A Walk Through the Old Shtetl

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I walked on holy ground last week. Holy ground for me. It is the ground my great-grandparents Srul Shulimovich Minsky and Rivka Minsky walked on for years. The ground they lived on. The ground they were likely born and raised on (I’m still hoping to find archival documents confirming this). The ground that possibly generations of Minsky’s before them live on and are buried in.

I left Odessa four weeks ago to continue on with the journey. After a brief stay with some couchsurfing hosts in a village just outside of Uman and then in Uman itself to celebrate Shavuot and Shabbat with the Breslov Chassidic Pilgrims from around the world, I ventured on to the village my great-grandparents Srul and Rivka Minsky moved to Odessa from. Its current name is Yosypivka, but in my great-grandparents time it was called Yuzefpol.

Before I began this journey, I had never heard of Yuzefpol. I didn’t know where my great-grandparents came from, let alone what my great-grandmother’s name from my father’s side was. I found my grandmother Dina Minsky’s birth record in the Odessa archives. The record revealed my great-grandmother’s name, my great-great-grandfather’s name, and that they were from the village of Yuzefpol. Through further digging and the help of local genealogists, I was able to trace the former Yuzefpol to it’s new name of Yosypivka, a small village in the Vilshanka region of the Kirovograd oblast of Ukraine.

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Without knowing anyone there, where I was going to stay (there are no hotels and no people registered on couchsurfing in Yosypivka), or if there was anyone who could tell me anything about the old Jewish shtetl there, I hitch-hiked my way over from Uman to Yuzefpol (there were no direct buses or convenient bus transfers). A series of friendly drivers, out of a sense of altruism or simply desire for company and conversation during a long journey of their own, helped me get to the very rural village in the heart of the country.

I was dropped off a couple kilometers outside, at the beginning of the dirt road leading to the village. With my big backpackers rucksack shouting “outsider,” I headed in. As I walked what was, for the length of those two kilometers, a road deserted of people, I greeted the land. I thanked my ancestors, whom I asked for protection on the long road over. I thanked them for bringing me here as the village came into view in the subtle valley I was heading towards.

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I was finally looking upon with my own eyes the place I had been imagining in my mind the past several months since learning of it. I felt a juxtaposed sense of being an outsider in a strange new land and at the same time being an old acquaintance of this place. My ancestors were fed by this land. Literal molecules that came from the soil of this land became the food, that became the cells, that became the sperm and eggs, that became my grandparents, that became my parents, that became me. Part of me is an old acquaintance. A part of me is this land.

Grounding in this sense and knowing, I walked into the mystery of what this land has become and who is on it now. I passed a few quiet houses, built in traditional Ukrainian village style cob. A bit further down the road, a woman was working in her garden (every house has a big one… or five…). I asked her, in Russian, where I could find the village council administrative office. She replied in Ukrainian. After I explained that I don’t speak Ukrainian, she switched tongues and told me how to find the office.

I turned onto the main street and walked into the center of town, receiving curious glances from people not used to seeing outsiders in their village. I got to the council administrative office to find it closed. I was hoping to see if they had any archival documents that could reveal further information about my ancestors who lived there. In addition to seeking the birth records of my great-grandparents, I’m trying to find the birth records of their two sons, my grandmother’s older brothers with whom she lost contact after they moved to the U.S. (shortly after the Russian Revolution). My father doesn’t know their names. I’ve got a lead on who one of them might have been. Assuming they have descendants, I have long lost relatives somewhere out there. If I can confirm who my grandmother’s brothers were, that will bring me closer to finding our relatives.

I walked into a small store next to the village council office and introduced myself to the woman working there. I explained who I was and what I was doing there, and asked her if the council office was closed for the day. She replied that it was and it wouldn’t be open again until Monday. It was Friday afternoon. I had hoped to get to Yuzefpol earlier in the day, but getting there took longer than expected. I decided to hunker down there for the weekend. I asked the woman, whose name I learned is Lesya, where I could set up my tent for the weekend. She said I could set it up by the lake near the center of town, but before that she would take me to meet her neighbor, the former head of the village council, who might be able to help me find some of the information I’m seeking. She closed up the store (there were still two more working hours of the day) and took me over to her neighbor’s place.

