Born in 1893 in a small, backwater Russian shtetl, Doba-Mera Medvedeva began writing her memoirs—filled with rich and detailed descriptions of Jewish life—while living in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Her grandson, the Israeli historian Michael Beizer, later published these Russian-language memoirs, which have recently been translated into English by Alice Nakhimovsky. The passage below describes the arrival in the shtetl of Medvedeva’s uncle Alter, who would use his relative wealth to exploit her family. Crucial to this passage is the mizraḥ, or eastern wall of a synagogue, where the most desirable seats in the sanctuary could be purchased; sitting near the eastern wall was the ultimate sign of status:
[My father] didn’t like rich people. When he was in the synagogue, he didn’t want to sit in a place of honor—that is, by the mizraḥ, the eastern wall. He always found a place with the artisans and the paupers, who sat in the middle of the synagogue and by the doors and the reading stand in the center, since paupers and artisans were not allowed in the place of honor. It sometimes happened that a wealthy artisan would buy a seat by the mizraḥ, at which point his wealthy neighbors would run away from him. And then there would be an uproar in the synagogue, both from the rich men and from the artisans and paupers, who would shout “They don’t like us! Our money is treyf, because we earn it by our labor.” The commotion would continue until the leaders of the synagogue (respected people, the heads of the Jewish community) would intervene and decide either to give the artisan back his money and leave the seat to the synagogue or make the rich man who couldn’t stand his new neighbor buy the seat from him and keep it for himself.
Alter’s first move was to take away my father’s seat in the synagogue. Of course, the way I look at things, both now and earlier, and in the opinion of many people, there’s nothing remarkable about that: “Big deal. So he took away your seat in the synagogue. You can go to synagogue without a seat, or you can not bother going at all.” But that’s how people think now—back then it was completely different.
As I already wrote, my father rarely used his seat, because he preferred to be with poor people, so he usually walked about the synagogue. When his brother-in-law Alter first appeared, my father seated him in his own place, as a brother and a guest. Alter responded by taking over the seat from the very first day. When my father would arrive and try to take his seat, Alter would try not to notice him, pretending that he was deep in prayer, or he would simply not let Father sit down. Finally he declared that the seat was part of his, Alter’s, dowry, and Papa retreated quietly, so people wouldn’t hear.
For my father, this was a huge blow. Most important, the seat had belonged to his own father, whom he loved very much and respected for his education. To make matters worse, people started to make fun of him, saying that he couldn’t stand up for what was his. . . . At that time to pray in the synagogue without a seat was the same as going someplace you weren’t wanted. He didn’t have the money to buy another seat, and in any case he would have been ashamed to do that in front of his acquaintances.