It’s been two years and one month since I set off from California to the lands of my ancestors. What a journey, a dive, a pilgrimage it’s been. Through Siberian mountains and forests, the old shtetls of Ukraine and Eastern Europe, the Carpathians, the Rhineland, the Balkans, the Greek mainland, and most recently the sacred lands of Israel/Palestine and Egypt. Through epic landscapes and majestic seas. Witnessing beauty and hardship. Interacting with intact, traditional cultures and assimilated peoples. Confronting historic trauma and grief. Tapping into a deep well of love and praise. Receiving so many blessings and gifts. Weaving so many heartful and soulful connections. Saying hello, falling in love, and saying goodbye, again and again. Discovering grandeur. Encountering mystery. Following synchronicity. Uncovering deeper and deeper layers of remembering.
After so much, the time has finally come for the return. The circle is closing. The cycle ending. The journey is completing. Tomorrow I board a plane back to the states.
I am flooded with emotion. So much praise and so much grief. It’s a good grief. The grief you feel when parting with something you love. I have fallen so deeply in love with this journey. I have fallen so deeply in love with my ancestral homes and (to borrow a phrase from a friend) the infinite love stories I’m made of. This wasn’t just a pilgrimage (to borrow a sentence from my last blog post), it was a feast for my and my ancestors’ indigenous souls.
I have fallen so deeply in love with the people I’ve connected with along the way, soul brothers and sisters that have become, or perhaps always were, family for me. It’s hard to say goodbye. But insha’allah, this is simply see you later.
I am so, so immensely grateful to all the people who have taken me into their homes, given me a place to lay my head at night, shared food and drink with me, helped me get where I needed to go, who sang with me, danced with me, laughed with me, cried with me, prayed with me, prayed for me, inspired me, encouraged me, taught me, and supported me in so many other ways throughout the journey. Thank you! There are far too many of you to count, let alone name.
I am eternally grateful to the ancestors who called me upon this pilgrimage, protected me, and supported me along the way, who brought me into this life, and who help me remember why I came here. But they don’t all subscribe to this electronic fire, so I’m lighting an old fashioned fire tonight to share my praise and gratitude with them.
I’ll be making my way to Cincinnati first to visit family, and then on to California in early September to reconnect with you my beloved communities, my tribe. I look forward to mutually sharing stories, in the right time, and learning what it is we’ve expanded into. See you soon.
So much love to you all. May our ancestors continue to feed us life, and may we feed them the tears and songs of our grief and jubilation.
The Stonehendge of the Levant. Rujm el-Hiri. Gilgal Refaim. The Wheel of Spirits or the Wheel of Giants, referring to an ancient race of giants mentioned in the bible (were they the ones who built it?). It is an ancient site, 5,000 years old, in the Golan Heights. No one knows who built it or what they built it for. Were they the proto-Cananites, proto-Israelites? Could it be that I carry a trace of the blood of the people who built this place?
Archaeologists believe it was a ritual center, perhaps for burial purposes, perhaps for other purposes. Perhaps it was an ancient calendar. The sun lines up with openings in the rocks on the equinoxes and solstices. Perhaps it was an antenna that strengthened the signal for prayers to be heard.
I found myself drawn to this site on the summer solstice, to participate in the solstice gatherings that perhaps were a revival of some ancient ceremony that took place there thousands of years ago on that day. Dozens gathered from around Israel to feel the power of this place and the cosmic alignment of the day, to meditate and to pray, to ask the ancient spirits of this place for blessings for the year.
It’s potent to be in ritual at an ancient sacred site. I could feel that we were a part of something that goes deeper in this land than even the Temple that Solomon built. We were dancing a very, very ancient dance, and the land smiled and sang to us its ancient songs.
Jul 13, 2018
The photos, the video documentaries, the tales and legends: nothing prepared me for the awe and grandeur of this place. As the micro bus came around the corner of the Cairo city streets and the landscape opened from concrete buildings to desert sands, I saw them. My jaw dropped and my eyes were fixed. My heart thudded and my whole body vibrated with wonder. I don’t have adequate words to describe the feeling of being awestruck. The comparison that comes to mind is the moment in the movie Independence Day when the aliens arrived.
What magnificence to behold, to be in the presence of! Monolithic monuments to the powers that feed life. Or massive tombs of the pharaohs. Or ancient power plants? Whatever they were, they are still amazing. To build such structures would be a magnificent feat of architectural and engineering skill today. They are a testament to the sophistication and power of our collective ancient ancestors. It was a blessing to walk amongst them.
Jul 17, 2018
I’m tempted to say that the most impressive part of Luxor is its ancient temples, especially Karnak of which much was built during the reign of Ramses II (meaning that its stones could have been dragged and placed there by the Hebrews who were down there in bondage before the legendary exodus).
But for me, the most impressive part was Karam, the Muslim Egyptian man I met on the street who invited me to his home to eat dinner with his family. I accepted his gracious offer of hospitality. We walked from the west bank of the Nile, where we met, to the neighboring village on the outskirts of Luxor. His home was a mud hut, part of a compound of mud huts all attached to each other. Karam’s hut had only two rooms, the hearth and the bedroom. He and his wife slept in one bed and their four children in the other bed. The beds were mats, instead of mattresses, on top of wooden planks.
The other huts were occupied by his extended family: brothers and sisters along with all their children, and his mother, the matriarch of the compound. They were a family clan living all together in the materialistically “poorest” conditions I’ve ever witnessed with my own eyes. Egypt’s economy tanked after the revolution, and most Egyptians are struggling just to feed themselves. Yet they had wealth many Westerners seem to have lost and forgotten about, unconsciously attempting to replace with material resources that never quite satisfy a much deeper need.
This family clan had a deep treasure of riches in their souls. Though they had almost nothing, they rejoiced in sharing the little they did have with me, their guest. They found deep joy in giving, though they barely had anything to give. They found joy in having each other, in living in village, where no one will starve unless everyone is starving, because your neighbor is not a stranger, but is family whether by blood or otherwise, and thus they take care of each other. They boiled up tea and brought out a platter of fresh, homemade pita, cheeses, and ful to start with. My eyes watered a bit as I was deeply moved by their unflinching, unbreakable generosity.
They hadn’t had any protein in a month, and it was showing in the children. So I gave Karam money to buy chicken. His wife cooked up one of the most delicious meals I had the pleasure of feasting on during my time in Egypt.
After a post-dinner tea, Karam noticed my mini travel guitar. He asked if I would play something. I happily took the guitar out of its case and began a tune. The children were entranced. I saw no instruments around and could tell this was somewhat of a rare occurrence for them, to have live music in the hut. The extended family began to gravitate our way, Karam’s nieces and nephews poking their curious, smiling faces through the windows and door. Karam paused me and invited me to take the music out to the courtyard in the center of the compound so the whole family clan could listen. He said it would be treat for his mother. I gladly obliged.
We gathered in the courtyard, some thirty of us. Tune after they tune they clapped, danced, and hummed along. It felt good to share what I could with them, to shine our light together. A particular song, a prayer, flowed its way through into our circle. I began playing Matisyahu’s “One Day.” I’m not sure if they knew it already or just grasped it quickly, but the energy picked up and they ecstatically sang along each chorus. It felt like one of the most beautiful and important moments of my time there. We weren’t just praying for peace, we were living it.
I hoped to find Karam again on my way out of Luxor, at the spot by the Nile where he works, where we met. I wanted to gift him some more money to buy his children more chicken. But he wasn’t there. So I’m praying for him and his family. That they have health and continued happiness. That they have all they need. That the hearts of those who have more than they need crack open just a bit to the real need of their brothers and sisters and children with hunger in their bellies. May we care for each other as one human family.
Jul 23, 2018
The beach camps along the Red Sea in Sinai are not just paradise resorts of red sandy beaches in front of deep blue seas with epic desert mountains in the background (which they are). They are unintentional peace centers. Places where Israeli Jews and Egyptian, Jordanian, and Bedouin Muslims come together, in celebration, joy, song, and dance. It’s a testament to the power of music and art to bridge divides and bring people together. This, more than the world reknown snorkling in some of the world’s richest coral reefs, is my favorite part of the beach camps in Sinai.
Jul, 28, 2018
Yesterday, in the afternoon before the blood moon eclipse, I walked up the mountain. The mountain that speaks. The mountain of Moshe (Moses). Mount Sinai.
I was with a crew of peacemakers: two Egyptians and one American I met back at one of the beach camps at the sea. We were led by a Bedouin guide who knew the mountain and the surrounding area like the back of his hand.
Almost the instant we began our trek to the mountain, I felt my ancestors’ presence. It was as if they had dropped whatever they had been busying themselves with in the other realm, and their attention, everyone of them, was on me. They were excited and curious. Someone was finally making the trek back to the mountain! After generations upon generations who never had the chance.
Note: this is Mount St. Catherine, which came into view on the way to Mount Sinai.
Something was tingling inside. I could feel my indigenous soul awakening, lighting up. I could feel its ancient love with the land. The memory of and connection with this mountain resides deep in our DNA. I felt a great honor and privilege to be making this pilgrimage, this teshuva (return), not just for myself, but for the generations before me who never had the chance. I invited my ancestors to walk with me to and up the mountain. To see this sacred place through my eyes, to feel it through my hands and feet.
The terrain was breathtaking. My soul was fed, with every valley, every peak, awe and grandeur and majesty. My heart cried with deep praise and gratitude when the mountain came into view.
I grabbed my lavender bundle out of my bag and prayed with it as we walked up the mountain. Deep prayers, for the world, for myself, for all my relations. I prayed as we reached the top. Night had fallen and the longest lunar eclipse in one hundred years had begun. Cosmic alignment that amplifies prayers and intentions, at the top of a great antenna and receiver. I found a spot at the top and spoke with the mountain and the moon. I was in prayer to the peak of the eclipse, until I was empty. I lit the lavender to carry the prayers up with smoke to where they could be heard.
After the celestial magic show of the eclipse was complete, I wandered back to where I had left my fellow pilgrims, between the church and mosque at the top. Everyone had gone to sleep. I found a spot on the ground, curled up under a blanket, and fell asleep as well under the stars. Predawn, the peak of the mountain became flooded with tourists from many parts of the world, who had arrived to witness the Sun rise over this place legends are made of. The light came and illuminated the epic beauty around us.
In the dawn light, I explored the top to see what the landscape I had traversed in the dark of the eclipse looked like. I was unable to find the spot I had prayed at during the night. It became hidden in the daylight, or it had only revealed itself for that moment the previous night. Something felt appropriate in that.
I felt well fed as we descended the mountain, though we only had tea and a very light snack. It wasn’t my stomach that was full, but something ancient inside of and around me that had been hungry. I hadn’t been aware of its hunger until we came to the mountain. This wasn’t just a pilgrimage, it was a feast for my and my ancestors’ indigenous souls.
Photo credit: Daniel Hermes
“Deep in our bones resides an ancient, singing couple who just won’t give up making their beautiful, wild noise. The world won’t end if we can find them.” — Martin Prechtel
After my time in my ancestral town of Glubokoe, Belarus over half a year ago, the nature of my journey shifted. Before, I had plenty of time for writing, but then I began moving more frequently, and spending more of my time doing work-exchanges as my travel funds dwindled. In between volunteer work and connecting with the people and places I was in, I managed to write beginnings of blog posts which were left to be completed. I placed priority on keeping up with my personal travel diary, and I sent out the occasional public mini-update through Facebook and Instagram.
I had become attached to my blog looking the way it had evolved to look, with long, detailed narratives that bring the reader along with me. I was ready to give up on it after months had gone by without having drawn out an in-depth narrative like before.
But the stories are still beckoning to be told. Perhaps one day they will be drawn out in writing further. But for now I’m releasing my attachment to the blog looking a certain way. I’m accepting that the nature of this blog is now, and will likely be until the completion of the journey, short mini-posts which give just a flash, a glimpse, a brief snippet of the story.
So here, friends, is a collage of my journey since my last post months ago. I’ve added a bit from before the last post as it was feeling it wanted to be told here as well. Some of it I simply pulled from my Facebook/Instagram posts, as I realize many of you reading my blog are not following me on those platforms and missed out on those mini-updates. The rest is a combination of the posts I began before (I did end up completing the post about my time in Kishinev), as well as some pieces from my personal diary, and recent reflections that tie them together.
I hope this collage still feeds your desire for the stories and instills the inspiration to find and connect with your own roots that many of you reflected the previous stories had done. Thank you to all who’ve been following along, asking for updates, and cheering me on to write more. You are my muses. Blessings to you, your ancestors, and the lands you come from.
Oct, 16, 2017
The Nozyk Synagogue, the one synagogue out of over 400 pre-war Jewish houses of prayer, to have survived the war and Holocaust in Warsaw.
I had the sacred privilege to pray here this past Shabbat with the small Jewish community that has been revived in this city that once was home to the 2nd largest Jewish community in the world.
The torch-bearers here, though few in number, are big in heart and joyous in their spirited song.
Oct 28, 2017
In Berlin. My mother was born in this city shortly after the war because her father was stationed here. He was an officer in the Red Army throughout the war, while most of his family, including his wife and daughter (my mother’s older sister) found safe haven in refugee camps in Uzbekistan. Both his brothers died fighting in the war, but somehow he survived. Six million Jews and eleven million Soviet soldiers died during the war. He was both, and somehow he survived.
