Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

18 Sivan 5763 - June 18, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Those were the Days

by M. Chevroni

When you stepped into the house the floor was immaculate. There may have been cracks here and there in the designs formed by the colorful tiles. Green, brown, black. An arabesque on the floor. If you entered such a house you realized right away you were about to embark on a journey in time. A time machine was taking you back fifty, sixty, seventy years to a time recalled today with a sigh of "those were the days," or in a more appreciative, wistful version, "those were the good old days."

To recall how life really was back then in Eretz Yisroel one can simply seek out those who still remember--and there are plenty of them left. A dramatic lifestyle change has transpired over the course of just two or three generations, especially in Eretz Yisroel. Here, fifty-year-olds remember when electricity was brought into their homes, unlike those in Europe and the Americas where electricity was brought in two generations earlier. "The world changes before our eyes at a frightful speed," noted Grandma Chaya, who remembers those days well.

The Milkman

The days of the Old City or of Meah Shearim when everybody lived in one big room, when the walls were thick and had a big crevice bulging down from the archway, are not part of Grandma Chaya's recollections. She had already come into the world in the days of Meah Shearim but she lived in an entirely different neighborhood: Geulah.

"First on the third floor of a three-story building," she recounts. "In the winter, water dripped from the walls of our apartment. There was an electricity hookup, but we were warned not to touch it so we wouldn't get electrified. All of the outlets were covered over with plaster.

"The floor was a blend of green and brown. The kitchen had wooden cabinets with curtains Imma sewed, instead of doors. The curtains were drawn with a strip of flexible metal. The cupboard in the central room, which nobody identified as the living room, was very heavy. So too were the chairs and table. The apartment was the same as today's apartments, only not so flimsy and of course with fewer amenities.

"In the morning, before the trip to the market, the milkman would arrive. He would climb the steps all the way up to the apartment with a big metal pitcher, pull out a measuring cup, measure out in rotel [an old Middle Eastern measure of volume] and pour the milk into the milk pot to be boiled -- for back then milk did not come pasteurized. When the boiling was finished, a crusty layer floated on top.

"The milkman with his rattling pitchers remained part of the human landscape even after the tin pitchers and the non- pasteurized milk were replaced with bottled milk. This kept the milkman trade alive a bit longer before it disappeared forever. Customers would place empty milk bottles outside the door at night. The milkman would leave the same number of full bottles as the number of empty bottles he found outside the door. Once a week, we would tally the bill and pay him.

"By then milk was also sold at the local market, either in bottles or little bags, and soon bigger, one-liter bags were available. This edged the milkmen out, leaving memories of the G-d-fearing Yerushalmi milkmen who worked hard and raised a generation of talmidei chachomim learning in yeshivas.

"When bagged milk first reached the market, people would save the bags. The previous generation was much slower in learning to throw things away. They would wash the bags and make use of them in various ways. In schools they even wove rugs out of plastic bags cut into strips.

"But it was already too late. People were already going to the local market in the morning, like today. `Buy half a loaf of white bread and half a package of butter,' Imma would say. `And a hundred grams of low- fat cheese and egg powder.' Fresh eggs were a high- price commodity.

"The entire family managed with half a loaf of white bread. When you bought cheese (only low-fat was sold) the storekeeper would weigh it on a balance, carefully placing it on a square piece of paper he cut carefully, and then wrapping the package and placing it inside a brown paper bag -- or more often in cones made of old newspapers. In those days everything was measured in ounces, after the British system.

"In the corner of the grocery store was a barrel with a tap. Those who needed to buy kerosene would bring a tin container and fill it with a funnel. No, it did not spill on the sugar and salt and beans, which were kept in large sacks. At the counter, the storekeeper would pull the pencil off his ear and add up the bill on a piece of paper. Sometimes he would use wooden beads (an abacus) to make his calculations. The total was typically in grushim or at most a lira. There was also the mil, which was like today's agorot, but much more useful. Personal checks and credit cards were unheard of.

"Just like today, children were given candy. Black, licorice- flavored fish called bambalik. Big parched chickpeas were sold by weight in paper cups. There was cotton candy and there was also chamla melan, a vegetable sold on the street that had very tasty seeds. Adults liked them too. There was also kaines, or sugar cane. You would buy a stick, peel off the outside and suck on it. Ice cream in every freezer? No one thought that was ever possible. There was an ice cream shop in Geula called Glida Volga. A titillating scent wafted from the lavish interior with its marble counter tops. They made the ice cream on-the-spot and visible to the public. Who didn't dream of a serving of ice cream?

