Gnoyensky, Averbukh (1883 – 1972). 1: Belaya Tserkov – Bride and Groom.

Gnoyensky, Averbukh (1883 – 1972). 1: Belaya Tserkov – Bride and Groom.

Vintage hand-driven Singer sewing machine similar to one manufactured in 1873 and used by Polina from about 1904 until 1972

Vintage hand-driven Singer sewing machine similar to one manufactured in 1873 and used by Polina from about 1904 until 1972

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My Maternal Grandparents.

My maternal dédushka, Bentsion (Bena) Gnoyensky, from the town of Korsun, and bábushka, Tsiporah (Polina) Averbukh, from the town of Belaya Tserkov, met in 1904 and married in 1911. They lived inside the Pale of Settlement. Theirs was not an arranged marriage. Bena was born in 1883, according to the records, or in 1884, according to bábushka.

Tsiporah’s Girlhood.

Tsiporah was Tsipa to her parents, Velvel and Sheina-Gitel. She disliked that nickname. In Russian it resembled Tsip-Tsip-Tsip, the sound used to get chicken’s attention. She insisted that her landsleit and siblings call her Pearl, or Pera; and they did, unless they wanted to get on her nerves addressing her Tsipa. In Kiev, Pearl morphed into its most common Russian equivalent Polina.

After learning to read, four-year-old Polina, as was customary for older girls of poor families, spent her childhood in the role of a gofer and nanny, the latter filled with heartbreak as she witnessed the death of her nine little siblings she helped care for.

During Velvel’s lessons she hovered within earshot under the guise of swaddling a baby, washing the floor, polishing the samovar, peeling potatoes, any chore that accommodated eavesdropping. Some of the comments she allowed to escape shocked Velvel into admitting that, for a girl, she grasped the subject deeper than many of his pupils. Maybe even as deep as his oldest son Avrum had at her age.

His accolades raised her hope that he would bend the no-schooling-for-girls rule if confronted with a fait accompli. Sheina-Gitel supported the scheme and enrolled her in a Jewish elementary school for girls. Polina attended it for one day.

Velvel would not bend his rule: a girl did not need education, the household needed help. Neither her tears nor Sheina-Gitel’s entreaties softened his stance. In her reminiscences Polina did not deviate from simply, if wistfully, stating the facts. My suspicion, or presumption, of a gnawing bitterness was always met with a surprised “How can a child resent her its tateh?”

At seven, with her older sister Khanah engrossed in groom selection, Polina took over most of the housecleaning too. Soon she began experimenting with recipes that had gone unchallenged for generations. Next, she volunteered to darn, knit, needlepoint, and mend.

At thirteen, Polina established herself as the family clothes-repairer, her task made easier by all the family women’s shared preference for dark colors. “If a person wears light colors or embellishments – that person is not an Averbukh,” she used to say.

Her creative eye, nimble fingers, and efficiency were of such import that Sheina-Gitel invested in a used hand-driven sewing machine – fancy gilt lettering said “Singer 1873” – that accompanied Polina throughout her life.

She created her own patterns by studying old unstitched clothes and scrutinizing the fashions of every better-dressed woman. Catching a glimpse of the women from the town’s owner, Count Bronitsky family, proved particularly fruitful, both in terms of design ideas and gossiping. The expression “Who do you think you are, Countess Bronitsky?” quickly reminded Polina’s sisters, niece, daughter (and me) of their place when they became overly demanding. For a long time, I suspected that she had actually made clothes for that finicky Countess.

Main Administrative Office of Countess Branitsky. Belaya Tserkov.

Polina crafted a separate pattern for each outfit for each woman in the family out of newspapers, its parts held together with wide stitches of fat thread, and stashed the collection in a pillowcase-like bag made from a worn-out apron; notes on the margins contained a brief description of the item, the recipient’s name and measurements, and the date when they were finalized.

By the time Khanah married, fourteen-year-old Polina was a mother-figure to the youngest: Dinah, Leib and Esther.