He made it through. He made it to Berlin, in the Red Army siege of the city. He was stationed there for a couple years after the war. His wife, my grandmother, came to live with him there when the chaos had subsided. I can’t imagine what a reunion that was, both of them having spent the last few years apart, fearing that they may never see each other again. My mother was conceived in that reunion.
My grandfather relayed a couple of stories of close calls he had during the war, but most of the time when his family would ask him to tell them about that time, he simply responded, “All you need to know is that War is Hell.” He reached the end of that hell in Berlin, and my mother came to life through the ashes. That land fed them while they were there. In a way, that land, ashes and all, fed me life.
So when I came to Berlin, I celebrated life. I danced at as many dance gatherings my legs would take me to. I sang and joked and played games and laughed and cuddled with the new friends I found in this mecca of cultural festivities. I lived to the fullest extent I could, honoring the life my grandfather, and so many others, made possible for me. I danced the dance of life.
Nov, 29, 2017
Today I entered the gate of Worms, or Varmayza as it was known in medieval Hebrew. One of the oldest towns in Germany and the site of one of the first permanent settlements of Jews in the diaspora. One of the birthplaces of Ashkenazi culture. Rashi was here. We were here. We are here. Diving deeper and deeper into this root structure. For a sturdy trunk that can support vibrant branches.
Nov, 30, 2017
The Old Synagogue of Worms. One of the oldest of Europe. Originally built in 1034. It was the ritual center of the Jewish community of Worms, one of the first Jewish diaspora communities in Europe, for nearly one thousand years.
The synagogue was severely damaged/destroyed and then rebuilt on several occasions (during anti-Jewish pogroms, social unrest, and a city-wide fire) throughout its history. It was completely destroyed, along with the more than one thousand year old Jewish community, when the Nazis came to power.
The synagogue was rebuilt in 1960, according to old plans and using original materials, thanks to initiative by the citizens of Worms. The synagogue became active once again in the ’90s when Jewish immigrants, from the former Soviet Union, resettled in Worms.
New life being breathed into the old, the sacred.
Dec 02, 2017
Russian is the new Yiddish. This occurred to me as I sat in the architectural marvel of a synagogue in Mainz, another one of the birth places of Ashkenazi culture. The modern synagogue was built right behind the small ruins left of the historic synagogue that was destroyed by the Nazis. I was there on Shabbat, speaking Russian with the elders of the community during the meal after the service.
I read an article some time ago that posed the question of whether ‘Russian is the new Yiddish‘. My time connecting with the Jewish communities in Germany revealed this as a statement. Rather than German, Hebrew, or Yiddish, the majority of the Jews I encountered in community centers and synagogues in Berlin, Magdeburg, Worms, and Mainz were speaking Russian. There are few German Jewish Holocaust survivors or descendants of survivors left in Germany. The majority of those who survived emigrated to Israel. Most of the Jews in Germany today are immigrants who came from the former Soviet Union after its collapse.
I had this odd and exciting feeling that I was experiencing something similar to what my Ashkenazi ancestors experienced. I was in on the game because I can speak Russian. I could speak the language that only those in the Jewish community could speak. The majority on the outside, who spoke the native tongue of this land, were out of the loop. I was in the loop. The loop for Jews in this land use to be Yiddish. Now it’s Russian. Russian is the new Yiddish.
Dec 21, 2017
Swung back around to Eastern Europe to connect with the last place on my list of shtetls my great-grandparents came from. These are the sanctuary ruins in the old Jewish Cemetery of Chisinau, the city my Kohanim ancestors made their home for an unknown number of generations. Felt appropriate to be here during the holiday that honors the sacred fire their line tended for centuries. That fire is still within us and is being rekindled on the outside in various ways. May we bring it even more fully to life and tend it with love, for the health and happiness of future generations.
Jan 25, 2018
My DNA report from 23andMe.com showed trace amounts of Balkan roots. So of course I had to follow my roots there. I followed them to a mountain town in Bulgaria called Kyustendil, and found myself volunteering on a farm just outside of the town. Learning and practicing the old, traditional ways of animal husbandry. Making new friends in the lands of my Balkan ancestors:
Jan 29, 2018
Bulgarians have kept alive many of their folk traditions from their ancient pagan roots. The Kukeri come out in the winter to chase away evil spirits and bring good fortune to their villages.
My heart opened up to the beauty of these old traditions, old ways being held alive, revived in some form or fashion. Integrated into our modern world into this festival form.
There was power in those outfits, those masks, those movements, those dances, those bells. Even as a spectacle, there was ingrained admiration and respect for the old ways, even if it was unconscious for some of those who participated.
Being immersed in the sounds, the movements around, the energy, something moved deep inside me. Especially when the village elders told the stories and sang the old songs of blessing and gratitude for mother nature and all that she provides, and everyone gave them the undivided attention and respect the elders deserve. They are the carriers and the teachers of deep wisdom. When they sang, my heart poured out. This is the way.
Feb 7, 2018
My new happy place: Mount Olympus. Connecting with my (small percentage of) Greek roots. Greeting the ancient mythic ones.
Feb 10, 2018
Ruins of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Where the Oracle opened herself as a vessel to deliver Apollo’s guidance. Pictures do not do the beauty and sacredness of this place justice. It was already a temple before the ancient Greeks built anything here.
Feb 12, 2018
Last night, I happened to be in the right place at the right time, and got swept up by a crowd of Dionysus followers parading around the Acropolis in a ritual paying homage to the god of passion. I asked if it was simply performance or actual ritual. It was ritual. In its traditional form. It was beautiful and powerful, lifting up the energy of the city around them.
This was one of many rituals/festivals they do throughout the year, connected with the various gods of the ancient Greek pantheon and deeply rooted in the cycles of nature, as the ancient Greek calendar was. They are a minority carrying the torch of their ancestors’, keeping the old ways alive, and nourishing their roots in the face of great adversity from the church.
Feb 15, 2018
I’m here. I made it. I landed. In the land of my most ancient Jewish roots. Eretz Yisrael. There is so much complexity here; so much complexity I feel being here. A land I feel deep ancestral connection with, deep joy being in, a land that is deeply sacred for me and my people, a land I praise. And at the same time I feel much grief over this land. Grief over the tension and conflict in and around the land. Grief over the suffering of our Palestinian brothers and sisters who also have deep ties with this land, yet don’t have the same privilege I have to be here. Grief over borders that divide family who could co-exist together instead of fight each other. Grief over trauma being passed on instead of confronted and healed on a collective level. More on that another time.
Landing at the airport felt surreal, almost dreamlike, like I had entered some alternate reality. I got off the plane, walked into the airport, and stepped into some sort of Jewish Wonderland. Jews all over. Russian, American, Arab, African, Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Mizrahi, Chasidic, Litvak, Modern Orthodox, Secular. Jews of all kinds, all around.
After spending the last year and a half walking through Eastern Europe, the lands where we (the Jewish people) were mostly erased or fled from, often feeling and experiencing being the minority there, the token Jew, it felt a bit unreal to arrive where I wasn’t exotic anymore. I am just another member of the tribe here (or tribes rather).
I’m seeing this land through new eyes. Eyes that have seen the mass graves and the extermination camps of the Holocaust, the ruins of cemeteries and sanctuaries destroyed, the seemingly endless fields of rich, fertile land that Jews were not allowed to own and cultivate or were thrown off throughout the millennia, the migration routes of a people who were continuously seeking refuge after being displaced over and over again. I’m seeing this land through eyes that do not necessarily endorse, but that understand the Zionist dream. The dream to have a homeland, a land where we have sovereignty and the ability to cultivate and tend the earth. The dream to set down roots and be rooted to a place sacred to us. The dream to have protection and safety. The dream to reunite the tribes and live where our ancestors lived and where their bones were laid to rest.
We were in exile for two millennia, and now we’re back. The tribes have returned. To the land of our deepest, most ancient roots as a people. The land we were indigenous to. The land where we made sense of the world and how to live in it. Where our culture and rituals were birthed to life from our intimate, deeply familial relationship with the land and the cycles of nature tied with this land. The dream was realized.
I wish I could exclaim, I want to exclaim, what a beautiful thing it is that the dream was realized. But it feels to me a grave shame that this dream has to trample on the dreams and lives of our brothers and sisters who also had and still have a dream to live on their homeland as well. Does it necessarily have to trample? Is there another way? Is there a way that our dreams and the realization of our dreams can co-exist in harmony? I pray there is. I believe there is. Walls inevitably crumble. Dreams have the ability to live beyond the walls of separation. May our dreams find a way to weave together and to weave us together in the familial bonds our common ancestors and common connections with the land cry out for us to remember. We are family. May we dream together and live in our dreams realized, together.
Mar, 03, 2018
Purim in the Holy Land. Wow! What an experience! It seemed everyone in the whole country was preparing for it in the weeks leading up. The streets of Jerusalem were absolutely packed. Everyone flipping their worlds upside down. Drinking in a holy way.
I’ve never experienced a Jewish holiday like this. In the states, and everywhere else I’ve been, Jewish holidays go under the radar of the vast majority of society. It feels like being part of a small sect to honor holidays most people know little or nothing about.
But here in Israel, it’s a completely different story. Everyone knows what the holiday is about. Seemingly everyone is celebrating in some way, even if they’re not religious or spiritual. It’s not under the radar. It’s all over the place. It’s ingrained in the dominant culture, in the spirit of the land. You can’t help but swim in it. You can’t help but get drunk with the joy of the chag, whether you imbibe the fermented fruit of the vine or not.
Drink up the Elixir of Not Knowing. It’s such good medicine:
Mar 15, 2018
Magic is unfolding. I found the place I was meant to find. I found the people I was looking for. It seems to me that unseen forces were conspiring to bring me to this place.
I’m living and volunteering on a permaculture farm and nature therapy center for healing on a moshav near the city of Ramla. The couple who runs the farm are part of my soul family. We realized it pretty quickly upon meeting. The other volunteers have also become like family. We are of the same tribe.
It’s quite a special thing to be working the land here. To dig my hands in the soil, sow seeds, plant trees, build a cabin, care for animals, and create a space for people to find healing through connection with nature, here in the land of my ancient Hebrew ancestors. And to do it in collaboration with new friends, soul family, who I was guided to by the will of the stars.
This is a special place and special people. I’m in love.
Mar 27, 2018
The land remembers. She remembers the blood. The blood remembers her. It’s an ancient memory embedded deep within the strands of DNA passed down from generation to generation. It is a memory that awakes and vibrates in every cell, in the bones, in the depths of the heart, when walking upon the land.
It’s like two lovers, estranged unwillingly for two millennia, brought back together in reunion. A reunion of very old souls that knew each other intimately. They still know each other, remember each other, love each other, but are once again getting to know each other anew.
It’s a beautiful and complex courtship. The land has had many lovers over the years, as well as many who tried to dominate her and her children. Now one of her children has become the dominator, as a result of trauma and inheriting the soul wound of the oppressors who abused the child. The child even dominates their siblings, the other children of the land.
But the land still loves her child. She called him/her back to be with her. And she is calling them to heal. Heal the soul wound. To reconnect with their original soul, that of the care-taker, the guardian, the tender of the sacred web of life, connected with the land and the sea and the cosmos and all their relatives. To remember who we are and why we are here.
Apr 01, 2018
You have to go in if you want to go out. Chag Pesach Sameach from Sinai, Egypt!
Apr 12, 2018
Emotional day today. Yom HaShoah. In Israel. I’ve seen in the past, from across the ocean sitting in front of a screen, the videos of the sirens going off throughout the country marking the minute when everything and everyone in the country comes to a standstill to honor and remember. Today I heard the sirens directly. The few of us on the farm dropped what we were doing and stood in silence. Even though I was there and pretty far removed from the mainstream, main groups, main events, I still very much felt the somberness, the grief of the day.
The couple who manages the farm, who’ve become like family to me, shared their families’ stories. Each had tales of family members lost in the bullets or the flames. Both of their fathers were children in the Holocaust, separated from their families, yet miraculously survived. Most whom I’ve met in the country have such stories, such connections.
When the story sharing was complete and everyone retired to their quarters and I was left alone, the grief hit me like a train. All I had seen, all I bore witness to along my journey came rushing back to me. The camps, the mass graves in almost every village I stepped foot in, the synagogues in decay, the cemeteries (including the graves of my own ancestors) in ruins or completely destroyed, the appropriation of our culture (“Jewish” themed restaurants run by non-Jews capitalizing on and perpetuating stereotypes) in cities like Lviv and Krakow where those cultures were mostly decimated.
I went to the ground and wept. And I prayed for the souls, the ghosts I felt in those places. Those still stuck and waiting for someone to grieve them, something that never happened for far too many because there was no one left to grieve for them. Those who were left were too busy trying to survive. El Malei Rachamim.
Many of those who did survive found themselves on a boat to what they were told was their new (and old) homeland. When they got off the boat, instead of getting the healing they needed, they were given a gun and told to go fight for the survival of their new nation. After that, memorials and days of memorial were instituted. But no national days of grieving and healing were ever instituted.
