise, she knew she was not the only one hard at work. Amid the clatter of boots against cobblestones, as the men made their way to the beth midrash, she could hear the sound of streams of milk flowing into tin and wooden pails, for this was the hour when the shtetl women milked the family cow. Against the dark skies, they could see smoke already issuing from most of the shtetl chimneys, could catch a whiff of Rivka Dwilanski’s famous bagels being baked at No. 13 Marketplace, perhaps even pick up the smell of whatever Feige Demitrowski had put into the oven of her bakery at the corner of Vilna Street. And these women were the rule, not the exception.

No shtetl son or daughter could ever recall seeing their mother asleep. When the children went to bed their mother was still working; when they woke up in the morning she was already at it again. Moshe Kaplan, born in 1915 in a town near Eishyshok, describes his mother’s daily routine:
  My mother was a housewife (for lack of a more accurate word) and she worked hard all her life.
  She got up at three o’clock in the morning to milk
the cow and to take her to pasture with the shtetl’s communal herd. Then she stoked the fire in the oven, cooked, and baked bread, pastry, and donuts.
  When she finished her household chores she worked in the family vegetable garden consisting of about 2.5 acres in back ofour home.

In 1922, Mrs. Kaplan, the mother of six young children, was widowed. To support her children and provide for their education, she leased an additional patch of land from a Christian villager so that she could grow more vegetables to sell. During the winter months she sold clay pots, pitchers, pans, and bowls to the villagers, transporting them from the factory to her customers’ homes with the help of her son Moshe. In the late 1920s another son, Asher, was arrested for Communist activities and was sent to the Vronki prison for political offenders. Out of her modest income she managed to find enough to send him a weekly food parcel, but the strain of it all was too much for her. She died in 1932, with Moshe at her bedside. [20]

The hardships of Mrs. Kaplan’s life may have been more extreme than many, but they were not atypical. Most women ran a business while simultaneously managing a large household.

The average shtetl woman raised between ten and twelve children, cared for aging parents and other relatives, and looked after the kest couples and their children. The businesses of many of them were located in the home, which may have been convenient in some ways, but also contributed to the overcrowding that was so common in shtetl households. The melamed’s wife would have her little wig workshop in one corner of the house’s main room, which was also her husband’s classroom. Another woman might have a dressmaking business in her home. Alte Katz’s household, with a bakery below street level, a drugstore adjacent to the living quarters on the first floor, and a photography studio on the second floor, was unusual, this being far more space than most people had, even if it did have to accommodate a home and three businesses.

In the artisan class, the husband’s workshop would be in the house or attached to it, so that it was normal for three generations of family members to be living and working in the same room along with the workshop apprentices. The husband’s constant presence often added greatly to the tensions of the household. Women looked forward to prayer time as a welcome respite, for all the men in the household would leave for the beth midrash as the hour approached. Similarly, women whose husbands were seasonal workers — builders, roofers, carpenters — were known to breathe a sign of relief when winter came, for then they could count on their husbands spending long hours away from home sitting and learning in the beth midrash.

Some women had problems of a different sort. Their husbands, sole or joint proprietors of the family business, were often away on long business trips. Due to a combination of bad weather and primitive roads and transportation, these absences could last weeks or even months, during which time the women in the family had to take over, shouldering yet another burden.

  Lena Kaganowicz with her future
  husband, Morris Rosenberg,
  in New York City. Even after
  emigrating to America in 1909, at
  the age of fifteen, she retained her
  special shtetl female flair for
  YESC, Jean Rothstein.

  Zlate Koppelman with two of her
  daughters, Nehava (left) and Leah.
  They assisted her at home and at
  work, especially after the death of
  their father, Elisha. Nehama and
  Leah made aliyah to Eretz Israel.
  Zlate was killed in the September
  1941 massacre.
  Photo: Yitzhak Uri Katz.
  YESC, N. Frischer.

  Alte Katz with her oldest daughter,
  Zipporah (Feigele). Zipporah helped
  her mother in raising her siblings
  and educating them. She also
  assisted professionally in the photo
  studio after the death of her father,
  Yitzhak Uri Katz. Alte was killed
  during the September 1941
  massacre. Zipporah was murdered
  by the AK post-liberation.
  Photo: Yitzhak Uri Katz.
  YESC, Y. Eliach.