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Lake near the village center

An hour later, I had a date scheduled for the next morning with the former head of the village council, Valentina. She had generously offered to give me a tour of the village, in particular the old Jewish quarter, a.k.a. the shtetl, and show me as much as she knows of the Jewish history there. Within this time, Lesya had made arrangements for me to stay with her eldest son on the other side of town, instead of in my tent by the lake, which Valentina and Lesya agreed wasn’t necessarily the safest option due to the handful of alcoholics who may walk around the lake at night. I was flooded with gratitude for the kindness and care these strangers were showering me with. I thanked my ancestors for guiding me to those I needed to find. Within an hour of arriving, I had a tour scheduled of my great-grandparents’ old shtetl and a bed arranged for me to sleep in.

Lesya took me to relax at her home across the street until her eldest son, Vassily, got off work. She introduced me to her younger son, Roma, who just got home from high school. Lesya then went off to reopen the store for its last hour of operation for the day while Roma and I sat down for tea and got to chatting. Lesya returned an hour later and Vassily arrived shortly after with a bucket-full of carp he caught in the lake earlier that day. Lesya fried them up with potatoes that came from their garden, threw together a salad also from their garden, and we sat down to a hearty, home-grown, home-cooked Ukrainian meal. After dinner, Vassily took me to his place and, despite my insistence otherwise, he set me up in his room and he took the couch in the living room. This was Ukrainian village hospitality: take in the stranger and care for them like family.

I met Valentina at her place early the next morning and we set off for our excursion. We headed along the main street, which runs parallel to the river the village was settled along. Contrary to what many warned me regarding Ukrainians offering a stranger help, Valentina wasn’t expecting any money. She was doing this out of the kindness of her heart. She’s a quick-thinking and quick-talking woman with a powerful presence, an infectious laugh, and a big heart.

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We came to an intersection that Valentina explained was the beginning of the old Jewish neighborhood of the village, the shtetl. The park in front of us, she explained, use to be the bustling Jewish marketplace. We walked up a street with houses spaced widely apart. She said that before the war (WWII), the street was packed and houses were right next to each other. The village’s current population is just over 500 people, according to Valentina. In 1897, the Jewish population was 872 people (36% of the total population), and in 1939 the Jewish population reached 1041, before the Nazis wiped nearly all of them out.

She showed me the one house that is still standing, having been renovated, from the era in which Jews lived in the village. All the other houses that were in the old shtetl were in disrepair and replaced with new homes, barns, and family farms. We passed by the spot where the old synagogue was. Now someone’s house and farm stands in its place. I pictured the old synagogue on the little hill where the house is, and imagined the old shtetl Jews gathering in and around it. My father heard from my aunt, who heard from my grandmother that my great-grandfather Srul Minsky, was a rabbi. I wondered if he led the congregation there in that old synagogue, or if his father, whose name I learned was Shulim, led them (rabbis tend to run in the family).

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House still standing from shtetl times

We passed by the building, still original, that was the old yeshiva. These days, with expansions around it, it is a farm machinery repair shop. Further down the street was the old mikvah. The building that housed it is no longer there, the land it was on is overgrown with bushes.

Along the way, we visited some of the elders of the village, those born before the war. Though my great-grandparents left Yuzefpol over a century ago (they were already in Odessa by 1908, the year my grandmother was born), Valentina thought that maybe someone could have heard their last name mentioned through stories retold, or perhaps some Minsky relatives had remained and these elders had met them. Elder after elder we visited greeted us warmly and were eager to help, but could not recall ever having heard the last name Minsky. They, without specific prompting, recalled all the Jewish families they knew who were murdered by the Nazis. They said that the villagers who might have known anything about my great-grandparents have passed on, that I’m twenty or so years late in coming there. Sometimes knowledge and stories disappear with the people who hold them if we don’t capture those stories in time.

