A World Apart, Part 2: Life in Galicia

In the segment of the book I read last night, Margoshes described his childhood and in particular two aspects of it: his education and the role of the synagogue in his life.  One thing that had not been clear to me in the first part of the book is that Margoshes and his family dressed in traditional Hasidic clothing.  That is, even though they considered themselves maskilim and not Hasidic, they dressed like Hasidim and not in modern clothing.

Here is what Margoshes has to say about his teachers in Lemberg, where he lived until he was fourteen: “I don’t have much to recount about the [teachers] I had in my youth.  One thing I realize now is that they knew very little themselves and were therefore incapable of accomplishing anything substantial with their students, even though their pupils included boys with good heads on their shoulders.”  (p. 39)  Some of his teachers were worse than incompetent—they were psychologically and physically abusive, though no one would have thought of it that way back then.  Margoshes reports that there was an understanding among the boys at the school that they would not report what the teachers were doing to them.  Only when a servant noticed a huge bruise on Margoshes’ leg from a teacher’s painful pinching did his parents learn of the abuse and have him change schools (though not have the teacher removed or disciplined).  Although Margoshes did have one teacher whom he found effective and knowledgeable, overall his experience in school was not a positive force in his life.

The school was for boys only; there is no discussion of what girls his age would be doing while he was in school.  Margoshes did have two girls who became his friends when he would visit their house to pick up papers for his father.  He would sit and play cards with them while he waited, but he never told his family about the friendships because apparently playing cards and being friends with girls would not have been considered acceptable behavior.

Other than these two girls, Margoshes only discusses male friends—boys he would read and discuss books with in an area where they would gather in front of the synagogue, books that he describes as Haskalah books.  He does not explain what that means, but from what I can infer, these were books written in Hebrew that went beyond traditional prayer or holy books and discussed broader issues and views of the world.  There were 15-20 boys who would gather every night to do this.  Margoshes wrote, ”Above everything, we would talk a lot and wonder at the young people of Lemberg who had thrust themselves into the wide world several years earlier.  … [This] was our ideal, and we all aspired to reach those heights.”  (p. 47) Interestingly, although these boys knew Yiddish, Hebrew, and some German, they did not know Polish, the language of their country, and had no desire to learn it.  “Our spirits were focused on ideals and we had no interest in practical life.” (p. 48)

The institution that played a huge part in the daily life of Margoshes and his community was the synagogue or “kloyz,” as they called it.  Men attended the kloyz twice a day every day and drew people from across the region.  Poor people as well as wealthy people prayed at the Lemberg Kloyz. There were many wealthy men in the community, and the kloyz was also where they made business connections.  Overall, however, it was more a place for religious and social gathering and played a central role in the lives of these people.  Margoshes wrote, “I loved the Kloyz with all of my heart and always felt at home there; after all, I was there twice a day over several years for prayers.” (p. 51) He considers it the place where the best times of his childhood took place.

When he was fourteen and after his father had died, Margoshes and his family moved to Tarnow, a city where there were over 15,000 Jews (somewhat smaller than Lemberg). Sadly for Margoshes, he did not find a similar community of boys in Tarnow who were interested in reading Haskalah books.  His traditional education continued with one of the most respected rabbis in Tarnow, but his intellectual life and interest in more worldly matters seems to have been limited after the move away from Lemberg.

Although the descriptions of his education and religious life were interesting, I found this whole section of the book somewhat frustrating.  Margoshes grew up in a relatively wealthy home (they had servants, after all) and a home where he was encouraged to receive a traditional education.  But the book nowhere reveals up to this point what life was like for those who were not so fortunate.  What did the girls do while the boys were at school? What about children from poor families? Did they get any education? Margoshes is rightly proud of his accomplished family, but it would be more interesting to me (and I assume others) if he had revealed more about the rest of his society.  Perhaps that will come now in the next section which describes his marriage and presumably a more adult perspective.

Maybe Joseph and Bessie were among the educated and wealthy Jews in their community, but it seems more likely that they were not.  I am hoping that Margoshes at some point talks about the lives of people from different social and economic backgrounds.

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