  Three of the daughters of Nehemia
  der Feldsher, who sought a new life
  in America in the 1890s: Margolia
  (Cohen) (left), Lilly (Sirk), and
  Annie (Foster).
  Photo: Green, Boston.
  YESC, R. Rosenblatt.

  Feigele (Fanichke) and Velvke Saltz.
  Shortly after their mother’s death,
  their father emigrated to America.
  Feigele was devoted to her brother
  and helped to raise him. Years later
  both joined their father in America.
  Photo: Kalinowitch, Ivie.
  YESC, Shultz-Saltz.

To ease the woman’s workload, the more affluent households employed maids and other domestics, both Jews and non-Jews. The terms and conditions of Jewish maids’ employment were first regulated by the Lithuanian Council, and later by the community. [21] Those who took such employment included widows, orphans, children of broken homes, women from the hekdesh, and other poor, stranded individuals. Since some of them had no home, they resided with their employer, but not everyone wanted live-in help. It was feared — and such fears were sometimes justified — that the presence of a young unmarried woman in the house would attract undesirable types, or prove too tempting for the family’s young boys.

Problems of another kind attended the hiring of Christians as domestics. Throughout the centuries, the Catholic church forbade its members to work as servants in Jewish homes. Periodically these prohibitions were eased, only to be enforced with new vigor by the church and other authorities whenever it suited them. Such restrictions notwithstanding, Christians were always being employed by Jews, which often resulted in conflict with anti-Semitic local authorities. To minimize the tension, the Jews themselves tried to curtail the practice of employing Christians, as a look at some of the seventeenth-century legislation of the Lithuanian Council makes apparent. Duration of employment was limited to one year, and the number of people who could be employed by any one household was restricted. Employment of Christian servants had to be approved and regulated by the community. [22]

Things apparently improved — marginally, to be sure — in the course of the next couple of hundred years. In Eishyshok, sometime during the first half of the nineteenth century, a local Christian woman was hired as a wet nurse for an infant Jewish boy named Todrus. But when the tsarist authorities got wind of it, they took the family to court, where their case made its slow and tortuous way through the legal labyrinth for several decades. The family was victorious in the end, though Todrus was by then a grandfather. “Todrus may nurse” was the verdict — a phrase that came to stand as shorthand for any kind of bureaucratic inefficiency in general, and that of the tsarist judicial system in particular.

The practice of hiring Christian servants had a long history in Eishyshok, with some families maintaining bonds with generations of Christian employees, bonds that endured even into the Holocaust. Kashka, the Polish Catholic maid who helped raise eight of the boisterous children born to Hayya and Shael Sonenson, was so devoted to her charges that she even made regular visits to the grave of one little Sonenson boy who died in infancy. Kashka was fluent in Yiddish, could sing Yiddish songs, and knew all the Jewish rituals concerning the dietary laws as well as those governing all the other aspects of weekday and holiday life in a Jewish household. Having come to the Sonensons by way of her mother, who had been Hayya’s maid at an earlier period in her life, she passed on the legacy of ties to this one family when her granddaughter Jasza became a maid in Shalom Sonenson’s house.

Jasza helped Shalom’s wife Miriam raise their two daughters, Gittele and Shula. She even learned some Hebrew, since Shalom often spoke it to his little girls. During the massacre of September 1941, Jasza risked her own life by helping the family hide, then put herself in mortal danger again when she smuggled food into Ghetto Radun, where Shalom and his family were incarcerated for nine months.


A woman’s greatest helpers and most trusted allies, both at home and in her business, were her daughters. An old shtetl proverb sums up the feeling about the mother-daughter relationship: “If a woman gives birth only to sons, she probably does not deserve to bear daughters.”

Until World War I, when compulsory education for Jewish girls in the Russian empire was introduced (in Eishyshok and other Lithuanian communities it was first instituted during the German occupation), girls were always at home, while their brothers were at school or apprenticing in a trade. From early childhood on, girls assisted their mother with all the chores: at home, in the garden, with the livestock, and in the family business enterprise. As they grew older they were made responsible for their younger siblings. And always they were expected to be mature and reliable.

