Excerpted from Shabes and Yontiv in Ostrovtse from the Ostrowiec Yizkor book, by Yekhiel Magid-Rozenberg, written in late 1960’s, translated by Tina Lunson
Holidays throughout the year
It was a custom in Ostrovtse on Rosh Hodesh Elul [new moon of the last month of the year, Elul], the eve of Yonkiper and on Tishe b’ov [9th of the month of Av] that people went to the cemetery. On l”g b’omer [33rd day of counting the omer after Passover] the children ran around with bows and arrows and on Tishe b’ov with little wooden swords, which their kheyder teachers gave them. On the fifteenth of Shevet, the new year for trees, each kheyder had a feast. Each pupil brought from home a couple of groshens and the rabbi’s wife bought some carob, figs and dates and all was very merry.
For khanike people used to study an argument from the Talmud Shabes 21: “If it is extinguished, does he need it or not need it. Is one allowed to use its light or not?” On khanike we ate latkes and cracklings from the roasted geese that provided fat for peysakh [Passover]. Children played with tin khanike dreydlekh [four-sided spinning tops] that they had gotten in kheyder. The dreydlekh had the four letters, nun, giml, hey, shin, representing “Nes gadol haya sham” [a great miracle happened there]. And we kheyder-boys interpreted it as “Note the thief picks locks”.
On Purim, Berl Tshotshke and the musician without a nose went with their Purim-players to the houses of the wealthy Jews and performed the “Sale of Joseph” play. Hundreds of Jews, men and women, stood outside the windows of the wealthy and caught every word of the Purim-players. The children ran around with their wooden gragers [ratchets] that they had gotten in kheyder, and during the reading of the megile [scroll] they started making noise with the gragers whenever they heard the name of “Heyman”.
For Passover we stopped going to kheyder. An older boy learned a Talmud interpretation for Passover and a younger child learned the four questions so that he would know them for the seyder and not embarrass his parents. His head was also busy with the thought of how on the seyder night to steal the afikomen. The game with Turkish nuts was very popular among children during Passover.
On the eve of Shavuos we kheyder boys went to the river and collected fresh green sweet flag, brought them home and spread them over the floors in all the rooms. We decorated the panes of the windows with various pictures that we called “reyzelikh”.
On the second day of Shavuos, for the yortsayt of King David, Ostrovtse held a ceremony for introducing the light into the shul. The old Rebi z”l and a large contingent of regular folks from the “Psalm Group” who considered this their holiday, led the parade. The light was carried by one of the elders and respected psalm Jews, and every one of the contingent believed that it was his duty to touch the light with his finger.
Entering the shul, which was decorated with greens in honor of Shavuos, they set up the lit lamp and Reb Velvele Grinberg began to recite “A Psalm of David” and later people recited whole psalms there.
On the eve of Tishe b’ov we kheyder boys busied ourselves with burrs and during the reading of Lamentations in the study-houses and Hasidic prayer-rooms we pelted the congregation, who were all sitting on over-turned benches. After Lamentations we went out into the street and threw burrs at the passing girls, who were very fearful of them because if a burr fell into their hair it was very difficult to get it out.
The eve of yonkiper Jews used to lay suffering in the entry hall of the old shul and beg the shames [beadle] to whip them on their naked bodies. This was called “beating stripes”, in order to atone for past sins.
Especially etched into our memories was conducting the old Rebi on erev yonkiper to the big shul for kol nidrey. All of Jewish Ostrovtse, young and old, men and women, accompanied the Rebi on his way to the shul and the Jewish soldiers from the Ostrovtse barracks formed a human chain so that it was possible for the Rebi to press through the great crowd of thousands that besieged the shul courtyard. The weeping and the shouting reached the high heavens, because each person wanted to beg the Rebi for a good and healthy year through his strength and merit.
A few days before sukes [sukkot] we kheyder-boys had our hands full with work, assembling the suke from some old boards which the fathers and older boys tied together. But decorating the suke so that it would have a respectable appearance and be comfortable for sitting in – that was the assignment for us, the younger kheyder-boys.