09 Jul Averbukh, Kuppershmidt (1860 – 1930s)
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My mother’s maternal grandparents.
Their fathers had agreed on the shidduch a short time before. The rebbe of groom’s father himself proposed it—an acknowledgment of his pupil’s scholarship and yikhes. By then, both families were beginning to despair of finding a match from yikhes. Their children were approaching twenty and, for Sheina-Gitel, the cusp of spinsterhood.
Facts and names passed on consistently and zealously left no doubt in Velvel’s unblemished yikhes.
(His children, however, had gone silent on the details but passed on the assurance of the Averbukhs’ illustrious bloodline. Thus, we are reduced to using our imagination. Several prominent rabbinic Auerbach dynasties, dating from 15th century Germany, had put out branches throughout the world. The progenitor of them all, Moses Auerbach, served as the court Jew to the bishop of Regensburg. No branch of such caliber yikhes can be classified as minor but ours apparently was one of the many invisible boughs. In addition, a rumor circulated of South European and Persian roots that explained the appearance of some apples on our tree.)
We do not know what Sheina-Gitel’s parents’ claim to yikhes was. We do not know their names. We do know that they had little to offer in the way of dowry to complement their lineage. In deference to the rebbe-shadchan, both sets of parents let slide the general part of the customary derfragen.
Rebbe effect did not extend to queries aimed at safeguarding the bloodline from predisposition to the menace that once entered forever haunted: tuberculosis and behavioral oddities. In addition, Rokhel, the groom’s handsome mother, wanted beauty for her grandchildren, not merely yikhes and health. She demanded to view the prospective bride. But before Sheina-Gitel’s father showcased his daughter, Rokhel was persuaded to let the matter drop so as not to embarrass the rebbe.
Velvel was the older of two sons of Shmerel and Rokhel Averbukh nee Gabovich. Velvel was his everyday name, his official name was Shmul-Volf. Post-revolution the latter shortened to Volf which gave his children their patronymic Volfovich for boys or Volfovna for girls.
Shmerel’s gift for telling the quality and content of fabric by touch supported his small family; luckily he did not need to fret about massing dowries. In that pre-synthetics world, he played judge and executioner in many local wholesale textile deals.
His scholarship earned him as much esteem as his fabric talent, so much so that Velvel introduced himself, all his life, with his father’s name attached to his, Velvel Shmerel’s. And it was the scholarship that Shmerel valued. Business, he liked to say, was for the stomach not for the heart. And his heart and mind were on Torah learning.
Velvel and Sheina-Gitel – the Couple.
Whether his mother eventually approved of her daughter-in-law’s looks or not, Velvel, from all accounts, did. Sheina-Gitel had a chiseled face with a miniature nose, dark eyes, and straight hair pulled into a fist-size bun in the back of her head.
She was remembered as a person that everybody gravitated to for conversation.
Velvel’s narrow face dominated by a bony nose, a resplendent black mane and beard, and large, searching, very black eyes overpowered Sheina-Gitel’s tranquil appearance. And in stature, she, short and zaftig, presented quite a contrast with her husband’s tall frame.
Their environment, abundant in poverty, overcrowded living and anxiety, and lacking in nourishment, adequate clothing, fresh air and physical activities, stunted children’s growth, as did the early marriages and inbreeding. The height of the Averbukh men placed them, they felt, many metaphorical rungs above the majority of their landsleit.
The few people that dared to gravitate to Velvel and the fewer yet that he accepted were those who counted: scholars. He took no notice of anybody outside that circle or, gazing above most heads, stooped to acknowledging them, for that matter.
Sheina-Gitel conscientiously reported the townfolk complaints of his disrespect to Velvel and got the same explanation: “why would I waste my time on a fool?” It was easier to apologize for her husband than deliver the endless grievances to him. He was yikhes, a Yeshivah melamed, brilliant and learned and possessed of an extraordinary memory, a respected Hasid, he was handsome and he was tall and so imposing in his shtreimel –
if he wasn’t entitled to aloofness, who was?
Velvel enjoyed his wife’s company. A wife, he repeated, should be beautiful and smart because then the children would be beautiful and smart, and the husband would hurry home after work. Eine gute veib shtelt auf die fiss und eine shlechte veib volgert von die fiss (a good wife raises her husband to his feet and a bad wife knocks her husband off his feet.) Brusque under the best of circumstances, Velvel addressed Sheina-Gitel softly, never interfering with her household decisions.