While daughters were their mother’s greatest helpers, they were also her greatest concern. Protecting the chastity, the morals, and the reputation of a young girl was a constant preoccupation, for anything less than ceaseless vigilance might endanger the girl’s chances of making a good match. Thus a daughter was expected to be at her mother’s side at all times — a virtual impossibility, given the nature of her many duties. Girls and young women were often alone in the store or the market, or even on the road. Zivia Hutner, the granddaughter of Eishyshok rabbi Zundl Hutner, traveled back and forth to Vilna on business beginning in early adolescence, and sewing machine salesman Szeina Blacharowicz traveled the countryside at about the same age. Though it was out of concern for the morals of these spunky entrepreneurs that Haskalah writers were so vehement about keeping girls and women out of commerce, their recommendations were not follows — if only because the girls played too important a role to be banished. [23]

The shtetl had its own ways of guarding the reputations of its young women. For example, if a girl’s hymen broke due to an accident, the details of the event were entered in the shtetl record book, and the family was given a special certificate, signed by the rabbi or the dayyan, attesting to the girl’s purity. Surviving fragments from the record book of one of the Lithuanian shtetlekh include descriptions of three such incidents. Seven-year-old Miriam, daughter, of Hannah and Zvi the tailor, was pushed into a ditch by her girlfriends; two other girls, both teenagers, fell on thus-and-such a day, we are informed, and in thus-and-such a manner. [24] During the Big Fire of 1895, when the entire shtetl of Eishyshok burned down, one girl’s virginity-loss certificate went up in the flames. Though her family had lost everything, it was this piece of paper that most concerned them, and they rushed to Reb Layzer Wilkanski, the shtetl dayyan, to ask him to issue a new certificate. [25]

The close surveillance and stringent expectations paid off. Most shtetl girls were indeed obedient, chaste, hardworking, religious. Nonetheless, there was a tradition in literature and folklore depicting the renegade daughter: She married out of the faith; or she married a non-religious man; or she escaped her mother’s watchful eye by fleeing to the big city; or she in any one of a wide variety of other ways brought shame upon her family. By the twentieth century these girls were not just characters in literature, but, increasingly, figures drawn from life. Even Eishyshok had a few, though they remained very much the minority, as they did in most places.

Still, parents lived in constant fear that their daughters would be labeled damaged goods and live out their lives as old maids (or “gray braids,” as they were known). Obsessed with marrying them off as early as possible, they began preparing their daughters’ trousseaux practically at birth, and agonized greatly over the cost of dowry and kest arrangements when it came time to settle the terms of the betrothal agreement. The fear of spinsterhood, considered the ultimate shame, prompted many parents to rush into marriage arrangements that were not always in the best interests of their daughters. Of course, it was not jut shame that motivated them; a daughter was felt to be an economic burden. Even though the cost of her upkeep must surely have been more than compensated by her household labor, the word on daughters was that they “eat by day and grow by night” — ceaselessly consuming food and clothes.

The mixed messages a girl received about herself from her family and her community were in stark contrast to the very clearly positive status her brother enjoyed. From birth, the male was honored and cherished: his many life-passage celebrations brought joy to his parents’ home; his heder and later yeshivah accomplishments were sources of pride for them; he would recite the Kaddish for them when they were dead.


A girl knew that she had to take care of her brother — give him the best pair of shoes to go to heder, deliver a warm meal to him at lunchtime, offer him his choice of foods when he came home. If for some reason he needed any kind of special care or assistance, she might also be expected to stay by his side throughout the school day. For example, Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer of Mir (1870-1953), the only surviving male child in his family, went to heder each day in the company of his sister Fruma-Rivka. All his brothers having died in infancy, he had an entire household focused on maintaining his health and well-being, and his sister’s ministrations were part of that campaign. He became a great Talmudic scholar and lived a long life. [26]
A sister was her brother’s lifelong nurturer. He knew that in time of need, he could always turn to her. This Eastern European conception of sibling relationships was in sharp contrast to the practice in Mediterranean countries, where it was the role of the brother to protect his sister. But shtetl boys did value their sisters, and were expected to demonstrate their affection. Hence the many little gifts the heder boys made for their sisters at holiday time: the Hanukkah dreidels, the fruit pit jewelry for Tu Bishvat, the flag for Simhat Torah, the scroll of Esther for Purim.

