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.