How Queen Victoria Caused a Scandal in Vapnyarka. (Memoir)

By Gray, Bettyanne | Midstream, July-August 2003 | Go to article overview

How Queen Victoria Caused a Scandal in Vapnyarka. (Memoir)


Gray, Bettyanne, Midstream


Manya loved to tell stories to her daughter Brucha Channa; tales of shtetl life, of family history and yes, some gossip from the bygone days--not hurtful gossip but colorful reminiscences of frivolous experiences, which textured her young life. For example, there was the story of a Chasidic rebbe's daughter who attended a Russian university--considered a radical, rebellious act in those days--where it was alleged that she wore lipstick.

There were accounts of girlfriends, of siblings, of revered parents and their beloved maid, Masha. There were serious stories too; stories that describe family pride--yichus--replete with honors in the synagogue, recognition from the community, and of course, heartbreaking renditions of pogrom terrors with wrenching reports of violence, murder, and homelessness.

As a child, Manya's daughter imbibed all those tales consumed with pathos or relish, as appropriate. Always intrigued, she asked countless questions, and Manya responded by filling in all details with eager willingness.

However, one fascinating story initially startled the impressionable daughter. Not that she was disbelieving, mind you, but Brucha Channa was absolutely astonished by the scope of the implications. Her father's family was linked to British royalty in a scandalous incident, and that was simply incredible, considering that the family had lived in an obscure shtetl in Ukraine.

Manya introduced the episode of how the Queen of England had unwittingly caused a shande, a disgrace in her dear husband's proper, well-thought-of family. Initially, Brucha Channa simply could not fathom how her father's Aunt Pessiah could be shamed by the Queen of England!

Well, it seems that in Ukraine, in the shtetl of Vapnyarka, the Barg and Abramson families lived a comfortable, relatively affluent life. Great-Grandfather David Barg was a maskil, an enlightened follower of the Haskalah movement. His oldest daughter, Brucha Channa's Bubbe Tzina, was married to the prosperous landowner, Velvel Abramson. Velvel was a Chasid, a follower of the great Tolner Rebbe, whose "court" was more than a day's journey away. Several times a y ear Velvel would travel to Tolne to study with Dovidel Twersky, the popular scion of the renowned dynasty of tsaddikim.

These two families were considered shayne layter--the beautiful people--and were respected and admired by all the Jews in Vapnyarka for their devotion to halacha and a Jewish way of life.

When David Barg's charming youngest daughter Pessiah became betrothed to a brilliant Talmud scholar, the whole shtetl celebrated, for they all felt elevated by the coveted match. Both the Barg and the Abramson families were very proud of the shiddach. Not only was the bridegroom--the khosn--handsome, healthy, and from a good, observant family, but he was so successful academically, he had already earned a reputation as a learned man, a khokhem.

Queen Victoria, a fervently religious woman devoted to the Church of England, was supportive of evangelical groups that traveled across the world with a mission to attract converts. It happened that one missionary group, formerly sent to Philadelphia, was transferred to the Pale of Settlement (a section in Ukraine where the Jewish population was confined).

There they connected with the young scholar whose name and reputation were now locally acclaimed, and they offered him a small fortune to translate the New Testament into Yiddish. That this text would be used to convert the ignorant and naive should have been obvious, but the scholar looked upon the assignment as an academic challenge and nothing more. …

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