With mothers so overworked, having little time to lavish affection on their children, the sister-brother relationship was a particularly important one, a source of emotional sustenance for each. Though the educational and social patterns of shtetl life afforded them little time to be in each other’s company, what time they did have was precious to them; they played together on the Sabbath and holidays, and whenever else they could.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, the sister-brother relationship began to change, along with everything else. Now that girls could go to school, could embark on their own journeys of self-improvement and exploration, their brothers increasingly saw it as their duty to help them along the way. They felt responsible for molding their sisters’ character, for guiding them intellectually. In this as in so many other social changes, the Wilkanskis were in the vanguard.

Yitzhak and Meir devoted much time to their sisters Sarah, Esther, and Leah, encouraging them in their eager pursuit of education, advising them, and even helping them out financially from their own very limited resources. The girls’ moral development was also on their minds, as one of Yitzhak’s letters to ten-year-old Leah in 1904 reveals. Writing from Berlin, where he was a student, he admonishes her for her complaint about the brevity of his letters, then goes on to advise: “If you want to be rewarded, you must also learn to give to others.” A couple of decades later, Shaul Kaleko would help his sister, Rachel, to make an illegal border crossing from Poland into Lithuania. He wanted her to join him in Kovno, where she would be able to continue her studies at the excellent Hebrew gymnasium of Reali, while remaining under his watchful eye.

Zisl Bastunski (left) holding the
hand of sister Altke. In the center
are two friends. Zisl emigrated to
America in 1921. Until World War II
he sent money to his siblings and
parents who remained in Europe.
Altke and her family were murdered
in the September 1941 massacre.
Photo: Yitzhak Uri Katz.
YESC, Bastunski.


During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the first two decades of the twentieth, perhaps as many as two-thirds of the marriages in the shtetl were second, third, and even fourth marriages. Death rather than divorce was responsible for this high remarriage rate, and death also created a large number of orphans. Since many spouses brought with them the children from previous unions, the result was that many if not most shtetl households were filled with stepchildren, and often with distantly related orphans too. This was particularly true in Eishyshok, which had no orphanage because the kahal had stipulated that orphans be sent to their relatives instead.

Sometimes this worked out well. Miriam Kaplan, for example, was taken in by Alte Paltiel and her husband Hayyim, the shtetl dayyan, during World War I. Miriam’s father had gone off to America, where he opened a soda shop with the hope of making enough money to send for his wife and infant child. When his business failed and World War I broke out, the few dollars he had been able to send stopped coming, and Miriam and her mother moved in with her mother’s father, a miller in a small village near Eishyshok. One day a hunting party of German soldiers mistook the miller for an animal and shot him. When his daughter saw the accident through her window, she ran out into the snow to try to save him, wearing only her dress and slippers. She caught a cold that developed into pneumonia; she died only a few days after her father, leaving her little daughter Miriam for all intents and purposes an orphan, for nothing was ever again heard from Miriam’s father. Though Alte Paltiel was only a distant relative, she took Miriam in, and raised her with great love.

The typhus epidemic of 1917–1919 claimed hundreds of lives in Eishyshok, leaving many orphans behind. Many of them were not so fortunate as Miriam, for Alte Paltiel was unusual — if not in her willingness to shoulder a family obligation, then certainly in the loving way she did it. An orphan or a stepchild was often considered an onerous burden, and resented accordingly. The mother of Shneur Glombocki, knowing that her days were numbered, summoned the shtetl rabbi to her deathbed. With Rabbi Zundl Hutner in attendance, she spoke to her father and her husband and made them promise that the baby boy would not be raised by a stepmother, for the thought of her beloved child in the care of her husband’s second wife was unbearable to her.

Her father had to agree to take the baby in after her death, which he did. And just as the mother had predicted, the boy’s father took no interest in him after he remarried, nor did his new wife or the children from that second marriage, even though they all lived in Eishyshok. As the saying went, “Der foter is getrai vi lang di mame is derbai” (The father is faithful as long as the mother is around).


As stories like that one reveal, these multigenerational multifamily households were not always the warm, loving, cohesive units we know from myth and idealized memory. One way of dealing with the potentially overwhelming complexities of life in the shtetl’s crowded, often impoverished homes was to assign roles to everyone, thus imposing a kind of crude order on the messiness of reality. With typical shtetl bluntness, each person was labeled, his or her future predicted, his status as a winner or loser virtually preordained, with no options for escape. The clever child was identified as the scholar in the family, the “future cabinet member,” while the slow one was said to have been “last in line when God granted brains”; the clumsy child had “hands of clay”; the one with calf eyes as “the beast.”

