The one un-Jewish feature about me is the light grey colour of my eyes, but whether I got this from a twelfth-century crusader, a fourteenth-century Black Death rioter, or a seventeenth-century Cossack, no one can tell. So numerous were the offspring of ravished Jewish women that the rabbis in their wisdom long ago ruled that every child of a Jewish mother is a Jew.
These are the opening words of this memoir of shtetl life. Written with the humour and clear-sightedness of one who loved the shtetl, but who worked hard to escape it, this book records the rhythms and texture of everyday life from the early years of the century to 1927.
Life was ruled by religion and the Jewish calendar. The Bible and its injunctions were their living reality; each commandment was obeyed and Sabbath observance was so sacred that rabbinic dispensation had to be obtained before fleeing from the Cossacks on this holy day.
Dovid Zhager, as the author was known in this Yiddish-speaking part of the world, glories in the details of growing up, he explores every irony, every twist of fate, every historical fact, as history rushed past this shtetl, sometimes affecting it, sometimes just passing by. Above all, this memoir is about his growing rebellion against God who, on the one hand delineates the horizons of his life and gives meaning to it, and on the other allows so much suffering, and to such God-fearing people.
Two things emerge most clearly: firstly, the richness of such a devout life which meant that the life of the spirit took precedence over the grinding poverty that co-existed with it, and secondly, the shtetl’s lack of preparedness for anything other than religion least of all, for the fate that was later to befall it.
First drafted before the Second World War, completed fifty years later and now published for the first time, Botchki is a testament to a vanished world.
‘Botchki is an unusually sensitive, lively and honest account of life in a pre-war Polish shtetl. It is written with an unsentimental intelligence and considerable narrative flair; and its affectionate but candid picture of an Orthodox Jewish milieu illuminates the complexities of a world which we tend to reduce to quaintness or exoticism.
Eva Hoffman, Author of Lost in Translation, Exit into History and Shtetl