Growing Up Jewish in Hungary


Growing Up Jewish in Hungary


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The Lure of the Candy; the Bite of the Cane

By Ephraim Glaser

The back side of the house where I spent my childhood and youth was situated along the Szamos River. The part that ran in this area of the town was an estuary used for receiving the overflow from the large Szamos and for irrigating the surrounding fields. It was about five meters wide and sometimes reached as far as two meters deep. The tenants living in the houses on the bank of the river crossed it via a wooden bridge adjacent to the courtyard.

There was no fence between the river and the street, which caused many accidents, especially during the night. Most of the victims were drunkards, who fell into it. I once saw a Romanian soldier floating in the water. The older boys from our courtyard jumped in and dragged him out. He was still alive, but deadly drunk.

The water of the river was grey and swift flowing, for us children it was fascinating, in our courtyard we invented a game; standing on the bridge and for a while staring into the river and watching its swift flow until we felt that we were moving with the river. Various items of interest fell into it accidentally and floated on its surface. An occurrence of my early childhood returns to me; I must have been about 3 or 4 years old. On a certain day I took my father’s silver-headed cane and threw it into the river. I presume that it must have been the magnetic attraction of the river that tempted me to do that. In my later years that cane was occasionally mentioned in our home. A silver-headed cane was an expensive article, which my father must have reserved for special visits.

There were also tennis balls that were seen frequently floating in the river. They came from the neighboring tennis court at the Protestant church, located next to the shore. At every high strike, the ball went flying far above the wire net straight into the water. At the tennis games during the summer months, young boys sat along the river bank waiting to jump in to retrieve the balls and to be rewarded with a few pennies by the tennis players.

One hazy afternoon when I was about six years old, I was sitting with a playmate of mine, the young daughter of our neighbor, on the shore of the river. We were watching the odd assortment of usual and unusual objects flowing past us as we slowly savored the few remaining candies I had been saving in my pocket. It was a treat for every child to go to the candy stall and to buy a bag of candies, which were sold by the piece and then wrapped in a cone made of newspapers. I purchased the candies from Ivan, an elderly shopkeeper who owned the little market at the end of the road.

Suddenly, we heard voices jeering at our backs and immediately knew that trouble was not far behind. My first reaction was to shove the candies back into my pocket. As I turned to face my enemies, I saw two bullies rushing towards us, demanding that we hand over the bag of candies. But I was not willing to surrender, it must have been some pushing around and before I knew what to do, I found myself in the river!

I can still see the yellow-white curtain of water that engulfed me so mercilessly. Soon afterwards, the curved head of a cane appeared in front of me. I clutched it with my rapidly fading strength to pull myself out of the water. It amuses me now to remember that while in the river, the only thought I had besides not drowning was to protect that bag of candies which were tucked in my pocket. As soon as I was rescued from the river, I hurried to check whether my precious treasure had become soggy. I was to find out later that the cane which had saved me belonged to the owner of a nearby factory, who just by chance happened to be walking along the river

Today I live in Israel, and I swim laps every morning. As I rhythmically immerse my head under the water, the sight beneath the surface can still be unsettling. Once in a while, I am overwhelmed by some fuzzy fear and occasionally even catch myself checking the pocket of my swimming trunks to see if my candies are safe.

* * * * *

At the age of three, following the custom of religious orthodox Jewish families, I had my blonde hair shorn off and was left with a side lock on each side, known in the Yiddish language as “peyos”. Shearing off hair at the age of three and being sent to the “heder” (Jewish children’s school) was a ceremonial event. This was the traditional way to introduce children to the religious precepts (of commandments and transgressions) – or as popularly known, the “yoke of the Torah.” All at once a heavy burden descended on my young shoulders.

My brother Menachem took me on my first day to the heder. I was received and seated by Reb Yidel, who was called the “Melamed” (Hebrew teacher). I was soon called to the blackboard, where the Hebrew alphabet was printed in large letters on a white canvas. The teacher pointed his long cane to the first letter and asked me what letter it was. As I said “aleph,” a large candy dropped from the top of the blackboard. The teacher saw my astonishment and said, “an angel from heaven sent you that candy.” So did the angel respond again when I guessed “bet,” the second letter of the alphabet. The candies were large and round. The parents must have paid the school to purchase and use the candies for this deceit that awaited every new child upon their arrival to the heder.

Still, there was a romantic aura around learning the alphabet of the holy language. In the class and at home we played alphabet games, and with time the letters joined forces and became words. Unfortunately, this holy vocation was dominated by acrimonious and malcontent teachers who were earning a low income while supporting large families. The use of the cane in the schools was then an acceptable practice, and they took out their wrath on the young pupils.

Reb Yidel taught children from ages three to five. He was a short man, bespectacled with thick lenses through which his eyes looked enormous. A dense unruly black beard surrounded his face. He wore a long black coat spattered with greasy stains. I can still smell the musty odor of the heder mixed with the strong stench of sweat emanating from his stocky frame. He would get up from his chair and stride across the room, carrying the long cane in his hand that he now used to lash out at anyone who dared to utter a word. It was a harsh discipline that instilled fear in us. This was our substitute for kindergarten, where we stayed until we entered elementary school at the age of seven. After that, we continued to attend the heder in the afternoon.

A Jewish boy with side locks was free prey for gangs of hooligans in our town, which was ruled by the fierce anti-Semitism that prevailed in Romania at the time. I was constantly haunted by the feeling that someone was lying in wait to attack me on my way to school. If I could not escape, the attackers would hold me down and pull my side locks. It was not untill I reached the age of ten, when I was physically stronger, that I finally started to fight back.


from the January 2006 Edition Jewish Magazine




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