A bright, attractive child was considered a good reflection on the family, and put on display, while the others were kept out of sight. If a marriage was being arranged, for example, and the prospective in-laws were coming to conduct the negotiations, the family’s “winners” were brought out to greet the guests, while less impressive family members, certainly including anyone with handicaps, stayed behind closed doors. In Hayya and Shael Sonenson’s family, for example, Shalom was chosen over his seven siblings to represent the family, although he was not the brightest. None of the children were unattractive, but with his blue eyes, blond curls, and captivating, dimpled smile, Shalom was picture-perfect, and his parents always used to take only him to family celebrations in other shtetlekh, without any thought to how the other children would feel.

Reinforcing the tendency to assign everybody a label were the economic difficulties faced by so many families. The hand-to-mouth existence they lived dictated that choices be made and life paths mapped out with maximum efficiency. Thus bright boys were seen as a good investment, and as such were sent to the best heder and yeshivah their families could afford; less talented boys were sent to study in second-rate institutions, and steered into the family business or apprenticed to a trade at a very early age.

Sometimes, however, death intervened and negated family choices. The favored child of a dying mother would more than likely not be favored by the stepmother who eventually replaced her. Mrs. Glombocki’s fear of the stepmother syndrome was well warranted.


The same kind of blunt, often arbitrary favoritism that prevailed in other areas of family life dictated inheritance divisions as well. Favoritism rather than fairness, necessity, or even seniority decided who got what. The only shtetl guideline concerning the distribution of one’s estate was the saying “It is better to give with a warm hand than a cold one” — in other words, divide it up while you’re still in the land of the living. Typically one gave to the child with whom one had the closest relationship, the child in whose home one hoped to spend one’s old age, loved, respected, cared for.

In the Dwilanski family, it was Alte Dwilanski Katz, youngest child of Avigdor and Rivka, who received the family inheritance, which consisted of a large orchard, a spacious three-story house on the market square, and the bakery that was the family business. Her aging parents lived with her in great harmony until their deaths, Rivka’s in 1935 when she was almost one hundred. Alte’s brother Hayyim Dwilanski never forgave her and her descendants for taking what he considered rightfully his. Penniless and bitter, he emigrated to Palestine. Favorite child Alte Katz and most of her family perished in the Holocaust. Hayyim Dwilanski and his family lived out the war in Palestine.

Each shtetl had its own famous inheritance feud. In Radun, such a feud racked the household of its most admired and beloved resident, the saintly Haffetz Hayyim, when he died in 1933. The conflict over his house was solved by building a wall through the middle of it, dividing it into parts, one for the descendants of his first marriage, the other for the descendants of his second marriage. But disagreements over other issues, such as positions in the yeshivah and royalties from his books, continued to rage. The royalty issue was especially complicated. [27]


Grandparents were the bearers of wisdom and tradition, the greatly esteemed heads of the family, the living patriarchs and matriarchs. They were also much adored allies and protectors for their grandchildren, who confided in them, asked their advice, and went to them for comfort and affection. Because of the kest system, maternal grandparents, in whose home the extended family lived, sometimes for many years, played a particularly dominant role in the lives of their grandchildren.
Shlomo Zlotnik, though a widower, helped to raise and educate his grandchildren. One of his sons abandoned his wife and daughter and ran away to America; a daughter of Shlomo’s died in childbirth. The photo was taken in honor of Dora Zlotnik’s aliyah to Eretz Israel.

Standing, right to left: Yitzhak Broide and wife Hayya Fradl (née) Zlotnik), Honeh Michalowski and wife Bluma (née) Zlotnik).

Center row, right to left: Yankele Sheshko, Reb Shlomo Zlotnik, Dora Zlotnik,
and Sarah (Sorke) Michalowski.

Front row, right to left: (first name unknown Sheshko, Moshe Sheshko, and
Zelda-Bluma Michalowski.

When Hayya Fradl and Bluma attempted to escape the September 1941 massacre, they were murdered by Lithuanian guards. Yankele Sheshko was killed by Arabs in Israel. The majority of the family was killed in the September 1941 massacre.
Photo: Yitzhak Uri Katz. YESC, Berkowitch.