"The first ice cream bars ("Arctic") were small, square and wrapped in a tin-coated wrapper. "Eskimo" bars were sold by peddlers with wooden boxes strapped to their necks. Later popsicles made their appearance."

The Art of Kerosene Cooking

"The grocery store was not the only place to buy kerosene. Those were the last days of the horse-drawn carriage. The kerosene seller would come down the street ringing a big bell. Right away people knew he had arrived. Doors would swing open, women and children would emerge with tins in hand and the kerosene seller would pour out whatever quantity the customer asked for. The smell of kerosene blended with a horsy smell. As children we stared at him in wonder, watching how the horse whisked his tail around lazily to bat away the flies. After everyone had filled their canisters the wagon driver would climb back onto the wagon, sit down on the seat and say, "Hoisah" ["giddyap"]. Not quite the same as the kerosene tanks connected to a larger storage tank outside.

"What was kerosene used for? Just about everything. For cooking, heating and ridding one's head of small, unwanted guests. Kerosene ovens were square and high and not simple to manage. Cooking was done on Primus stoves, copper devices that stood on two legs and demanded a great deal of attention. They had to be cleaned and the heads poked at with a special needle and blown at with a pump to make the fire burn well.

"The Primus was designed for quick cooking and frying, unlike the petiliya which was for slow cooking. On Shabbos the cholent was left on the petiliya. It consisted of a kerosene container to which a thick cotton band was threaded and lit. The band would get consumed very slowly and by turning the turnkey a new bit of band extended up. Periodically a new band had to be installed, of course.


"Cooking was less convenient than today. It was really a whole different world. The fish were cleaned and cut. Carp of course, on Shabbos. During the week we ate "fillet," which was from a very cheap fish. Every slice of fish was prepared expertly. Imma would take the meat off from the sides and grind it to make a paste inserted into the head and the cavity of the fish."

Rebbetzin Z. recalls that in her family making the fish was a family affair that could take hours. "On Friday mornings my mother would go down to the first floor of the building where my aunt lived and they would prepare the fish together. My uncle would come in, grind a bit of fish to take part in the mitzvah, and leave again.

"The fish was cooked in a giant copper pot. Later my mother calculated the time spent and realized a lot of time was being wasted, so she began to cook the fish at home by herself. What would she have said about the ready-made mixes or jars of gefilte fish sold today? I imagine she would have said it's not kvod Shabbos."

Even the Milk Tasted Better . . .

She would invariably have had something similar to say about today's tables set with disposable plates and cutlery on a disposable sheet of plastic. "By us," says Rebbetzin Z., "there were fine tablecloths on the table, starched damask tablecloths. Later, when nylon tablecloths came out, my mother used them. But they were not disposable. Back then nothing was for one-time use like today. Porcelain plates, the big spoons in the cutlery set.

"People handled every single item with care. When a plate broke my mother would have it fixed. There was a man in Jerusalem whose job was fixing porcelain plates. He would use metal clips to piece it back together. It would last, but it was never as good as new. But to throw away a plate? So what if it broke?"

"We lived near Tnuva," Rebbetzin Z. continued. "Every morning, very early, trucks and tankers with the aroma of the wide world outside of Jerusalem would enter the dairy compound. We would wake to the sound of metal pitchers clanging against one another. The trucks would pull in from every corner of the country. For us children it opened up a whole world of imagination. Where did they come from? What did they see along the way? Did they have gardens at the kibbutzim and villages? Flowers? Nothing fired the imagination more than the idea that someone had a garden outside his home. For some reason, the big milk pitchers stirred our yearning for things unknown to us and, without a doubt, fabulous and lovely."

Rebbetzin Z. has no recollection of leben but she remembers lebeniya. "Lebeniya was for the poor. The well-to-do bought shamenet (cream). Lebeniya and shamenet were packaged in little glass jars closed with a cardboard top. We would poke a fork into the top to pull it off. To this day it's hard for me not to feel that the lebeniya and shamenet, and even the milk, that were sold in glass bottles tasted much better than what we buy today."

Believe it or not, even chocolate milk was available. "Once my class went on a field trip," recounts Grandma Chaya. "A walking trip around Jerusalem, of course. It was a very hot day and when we got back to school we found someone had left us boxes filled with chocolate milk. A little jar of chocolate milk the size of a jar of lebeniya for every schoolgirl. No chocolate milk in the world comes close to the taste of that chocolate milk. I'm sure of it."