Our final stop for the day was the old Jewish cemetery. In an open field on a hill at the north-western edge of the village it stands. A cow, chained up in the field, greeted us at the entrance of the cemetery. Its chain had become wrapped around one of the few tombstones that’s still standing. Valentina patted the cow and unwrapped its chain from the tombstone. The cemetery is largely in decay, with most of the remaining tombstones laying in the ground, some halfway or more swallowed up by the Earth reclaiming them. Most of what remains of the cemetery are decaying foundations of tombs. Some of the surviving tombstones still have legible Yiddish/Hebrew writing on them. Knowing that with the hundreds, maybe thousands, that were buried here it would be highly unlikely, I couldn’t help but wonder if any of these might be my great-great-grandfather’s, Shulim Minsky, tombstone. I wondered if any other Minsky’s might be buried here. How many generations. How far back did we go in this village? Where did we come from before we came to this village? Maybe the answers, or at least a lead, were on one of those tombstones.

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I pulled out a small stone with a heart-shaped colorful bead pattern affixed to it’s surface, which I remembered I was carrying in my backpack. It was gifted to me when I left Odessa, and I felt it had traveled with me for this very occasion. I placed it atop one of the tomb ruins in the center of the cemetery, to let the ancestors know there’s at least one descendant left of this old shtetl who honors their memory.

It was a bitter-sweet tour. My heart was swelling with both joy and sadness. Joy at the gift of the opportunity to connect with this land that my ancestors once dwelled upon. Grief over the deep sense of loss I felt walking around what, despite new residents living on the land, is a ghost town of the culture my ancestors were a part of there. This has become a familiar feeling journeying through Ukraine.

Before Valentina and I parted ways, she told me to come back to her place Monday morning and that she would take me to the village council office to see if there are any archival documents that could be of any use. We also made plans to visit the Holocaust memorial at the site where the Nazis murdered the village’s Jews.

I went back to Vassiliy’s house. He was still at work. I grabbed my guitalele from the house and sat down with it in the yard. I breathed in the fresh air of this rural village far from the bustle of city and industry. From my heart, through my hands and vocal chords began to stir prayer songs. Modeh Ani, the Shema, B’Shem Hashem, the Baal Shem Tov’s Niggun. I sang them out. A pair of mourning doves flew over from the woods next to Vassily’s land and perched themselves atop a tree nearby. I sang through tears that began running down my cheeks. I felt the land listening, ears perked up, with a sense of nostalgia for words, prayers, melodies it hadn’t heard in decades. A quiet breath after I finished singing, the doves flew back in the direction from which they came.

I hadn’t known it at the time, but I later learned that Vassily’s land was part of the old shtetl. It was land Jews had lived on. Who knows, perhaps even my own ancestors. I had assumed Vassily’s land was outside of the shtetl. We hadn’t passed by it on our tour. But on Monday at the village council office, Valentina’s son-in-law, the current head of the council, showed me a map of the village. He showed me the extent of the territory of the old shtetl. He pointed out where the marketplace was, the synagogue, the yeshiva, the mikvah, the cemetery. He pointed to a spot within the territory and said, “that’s where you’re staying now.”

I was flabbergasted. “I’m staying where the old shtetl was?!”

“Yep.”

I wanted to cry in amazement at the providence that brought me to not only tour the old shtetl my great-grandparents were from, but to live in it, lay my head at night in it, work the land of it (I spent Sunday voluntarily working Vassily’s fields), and get to feel its soil between my fingers during the time I was there. Had I lived in my tent by the lake, I would not have been in it. Had Lesya or Valentina set me up at either of their places, I would not have been in it. Had the village council office still been open when I arrived in town, I might not have met Lesya in the store next door. But I met her and she set me up to stay with her son, who lived on the land of the old shtetl.

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Vassily’s land and house

At the time I sung them, I thought that I had been singing those prayer songs on land not far from, but not exactly in, the territory of the old shtetl. I thought the land was listening from somewhere not far. Then I understood that it was the land I was on that had been listening to me. It was where I was staying that had been missing those old prayers, those old songs.

The village council office unfortunately held no archival documents of the Jews of old Yuzefpol. The head of the council said that if they still exist, they’re likely in the archives in Kirovograd, the administrative center of the oblast.