What many people from Eishyshok remember best about their grandparents was their tales of the past. Shlomo Farber’s maternal grandfather was a history buff, and filled his grandson’s head not just with family lore, but with accounts of local events that had significance on the stage of world history. Farber was so enthralled by what his grandfather told him during their long walks in the fields and forests around Olkenik that he became the chronicler of that shtetl, and later built an intricately detailed model of it from memory, using the woodcarver’s skill he had also learned from his grandfather. [28] In 1924–1925 Di Welt, a Lithuanian Jewish newspaper, published a series titled “From My Grandfather’s Memory,” which consisted of Shaul Kaleko’s retelling of his grandfather’s stories about nineteenth-century Eishyshok.

The older generation made sure the young people knew about their ancestors, so that they might carry on the good name of their family and continue its traditions. During the summers Moshe Kaganowicz spent with his maternal grandparents on their farm in the 1910s, they told him about his great-grandfather’s conversion to Judaism, and about his reputation for hospitality to those in need, which they in their turn were continuing, and which eventually became his own model. Grandparents also hoped that the recounting of family history would instill pride in their descendants, perhaps even inspire them to hope for the day when they could reclaim what once had been theirs. It was in that spirit that Hayya Kabacznik Sonenson made a ritual of telling her grandchildren, every Saturday at dusk, that all the land as far as they could see had once belonged to her family.

Alte Katz (center in 1941) with her two grandchildren and other family members who lived in Eishyshok:

daughter Shoshana Katz (upper right), granddaughter Yaffa-Sheinele, and son-in-law Moshe Sonenson; seated, (right to left) son Avigdor Katz, grandson Yitzhak Sonenson, and his mother Zipporah Katz Sonenson.

Memories of their grandmother’s love helped Yitzhak and Yaffa through terrible and lonely years. When they became grandparents themselves, Alte was their role model. Moshe Sonenson and his two children survived the Holocaust; Alte Katz and three of her children were murdered in the September massacre;Zipporah was murdered post-liberation by the A.K.
Photo: Ben Zion Szrejder. YESC, Y. Eliach.
LEFT PHOTO: Yossef Ginzberg and granddaughter Tamar, May 1935. Yossef was murdered in Ponar, Vilna.
Tamar survived the war, in Siberia. YESC, Glombocki.

RIGHT PHOTO: Yaffa-Sheinele was named after her paternal grandfather, Shael Sonenson, her brother Yitzhak Uri after his maternal grandfather Yitzhak Uri Katz.
Their mother Zipporah was convinced that both of her children had inherited the personalities of their namesakes and that her daughter was too much of a tomboy.

Both children survived the Holocaust.
Photo: Ben Zion Szrejder, Winter 1940. YESC, Y. Sonenson.

For their part, children were expected to be at their grandparents’ side whenever needed. If Grandfather was too frail to walk alone to the beth midrash, a grandson would accompany him there, offering him his arm in support. If the old man’s eyes were failing, his grandson was there to read to him from the Talmud; if his hands trembled, the grandson rolled his cigarettes for him, or cut tobacco for his snuff box. Similarly, a girl would assist her grandmother with the bookkeeping for the family business, would thread her needle for her, would sit next to her in the women’s gallery at shul and repeat the words of the maggid’s sermon.

The grandchildren were responsible for their grandparents’ physical comfort and well-being too. If it was cold at night, a boy might sleep in the same bed with his grandfather, a girl with her grandmother, so that the old people were kept warm. When the grandparents were sick, their devoted grandchildren nursed them through their illnesses. And on their deathbeds, too, they were attended by their grandchildren. The young people of the household were expected to be there along with everybody else when their grandparents closed their eyes forever. It was “for the honor of the dead and the memory of the living.” With watchful, curious eyes, in awe and fear, many a young child observed the ceremony that provided the final confirmation of death: the feather placed next to the mouth, proof that breathing had stopped.

Grandparents who died before their grandchildren could know them were often memorialized in their grandchildren’s names. A child who carried a grandparent’s name was expected to bring honor to the ancestor, to learn about him or her and pass that knowledge on, and to visit the grave, even if it was in another town. Some believed that a child would embody the character of the grandparents for whom he or she had been named. Thus it was common for parents who had named their children after their own parents to show them special preference. Yaffa-Sheinele Sonenson, named for her paternal grandfather, Reb Shael Sonenson, was the apple of her father’s eye, just as her brother Yitzhak Uri, named for his maternal grandfather, was the pride of his mother. Yaffa seemed to her mother Zipporah to have inherited Reb Shael’s outspoken, dynamic ways, and thereby to have been turned into a tomboy. Zipporah always felt that if her daughter had been named after her own maternal grandmother, Rivka Dwilanski, she would have been a more ladylike little girl.