Milk and dairy products have to be kept cold. This secret was known back then, as well. Therefore someone went and invented the icebox, the precursor to the modern-day refrigerator.

An icebox was of no use without ice. And where was ice obtained? At an ice factory. "In Geula there was a special store for ice," recounts Grandma Chaya, who clearly recalls the store owner, Broide. "The chunks of ice were sold as large blocks. Every family had special handles that clamped onto the ice to carry it home. Usually people bought half a block. The ice was placed in a special compartment in the icebox, where it would melt away slowly and drip into a special drawer on the bottom. The chunks would gradually disappear, and, based on its size, the family knew soon we would have to return to Broide's."

Technological Progress: The Ballpoint Pen

"Let's see," says Rebbetzin A., trying to recall how many Bais Yaakov schools there were in Jerusalem. "There was Merkaz, and if I'm not mistaken there was a branch in Beis Yisroel and a branch in Katamon. At Merkaz there were two buildings, both of them very small, but to our eyes they looked very big, especially the building at Merkaz where Grades 4 through 8 were taught--in two shifts, of course. There was not enough room for everybody in one shift."

Classroom crowding is hardly a recent phenomenon. "We received our first notebooks at school. They were really half notebooks, for each one was split into two. There were pencils and sharpeners and erasers. In the lower grades, the students were wholly unaware of the existence of pens, but eventually they encountered them. And what an encounter!"

The students used fountain pens. They would dip the point into the inkwell, shake off a bit of ink and write carefully in the notebook, with some blotches mixed in from time to time. They used blotting paper to soak up the excess ink, and the teacher used to teach how to write with a pen.

Then along came the cartridge (fountain) pen, which was considered fabulously sophisticated. The tip was placed in the inkwell and, using a small lever built into the pen, ink was drawn inside, allowing one to write several pages without having to refill. This was a giant step forward.

Then, like thunder on a clear blue day, along came the ballpoint pen. What an innovation! We used to call it a "biro." A pen that could be opened and closed with a click of the thumb. No mess and no need to refill manually. A new age was ushered in and the fountain pens were soon abandoned, along with the cartridge pen, no matter how attractive and expensive they were. Today they have become collectors' items.

The typewriter, too, was a bold step forward along the path to the computer age. Instead of writing carefully in block letters, writers and clerks could sit and tap away at the keys. There were Hebrew typewriters, English typewriters and even Yiddish typewriters, which bore regular Hebrew letters but in a different order. Typewriters had their own demands. The ribbon had to be changed and the typist had to pull a lever to advance to the next line. A special ring sounded to inform typists they had reached the end of the line.

You turn the paper around and put it through, tap out "BS'D" on the pristine sheet, and feel just like "America" -- writing with a machine!

The manual typewriter was soon overshadowed by the electric typewriter. The work became much easier, but required an electrical outlet. Using carbon paper, one could even produce multiple copies.

Then the computer burst onto the scene. Those computers with a green screen, swept the typewriter into the dustbins of history. Who knows what they'll come up with next?

Wash Day

The heavy load of household tasks left little time for daydreaming. In some ways life was easier back then, while in other ways it was harder.

Take laundry for instance. Who does the laundry nowadays? The washing machine, of course. A housewife who takes the trouble to separate whites and darks is considered industrious. The machine also does the wringing and afterwards there may be a dryer waiting too. This is called doing laundry?

"First of all, laundry day [preparations] would start at noontime," says A. "My mother would separate the different types of laundry and soak the clothes to make them come out cleaner in the end. Our family, which lived together in one building, had a shared laundry room in the courtyard. Every household had its own designated laundry day. The laundrywoman would arrive early in the morning, before sunrise. Ours was a tzadekes with a heart of gold and her loyalty knew no bounds.

"Upon her arrival she would begin to prepare the laundry. Imma would go down the stairs and put a big vat of water on the big Primus. Lighting the Primus required real expertise. I never managed to learn how to fiddle around with it. You're supposed to poke it with a needle, fill the canister with kerosene, put spirit on top next to the flame and pump the handle -- and then the fire would leap up with a shrill sound.

"The big vat was filled with water and placed on the Primus. The big, round, metallic laundry tubs are not familiar to most people nowadays. They were filled with laundry and, using laundry soap--a yellowish bar with an unpleasant smell-- every item was scrubbed by hand.

"Some of the laundry was subjected to fire: laundry that needed boiling was placed in the vat on the Primus. As a little girl, in my imagination, this was the fire of Gehennom. I used to think that was what became of sinners. Perhaps they would also be stirred around with a big stick, like the one the laundrywoman used.