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So here I am now. In Kirovograd. Digging further and further. On my way to Kirovograd, I stopped in Pervomaisk to find the man who organized the installation of the Holocaust memorial in Yosypivka/Yuzefpol, to see if he might have any info connected with my ancestors. Valentina, who was village council head when the memorial was installed, couldn’t remember his name and couldn’t find any documents with his name on it. There were no contact numbers for the Jewish community of Pervomaisk and no address as their community is small and they don’t have a synagogue or Jewish community center. All I had to go on was I was looking for a Jewish man in his 60’s or 70’s who helped build the memorial in Yosypivka/Yuzefpol a decade ago.

I found him. His name is Aleksander. Upon meeting him I felt a sense of comfort and warmth, like I was meeting with an old friend. I then learned that his grandparents were also from Yuzefpol. Unfortunately he didn’t recall them mentioning anything about any Minsky’s. Though they lived in Yuzefpol around the same time my great-grandparents were there. They probably knew each other. Perhaps they were friends. Perhaps that part of me that is my great-grandparents recognized the part of him that is his grandparents. Neither of us spoke it aloud, but I think that both of us were feeling, subtly somewhere in our bodies, in our chests, in our hearts, in the place our ancestors speak to us without words, like this was a reunion of sorts.

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Soon I’ll be moving on to the other villages of my other great-grandparents. On to other reunions.

There Is No Tombstone There Anymore

One of the missions my ancestors recruited me for on this journey is to find the graves, or at least the cemeteries, where my great-grandparents were laid to rest, and take care of them if possible. Five out of the eight of them were laid to rest here in Odessa. My parents only knew the locations of two: great-grandparents on my mother’s side (Yakov Gershkovich Meytus and Rukhla Meytus, born Ruhkla Kogan). My mother showed me their graves when she, along with my brother and cousin, came to meet me in Odessa last autumn.

It was quite a sacred moment to visit for the first time in my life the site where my great-grandparents were laid to rest. I felt connected with them more than ever before. I never got to meet them in the flesh. They died before I was born, halfway across the world from where I was raised. I heard stories of them. I felt them in my heart. Coming to their graves was the closest experience I’ve had to meeting them in person. I was moved to tears as I fully grasped the significance of standing at the spot where their bones lay beneath the surface. I was upon the soil their physical bodies decomposed to, next to the trees and shrubs their bodies fed. I understood more clearly why many traditional cultures regard nature as the ancestors. I spoke to my great-grandparents more closely than I ever had before. I praised their lives and gave them thanks for mine. We all did in turn. It was a blessed experience that also brought our living family closer together in tenderness and connection.

The other two great-grandparents on my mother’s side are far from here. Great-grandfather Gillel Sukhotnik died in transit evacuating out of Odessa to Uzbekistan during WWII. Where he is buried is a mystery. I haven’t been able to find any records on it. I learned that great-grandmother Ida Sukhotnik (born Ida Tanzer) is buried in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. I was informed that the cemetery no longer exists. Destroyed by the Soviets.

This is unfortunately an all-too-common story of cemeteries in the former Soviet Union, especially Jewish cemeteries. I began seeing first-hand the tale of this tragic history when I was in Lviv and saw the massive outdoor market built on top of virtually all of the old Jewish cemetery there.

Here in Odessa, the Jewish cemetery that is still active is the Third Jewish Cemetery of Odessa. It opened officially after the 2nd World War, but unofficially was already open some years before the war. The First Jewish Cemetery of Odessa dates back to 1792, even before the official “founding” of the city of Odessa. The Second Jewish Cemetery of Odessa was opened in 1885. Unfortunately they no longer exist as cemeteries. They were destroyed by the Soviets. The first one was laid to waste in 1936, along with the adjacent Muslim and Christian cemeteries. The second one was destroyed in 1978.

My friend Kirill Nefyodov of PhotoTour_Odessa showed me the former site of the Second Jewish Cemetery of Odessa. I had my camera with me and asked him if he could share a bit about the history of the cemetery:

Not even the Nazis caused the level of destruction to the 2nd Jewish cemetery that the Soviets did. The Nazis desecrated the cemetery, toppling grave stones and leaving much of the cemetery in ruins. It was, however, able to be restored after the war. (This is, of course, not to gloss over the incomprehensible horror, death, and destruction the Nazis caused).