We’re great at memorializing, but not so great at actually healing (collectively that is). Perhaps it’s time. Perhaps it’s time to transform Holocaust Memorial Day into Holocaust Healing Day. Create a culture and atmosphere that allows the country to, rather than stand still in silence, fall apart and weep. Weep for the grief we still feel in our hearts, in our bones. Weep for the souls who were never wept for. Weep until we’ve healed the wounds of the past. Weep it all out so we don’t continue to pass on the trauma to future generations. Let’s fall apart instead of stand still. Let’s replace the wail of the sirens with the wail of releasing our pain. We’ll be able to stand much stronger and with softer stillness in our hearts if we do.
Apr 20, 2018
The slow travel I’ve been doing is a powerful teacher in letting go of what I grow to love. Over and over again, I’ve been finding myself falling in love and then consciously choosing to move on as I feel the road calling me again. I’ve come into so many new, profound connections along the way. I have many new friends, family, soul brothers and sisters. I’ve fallen in love with the lands of my ancestors and the people who inhabit those lands now.
Sometimes my heart is so bursting with love I feel I cannot contain it. It feels like my heart is expanding beyond the boundaries of my chest and I might vomit it up if I try to give it words. To live is to love and let go. Everything is impermanent. This road keeps teaching me that lesson.
A friend of mine was recently at a talk by Stephen Jenkinson, and she relayed something that he said, which she imagined I would connect with. He said that love is different when death is present. That death helps us learn how to love someone without assuming a future together. That it’s a whole new type of love when we don’t rely on future results.
Then my friend said she imagines that the journey I’m on involves many small deaths. Saying hello, falling in love, saying goodbye, letting it go.
Boom, that’s exactly what it is. Many small deaths. Love is fierce when you open your heart and allow death to linger close by.
Apr 23, 2018
Desert wanderings. Midbar contemplations. Prayers entrusted to the wings of the wind. Hello from the Negev friends.
May 23, 2018
This past Saturday night, into Sunday morning, I was in Jerusalem, participating in the millennia old tradition of immersing in all-night study of Torah, to honor, commemorate, and renew the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. It was Shavuot. I tramped (the local term for hitch-hiking) my way to the holy city. I hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before, so I was already dead tired when I got there at six in the evening, and I had a full night ahead of me. I found a park just outside of the old city, and laid down on the grass under a cedar tree in the hopes of getting in a rejuvenating nap before the all-night teachings began.
I laid there for almost two hours, continually coming ever so close to the serenity of slumber, but being stirred back awake by a growing pulse of energy. It was the excitement of the soul of the city, awaiting the gathering of its tribes, a mother preparing and anticipating the gathering of her children for a great feast.
I finally came to accept that sleep would escape me that night, and mobilized myself for the great gathering. I followed an instinctual pull that wound me through the streets of the old city to the ancient remains of the site where our ancestors tended a sacred portal to the divine, the Kotel. I thought I was simply going to look upon its impressive stones, give my respects from a distance, but that pull brought me all the way to the wall. I laid my heart and my head upon the ancient stone, and found prayers stirring through me which I offered up along with the salt of my tears. When I parted with the wall, I heard a joyous ruckus beginning to stir just behind me. I turned to see that it was a group of Breslovs (of course!). They are always such spirited conduits of the bliss of being alive. I joined them in ecstatic song and dance in front of the wall, singing our hearts out in praise of the gifts and blessings we receive from the divine.
After some time, I made my way to Nachlaot for some Tikkun Leil all-night teachings. I came to Yeshivat Simchat Shlomo, which some friends are connected with and invited me to. The rabbi giving the teaching at 1:00am painted a beautiful poetic picture with his words about how if we look at the story of our lives, we can see hidden within, or not so hidden, the hand of the divine. Everything that has happened, from whom and where we were born to the greatest upsets and heartbreaks we’ve experienced, all happened for a reason. I couldn’t be the person I am today or the person I’m meant to be without all the joy and pain, all the success and failure that I’ve gone through and all the mistakes that I’ve made.
I saw my life in what he was saying. I saw my ancestors’ lives and their experiences bound with my own. I saw the path that led me on this journey, led me to be in this place. I saw the parts I use to regard with regret as exactly what I needed to be who I am. In that moment, it hit me, as morbid as it may sound, that all we’ve experienced as the Jewish people, perhaps we experienced for a reason. Perhaps it was the cauldron we needed to be cooked within in order to unleash our potential to serve this world, as helpers, as healers. The greatest healers are the wounded healers. Those who’ve experienced great hurt and pain and been at death’s door, but came back and healed. That experience gives them power, unique power to support the healing of others. They transform their poison into medicine.
Our hurts, our wounds, our collective pain, can continue to be our curse, or they can be transformed into our gift. We, as a collective, can be the wounded healer. (I want to acknowledge that we are of course not unique in this. Almost every culture, every people on the planet has a history of trauma and pain. We have the potential for a whole world of wounded healer societies.) But it takes healing ourselves first. Just like individuals who suffer great trauma and pain, people collectively have the potential to become abusers, unconsciously passing on that trauma and pain to others, if they haven’t metabolized their grief. Those who’ve been wounded have the potential for either becoming perpetrators of abuse themselves, or becoming powerful healers. Which are we? Which will we be?
Jun 11, 2018
Ramadan. Iftar (the break-fast feast). Sitting at a table in a Muslim household with Arab and Jewish Israelis. Peace activists. Breaking bread together. Sharing stories and jokes and blessings. Laughing together, praying together, remembering and honoring their dead together. Hijabs and kippahs, worn side by side. Hugs, deep hugs, shared through the invisible borders of fear that others try to put up between us. The borders dissolve into oblivion. This is peacemaking here. Sitting at the table together, sharing the essentials of life with each other, sharing our sacred traditions with each other. This is what the future looks like across the land. Inshallah. Be’ezrat Hashem.
The keepers of the flame. The sacred fire tenders. The holy lineage that tended our portal to The Divine. These were from whom my great-grandmother, Rukhlya Gershevna Kogan, descended according to her maiden name (Kogan is the Russian variant of Kohen, which indicates descent from the Kohanim). I found it apropos that I arrived in the city she and her parents, my Kogan great-great-grandparents, were from on the eve of the holiday that commemorates the sacred fire that their line tended for centuries during the ancient Temple times. I arrived in Kishinev, Moldova on the night before Hannukah.
A crowd gathered in the late afternoon the next day in front of the old synagogue of Moldova, which was still standing and once again operating as a synagogue for the small Jewish community left in the city that was once a massive hub of Jewish culture. A giant menorah had been erected in front of the synagogue, and everyone was huddled in anticipation of lighting the lamp for the first night of the chag (holiday). I put out a silent prayer to my Kohen ancestors to stand with me to witness their flame once again being kindled in this city that they called home for generations.
Blessings were chanted out into the street by the chief Rabbi of the city, and the lamp was lit. Local Jewish musicians belted out Hebrew and Yiddish songs. Some in the crowd began to dance. Volunteers spread throughout the crowd serving sufganiyot in abundance. For a moment, Kishinev had the flavor of a vibrant hub of Jewish culture once again. It was a festive celebration, a feast in honor of and for the ancestors. I offered a bit of my sufganiyot to my Kohen ancestors and gave them my thanks for tending my sacred fire within.
Their Kohen blood flows through my veins, but I am not considered by the pious to be of the ancient priestly lineage, the Kohanim, because it is a patrilineal inheritance according to religious law. I inherited their blood through my great-grandmother on my mother’s side. The last Kohanim among my close relatives, who still carries the Kogan surname, is my mother’s cousin. He and his family moved to Germany after the collapse of Soviet Union. I met them for the first time in my life back in November when I was traveling through Germany.
I was curious what it would be like to meet a relative, with whom I had never spoken before, for the first time. I wondered if it would be awkward, if they would feel like strangers to me and I to them, or if we would feel like family even though we had never interacted before. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the experience was like a family reunion. Introductions were very brief. We instantly connected as if we had known each other our whole lives.
I was fascinated to find that my mother’s cousin, Ilya, is spiritually observant. He attends synagogue every Shabbat and, being a Kohen, chants the blessings before and after reading the Torah, an honor of the patrilineal male descendants of the Levites and Kohanim which he is proud to carry the tradition of. We sang Shabbat songs together. None of my other close relatives, as far as I know, honor Shabbat regularly. The Soviet Union cut them off from their spiritual heritage and rituals. It’s hard to break old habits, or lack of habits, and begin new ones, so it never became part of their practice after they got out. I thought I was the only one in my family reconnecting with our ancestral traditions. I was pleased to find that I wasn’t. I found it oh so appropriate that the other one is the Kohen of the family. Ritual is in their blood.
I may not have their surname, but I feel connected to their ritual heritage. One of my main spiritual practices is to make offerings. I connected with this practice originally through exposure to Native American and West African spiritual traditions. Then I understood that this was the heart of ancient Jewish spiritual technology as well. The priests, the Kohanim, were the conductors of sacred ritual offerings to Hashem for the tribes of Israel. After the second Temple was destroyed, the formal ritual offerings ceased. As I wandered the streets of Kishinev, I wondered if any of my Kohen ancestors between the Temple times and myself also made offerings as a prayer practice. Did anyone else feel the potency of this ancient spiritual technology?
After a few days into my visit in Kishinev, I went to the cemetery, with offerings in hand. I already knew that there were no graves of my ancestors left there. The old cemetery where my great-great-grandparents would have been buried was destroyed by the Soviets. The Kogans who lived when the newer cemetery became active moved to and died in Odessa and were buried there.
I paid my respects to the ground where the old cemetery was, feeding the land, the plants, the trees that were fed in part by the ancestors’ bodies that were laid in the earth there. I walked up the hill to the grounds of the newer cemetery. I entered through the gate into one of the largest, still existing, Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe. I wandered through the place, taking in the enormity of the history represented there. I came upon the sanctuary ruins, a beautiful vestige of the culture that gave immense honor to the ancestors. I gave prayer and song and food offerings to the spirit of the place. I felt that spirit feasting with the hunger of one who had not been fed in a long time.
My ritual in this place went longer than I had thought. By the time I was done, the sun had set, and upon reaching the entrance again, I found myself locked in with no one around to ask to unlock the gate. The fence was high, and unclimbable around the entrance of the cemetery. Night was spreading its blanket of darkness quickly, and I squirmed a bit in my skin at the thought of being stuck here all night. I walked up and across the main rows to the other walls, looking for a spot that seemed climbable. I felt the place beginning to wake up as night came on stronger. Finally I found a low spot on the north wall. With a bit of scrambling, I was up and over the cemetery wall, just in time before an invisible something wrapped itself around my ankle, inviting me to stay the night feeding it with my presence.
At this point, with the delay of having to find an unorthodox exit out of the cemetery grounds, I was late to meet my hosts and their friends for a birthday dinner they had invited me to join. My hosts were a couple who I met when I was back in Odessa. The woman, Aleksandra, was from Kishinev. The man, Stan, was from Ukraine and had moved to Kishinev a few years back. Stan was very interested in learning what he could about Jewish culture from me. I was pretty much the first Jewish person he ever got to know (that he is aware of; many Jews still in the former Soviet Union hide their Jewish identity even from friends).
Some of the questions he asked required me to take deep breaths in order not to react aggressively in response, because the questions were rooted in old stereotypes. This is something I’ve experienced throughout my journey, in the places where Jewish communities once flourished, but have mostly vanished. The generation of Eastern Europeans that grew up without Jewish neighbors are largely ignorant of what Jewish people are really like, and often only have old, learned stereotypes to base their knowledge on. But something in them questions the stereotypes they’ve been immersed in since childhood, and when they meet an actual Jew, they want to know the truth. There is a directness and absence of political correctness in their culture that doesn’t make them concerned with being tactful. So they ask the questions that are right there on their minds. I found myself, though challenged by it, respecting this trait of theirs. They really don’t mean any harm by their questions. I understood that they are genuinely curious, and the questions aren’t coming from a place of disrespect, but a place of desire for the truth.
Stan asked many questions. One that I remember was whether all Jews are rich and really control the world economy. I answered him with a flat out “No,” and explained that that’s a stereotype created by anti-Semites. I pointed out that I’m Jewish and not rich, and that there are plenty of poor Jews throughout the world. At this he became wide-eyed in surprise. “Really,” he asked, “There are poor Jews?”
“Really,” I answered.
Our conversations weren’t only opportunities to clear up stereotypes. Stan was also very interested in learning about Jewish culture. He wanted to know about our traditional food, music, history, holidays, and rituals. He was a sponge, soaking it all in. He is a talented musician, so he was very interested in hearing some Jewish songs. I sang some for him. There were a couple he particularly liked and asked me to teach him. One was Rebbe Nachman’s Lecha Dodi niggun. Another was the Ad D’lo Yada song we sing on Purim, which I explained to him was the next major holiday after Hanukkah.
We sang it together, per Stan’s request, at his friend’s birthday party, which I found my way to from the cemetery. Stan and Aleksandra’s friends were excited to learn that I was Jewish. They remarked about how rare it is for them to interact with Jewish people these days. The Jewish community that’s left in the city is tiny relative to the total population of the capital city of Moldova, so it’s easy for them not to realize that there are still Jews among them. They reminisced about the days when it seemed like Jews were the majority of the population.