"Afterwards, the laundry was removed with the stick. It came out hot and steaming, and very dangerous for small children. Then it was tossed into a tub of cold water, rinsed out and wrung dry. It was very long, hard work. Afterwards, the laundry had to be hung up. Socks in one place, white shirts in another. Some of the laundry had to be starched. The starch was made at home. It was cooked up on the Primus and then the shirts and skirts were soaked in it, coming out straight and stiff, ready for ironing.

"I kept the coal iron for a long time," reveals Grandma Chaya. "A memento of bygone days. Only when we moved did the iron disappear somehow. It's a shame. It was made of iron and had metal teeth that opened up and a belly to hold the coals. They were put in, lit and the iron would heat up. Then the shirts, tablecloths, skirts, sheets and towels were ironed out. Everything got ironed. But HaKodosh Boruch Hu took pity on our mothers and sent them the new, electric iron. It was very heavy, and without steam like those of today, but the work was far easier than with the coal iron."

The electric wires were wrapped in cloth rather than plastic. The plugs also looked different. Ground connections were unheard of. And the clothes looked nice, smooth and shiny, until they were worn. They would get wrinkled very quickly and washing an article of clothing was not just a matter of throwing it into the hamper and taking it out with hardly any need for ironing.

Diapers were washed the same way. When a baby was born, cloth and flannel diapers were bought. Every baby was swathed from head to foot "to make it feel protected and warm," my mother once explained to me. Today they are free to squirm any which way they please.

Washing the Baby

Washing babies was less frequent than today. Bathing was a project that required forethought and preparation. First water had to be heated . . . assuming there was any water to heat. "During the War," recounts Rebbetzin Z., by which she means the War of Independence in 5708 (1948), "there was no water in Jerusalem. Not at the taps. Water was distributed by tank." During this period the word "tank," borrowed from English, referred to water tankers. Later this usage in Modern Hebrew was lost and today the word "tank" invariably refers to tanks with treads and turrets.

"Women would bring out all sorts of buckets to receive water, which was too expensive to be squandered without thinking. Bathwater was heated on a large Primus and poured into a tub. This was more economical. More than one child used the same water. It was also used to wash the floor. The child was soaped thoroughly using a loofa. Bath sponges were still unheard of. Laundry soap was used as shampoo and then the hair was combed well with a fine-tooth comb."

"In every area you can think about, a major difference was apparent," says Rebbetzin A. "The kitchen cabinets, the vegetable pantry, the clothes wardrobe. In our house a carpenter made a custom children's wardrobe out of the large wooden box used to transport our first electric refrigerator. That wardrobe lasted for many years and was passed down to our children and grandchildren."


The wardrobe contained clothes without labels. Generally clothes were sewn at home. Mothers would sew clothes for small children. When they got older, a seamstress was brought in. "Our coats were made by a tailor," recalls Grandma Chaya nostalgically. "My mother brought the tailor old coats with which he used to make beautiful new coats for me and my sister."

The fabrics used were cotton, wool and sometimes silk. Natural fibers that required special care. Clothes were handed down from one child to the next and from one household to the next in the extended family. Clothes were not discarded quickly, but were reincarnated in a different form. Skirts were converted into aprons or curtains.

After their bar mitzvah boys wore caps. Sometimes the hatter made a cap out of cloth from a worn suit. Ties and brimmed hats were reserved for young men 18 or over.

"Every holey sock was darned," recalls Grandma Chaya with a big smile. "That was a trade back then, too. There were women who took in women's stockings. They would repair the run with care. Men's socks were darned at home by making a net over every hole, using special thread, to fix the socks and to fill in the space with crisscross stitching."

Special Occasions

Bar mitzvahs were very unlike what we know today. "Throughout the day of the bar mitzvah the house was open to guests, who dropped in at whatever time was convenient for them. There was no pastry bar, no seudah, not even borekas. Instead lekach was served, a well-known Yerushalmi cake, along with liquor and sometimes tea. There were also candies on the table and little homemade sandwiches."

Weddings, too, were a far cry from today's affairs. "At my wedding," recounts Grandma Chaya, "there was no band and no drums. The chuppah was held in the entry hall of the Bais Yaakov School, and the seudah was held for a small number of invited guests at a little hall at a different location. And it was a very happy chasunah. The bochurim from the yeshiva sang and there was someone who balanced a bench on his teeth. People danced and made merry in the little hall. There were a lot fewer chasunos than today."

