Sunday, July 17, 2011

Poverty in Kamenets-Podolsk

In 2003, AHEYM interviewed Avrom Gelman in Kamenets-Podolsk. When asked about how his family observed the Sabbath before the war, he recalled that Shabes was particularly special, because it was the only time the children got to eat meat. Sadly, abject poverty is a theme that runs through many AHEYM interviews, particularly when the interviewees retell their memories of the 1930s. Gelman's family was so poor, in fact, that his mother could not afford to provide both meat and challah for the family on Shabes. Instead, she baked malay, cornbread, for the meal. In the middle of the interview, you can hear Dov-Ber Kerler and Avrom discuss the various Yiddish words for "corn" -- one of Romanian origin, and the other, that Avrom uses, of Slavic origin.

Towards the end of the interview, Gelman mentions the various professions that Jews in his town practiced. He tells AHEYM that to be a craftsman alone was insufficient to make a living. To make enough money, one had to both practice one's trade and be able to sell the items one made.

--Asya Vaisman


  1. Thank you as usual for these fascinating clips! I was wondering if you could comment on how this interview might shed some light on two very complex issues:

    1. Jewish suffering during the Holodomor/Ukrainian Famine of the 1930s. Is the poverty discussed in this video typical of other non-Jewish testimony of the same period or somehow different? Does testimony such as this, that Gelman's family (only) managed to eat meat twice a week, refute or reinforce the discourse that Jews did not feel the effects of the Great Famine to the same extent that ethnic Ukrainians did?

    2. Assimilation/Acculturation vs. Acquiesence to Circumstances: To what extent does the eating of malay instead of challah indicate a shift away from tradition in addition to/instead of simply signifying widespread poverty? Can one still fulfill the mitzah of celebrating shabes with corn bread instead of challah? I.e. does the eating of malay on shabes transgress norms or subvert traditions in any way, or was it simply a more affordable way to celebrate the sabbath?

    Thank you for your thoughts!

    Misha Shkolnik

  2. Misha,

    Thanks so much for your feedback and questions.

    Regarding the first question, we have plenty of testimony about the famine of 1932-33 that indicates Jews suffered terribly during this period. In this particular clip, however, Gelman is referring to poverty in general in the prewar period and not specifically to the period of the famine. He certainly would not have been able to eat meat twice a week during the actual famine years. But throughout the 1920s and 1930s, many Jews lived poverty-stricken lives in the small towns of the region. It is this general poverty to which Gelman is referring.

    Regarding the eating of malay instead of challah, I think you are correct to note that this also signifies a shift away from tradition, but I would note that the eating of challah for the Sabbath was not as strict a custom in this region of Ukraine as it was in Poland and Lithuania. Several of the people we interviewed discuss eating black bread for Sabbath for instance instead of challah. The preponderance of black bread in Ukrainian culture probably contributed to the custom of eating it over the Sabbath as well.

    We would be happy to hear from others from the region about what they recall of bread customs for the Sabbath.

    Jeffrey Veidlinger

  3. Thank you for posting this clip. More information on Jewish life in Kamenets-Podolsk - as well as its history - can be found at It would have been unlikely that Jewish families, during this period,would have chosen to eat black bread in preference to chollah on shabbat. The communist induced starvation of the population would have been the root cause and religiously observant families would have done what they could in the circumstances to follow tradition.