Census figures show that the Jewish population of Kishinev reached over 50,000, almost half of the total in 1897. In 1989, just before the breakup of the USSR, the population was 35,000, which was only 4.5% of the total at that time. (That number dropped to around 2,700 by 2004, and has stayed around that level since.) But the perception of many I spoke with in Kishinev was that Jews made up half the population even until the breakup of the Soviet Union. Aleksandra and one of her friends insisted that more than half of the kids they went to school with were Jewish. They remarked about how intelligent their Jewish comrades were. The best and brightest students, whose parents were smart and wise business people, or doctors, or lawyers; the cream of the crop of their society. They said that the social intelligence of their city declined with the exodus of the Jews after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
They shared this with me as a way of showing admiration and respect for my ethnic heritage. But even though the stereotypes they were praising my people for were ‘good’ ones, the praise still made me feel uneasy. Those good stereotypes of the Jews are what modern anti-semitism was founded upon. It’s not a long road from praise of ‘wise business people’ to condemnation of those same people as money-grubbing, cheating, scheming, thieving Jews when the times get tough and the power structure failing the people needs a good scapegoat to throw them.
This is what happened several times throughout Kishinev’s history. One of Kishinev’s unfortunate claims to fame in Jewish history was one of the most infamous violent pogroms throughout the old Russian Empire. I discussed this with them, how these stereotypes, though positive, can be turned negative and used as instruments to incite violence. They heard me and acknowledged the validity of what I was sharing.
We sat for a bit with it all, breathing it in, and breathing it out. Releasing the tension from a slightly heavy turn the conversation had gone in, we gradually returned to a more festive tune, imbibing in songs and toasts to honor our gathering. It was, overall, a delightful last hurrah of my time in Kishinev.
A week after I left Kishinev, Stan sent me a video. It was a video recording of a bi-weekly singing circle that he and Aleksandra host in their apartment. I played the video and heard a beautiful chorus of the Ad D’lo Yada tune I taught them. They fell in love with it so much, they were teaching it to others. They let me know that the ember of the culture that once flourished there, is being tended and breathed new life not just by the small number of Jews who remain, but by their neighbors too. They wanted me to know that they too are fanning the flames of the sacred fire my ancestors tended there long ago, and feeding the ancestors with their song.
[Part One is a story of magic. I struggled to flesh out the story of this second part, experiencing long periods of writers’ block, because I desperately wanted to continue that sense of magic I felt in my experiences described in Part One. But the story of Part Two that was there to be told has a different flavor. It’s more of a palpable encounter with history, largely the tragic side of it, rather than another palpable encounter with magic (though in my experience, there’s magic even in the seemingly mundane, it just sometimes lays hidden from our senses). When I accepted this, I was finally able to write and complete this post. Here it is, delayed, but in its realness fraught with darkness, and also rays of light shining through the cracks.]
I arrived in Glubokoe, the Belarusian (formerly Lithuanian) town my great-grandfather Yakov Meytus was from in the afternoon on the Wednesday before Yom Kippur.
Kostya picked me up the next morning from the hostel I had set up in. I thought we were simply going to meet up for tea and that he and his wife Anya would show me on the map where all the sites of Jewish heritage they knew about were. But they had other plans. Kostya proposed that he would actually give me a tour of the Jewish heritage sites first and then I would come over to their place for lunch. Anya was at home already preparing the lunch. I was much obliged.
The first place he took me to was the Holocaust mass grave site. It was in the forest on the edge of town. That was where the Nazis took the Jews the first couple of times (there were actually two mass graves next to each other) they liquidated the Glubokoe ghetto. The Nazis ordered the Jews to dig a massive pit before they shot them all into it. We stood there gazing in silence. The weather was cold, grey, and dreary; apropos for the place we were at and the history we were there bearing witness to.
Kostya eventually broke the silence, commenting that it’s weird and sad that this is how they introduce their guests to the town. He said he wished that instead he could show me a Jewish festival or dance or Yiddish theater, but unfortunately this is the reality: those are gone and these mass graves are most of what’s left.
It’s a sad reality for so much of Eastern Europe. Almost everywhere I’ve been, there are mass graves of the Holocaust. I hadn’t realized when I began this journey how prevalent they are. In the Holocaust education I received back in the states, the focus was mostly on the concentration camps and death camps. We didn’t talk much about the Nazi mobile killing units (often aided by local collaborators) who perpetrated a significant portion of the mass murders of the Holocaust, across German-occupied Soviet territory. Estimates are that some two million Jews were shot to death in the German-occupied Soviet Union. Eastern Europe is dotted with thousands of mass graves from these Holocaust mass killings. I hadn’t realized at the beginning of my journey, that almost every village, town, and city I would visit in Eastern Europe would have one. Sometimes more than one.
In virtually every town I’ve been in, the locals who end up guiding me go out of their way to show me the mass grave sites. They usually don’t even ask if I want to go there. It’s not a question for them. It’s very much alive in their consciousness. They live next to these sites. Not all the locals are always aware of it. In many parts of Eastern Europe, these sites were only marked and remembered in recent years, since the collapse of the Soviet Union (where the tragic history of the Jews was swept under the rug). It seems to me that they were like wounds festering, and in many places in Eastern Europe, the healing of these wounds has only recently begun. Those who are aware of these sites seem to have a need to show visitors, to have outsiders, especially those with a connection to their land, bear witness to the history they live with everyday.
Despite having already borne witness to many of these sites throughout my travels, the initial shock of stepping foot next to a place of such tragedy, trauma, and grief still hits me. There are often are no words in those moments. Just silence and tears. Silence in which the wind, the crows, grey skies, and the aura of untimely death saturated into the Earth ring loudly all around.
Kostya and I each grabbed a stone from nearby and laid them on the memorial to let the dead know that we honor them. I softly sang the prayer for the souls of the departed, El Malei Rachamim.
Kostya led me to another memorial nearby. This had one had a cross. It was a memorial to the local Righteous Among the Nations, dozens of non-Jews from the town who gave their lives in an attempt to hide and save the lives of their Jewish neighbors. Unfortunately for those in this mass grave, there was no one to hide them once the Nazis discovered their subversion.
After we were back in his car, I asked Kostya if he knows where the old synagogue was. He said he knows the general location, in the center of the town, but that he knows someone who can tell us the exact location. He called up a woman who is a friend of a friend, a local historian named Alla. Before I knew it, we picked up Alla at her house as she offered to give us her expert guidance through the old shtetl, providing, according to Kostya, more information than Kostya was able to on his own.
Our first stop with Alla was another Holocaust site. We came to the site of the former ghetto, where the Jewish population of Glubokoe along with Jews from surrounding villages were rounded up and crammed. Now it’s a park surrounded by residential homes, with a memorial to the victims at the edge of the park. Alla explained that there were a few liquidations of the ghetto, when those deemed unfit for work were taken to the forest, at the site of the mass graves where Kostya and I were before, and shot.
The final liquidation of the ghetto came when Soviet partisans were attacking targets near Glubokoe. The Nazis feared the partisans would make contact with the ghetto, so they prepared to deport the remaining Jews. When the Nazis entered the ghetto, they were met with armed resistance. Through the help of resisters on the outside, arms were smuggled into the ghetto. Groups of Jews organized and prepared themselves in anticipation of the final liquidation of the ghetto. Fighters were in the minority among the ghetto prisoners, but they put up enough of a fight to kill dozens of Nazis. The Nazis, having failed in their plans to deport the Jews to a death camp, systematically set fire to the ghetto. 4,500 died in the flames, or in a barrage of bullets and grenades when they fled the flames. A few dozen managed to escape through the hell-fire and they joined the partisan groups in the forests not far away.
We stood there next to the monument on the ground where those thousands were lost to the flames. Again the silence we stood in was deafening. It’s one thing to read about such horrific events. It’s another thing to stand on the grounds where they occurred. The tragedy becomes palpable. It touches another level of consciousness that reading or hearing stories doesn’t quite reach. Face-to-face with history, the reality of it sinks in deeper.
This time, Alla broke the silence. Alla asked me if I had any relatives there during the war. I told her I don’t know.
My great-grandfather Yakov moved from Glubokoe to Odessa well before the war, even before the Russian Revolution. While digging through the archives, in Odessa and in Vilnius, I found that it was actually Yakov’s father, Gersh, who moved to Odessa, along with his wife Maria and all the kids (five in total). I also found, through the Lithuanian archives, that they left behind some relatives. Quite a number of relatives. I’m not sure what happened to those relatives; whether they stayed behind or moved from Glubokoe at some point before the war. I’ve only been able to find one Meytes from Glubokoe in the Yad Vashem records, and I haven’t been able to trace whether or not they were a relative. But it’s very possible, if not probable, that they were. Alla expressed her opinion that more than likely they were. Glubokoe was another shtetl where people did not usually share last names by mere coincidence.
It’s very possible that some relatives had been in that ghetto and in those mass graves. I wondered if any relatives were among the few who miraculously made it out and joined with the partisans. I wanted to believe that if my relatives were there, they were among those who made it out. I knew the chances were very slim though.
Our next stop was the old Jewish cemetery of Glubokoe. This was one of the oldest cemeteries I had come across thus far in my journey. The cemetery dates back to the fifteenth century, attesting to the centuries of Jewish presence in that old shtetl. To say Jewish “presence” is to put it lightly. According to the 1897 census, there were 3,917 Jews living in Glubokoe, comprising 70% of the total population. It wasn’t simply a town with a Jewish quarter. It was a Jewish town.
Thousands had been buried at the centuries old cemetery. It was desecrated by the Nazis, and most of the tombstones are gone, probably used to pave a road somewhere in or near the town, as such was the common case under Nazi (and then Soviet) occupation.
Alla pointed out that the cemetery was on land with the best view in the town, overlooking one of the central lakes. It was quite picturesque. One thing I’ve noticed on my travels is that we Eastern European Jews liked to give the ancestors a great view at their final resting places.
Alla was limited on time, so we had to move on without going into the cemetery. But I intended to come back later on my own. My ancestors were buried in the ground somewhere there.
Next we drove to the center of town. We came upon the main hotel, named after the town. We got out of the car. Alla pointed to the hotel, and explained that this was where the central synagogue of Glubokoe use to be. The Nazis burned it to the ground. Some years after the war, the hotel was built in its drab, Soviet-style architecture, common throughout this central part of town, over the charred ground where the synagogue once stood.
I walked over to the front of the hotel, and pictured the crowds gathered in front before and after services. I imagined my many Meytus ancestors coming here for the annual sacred day that was once again coming up soon. I wondered how they prepared for the fast. Did all the Meytus families gather together in someone’s home before heading to this house of prayer? How did they approach the day? Did they observe it just because tradition said to, or did they engage with it as an opportunity to cleanse and purify their souls, to empty themselves and create space for connection with the divine?
I touched the ground that held their prayer house, that supported their rituals and prayers, said “hello,” and offered my gratitude.
Alla then took us by the lake in the center of town. Now surrounded by parks, churches, factories, and a couple cafes, the lake use to be the center of a mosaic of Jewish families, with Jewish homes all around. While there was a mikvah next to the old synagogue, it’s likely that in the summers, the lake was also used for sacred ritual immersion purposes.
Our final destination was a square at the intersection of the two main streets in town. On the square stands a row of statues of famous historical figures from Glubokoe. Most were Belarusian, but in the center we came to the statue of one famous Jew who lived a portion of his life in Glubokoe: Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, widely regarded as the father of modern Hebrew. Born in another Belarusian (formerly Lithuanian) village, Luzhky, about thirty kilometers north of Glubokoe, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s parents sent him at a young age to yeshiva in Glubokoe. This was during the time my Meytus ancestors were in Glubokoe. Perhaps my great-great-grandfather Gersh Meytus (Yakov’s father) was in that same yeshiva with Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. Or perhaps they knew each other from synagogue or run-ins at the market. Did they have conversations together I wonder? Did Ben-Yehuda ever mention his spark of interest in reviving Hebrew as a spoken language?
We took Alla back to her home. Kostya and I both expressed our deep gratitude for her guidance through the Jewish history of the town. My heart sent out gratitude to the ancestors for their guidance as well. Alla was another connection I wouldn’t have made without that run-in with Gidaliya back in Vilnius.
After parting ways with Alla, Kostya and I headed to his place for the lunch Anya was preparing. In the car, Kostya commented on how much he respected and appreciated that I came here with this intention to find my roots. He said that he learned some things, through our excursion with Alla, about the Jewish history in his hometown that he never knew before. Further, it intrigued him to learn more about his own roots (his family came to Glubokoe after the war from elsewhere in the Soviet Union).
He expressed that his family never embraced their Jewish roots (Kostya’s mother is Jewish and his father is Russian). They hid that side from the outside world, and he still does for the most part. He explained that in the Soviet Union, being Jewish was something that society trained them to be ashamed of, to be afraid of showing, to be afraid of being. I thought of my own family’s stories and those of so many other Soviet Jewish immigrants and the Jews I met during my travels who still live in the former Soviet Union states. I thought of my own inherited fears, which throughout much of my life, until several years ago, I was largely unconscious of and hadn’t worked through. I told him I understand what he is talking about.