Sheina-Gitel ensured that all their children memorized the Hebrew alphabet at two and read fluently by four. Then the girls remained at her disposal whereas the boys graduated into Velvel’s homeschooling. A person of little restraint, Velvel scoffed at Sheina-Gitel’s focus on manners she quietly introduced to the children beginning at a very young age.
For a woman reared in a poor shtetl family, she possessed an uncanny sense of etiquette and dignity that could not have been more pronounced had she been bred with governesses and in aristocratic society. When she coached the children on the proper way to enter and exit the room, to address people of different age and status, to unobtrusively change a topic, and demonstrated how to say yes or no with eyes and body language, Velvel snorted dismissively—but he approved.
Friday was the busiest day for Sheina-Gitel, her daughters and pre-bar mitzvah sons, what with bringing more water from the well than on other days
– they owned one yoke – scrubbing the house clean, bringing in the firewood, putting on the samovar, preparing and serving the Sabbath meal. Velvel usually invited a few pupils and, on becoming a dayan, the visitors that happened to come for advice that day.
After the meal, the men sat back and engaged in a vociferous debate of religious and philosophical matters that flowed well into the night. Sheina-Gitel got up and signaled the girls to collect the dishes. “Sitz a bissele (stay a little,)” Velvel asked. “Allein teet sich nicht (nothing gets done by itself,)” Sheina-Gitel invariably replied with sarcasm that escaped him.
The world, per Velvel, consisted of two categories of people: the few families comparable to his and the kleine menschelekh (small people,) an expression defying definition that had nothing to do with people’s physical attributes, but with a mind not capable of rising above the everyday bustle, of distinguishing between consequential and transient.
These two categories could no more blend than an eagle with a cat. And if one tried to blend—in Velvel’s vocabulary, marry out—then the cat gobbled up the eagle and launched a cat family. Not the same as marrying outside the faith but, within the same faith, close. Ven man kumt aroys fon a katz makht man meow (he who descends from a cat is doomed to meow.
Velvel based his reign on the principles entrusted to him to enrich and to transmit to his children. Or, some of his descendants argued, not principles but commandments passed through enough generations to enter their genome.
Some principles he placed above others: what you did when nobody was watching was important; and whether you cultivated a mensch inside you; and that you held yourself to higher than elementary standards because not filching bagels at the market did not make one leitish. On a less abstract level he particularly valued common sense that, like truth, could not be quashed forever. He particularly detested lying and stinginess: Redn mit a lygner als vie redn mit a shtimmer, man kent aroys vissendik (talking with a liar is like talking to a mute, you won’t learn anything from either); with a karg spouse, a home becomes a prison.
Velvel’s remarkable intuition bordered on clairvoyance. His children felt like recipients of a scroll at birth, a guide to requisite and unacceptable thoughts, actions, and traits. An absolute master of his domain, Velvel did not punish his brood, he asked, “suppose you’ve prevailed – now what?”
Punishment was not his role. His role was to make his children contemplate the consequences, to presage dangers posed by zind. Causing shmerz knowingly was one of those zind, as was, of course, avoiding a mitzvah. But he defined nothing as black-and-white. Mitzvah, for example, was not to be confused with yielding to any request. It had to be real help in real need. Ein shikkeren goy pishn feern (leading a drunken peasant where he could pee) did not qualify as a mitzvah. A desire to show off or acceptance of compensation in any form disqualified it.
Velvel instilled the fear of a word, the most painful, the most crushing weapon. He instilled the view of one’s home as a separate and self-contained world. When he made a gesture of turning a key to lock his mouth, no torture would make his children share a story outside the family. The most chilling consequence caused by one’s action he verbalized as es shoot zu kinder (it will affect your children.) That fate petrified me when I was small as much as it petrifies me now.
The adage “be careful what you wish for” did not begin to compare with “suppose you’ve prevailed – now what?” A great-grandchild born twenty years after Velvel’s death, I have turned to this question to guide me in all my dilemmas and I have not made an important decision without validating my reasoning against it.
Growing up with my grandmother’s “as my father used to say” I cannot keep a conversation going without “as my great-grandfather used to say,” even if I occasionally suppress it in a company of strangers to avoid funny looks. Will my descendants remember to credit their wisdom where it’s due? After all, how many are fortunate to have a great-great-great-grandfather that has their back?)
Velvel and Civil War, Revolution, Pogroms.
