In the town of Gomel in Byelorus (White Russia), the Torah was read at the synagogue on Mondays and Thursdays. When a boy, such as my father-in-law Jack Gorelick’s father, turned 13, he would go to shul with his father on the Monday or Thursday closest to his birthday. He’d read from the Torah portion, and get a blessing from the rabbi. “That was your bar mitzvah,” says my Jack. “Go home, your mother maybe makes a cookie for you, that’s it.”
This anecdote is one of several stories that didn’t make it into my article on Jack’s family that was published in December 2013 on the Jewish Currents website. His mother’s relatives–metalworkers and master tailors–were affluent, while his father, Avram Gorelick, grew up dirt-poor in the village of Gomel in Byelorus (White Russia). Both families were devoted to their Jewish traditions.
Avram was about 13 when he began delivering bread to Lena Arenberg’s family at their Gomel dacha and fell in love. Each summer, he would admire her standing at the door. But in 1912, the Arenbergs emigrated to the U.S., and 18-year-old Avram joined the army, along with his best friend, Beryl Horowitz, who been apprenticed to Lena’s father, the tailor.
After two years in the army, both of them deserted. They separated, to reduce their chances of being caught, and Avram went to his brother Koppel’s little farm. Koppel didn’t dare take him into the house, so Avram stayed in the shed with the cow. Everyone had an identity card, but Avram couldn’t use his own because the police would be looking for him. Many people got to Ellis Island and were sent back for medical reasons or for mental illness. Back home, they sold their passports, and Koppel bought one for Avram.
Then Koppel drove his brother in a wagon, hidden in the hay, over the border to the Ukraine, bribing the guard with homemade vodka. From there, Avram walked most of the way to Hamburg, a distance of almost 1000 miles. To be continued–