When we got to his place, there was a traditional Belarusian-style feast, including wild mushroom soup (it was mushroom hunting season) and draniki (fried potato pancakes strikingly similar to latkes – evidence of cross pollination of cultures that lived with each other for centuries) waiting for us. Anya greeted us warmly. She inquired into our excursion and we gave her the overview. Of course she and Kostya asked for and so I delivered stories of my travels. When I got to my time in Vilnius, I asked if Gidaliya had told them how he and I met. He hadn’t. I relayed the story. They laughed in joy and wonder at the synchronicity.
Kostya raised a toast to our unlikely meeting. He added: years from now, after I have integrated all the strength that this ancestral roots journey is giving me and I return to these lands to show my descendants where they come from, may we find ourselves gathered once again around this table with our expanded families. My heart welled up with the prayer: may it be so.
The next day, I went out on my own to explore the old shtetl and walk the streets my ancestors walked over a century ago. Through dirt village roads lined with old wooden cottage-style houses, each with its own garden of vegetables, fruit trees, and the occasional livestock, I ventured. There was a bustling market in the center of town. I imagined it didn’t look so different in my ancestors’ time. Just the people looked different.
I eventually made my way back to my ancestors’ final resting places. I arrived to find the gate to the old Jewish cemetery locked. I asked a neighbor living across from the cemetery if they knew who had the key. They said that there is a care-taker, but that he doesn’t live in this neighborhood, and they’re not sure where he does live. They suggested I go to the town council office and ask them.
I realized that by the time I would get there and potentially coordinate to have the gate unlocked, it would be dark. The following day I was leaving Glubokoe and going with Kostya and Anya to Minsk for Yom Kippur services. This was my chance to visit the grounds. I felt conflicted. The last thing I wanted to do was to disrespect sacred grounds. Would jumping over the locked gate constitute that?
I meditated on this question for a moment. I asked my ancestors if they would feel disrespected if I jumped over the locked gate or if they would be disrespected by me not stepping foot on the grounds where they were laid to rest.
The question of how Belarusian police might react if they happen to drive by and see me in the locked cemetery also crossed my mind. Then I remembered the meaning of my name: Daniel (Daniyyel from Biblical Hebrew). It means “God is my judge.” That was the answer to my quandry.
My purpose there transcended any human-made trespassing laws. My blood was my key. The grounds were sacred to me. I couldn’t trespass there because it would be impossible for me trespass on my own ancestors’ sacred burial grounds.
I hopped the fence and was in the six centuries-old cemetery. It was relatively barren of the headstones that once crowded it. But some remained, damaged and broken, or half sunken into the earth.
All were in Hebrew or Yiddish. So I couldn’t make out the meaning of the words that were still legible on them, but I had an idea of the Hebrew spelling of my ancestors’ surname, Meytus, and began scanning for it in the off chance that they were among the few headstones that were spared.
But without knowing the meaning of the words, I never knew if the writing on the part of the headstone that remained intact included the name or if the name had been broken off. I could have been looking at my ancestors’ tombstones without knowing it. This gave each stone significance for me. It gave each tree, each blade of grass, each mushroom on the grounds, the life that was fed by the soil there, in part made up of the decomposed bodies of my ancestors, another level of significance. I didn’t know the exact spot my ancestors were laid to rest, so the whole cemetery and everything on it became their plot for me.
I made my way to the center, where a stone foundation of the Star of David surrounded what looked to be some of the oldest tombstones on the grounds. I wondered if this was where the first burials were made. This became the altar to my ancestors. I delivered the cookies and fruits I brought for them. I tapped into the praise and prayers in my heart and spoke and sang them for all who were listening.
I gave thanks for the unseen guidance that brought me to those who helped me get to know this place my roots are from, even with it’s tragic history. I gave thanks for the unlikely meeting that gave both myself and Kostya some insights into this land that gathered us together. I gave thanks for new connections in my ancestors’ old shtetl.
The next day, we (the unlikely trio) ventured down to Minsk together, the nearest place with an active synagogue, to take part in the sacred ritual of Yom Kippur our ancestors have practiced and passed down for thousands of years, generation after generation. Through successive wars, successive displacements and diasporas, forced assimilations, pogroms, and the Holocaust that so ravaged the shtetl my Meytus ancestors made their home for generations, they kept the ancient traditions alive so that we, their descendants, could remember and return to our sacred connection with the divine.
Occasionally, they put in a little extra work even after they’ve left their bodies, and send a seemingly random person to recruit us for a seemingly random minyan that we resist joining, but which ends up being exactly the right place we need to be to find the connections that help us know where we come from.
My dedushka was brought to Berlin by the blitzkrieg of bombs and bullets that rained down on the land he called home, the home of the family that he swore to protect. He put his body on the line and went to face hell, to defend his people and the ground that gave them life. His brothers died defending that land, leaving their families well before their time.
The war took its toll, even after the tide turned, and the Nazi terror’s advance was forced back. My grandfather kept afloat as the waves of war crashed and swept him along. Through a barrage of bullets, he rode the storm to its epicenter. The thundering of the battles booming all around him, the blood soaked streets, the groans of agony from his comrades and his enemies, can still be heard in some dark alleys and city streets. The echoes of the shots still ring off the surface of the walls left standing. I touched those indentations, the imprints, the physical memory, of what dedushka experienced as a living hell.
“Perhaps one of these bullet holes came from the gun he fired,” my host proposed as we looked upon the pockmarked building still scarred from the siege. Was he here, I wondered? Did he do battle in this very spot? What must have been going through his mind, through his body, I could only imagine. I’m here because of the sacrifice he made.
My grandfather was compelled to fight. When I came here, I was compelled to dance. In part because the war robbed him of that chance. I came to Berlin blessed with peace, the peace that he fought for, that his brothers died for. The peace they would want me to enjoy. So I found the place where the people gather with open hearts and minds, putting their bodies on a different line.
To the beat of the bongos and synthesized seductive tones, my feet found their pulse. The floor was my foundation on which I pounded the Earth in rhythmic, undulating, dynamic gesticulations of body and breath. I stepped. I stomped. My physical form sang the song of my soul, metabolizing grief of the past, feeling the joy of being alive here and now, filling my cup until it overflowed with the ecstasy of the dance.
It splashed around the space. Others’ cups were overflowing and spilling too, a bliss that couldn’t be contained. It washed over and through us, German and Jew alike, a mosaic of nations from around the world. It wove us together and bound our wounds. From trauma to tribal medicine, from battle to brotherhood, sisterhood, humanhood. A healing of the Heart.
My grandfather was in Berlin to fight. I found myself in Berlin to dance.
These are the words that came to me as I sat in a dimly lit, dank, stone arch cellar turned into shul (Yiddish for synagogue) in the heart of the old Jewish quarter in Vilnius, the city once so renowned for being a center of Jewish spiritual study that it was deemed the “Jerusalem of the North.” It was Rosh Hashanah day. I had finally moved on from Ukraine a week before (which wasn’t easy as I had grown to love so much of it and so many people in the many months I was there). I was spending the high holiday in Vilnius while waiting for my visa application to Belarus to be approved so that I could visit the town my great-grandfather Yakov Meytus was from: Glubokoe.
I had resisted coming to this basement cellar shul. “Why did I agree to this?” I kept asking myself. I had been in the Great Choral Synagogue of Vilnius just half an hour before. It was a beautiful synagogue, ornately decorated, the only synagogue (out of dozens) in Vilnius to survive the war and Holocaust. The cantor had an amazing voice and such splendid, joyous energy. A smile so grand creased across his face after every prayer he sang that even his massive, characteristically chassidic, beard couldn’t hide it. The rabbi engaged in sermon with the congregation, giving context to what we were doing, not just recited prayer. There was a good atmosphere in there.
But then he came. A beardless man about my age, who spoke decent English. His tzitzit gave away his piousness. He came to recruit us. I was sitting with another American who I had met during services the evening before. The man explained that his congregation needed two men for minyan (a quorum of ten adult Jewish men) so they could read Torah. He asked if we would join them so that they could have their minyan. I was a little confused at first. We had well beyond minyan here in the synagogue; it was almost full. They were about to begin reading Torah here. Why did he want us to go somewhere else with him? I asked if there was anyone else who could go with him. He said there wasn’t. His eyes were pleading. I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t know him and I didn’t owe him anything. I could have said no. But something greater than my own will was at work.
Against my selfish desire and feelings of resistance, the word “okay” came out of my mouth. My new acquaintance next to me had also agreed. Our recruiter was very pleased. He blessed us with gratitude.
We got out of our seats and exited the synagogue. I wasn’t sure where we were going. The recruiter said our destination wasn’t far. He introduced himself as Gidaliya. I was still trying to make sense of why he needed a minyan elsewhere when we already had one at the synagogue. Then I understood: he’s not Chabad, which the community that was in the synagogue is. He’s something else. He must be Litvak.
Oy, I thought. Litvak services can feel more strict and tedious than Chabad, which for me, as I’m not orthodox, can already feel somewhat strict and tedious. What have I gotten myself into? I thought about apologizing, making an about-face, and heading back to the synagogue. But something inside me wasn’t allowing it. Gidaliya could see my reluctance, my second thoughts. He said to me “Thank you for doing this mitzvah. Don’t worry, you’re in the right place.” Yeah sure, I thought.
We arrived at our destination. It was the Jewish Cultural Information Center and Cafe. Small and plain in comparison with the Great Choral Synagogue. There were a few people standing outside and only a few more inside. Mostly men, but also a couple of women with small children and babies. There was a brief bit of chatting, introductions, and then Gidaliya directed us to head downstairs where the service was to take place. Gidaliya held the door to the basement open for me. He gave another warm, friendly smile and repeated, “You’re in the right place.”
As I descended the stairs and the musty odors of the basement cellar hit my nostrils, I seriously doubted him. I thought I could use the mold as an excuse to leave, to say that I’m sensitive and allergic to it. But something held on to me there, and I entered the small room, normally used for presentations to school groups who come to learn about the Jewish history of Vilnius, now set up as our shul.
I wasn’t sure why I was having such a difficult time saying no. I’ve had struggles with this in the past, doing things against my better judgement out of desire to be nice and to be liked. But through the years, and especially during these travels, I’ve learned to listen to my gut and honor and give voice to my “no.” But in this situation it wasn’t coming out. A part of me was saying “yes.” That part was winning, and I wasn’t sure why.
We went through the service. A Litvak who had flown in from Israel to ring in the New Year in the land of his spiritual ancestors led the service. I found his presence interesting. While thousands of Chassids from around the world were engaging in a now somewhat famous pilgrimage to Uman, around the tomb of their great tzadik, Rebbe Nachman (the founder of the Breslov movement), there was one Litvak who made a pilgrimage to the home of the Litvak’s great tzadik, Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna (The Vilna Gaon). This Israeli Litvak had an enchanting voice and led some of the most beautifully melodic Torah chanting I’ve ever heard in my life. My mind relaxed as I accepted the place and the moment I was in.
After the Torah service, in a brief pause before musaf (the additional prayer on Shabbat and holidays), Gidaliya struck up conversation with me, inquiring into my story and why I came to Vilnius. I explained that, one, I wanted to experience the Jerusalem of the North, and two, I was applying for a visa to Belarus to visit the town my great-grandfather Yakov Gershovitch Meytus was from. The town use to be part of Lithuania, in the Vilno (as Vilnius was known) Gubernia, but is now within the borders of Belarus.
I further explained that I hadn’t known the name of the town when I began my travels. All we (my family) knew of my great-grandfather’s origins was that he was from somewhere in Lithuania, but at some point he moved to Odessa. When I was in Odessa, I found my grandfather’s (Yakov’s son Gersh) birth certificate. The birth certificate stated which town Gersh’s father, Yakov, came from.
Gidaliya asked which town. I answered: “Glubokoe.”
“I was just there,” he replied. “I was visiting my good friend.”
“You’re kidding!” I exclaimed. I had already spoken of this town with many locals in Vilnius upon answering the question everyone inevitably asks: why had I come to Vilnius. Only occasionally did anyone recognize the town’s name. No one else I had spoken with had been there, let alone knew anyone there.
“His wife is my wife’s sister,” Gidaliya continued. “They’re Jewish.”
“There are still Jews left in Glubokoe?”
“Only a couple: my friend and his wife.”
“Do they know where the old synagogues were? Where the cemetery is or was?”
“Probably. I’ll connect you with them.”
“That would be amazing! Thank you!” I replied with delight and gratitude.
He smiled that warm, bright, friendly smile again. “You see… I told you that you’re in the right place.”
I smiled back at him as my heart opened up to this truth.
I thought that it was he who had recruited me back in the synagogue, but in that moment the dots connected and I understood that it was actually he who had been recruited. He had been recruited to bring me there for the moment we just had. He had been recruited to connect me with the couple of Jews left in my great-grandfather’s hometown who might know something about the old shtetl.
Gidaliya returned to his seat as the congregation began to pray musaf. I sat back in my seat and that smile stretched itself wider across my face. My musaf was a prayer of gratitude to my ancestors for all the mysterious ways they help me and guide me. Gratitude for reminders that they are with me. I laughed at myself for nearly forgetting. It was their hands at my back nudging me forward when I had wanted to turn around.
Several days later, I received my visa and hopped on a bus to Belarus. I sent a message to Anya and Kostya, my new Jewish contacts in Glubokoe, to let them know I was on my way. Gidaliya had sent them prior word about me, and they assured me that they were eagerly awaiting my arrival.