But decades later the Soviets brought in bulldozers and wiped every trace of cemetery away. Over the first one they poured concrete and constructed buildings.

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Site of the former 1st Jewish Cemetery of Odessa

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What remains of the entrance gate to the 1st Jewish Cemetery of Odessa

Over the second is now a park that is in many spots littered with trash. There is no memorial, no plaque, nothing indicating that this was once a cemetery in which thousands were buried. No physical trace to honor this sacred site. Most of the everyday passersby have no idea they’re walking over the bones of ancestors. In all likelihood, mine (from my father’s side) included.

I mentioned in the video above that I’m searching for confirmation of which cemetery my great-grandparents from my father’s side, Srul and Rivka Minsky, were buried in. My father didn’t know where any of his grandparents were laid to rest. I was able to find the death certificate of my great-grandmother Rivka Minsky in the Odessa archives, but there is no mention of where she was buried. In 1938, the year her death record states she died, most Odessa Jewish families were still burying their deceased in the Second Jewish Cemetery (though the Third was already open, unofficially).

Unfortunately the burial records of the Second Jewish Cemetery have disappeared. No one I spoke with at the Odessa State Archives, the Third Jewish Cemetery, the Jewish Museum of Odessa, the Holocaust Museum of Odessa knows what happened to the records. Most likely they were destroyed along with the cemetery is what I was told. Which means that getting one hundred percent confirmation is unlikely. But there is no record of Rivka or Srul Minsky at the Third Jewish Cemetery, and my local sources here agree, based on the info I have, that they were most likely buried at the Second.

Walking through, I imagined what it might have looked like when it was still active and respected as a sacred burial site. I wondered where my great-grandparents might be. A tiny seed of a fantasy stirred in a corner of my mind, that their tombstones could somehow have survived here somewhere. That any tombstone could have survived here. I began to wander. A part of me was searching. I mostly found piles of garbage.

I did find a few markers that this is actually once again an active cemetery. Just not for humans. In Odessa, people use the public parks as pet cemeteries. A thorough wandering through any park here can usually result in finding at least one grave of a family’s deceased pet. Here, on this site where thousands of Odessa’s Jews were buried, I found several recent pet graves. Would the care-takers of these pets have buried them here if they knew that they were burying them on top of human remains? Would people use this land as their personal waste dumping grounds if they knew what was here before?

Cemeteries are sacred sites. Especially for those whose ancestors were laid to rest there. The graves are physical altars where we can go pay homage to those from whom we came. They are spaces that connect us most closely to the physical memory of those who’ve passed on. They are the soil which our ancestors’ bodies have become. They are places that deserve to be honored, respected, and cared for. That’s not to say that other land doesn’t deserve such honor, respect, and care. All land is sacred.

The burial sites of the ancestors are especially sacred. They have been revered as such throughout millennia. The desecration, destruction, and disappearance of such sites is tragic. I personally feel this tragedy in the realization that I don’t, and possibly never will, know the exact site where some of my great-grandparents lay. As much as I want to visit their grave sites, I can’t, because so much of our human family has, for some time now, lost touch with what is sacred. I grieve for the loss of these cultural and personal heritage sites.

The light at the end of the tunnel in this part of the story is that there are good people in Odessa doing important heritage preservation and restoration work. One Odessa Jewish Cultural Heritage preservation activist I spoke with, Pavel Kozlenko, founder and director of the Odessa Holocaust Museum, has a beautiful vision for a memorial at the site of the former Second Jewish Cemetery. I’ll write more about this and how those interested can support it when the project is ready to go. The main thing needed to make this memorial happen is funding. Hopefully, together, we can help honor the memory of the ancestors who were nearly, but need not be, forgotten.

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Archival photo of the front gate entrance to the Second Jewish Cemetery of Odessa

A V-Day Tribute to My Grandfather

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My grandfather, Gersh Yakovlevich Meytus, enlisted in the Soviet Army when the Nazis invaded Soviet territory. He had a free pass, as he had the Soviet equivalent to PhD, to evacuate with his research institute and avoid the war. But he felt called to defend his home, his people, his family.
 