1 According to S.D. Goitein’s work on Jewish life in the Mediterranean basis between the tenth and thirteenth centuries, however, the Jewish family there was both patriarchal and patrilocal. Young couples established their households in the husband’s father’s home, which was usually in an extended-family compound. And the patriarchal, patrilocal family that Goitein describes as prevalent in medieval Egypt had much on common with the traditional Moroccan Jewish family of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In Morocco, as in Aleppo, Syria, and in other Jewish societies in Muslim countries, Jewish women were largely confined to the home, with the men being responsible even for food shopping in the local market. See Goitein, A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza, vol. 3, The Family; and Deshen, “the Jewish Family in Traditional Morocco.”

2 Etkes, “Marriage and Torah Study Among the Lomdim in Lithuania in Lithuania in the Nineteenth Century,” pp. 158-159.

3 Leviticus 19:29; Sanhedrin 76/2.

4 R. Ha-Kohen, Torat Yekutiel; Lithuanian Council of 1761; for a comprehensive essay on the subject, see Halpern, Eastern European Jewry, pp. 289–309.

5 Maimon, An Autobiography, pp. 31–33.

6 Landau, Noda be-Yehudah, Sect. 2, Q52, pp. 45–46.

7 N. Berlin, Ha-Amek Davar, commentary on Exodus 1:7.

8 Leoni, ed., Wolozin, p. 106.

9 Yahadut Lita, vol. 3, p. 592.

10 De Vaux, Ancient Israel, pp. 19–55.

11 Genesis 21:12.

12 Etkes, “Marriage and Torah Study,” pp. 166–170.

13 A. Mapu, Mikhtavim, p. 185.

14 Grade, My Mother’s Sabbath Days; Nevada, ed., The Image of the Woman as Seen by V. Jabotinsky (English title),
pp. 51–54.

15 Yahadut Lita, vol. 3, pp. 593–594.

16 Pinkas Vaad ha-Kehilot be-Lita, 1623/44.

17 Epstein, Mekor Barukh, vol. 4, chapter 46.

18 On the lives of women in the immigrant generation, see Glenn, Daughters of the Shtetl,
and S. Weinberg,
The World of Our Mothers.

19 Some of the letters written to the Jewish Daily Forward over a period of sixty years, including a number by Lena Kaganowicz, were collected and published in book form: Isaac Metzker, ed., A Bintel Brief, Ballantine Books, 1972.

20 Moshe Kaplan, Korot Hayyai (unpublished manuscript), pp. 10-11, 19, translated from the Hebrew, Israel, 1973. I am grateful to Dr. Motti Melamud and Zippi Avrahami Melamud for entrusting me with their uncle’s manuscript.

21 Pinkas Vaad ha-Kehilot be-Lita, 1628/128;1632/258.

22 Ibid., 1629/145-146, 1634/281.

23 Mordekhai Aaron Guenzburg (1795-1846), one of the leading spokesmen for the Haskalah in Vilna, was active in the attempt to remove girls and women from commerce, out of concern for their moral well-being. See Guenzburg, Kiryat Sefer, p. 59.

24 From the beth din pinkas of Williampole (Vilijampole), Lithuania. The Central Archives of the Jewish People, Jerusalem, RU/82.

25 Wilkanski, Ba-Heder, p. 122. Interview with Rifka Remz.

26 Y. Meltzer, Be-Derekh Etz ha-Hayyim, vol. I, p. 16.
27 The edition of the Haffetz Hayyim’s Sefer Ahavat Hessed published in New York by Pardes in 1946, for example, contains a “strict warning” that nobody can publish this or any other of his books, in this or any other country, without the permission in writing of Rebbetzin Freide Kagan (his second wife) and Rabbi Aaron Kagan (his son by his second marriage.)

28 The model of Olkenik was made for the Museum of Kibbutz Lohamei ha-Gettaot (Ghetto Fighters House), Israel.

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