A few weeks ago, I was in another old shtetl of Ukraine. I traveled to Staryi Sambir, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, for another volunteer work camp preserving the Jewish heritage of Ukraine. It was organized by the Lviv Volunteer Center, a branch of the All-Ukrainian Jewish Charitable Foundation: Hesed Arieh. The LVC organizes important civic-oriented service projects (Jewish and non-Jewish) in Lviv and the surrounding oblast region, from helping meet the basic needs of low-income seniors to protecting sites of Jewish historical significance.
I had been romping around the Carpathian Mountains when I learned of this project in Staryi Sambir, so I arrived after they had already begun. Sasha Nazar was my contact. He is the head of the LVC and was the main organizer of the project in Staryi Sambir. He is a native of Lviv. For the past few years, Sasha has been spearheading the restoration of one the last remaining synagogues of Lviv. With the volunteer base he’s built at the LVC, he turned his attention outward as well, to other historic Jewish places in the Lviv Oblast which have very little to no Jewish community left (not that Lviv has much left — 1,500 Jews today vs. 150,000 Jews pre-Holocaust). He and his volunteers spend much of their free time preserving what’s left of centuries of Galician Jewish history in their region.
I met Sasha and a team of the volunteers hard at work on repairs of the historic 19th century synagogue of Staryi Sambir. They had a team on the outside, setting up support beams to maintain structural integrity while repairs were made on the dilapidated roof. The roof had long been in a state of disrepair and it no longer protected the interior from weather-related decay. The work we were doing was part of a longer-term project to restore the roof and preserve the synagogue.
The inside of the synagogue was littered with rubble and trash, so there was a team working inside at the same time, clearing out decades worth of debris, including collapsed pieces of the roof.
This holy site had been the spiritual center for the Jews of Staryi Sambir and the surrounding area. Hasidim from the surrounding villages would flock to the rabbis of Staryi Sambir to soak up their teachings and dance their ecstatic tunes. To lose this synagogue would be to lose one of the last physical traces of centuries worth of Jewish cultural and spiritual history on that land.
Down the road, another team of volunteers were hard at work clearing and restoring the historic 16th century Jewish cemetery of Staryi Sambir. I participated in the cleanup and repair work at the synagogue for the first day and a half. After lunch on my second day there, I joined the team at the cemetery.
It is one of the oldest surviving cemeteries in Eastern Europe. I’m not sure how or why this cemetery survived the Nazis and the Soviets. Not many of the historic Jewish cemeteries that were under occupation by both of those regimes are still around today. After bearing witness to the aftermath of destruction of so many cemeteries in Ukraine, including cemeteries in which my own ancestors were buried, it seems to me a miracle that this centuries-old one in Staryi Sambir is still around.
It is a gorgeous site. The old cemetery runs along a hill above the main road through town, overlooking the beautiful Carpathian Mountains. The ancestors have quite the view from there.
The team had already done a remarkable cleanup job by the time I joined them. A walk along the hill to the section of cemetery they hadn’t gotten to yet showed me what this place looked like before:
The synagogue and the cemetery had been in a state of decay since the Jewish community was wiped out during the Holocaust. Prior to the war, according to local accounts, the Jewish population made up about sixty percent of the village and numbered in the thousands. Today there are no Jews left living in Staryi Sambir.
But there are those of us from other places, near and far, who honor their memory.
There were a few dozen volunteers total. The majority of the them were members of the LVC from Lviv, but there were some who joined from other parts of Ukraine, as well as Russia, Poland, Israel, and the U.S. (me).
Only a portion identified as Jewish. Many were Ukrainians who don’t have any Jewish roots that they know of. They came for various reasons. Many young Ukrainians have taken an interest in the Jewish history of their country. They hear about these neighbors that their grandparents and great-grandparents had, and they want to know who they were. Some of them feel a sense of loss, like a part of their own culture and history had disappeared. Some want to do what they can to preserve what’s left of it.
At the cemetery, I met another hero in Jewish heritage preservation who I’ve known on Facebook for some time, but had yet to meet in person: Marla Raucher Osborn. Marla’s story is an inspiration. Marla founded and runs Rohatyn Jewish Heritage, an organization dedicated to, as paraphrased from the website, facilitating reconnection of the modern-day Rohatyn community with their lost Jewish community history. This came to be out of a literal calling from the current residents there.
Marla is from California, but has roots in Rohatyn, Ukraine. After a couple of heritage journeys of her own to her ancestral hometown, and investing enough time there to inevitably build relationships with the current residents, some of the Rohatyn locals began coming to her with findings. They began bringing her fragments and entire pieces of headstones with Hebrew writing that they would find while doing repairs on homes, buildings, or roads (the Nazis and the Soviets often used headstones from cemeteries they destroyed to lay foundations and pave roads). Marla and her husband Jay would make frequent trips to Rohatyn to aid in the recovery of these lost ancestral memorials. Eventually this led to her and Jay moving to Ukraine and working on this mission, in partnership with the local Ukrainian population, full-time.
Marla’s been involved in Jewish Heritage Preservation work for many years now, and helps with heritage projects in many places in Galicia and beyond. We just missed each other weeks before at the volunteer work camp in Chernivtsi. I was honored to finally meet her and Jay in person in Staryi Sambir after observing online their dedication to protecting the heritage sites across this old country of our ancestors.
After the in-person acquaintance-making, we busied ourselves once again in the cleaning and restoration work of the cemetery. Some were clearing the vegetation overgrowth that swallowed up and threatened the structural integrity of the tombstones, while others photographed tombstones as part of a project to document and database who lies where. The work that was done there is invaluable for historians, genealogists, and especially the descendents of Staryi Sambir’s Jewish community who emigrated to other lands before the Nazis laid waste to the community that stayed behind.
The team back at the synagogue worked vigorously to get the place ready for Friday night. A very special event was to happen there. Kiddush (the blessing over wine to sanctify Shabbat) was to be recited for the first time in over seventy years in the old Staryi Sambir Synagogue.
After we wrapped up our work for the week at both sites, we headed back to our lodging to wash up and prepare. Shabbat was on its way! Where as many of us had been waiting all week to bring it in, the synagogue had been waiting much longer.
We circled up inside. Acknowledgements and gratitude were spoken from the organizers and to the organizers for all the hard work, before and during the week, that went into organizing and implementing this meaningful project.
Shabbat candles were lit for the first time in over seventy years in that synagogue.
Photo Credit: Marla Raucher Osborn
Sasha invited me to further warm the place up with some niggunim.
I’ve been carrying the Baal Shem Tov niggun with me across Ukraine and honoring the holy sites I come in contact with through singing this and other ancestral tunes whose vibrations still linger in the walls and the land. Given that the congregation of this synagogue was chasidic, in the Carpathian Mountains where the Baal Shem Tov spent many years, I could feel the walls calling for this niggun once again.
I offered it up, and the community that had come together in the space between those walls, which had been bereft for so long of the song and prayer those walls were built for, joined in. A couple of them later shared with me that they sang with tears in their eyes.
Sasha led us in Kiddush, and we sanctified Shabbat in that historic synagogue we had begun the restoration of that week. We sanctified that synagogue’s place and role as a holy heritage site and physical memory of the ones who came before us.
We filled the walls with a joyous round of Shabbat Shalom, and then we parted from this sacred site and walked down the street to a local cafe for a Shabbat feast.
We celebrated the work done and the connections we made through the avodah (service) we gave. I asked Sasha later what motivates him to do this work. He went through a slew of reasons, but the main one he gave is the one I identify with the most. He explained that attitudes are changing in post-Soviet Ukraine. The younger generations are getting more and more interested in their roots and their heritage. Many of the Jews that are left in Ukraine are feeling a call to learn about their ancestral traditions and history. It’s a small, but growing trend. When they feel this call, they want to see the places that held so much of their history. To physically touch their history, their heritage. Preservation projects like these keep that possibility for them and the generations that will come after them alive.
I can personally attest to the truth in Sasha’s words. I personally endorse the importance of their work.
If it weren’t for the volunteers of the LVC, and the individuals and organizations doing similar work, these memorials, these physical testaments of our history here in Ukraine would vanish.
These folks are the heritage protectors of Jewish Ukraine. What’s left of it. They are preserving our heritage, for all of us with ancestral connections here. They’re investing their time, sweat, and often personal funds (as there isn’t enough support for heritage preservation work from Jewish institutions or government) into this work.
But there aren’t enough of them. They can’t do it alone. There’s more work to be done than there are boots on the ground or resources to support those boots. They need help. Otherwise centuries of our history and heritage here could disappear. It will only be read about in books (and blogs). But I can tell you from first hand experience, there is a big difference between reading about our heritage, and touching it, feeling it with your hands, between your finger tips. There is a difference between knowing it with your intellect, and knowing it with your body. There is a difference between seeing a photo of a centuries-old synagogue, and praying within its walls. There is a difference between hearing stories about your ancestors, and paying your respects at their final resting place.
These protectors are making it possible for anyone who feels the call, like I did, to make the pilgrimage and physically connect with their ancestral heritage. Support them. Come and join them. Work with them. (There will be more volunteer work camps next summer). Pray and sing with them. I promise you, it’s worth it.
Left to right: Me, Jay, Marla, Sasha, Masha (Sasha’s partner). Photo credit: Darina Balabai
To support the work of the Lviv Volunteer Center, contact Sasha Nazar: email@example.com
Last month, I participated in an international volunteer clean-up, restoration, and preservation project at the old Jewish Cemetery of Chernivtsi, one of the largest surviving historic Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe. The majority of the volunteers there were German, many (maybe most) of whose parents were German soldiers in WWII. The cleaning that happened there went deeper than the roots of the plants that we cleared out. I found myself at various times watering the freshly exposed earth with tears. Tears of healing. Tears of unexpected love for the descendents of my ancestors’ enemies, the descendents of my people’s murderers.
Ceremonial Hall at the entrance of the historic Jewish Cemetery, Chernivtsi
I had spent the previous couple of months traveling through the former Ukrainian shtetls where my great-grandparents were from: Yosypivka, Zoziv, and Zhmerynka. Part of my purpose in traveling to those villages was to search for the graves of my ancestors. I found the cemetery in Yosypivka mostly in decay with few tombstones left, the cemetery in Zoziv completely vanished, and the cemetery (the old section) in Zhmerynka swallowed up by overgrown vegetation.
I don’t have direct ancestors that I know of from Chernivtsi, but after experiencing the grief of finding my ancestors’ cemeteries in various states of ruin, I wanted to do what I could to help prevent that same disappointment for others who still have a chance to find their ancestors’ graves.
Chernivtsi was a cultural capital of the Bukovinian Jews. The first documentation of Jewish presence in Chernivtsi dates back to 1408. By 1919, the Jewish population of the city numbered almost 44,000 and comprised almost half of the city’s total population. There were around 50,000 Jews in Chernivtsi just before the war. Approximately one-third survived the war and Holocaust. Most of the survivors did not return to Chernivtsi, but emigrated to Israel. The Jews that ended up in Chernivtsi after the war were transplanted there from other parts of the Soviet Union, which the city became part of.
Today there are only around 1,000 Jews living in Chernivtsi. The Bukovinian Jewish culture has all but vanished from the city. The Jewish cemetery, with its over 50,000 graves, is one of the few monuments left of the culture that once flourished there. The volunteer project is meant to ensure that the Bukovinian Jews of Chernivtsi are not forgotten.
I learned about the project too late to register through official channels, so I just went to the cemetery after I arrived in Chernivtsi, to find the volunteers. It began to rain as I made my way over, and when I got there, I found a group huddled under one of the few spots with some cover. I asked if they were there for the volunteer project. They affirmed that they were. I told them I was there to join. They welcomed me with open arms.
They were done with work for the day because of the rain, but invited me to join them there the next morning.
I was surprised to find myself the only Jewish person joining the project. Everyone else was non-Jewish. They were from two different organizations: SVIT Ukraine and Action Reconciliation Service for Peace. The SVIT volunteers were Ukrainian, Swiss, Finish, and Romanian. The Action Reconciliation volunteers, who made up the vast majority, were, except for one Polish woman, all German.
They were already hard at work when I got to the cemetery the next morning. I grabbed a pair of gloves and pruners and joined in. We cut down trees that threatened to break through tombs, cleared overgrowth that made it nearly impossible to access entire sections of cemetery, and removed networks of vines that had swallowed up tombstones. The German group, whose ages I guessed ranged from around forty to eighty, worked with a passion that showed they were deeply invested in this project, in this mission of preserving the heritage there. In the sweltering heat, I had trouble keeping up with some of the eldest volunteers. They were workhorses giving it their all.
Volunteers hard at work
The SVIT group broke for lunch on the earlier side. The German group kept working and I decided to keep working with them. Eventually they broke for lunch too. The Germans invited me to eat with them. I accepted. They were extremely friendly and welcoming. They generously shared their food with me. Out of respect I waited for the elders to grab their food before I did, but they insisted that I fill my plate first.
I sat down and found myself the only Jew in a circle of Germans, who were of course speaking German with each other. I’ve never been to Germany. This was the first time I had ever been in a group (a large one) of German strangers speaking in their mother tongue. I’ve got to admit I couldn’t help but feel a little uneasy. I intellectually knew that there was nothing to fear, that I was safe, that they were friends, not enemies, that they were good people there to be of service. But hearing them speak German, which I don’t understand, and seeing them laugh about something that I was not in the loop on, brought up old associations and inherited memories. I felt my body tensing with nervousness. Deep inside the membrane walls of the cells of my body, there were alarms going off telling me to get the heck out of there. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that it was okay, that I was safe.