Of course the chareidi sector has grown demonstrably over the last fifty years, boruch Hashem. Grandma Chaya was also reminded of an earlier wedding. "I was still a little girl when my cousin got married. It was the first one I attended and I won't forget it. For weeks my aunt was busy with the preparations. I remember her standing in her little kitchen baking cookies. Every cookie received loving attention, with half a peanut stuck on top. Special dresses from very inexpensive fabrics were sewn for me and my cousin for the wedding. White dresses with pink flowers. We were the bridesmaids.

"Their wedding was held in two places as well. The chuppah at a nearby talmud Torah and the seudah in the courtyard at home. Tables were laid out for the guests to sit at. They were happy and made [the chosson and kallah] happy. I can't remember what was served. But the aroma of my aunt's cookies remains with me."

The young couple lived in a small, rented apartment before moving to a distant part of the country. "Today that chosson is a well-known figure in the chareidi sector," says Rebbetzin Z., refusing to divulge his name.

Eirusin were held at home, of course. Tables were set up in all the rooms of the house and decorated with greenery. There were separate tables for children, who did not dream of protesting. Herring was a must on every table.

The Har Tuv Rest Stop

Most people traveled much less frequently. But it went without saying that to visit an eye, nose and throat doctor meant a trip to Tel Aviv. The Central Bus Station in Jerusalem was on Jaffa Street, a site now considered the middle of the city.

"To open the door of the bus the driver had to pull on a handle," says Grandma Chaya. "After the bus set out it would roll along as far as Har Tuv, where it would stop for a break. The passengers would step out to stretch their legs and perhaps to buy a cup of soda water. The cups were washed by a special brush around which glass cup was spun and was then rinsed in a special tub. There was also soda pop for the wealthy. If I'm not mistaken it cost a grush and a half, but don't hold me to that."

How long did it take to go to Tel Aviv? A long time, remembers Savta Chaya, but she cannot say exactly how long. Within the city trips were much shorter. Going as far as Kiryat Moshe was already an adventure on the number 3 bus line.

Geulah was a mixed neighborhood at the time. "We had secular neighbors," Rebbetzin Z. "There were confrontations on Shabbos, but not with the neighbors. Members of Mapam kibbutzim would come specifically to desecrate Shabbos [in our vicinity]."

Concentrations of only chareidim were found then in Meah Shearim and Shaarei Chessed. To describe those neighborhoods you need a book. There were also chareidim in Katamon and some in Rechavia. They were the rich, who comprised a small minority of the chareidi population.


Familial ties were much stronger then. "Family was considered an asset," says Rebbetzin A. "Every relative was important and dear. Today there are large families, boruch Hashem, but some of the warmth is very lacking today."

Nowadays who goes on vizhitim, going to visit relatives every Shabbos? Who holds a Chanukah party for all of the relatives--everyone, including the uncles and aunts and cousins? Who makes a kiddush on chagim--for everyone? Today there is not enough space to squeeze everyone in, which is a happy sign. "But today children don't feel a sense of family," laments Rebbetzin A. "Children only know their nephews and nieces and first cousins."

Oh well. Everything has its price, including progress. Today's conveniences--refrigerators, washing machines, dryers, microwaves and ready-made food--make life much easier and few would dream of giving them up. "But today there are no helpers," says Grandma Chaya, triumphantly. "Back then there was help in almost every home, mostly Yemenite women, who would come every day."

Today the Yemenite women themselves hire Romanian help and manage to get by just fine.

A Call from HaRav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz

These are excerpts from a recent letter from HaRav Lefkowitz to provide encouragement and guidance in these difficult times. The full letter appeared in our issue of parshas Bamidbar 30 May - 28 Iyar.

During the last several decades, our way of life has changed. We have grown accustomed to luxuries of all sorts--clothing, furniture, weddings, apartments, and much more. Competitiveness among ourselves has increased to the point where everyone lives in comparable circumstances, the haves and even the have- nots.

Now the Creator has sent us these decrees in the form of budget cuts carried out by those whose intention, chas vesholom, is to reduce the number of lomdei Torah and to bring many families to the point where they will lack food to put on their tables. [Hashem's purpose] is to make us yearn to return to a bygone way of life. He is trying us to see whether we will clutch onto the corners of the Altar, the Altar of ameilei Torah, and not slacken in Torah learning. This is the meaning of the words, "Umimakoh atzmoh mesaken retiyoh" in our case.


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