Velvel and Sheina-Gitel first settled in a half-house on Zlatopolskaya Street, then in a small house on Verkhnyaya Street where they lived for the rest of their lives.
Similar houses on that street that I saw in 2007 did not appear, from my American perspective, spacious enough to accommodate more than four people, if that. Obviously, they had accommodated many more plus Sabbath guests.
Sheina-Gitel gave birth seventeen times. The first five children were born about two years apart. The interval held due to her built-in contraception system: she did not get pregnant while breastfeeding. One of the five, a girl, died in her teens.
The next twelve deliveries ended in nine children that perished in infancy and three, the youngest, that survived. The baby of the family, Esther, was born after a five-year gap caused by an infection that required visits to a Kiev gynecologist – do not economize on a doctor, attorney, or teacher, was Velvel’s credo. Esther joked, “thankfully, Mama got cured and I was born.”
As common as child death had been in that time and place, Velvel mourned each long and painfully. He mourned the baby and the future scholar or the future mother of a scholar. Distant and authoritarian while his children were well, he transformed into a mother-hen when they got sick, spending sleepless nights with them, rocking them in his arms, taking them to doctor Aizenshtadt, an expensive local physician considered by Velvel both knowledgeable and a mensch, which in his language meant empathetic and tactful.
As the family grew, Velvel and Sheina-Gitel looked to complement his melamed wages. Velvel ridiculed the tsaddiks that limited their lives to praying without contributing to their children’s upbringing. He took in private pupils, boys who strove to expand their Torah knowledge. Sheina-Gitel arranged to sell tichels from a neighbor’s clothing stall. The enterprise brought in almost nothing until the oldest child, Khanah, turned five and began to care for the younger siblings.
Then Sheina-Gitel made a similar arrangement with a stall owner at the opposite end of the market.
Of course, the complicated logistics exhausted her and destroyed her lapti faster but the double exposure generated a reliable trickle, particularly timely during Velvel’s long sabbaticals he took every year or two to visit with his rebbe who held court possibly in the town of Ruzhin.
During the civil war, armies and gangs of all stripes, and some gentile neighbors entertained themselves by robbing and torturing Jews. Velvel’s brother, Mordecai, followed his daughter’s family to Petrograd where his descendants still live.
Velvel’s children sat out the incursions in the cellar. The household owned nothing worth taking. Their ancient samovar was snatched in one of the first raids. The looters suspected it was made of silver because it shined. Sheina-Gitel’s rule to polish it every day came back to bite her.
As the family dared to hope they had escaped the worst, Velvel’s ample salt-and-pepper beard attracted the attention of one of the roaming contingents. In the presence of Sheina-Gitel, the beard fell on the ground and under the hooves of impatient horses to the uproarious laughter of the warriors du jour. They were in a forgiving mood: the joker, proud of the precision of his cut, wiped off his saber on Velvel’s clothes, and the group galloped away, still laughing.
At that moment, Sheina-Gitel said later, Velvel shrunk in height; his arrow-straight back bent and never unbent again. She helped him into the house where he sat over his books from dawn to night for the last months of his life. The beard did not grow back much.
He died in his sleep, a broken man, his dynasty crumbled, his wisdom and foresight inadequate to keep it together. Sheina-Gitel, the remnants of the family and a few landsleit that had not yet fled the shtetl gathered at his funeral.
Within a few years all the Averbukhs migrated to big cities, except Tsiporah (Polina), my bábushka. She stayed with Sheina-Gitel who could not contemplate existence outside Belaya Tserkov.
Sheina-Gitel died in the mid-1930s in her sleep, like her husband. Tsiporah and a neighbor were present at the burial. The rest of the family lived too far away to make the trip.
Of the Averbukh children that reached adulthood, Khanah and Tsiporah (Polina) were buried in the Kiev Kurenevskoye and Berkovtsy cemeteries, respectively; Yankel-Shmul (Kutsya) in Belaya Tserkov; Avrum (Abraham) in Philadelphia; Esther in San Francisco; Dinah in a common grave during the World War II siege of Leningrad; Leib (Lev) was cremated in Leningrad. For everyday consumption in the Soviet Union, they used a patronymic Vladimirovich / Vladimirovna which was a Russified form of Volfovich / Volfovna that appeared in their papers and on their gravestones. All their descendants live in the United States.
Read about the lives of the surviving Averbukh children on their individual pages:
Gnoyensky, Averbukh (1883-1972) — Tsiporah, my bábushka’s, story
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