Soon enough, the nervousness was to be replaced by something else. The woman sitting next to me switched from German with her friends to English with me, and into conversation we went. She was interested in my story, my connections with Ukraine, and so I shared. I don’t remember how we got there, but eventually the conversation turned to her father. He was a soldier in the German army in occupied Ukraine. My body tensed up again. This time anger began to stir up in me. I took a deep breath again. My thoughts went to wondering if her father and my grandfather, who was an officer in the Soviet Army during the war, ever faced each other on the battlefield. Could this be a reunion of enemies, now sitting and eating sandwiches and watermelon together in one of the few surviving Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe?
She said that her father served as an engineer during the war and that he didn’t see much actual battle or mass killings, but in his role he inevitably helped support them from behind the scenes. She said that she grew up wanting to believe that he was unaware of the mass killings of Jews in Ukraine, that he was kept in the dark about it. That he gave his consent and support unknowingly. But as she got older, the truth began to seep in. The places he was stationed were too close to some of the mass killing sites. Even if he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes, there were so many Jews shot at some of these sites that he would have heard about it. Somebody would have talked, and word would have spread. He knew.
I could see that she had been having a hard time reconciling with this since it seeped in.
She went on to share that an aunt of hers through marriage (the wife of her uncle) was a Jewish Holocaust victim in Germany. Her aunt was protected from the Nazis while her husband was alive, but the stress of the war and Holocaust gave him a heart attack. Once he was gone, it wasn’t long before she was sent off to a concentration camp, the last place her aunt ever saw.
Her voice began to quiver as she began to say, “And there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about these things.” Tears began to well up in her eyes and she turned away. So she didn’t see that tears began to well up in my eyes at the same time. I saw the pain she’s been carrying. I saw the regret she carries for the crimes of her father. I felt her grief over things she had no control over because they happened before she was born. I wanted to hug her, to embrace her, to cry with her. I felt love for her.
I was surprised by this feeling. Ten minutes before, my body was telling me to run away from her. Now my body was telling me embrace her. But I waited. I wasn’t sure if she was a hugger or comfortable with being emotionally open. The thought occurred that even if she is emotionally open, perhaps she’s reluctant to share her grief with me. Perhaps she felt it was irresponsible to reveal her pain to me. What right did she, the daughter of a German soldier, have to cry in front of the grandson of Jews from the land the Germans brought so much carnage to? She walked away towards the tool shed. A couple of minutes later she headed back towards the picnic area where we had lunch. I intercepted her, and asked if I could give her a hug.
She smiled and said, “of course.”
I embraced her. My heart began to climb into my throat and my eyes began to well up with tears again. Now mine was the voice quivering. I said to her, “thank you for being here.”
Her immediate reaction was to wave off my acknowledgement and gratitude. Not out of disrespect. But out of, as I perceived it, the shame and guilt she was carrying for the crimes of her father. She said that she was doing it for herself, to make herself feel a little better. I told her that whether she’s knows it or not, it’s not just for her. This time she didn’t turn away even though her eyes got a little wetter. She looked me in the eyes, and took in my words.
The next day, I had lunch with the German group again. I got into conversation with the eldest man there. He told me a bit about the history of Action Reconciliation Service for Peace. He honed in on the reconciliation theme. He said that in his opinion, they (the German people) can’t reconcile, because the people to reconcile with are gone. They can only atone.
Volunteers restoring the cover of a tomb that had come undone
I understood why they were working so hard, with such passion, with such great effort. They were atoning for the sins of their fathers. They felt their atonement, as a people, wasn’t over. Despite the national apologies, the reparations, and the service work since the founding of Action Reconciliation and the efforts of other individuals and organizations, the atonement goes on. I wondered when they will feel their atonement is complete? What is the marker for completion?
I didn’t agree with him that it was only atonement and not reconciliation. No, they can never reconcile with those whom their fathers killed, but they are not their fathers, and many of those who were killed have living relatives and descendents for whom the work these Germans were doing makes a difference. I am one for whom it makes a difference. They may have been atoning to those buried in the ground there, particularly in the mass grave site for the nine hundred of Chernivtsi’s first Holocaust victims. But whether they intended it or not, they were creating a sense of reconciliation for me that I had not realized was incomplete and had not known I was going to find there.
On the last day, we held a ceremony at the Holocaust mass grave site in the cemetery. The day before, the main organizer asked me if I would be willing to read the Mourner’s Kaddish during the ceremony. After some meditation upon it, I replied that I would. Some of the pious of my people will not agree that I had the right to recite Kaddish as we did not have minyan (a quorum of ten Jewish adults) according to tradition. I felt in my heart that we had the exact minyan that was needed there. We had the minyan that the cemetery and history had summoned together.
With lit candles in hand, we circled around the mass grave. I explained to the group that the Kaddish is a praise of the Source of life, and in it we are praising the lives and the Source of the lives of those who were laid to rest there.
Then we praised.
The whole two weeks of the cemetery project had been a big praise. It had been a praise for the people and the culture that had once thrived in that city. It had been a praise for the individuals and families that made up the community, whose names are etched into the fading fabric of time on those tombstones. It had been a praise for their descendents, some of whom still come back to bear witness and pay their respects.
We praised them with the sweat of our service and the tears of our reconciliation.
The ancestors danced through the halls of their old synagogue as we sang prayer songs long gone from these lands. Songs renewed with ecstatic tunes conjured from the rebirth of the ancient Judaic traditions happening in distant lands their descendents found refuge in. I could see the ancestors of this old shtetl in my mind’s eye, feel their joy in my heart, while I was sitting with the small number of Jews, mostly elderly, left there. My good friend Daniel, a fellow pilgrim on a parallel journey to connect with his roots, was with me; our journeys intertwined for a week together. We were gathered around the table on Shabbat inside the only synagogue still active in Zhmerynka, a mid-size town in central Ukraine from which my Berchenko ancestors came.
I had arrived there on Monday earlier that week, on my own. Zhmerynka is the town my grandfather, Boris Mendelovich Berchenko, and his brother, Noikh Mendelovich Berchenko, were born and raised in. Where they were bar mitzvah‘ed. The place their parents, my great-grandparents Mendel Berchenko and Dina Berchenko (I don’t know her maiden name yet), lived most of their lives. The place my great-grandfather Mendel, a woodsman, was buried. (Dina moved to Odessa to live with her two sons after Mendel passed away, and she was buried there.)
I came to see this place that held the history of the people from whom my surname comes. To search for my great-grandfather’s grave. To find his tombstone and see what light it may shed on the story of his life and from whom he is descended. This was all in hope of the Jewish cemetery there still being intact. I didn’t know in what state I would find it. The cemeteries in the previous ancestral villages I visited were either mostly gone or entirely vanished. Even the great Second Jewish Cemetery of Odessa, where a couple of great-grandparents of mine were buried, is gone. There was no guarantee that I would find anything left in Zhmerynka. Based on my own anecdotal evidence, chances of finding the cemetery intact were slim.
I found a hostel to set up in, and the next morning I walked to the synagogue at the center of town to meet the head of what is left of the Jewish community in Zhmerynka, a man by the name of Leonyd. He showed me around the historic building.
It was the last remaining synagogue in Zhmerynka before the Soviets closed it in the 1960’s. There were eight synagogues and dozens of prayer houses before the Russian Revolution. Zhmerynka was a town with a significant Jewish cultural presence. There were 2396 Jews (17% of the total population) in Zhmerynka near the turn of the 19th century. Before the war, Zhmerynka’s Jewish population reached 4,630 (17.8% of the total population). Today there are around eighty Jews left in Zhmerynka, and according to Leonyd, most of them elderly.
The building we were in was returned, after the fall of the Soviet Union, to what remained of the once vibrant Jewish community of Zhmerynka and it was eventually restored to its original purpose as a synagogue. Leonyd is not a rabbi, but he fulfills the role of spiritual leader for the small Jewish community there, guiding a simple Shabbat ritual every week in the old shtetl.
After a brief tour and overview of the history of their synagogue, we took a walk around the center of town, around the old shtetl. Leonyd showed me the former central synagogue, now Zhmerynka’s “House of Culture,” a Ukrainian community center.
We walked to another former synagogue, now a small apartment building on the edge of the former shtetl.
I wondered if it was in one of these that my grandfather Boris went through the time-honored Jewish rite-of-passage ritual of Bar Mitzvah. I wondered if it was in one of these that my great-grandfather Mendel and great-grandmother Dina were married, where they went for holidays, where they prayed.
A now familiar feeling was moving through me. I felt it in Odessa when I came to the State Archives Building, a multi-storied, beautiful work of architecture, and learned that it was the former central Jewish Reform Synagogue of Odessa. I’ve felt it in every city and village I’ve visited here in Ukraine, upon coming to the site of a former synagogue that had been either repurposed or destroyed (the story with the vast majority of the historic synagogues). It’s a simultaneous feeling of grief and praise. These sites feel holy to me. The walls (if they’re standing) still vibrate subtly with the prayer and song, feasts and dances, joy and sadness, of communities that they held space for many decades ago. To me, these sites are sacred. To the majority of the current residents living in these former shtetls, especially the younger generations unaware of the history of these sites, they’re just buildings or empty lots.
Leonyd showed me the area, the size of about one square city block, that was the Jewish ghetto during the war. It was a closed ghetto that was crammed with thousands. The ghetto Jews suffered from beatings, hunger, and the stress of ghetto life, including the daily threat of being shot if they didn’t abide by the rules. But Zhmerynka was lucky relative to much of the rest of Ukraine. Zhmerynka was occupied by Romanians who weren’t as brutal as the Nazis. Few civilians were actually murdered in Zhmerynka during the occupation. One of the descendents of Zhmerynka’s ghetto Jews even said to me that the Romanian occupiers were “good” to them. I would say the old adage, “everything is relative,” applies there.
We came back to the synagogue where we started. Leonyd inquired into who I was looking for there in Zhmerynka, the names of my ancestors who lived there. He said my last name sounded familiar, but couldn’t remember at that moment who specifically he had known or heard of with that name. There were no Berchenko’s living there anymore, but he was sure there were still some not so long ago. Possible relatives? I’ve only been able to trace, on the Berchenko branch, as far back as my great-grandfather Mendel. I don’t know if he had any siblings or who his parents were or who their relatives were. I tried searching the archives in Zhmerynka and the oblast capital, Vinnytsia, but unfortunately the records no longer exist. They were likely casualties of the war, is what I was told in Vinnytsia. Erasure of memory, not just people, was part of the “final solution”. It’s very much possible that Mendel had siblings or cousins who stayed in Zhmerynka and that it’s them or their descendents who Leonyd was reminded of when I told him my last name.
I inquired as to the status of the Jewish cemetery. I felt relief and excitement to learn that the cemetery was still there. It had survived both the war and the Soviets. But Leonyd warned me that the older section had become overgrown like a jungle because there weren’t enough Jews left in Zhmerynka to take care of it. Though there are a few elder Ukrainian women who live next to the cemetery and are paid, by Israeli and American families whose ancestors are buried there, to take care of certain plots. Leonyd said they know the cemetery better than anyone, and that perhaps they have seen my great-grandfather’s grave. Find them and I might find the grave.
With hope in my heart and instructions from Leonyd on how to find the cemetery, I made my way over there. I prayed to the unseen along the way for help in finding the graves of my ancestors. Over dirt roads and past homesteads, each with significantly sized gardens and livestock, I arrived to the cemetery entrance at the top of one of the highest hills of the town. The size of the cemetery was impressive. Thousands of graves were still there. The section on my left was in good condition, the plots cleared of flora, the tombstones solid, and the writing on them legible. The dates on the tombstones confirmed that I was looking at the newer section. The dates on the tombstones, many in decay, poking through thickets of bushes and trees on my right confirmed the beginning of the older section of the cemetery. Somewhere within that jungle lies my great-grandfather’s final resting place.
I began scouting the outer edge of the old section, trying to understand where the graves from the 1930’s burials might be. I don’t know the date or even the year my great-grandfather Mendel died, but the evidence I’ve been able to gather from family members suggests that he likely died in the early 1930’s. I saw a couple of men unloading some tools from a truck further up the row I was walking. I presumed they worked there and I asked them if they had ever come across any Berchenko tombstones. They told me to find the lady two houses down from the cemetery entrance, that she might know where to find them if they’re there. Jenya was her name. She was one of the women Leonyd had mentioned.
I went up to her house and called for her. She came out. I explained who I was and what I was doing there. I asked her if she had ever come across any Berchenko tombstones.
“Berchenko? Follow Me.”
She led me down one of the rows that was relatively clear in the old section. It appeared that people were taking care of many of the plots in this row. Jenya said she looks after a few there. We came to a plot in relatively good condition that she stopped in front of. On the tombstone, in Russian, was written my last name. A rush of excitement coursed through me. I read below the last name and found that it wasn’t the Berchenko I was looking for. Nonetheless, it was an exciting find. A possible relative! Abram Yefimovich Berchenko.