Silk dress made by Tsiporah for Rakhil in 1960. Worn for special occasions until Rakhil's death in 2004.Flannel house robe. A gift for Bena's 25th birthday by Tsiporah, the last thing she sewed.(This sewing machine still obeyed Polina six decades later when spare parts were no longer to be found. She considered the dress she made for Rakhil around 1960 for some extra-special occasion and the house robe she made for me for my 25th birthday in 1970 as her crowning achievements. I wore the robe occasionally but Rakhil’s dress remained a hit with her until her death in 2004.)

Bena’s Youth.

Read about Bena’s upbringing in Gnoyensky, Gabinsky (1852 – 1930s).


Like his older brother, Simkha the dancer, Bena received his education in Poland, or Lithuania, where he studied at a Yeshiva and learned bookkeeping. (They looked similar, trim and compact, but if Bena liked dancing, it could only have been before his marriage: shtetl girls and matrons had no use for dancing.)

Twenty-year-old Bena returned home, an aspiring rabbi and, less enthusiastically, bookkeeper. The first order of the day was to find a bride. His older sister, who had married a Belaya Tserkov watchmaker, recommended consulting Velvel.

Bena arrived at Velvel’s house on a Friday afternoon. Polina, barefoot, was washing the stoop with a rag, the last task in pre-Sabbath cleaning. A broken chair next to the stoop kept her immaculate lapti out of reach of chickens and water, their worn-through soles upholstered for in-house use with remnants of thick stockings after their outdoor life had ended.

Adult's lapti.

Adult’s lapti.

Bena watched the heavy braid that rested along her spine as Polina was scrubbing the steps. With the front hem of her skirt tucked into the waistband, her calves were visible. When she was done, Bena bowed respectfully pretending not to notice the lack of decorum, and entered the house.

Polina later confessed that she had fallen in love with Bena then and there but had quashed the feeling because she was only thirteen and she took him for just another of Velvel’s visitors, possibly married. Instead of asking to arrange a shidduch, Bena asked Velvel for the hand of his daughter, the beautiful girl with a long braid and masterfully restored lapti who had just finished washing the stoop (he did not mention the bare legs, Polina always noted with a mischievous smile.)

Velvel chastised Bena, an unmarried boy, for soliciting a shidduch without his father present. And anyway, Tsipa could not consent to marriage until eighteen. “My parents were married at her age but if this is the custom in your family I will wait,” Bena said. He promised to return with his father. Velvel did not invite the disrespectful boy to share the Sabbath meal.

Following his son’s report, Leib Gnoyensky rushed from Korsun, hat in hand, to rescue Bena’s prospects via a father-to-father with Velvel Averbukh who, Polina bragged, was rather impressed. Leib’s pleas, however, made no dent in the age requirement. Nobody but the bride was to choose; even the parents should not influence her, and a thirteen-year-old was not capable of choosing a husband.

Velvel described Tsipa as the most beautiful of his beautiful daughters and with a kopf and skills that ensured her family would never want for anything. Absence of dowry notwithstanding, she was worth the wait. Velvel put Leib on notice of a thorough, if discreet, derfragen he would conduct to ascertain an absence of roadblocks to a potential shidduch.

Provided Bena received a passing grade, he was welcomed to Sabbath meals anytime he found himself in Belaya Tserkov but was warned against seeking any contact with Tsipa prior to the official betrothal and against disclosing his intentions to strangers which would jeopardize her reputation.

(Polina stubbornly wore lapti at home until the late 1950s when it became impossible to get them at the market any longer. She was able to maintain a pair for an entire year which was nothing short of an Olympic record. I called them straw slippers, a misunderstanding my family did not want to clear up so as not to create an association in my mind with an obsolete, embarrassing piece of footwear.

Over the years, she developed terrible bunions – a problem she attributed directly to the too-tight first pair of shoes inherited from Khanah — sharp hot-pink protrusions that forced her big toes toward their smaller brothers and forced her middle toes out and up to settle on top of the family. The lapti hugged the misshapen feet comfortably. One other pair of shoes Polina had were custom-made, black, wide, dull-nosed. She put them on with the help of a spoon handle and wore them a few times a year, at home and outside, for special occasions. She never went outside in the winter.)

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