He lived in the same town as my Berchenko great-grandparents. Jenya, asked if I had heard of him. I told her I hadn’t, but explained that my tracing of the Berchenko branch is limited to my great-grandfather, Mendel. Perhaps Abram was a cousin. Could be a brother. If I could find Mendel’s grave and see the patronymic name written there, that could shed some light on the relation. She explained that without knowing the exact year of his death, it’s a tough search. If I knew the year, she could help me find him.
In the meantime, she led me to another tomb she thought I should see in the new section. Another Berchenko! The daughter of Abram. Elizabetha Abramovna Berchenko. Incredible. Another possible relative! Did she have children? Are they alive? If so, where are they now?
Jenya left me to be with these potential relatives. I spent some time with Elizabetha and then went back to Abram. I asked him if we were related, to help me find out. I asked him to help me find any other ancestors who might be there, particularly my great-grandfather. Then I left him and headed into the jungle to search. Ducking, climbing over, crawling through thickets of overgrowth, I combed the rows. Hundreds and hundreds of tombstones.
I tried to make sense of where my great-grandfather might be. Many of the tombstones had a combination of Russian, which I can read, and Yiddish, but many other tombstones, especially the older ones, were written only in Yiddish, one of my ancestral languages I have yet to learn. Thus I wasn’t always sure of the dates or the people on the tombstones. I didn’t know if I was looking in the correct rows. After a couple of hours of searching, I exited the thickets. I ran into Jenya working on one of the plots on the outer edge of the older section. She asked me if I found anything. I told her I had no such luck yet. She reiterated that without knowing the dates, it’s a needle in a haystack. Her advice was to come back in the fall when all the foliage would be withered and it would be easier to navigate through the thickets.
I went back to the hostel I was staying at feeling a mixture of victorious and defeated, having found potential relatives, but still not knowing where my great-grandfather’s grave lies. I decided it was good enough. Dayenu. I was going to leave Zhmerynka the next morning and head to the mountains to meet up with my friend Daniel who was on his own roots journey. We had been chatting about backpacking through the Carpathians together and being there for Shabbat. Perhaps I would come back to Zhmerynka and search more in the fall.
The next morning I packed my rucksack and made myself a hearty breakfast to prepare for the road ahead. As I was eating, the managing owner of the hostel, Natasha, who had taken a strong interest in the story of my roots in Zhmerynka, came into the kitchen. Behind her followed an older woman. Natasha said that she was hoping to find me. She introduced me to the woman she brought with her, her friend Larissa. She explained that Larissa takes care of some of the plots at the Jewish cemetery and might be able to help me. She was another one of the women Leonyd had mentioned. Larissa told me that there is a woman living near the cemetery who once made a list and map of the tombs there. She offered to take me to her. I remembered my prayer to Abram Yefimovich Berchenko. I sent a message to my friend Daniel that I’m not making it out of Zhmerynka that day after all.
Larissa and I went to the street the cemetery entrance is on. A couple of houses down from Jenya was the woman Larissa was talking about. Larissa called for her. She came out and Larissa asked if she still had that list. She said that she did, but it was only a list of the new section of the cemetery. She never got around to making a list of the old section and didn’t know of any list existing. Larissa apologized to me. She thought the list was of the whole cemetery. She and the other woman chatted briefly and said their goodbyes. Then Larissa turned to me and said she would help me search for a bit if I wanted. I accepted her offer. Through the cemetery entrance and into the jungle of the old section we went.
She knew where the 1930’s rows were. She pointed out that they were organized by alternating male and female rows. We split up and combed through the thickets. After half an hour, still with no success in finding Mendel’s grave, Larissa needed to go. Back outside the thickets of the old section, I expressed my deep gratitude for her time and help. She wished me luck. I went back in. Up and down the rows, weaving through branches and foliage, scanning for dates, and scanning for names written in Russian. It indeed felt at times like searching for a needle in a haystack. Still that needle was there somewhere. But after another couple of hours of searching, I was ready to call it a day. Perhaps call it a week. A month. A year. Come back with a machete and some Yiddish under my belt.
I exited the thicket at the far end of the cemetery. I headed down the main path that splits the old from the new section, back towards the entrance. I continued to scan the headstones on my left, on the outer edge of the old section. I noticed a small opening into the thicket, a narrow path, I hadn’t seen before. I felt a flash of deja vu, like I had seen this in a dream somewhere. Something in my body was telling me to go into the thicket, through this opening. In the face of my mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion, I followed this instinct.
On both sides of this narrow path were the densest thickets I had come across yet. Only the tombstones directly along the path were clearly visible. I scanned left and right as I moved slowly up the path. A year written on one of the stones popped out at me: 1933. Here was another section of 1930’s burials Larissa and I hadn’t come across. I went into the dense thicket on my right and began making my way along the row. There was no crawling or weaving through. It was so thick I had to break branches and stomp down the small trees and bushes to move forward and uncover the tombstones. Halfway up the row, I paused. Some subtle, invisible tractor beam was pulling me from behind. I surrendered to gut instinct, turned around, and headed back down the row. I crossed the narrow path I came in on and began breaking and stomping my way through the other side. Uncovering tombstone after tombstone that revealed surnames other than the one I was looking for.
Then I saw her. Not in the row I was in, but in the row parallel, the women’s row directly behind the tombstone I had just uncovered. I don’t remember now what drew my attention over there, but I glanced behind the tombstone I was at. It was one of those moments where I did a double take. I couldn’t believe my eyes at first. But there in front of me, in the only Russian lettering below the rest which was all in Yiddish, was my last name. Another Berchenko! A Berchenko who died around the time my great-grandfather died. The fact that they were in a women’s row and the first initial next to the surname was the Russian “B” told me that it wasn’t my great-grandfather. But I couldn’t help feeling like this was another ancestor, like this grave had been calling to me to find it.
My body was buzzing. It took me a minute to gather myself, to reaffirm to myself (to the best of my ability) that I wasn’t dreaming. I had found a needle in a haystack! It was a different needle than the one I was looking for, but an exciting needle to find nonetheless.
I gave praise for the moment, for the miracle. I spent some time with the grave, with this potential ancestor, B. Berchenko. I took photos and when I got back to my hostel, I put out the call on Facebook for a translation of the Yiddish. Within two hours, the call was answered.
“A modest and precious woman (Bubby) Yehudis bas (daughter of) R’ Simcha Meir Berchenka. Passed away 6 Menachem Av 1938.”
I called Leonyd to ask him if he knew anything about these finds, from the previous day and this most recent one. He told me to come meet him at the synagogue with the photos.
He didn’t know about Yehudis or Abram, but he recalled Elizabetha. He said that they were more than likely relatives. He explained that Zhmerynka was one of those shtetls where there were entire family clans. In the cities and some other shtetls, it could be common for people to coincidentally have the same last name and not be related. But in Zhmerynka, it was a rarity for people to have the same last name merely by coincidence. If people had the same surname, in the vast majority of cases it was because they were related.
Leonyd recalled that Elizabetha was a doctor. She married another doctor with the surname Turner. He said they had children who, if he recalled correctly, moved to the U.S. back in the nineties. He didn’t remember their names. He urged me to stay in Zhmerynka for Shabbat, come to the synagogue for their Saturday afternoon service and meal, and meet the other elders of the community. He was confident that someone among them would know the names of Elizabetha’s children and perhaps even have their contact details. Potential living relatives somewhere in the same country I call home. I had to follow this thread through.
I messaged my friend Daniel again to let him know I now wouldn’t be making it to the mountains in time for Shabbat, and invited him to join me for Shabbat in the old shtetl of my Berchenko ancestors. We are members of the same Jewish spiritual community back in California, and the excitement of bringing in Shabbat together in the old country where we both have roots had been building up. So he hopped on the train and made his way over.
Daniel got in to Zhmerynka on Friday afternoon. We dropped off his bag at the hostel and headed to the center of town, to introduce him to the old shtetl. We followed the trail Leonyd had taken me down. I showed him the former main synagogues, turned into the Ukrainian House of Culture and an apartment building.
Daniel posed a question he had been wrestling with on his ancestral journey, the same question that I had been wrestling with since I began my travels. How do we honor these sacred sites of our people, that have been repurposed or destroyed? How do we honor these buildings and spaces where for decades and in some cases centuries, people gathered to pray, to connect with each other, with the source of life, to give thanks for their lives, and to cry out for help in their struggles? How do we honor the sites where so many ancestors were laid to rest, but few descendents are left to visit and care for them?
Sing to them is one of the answers that keeps coming to me when I’m at these sites. We stepped into the corridor of the old synagogue that is now an apartment building. We walked slowly through its halls and up its stairs, touched its walls, peered through a cracked open door into an abandoned apartment. We paused in front of the former Aron Kodesh, the section that used to hold the sacred Torah scrolls. We stood in silence, in honor, in grief, and in praise.
Then we began to sing. It was a tune that was likely sung in these halls before the Russian Revolution (before this synagogue was shut down) as it came from Medzhybizh, a village only eighty-five kilometers to the west, a few hundred years ago. It was a Baal Shem Tov niggun. It was the medicine we needed. It may have been the medicine the walls of this old synagogue were craving.
That night we gathered on the patio of our hostel with some of the other hostel guests and Natasha, the hostel manager. Though they had never observed it before, they were interested in welcoming the Shabbat with us. Natasha informed us, as we were setting out the candles, wine, and challah, that the hostel use to be an apartment building owned and rented by Jews. Throughout most of its history, it was a home for the old shtetl Jews of Zhmerynka. Daniel and I realized that this would not be the first Shabbat to be honored in this building. It felt good, the kind of good that makes your heart smile, to be bringing it back to this home together.
Saturday afternoon, we headed to the synagogue. A group of the congregants greeted us at the door and even before introductions, immediately began telling me about Elizabetha Berchenko. Word clearly had gotten around about me and my search. One woman said she knew Elizabetha’s children and she gave me their names. She said she has a friend in Zhmerynka who has a friend in the states who likely has Elizabetha’s children’s contact info. She gave me the phone number of her friend there in Zhmerynka.
Then we all sat down to begin the service. Leonyd led us in the Shabbat blessings. It was a brief service. My experience in the places in Ukraine that still have some Jewish presence is that in the non-Chasidic communities, the services are more about gathering community for meals together than they are about praying and praising together. We made quick blessings over the wine and bread. Then we dug into the meal and conversation. Daniel doesn’t speak Russian, so I translated, relaying questions and answers between him and the local congregants.
He asked if anyone among them speaks Yiddish. Everyone pointed to one of the elder women sitting at the middle of the table and said that she speaks it fluently. They said she knows many Yiddish songs. I asked her eagerly if she would sing one for us. She said she didn’t want to because they make her cry. She didn’t want to cry today.
As the plates of food came close to empty, people began to stir in preparation to leave. The service didn’t feel complete for me. I asked if they would be interested in singing a niggun. Leonyd said “please.” They stilled back into their seats and turned to me with anticipation. I began. Daniel recognized the tune instantly and began to co-lead the niggun with me. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s “Krakow Niggun”. The tune was foreign to the congregants. They listened attentively. Many joined in as they caught it after a couple of rounds. The room lit up with the ecstatic energy of the niggun. Those who weren’t singing were clapping, their eyes beaming with delight. When we finished, they asked us to sing more.
Daniel led the next one. Another juicy niggun dripping with Shabbat ecstasy. Then Leonyd led one that I’ve heard only in Ukraine. Another one of the congregants led one. Then we broke out into Shabbat Shalom. Daniel and I sang other niggunim we learned in our community back in California. The ecstatic musical energy kept flowing.
There was an older tune wanting to be sung. It was beckoning from within. From the walls, from the floor and the earth below it, from the past that my roots inextricably link me with. I asked Leonyd and the congregants if they knew who the Baal Shem Tov was.
“Of course,” they replied. They traveled together as a community to his grave site in Medzhybizh about a year ago.
“Then perhaps you know this one,” I said. I turned to Daniel. He gave me a nod and we began singing it together. The tune we had sung the day before in the halls of the synagogue turned apartment building. The tune that had likely been sung in these halls as well before this synagogue had been shut down by the Soviets.
It turned out the congregants weren’t actually familiar with it. The tune had been lost here in Zhmerynka. We were bringing it back from halfway across the world where we had learned it. The congregants once again joined in after a couple of rounds. The ancestors were with us. Clapping with us. Singing with us. Dancing around the room. This was their tune.
As we closed, the members of the congregation gave us their blessings for our respective journeys. We gave our gratitude for them allowing us to share in such a meaningful Shabbat with them, in this old shtetl of my Berchenko ancestors.
Daniel and I left Zhmerynka the next morning. Our next stop: Medzhybizh. To honor, pay our respects, and give praise at the final resting place of the Baal Shem Tov. To ask for his blessing to find his old sacred stomping grounds in the Carpathian Mountains where we were heading after Medzhybizh.
I didn’t end up finding my great-grandfather’s grave while I was in Zhmerynka. But I unexpectedly found other more-than-likely ancestors of some relation. Dayenu! I’m still working on getting in contact with the children of Elizabetha and establishing what our link may be. Perhaps one day I’ll touch the final resting place of my great-grandfather Mendel and find out who his parents were and how I’m related with the other Berchenko’s there. Perhaps one day I’ll be there in Zhmerynka again, with long-lost relatives, to grieve and praise together.