He made sure my grandmother and their daughter (my aunt) got safely onto one of the trains evacuating out of Odessa. Then he went to the front. He narrowly avoided being captured when the Defense of Odessa (which lasted 73 days) collapsed and he was separated from his unit. He very timely ran into a farmer with a horse-drawn wagon near the outskirts. He commandeered the horse after the farmer, who chose to stay in the besieged area, refused to help him. He hopped on and galloped out just before the city was completely surrounded by the Nazis and their Romanian allies.
 
He attained the rank of political officer, whose duty it was to boost the moral of the soldiers in the face of oftentimes impossible odds. He made it through the war alive. His two brothers, Garrik (biological brother) and Yefim (brother-in-law), died in battle during the war. My grandmother rejoined with my grandfather in Soviet-occupied Berlin after V-Day. There my mother was conceived and born.
 
We don’t know much else of my grandfather’s war story. He didn’t like to talk about it. When my mother inquired, he would usually simply say that war is hell. He did like to tell one story about how during one of his speeches to rouse the troops for their next fight, he realized, after taking a big gulp, that his troops had replaced his full glass of water with a glass of full-strength vodka. They roused their own moral with their laughter while he tried to catch his breath.
 
On this 72nd anniversary of V-Day, I give thanks to my grandfather for putting himself on the line to defend his home and family. I give thanks to my great-uncles who gave their lives to defend their loved ones. Without them and the countless others who put themselves at risk and gave their lives, so many of us would not be here. On this day of their victory, I send them my deepest gratitude for my life. Thank you grandfathers, for all you did and all you gave to make this world a place I had the possibility to be born into. May we, the progeny of your sacrifice, work with such fortitude for the future generations.

The Night We Crossed the Sea

Four nights ago, on the 7th night of Passover, I found myself in yet another building in which one of my recent ancestors lived here in Odessa. Synchronicity, once again, led me there.

I commemorated the 7th night, the night that the Israelites crossed the Red Sea from bondage to freedom, at the Chabad Synagogue of Odessa. I was about to make my way back to my host’s apartment after the service was over, when a congregation member I met a few months back came up to me outside and invited me to go make kiddush with him and his friends, a couple of Israelis working and living in Odessa. One of the Israelis was hosting at the apartment he and his family are renting here. I accepted the invitation.

Along the way, I inquired as to where we were heading. I wanted to know if it was on my way home or a detour. They made some joke about not worrying, that they were not leading to me danger. Trust them was the message; I’m going where I need to go and that’s all I need to know for now. I let go of my desire to know and followed the flow. I stopped paying attention to which streets we were turning onto as I put my trust in the moment and immersed in conversation with them. The topic of course came to what I was doing in Odessa and my ancestral journey.

As I told them pieces of my story, we walked through a gate and into a courtyard. I paused in my tracks as I recognized the courtyard.

“Are we at Zhukovoskovo 4?” I asked.

“Yes,” our host replied.

“This is where my great-aunt, Maria, lived with her son Ernest. My mother brought me, my brother, and my cousin (Maria’s grandson) here when they came for the family history tour of Odessa.”

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My cousin (Maria’s grandson) and my mother (Maria’s niece) in the courtyard in front of Maria’s old apartment

Their eyes widened. “You’re kidding,” one of them exclaimed.

Zhokovoskovo 4 is a complex of several apartment buildings. After we rejoiced in the synchronicity (dayenu!) our host led us to his building. It was the exact same building my great-aunt lived in. I only got to see it from the outside when I was here with my family. Our host of course had the code to get into the building, and in we went.

Finding myself on Pesach in the same building that Maria had lived in was enough. Our host didn’t live in the same apartment. Maria lived on the ground floor. His apartment was on the top floor. As we passed Maria’s old apartment, I paused at the door. The hour was too late to be knocking and explaining and asking if I could come in. I imagined Maria walking through that door in her young adult years, before I ever knew her. I sent her greetings and wished her a chag sameach. Several floors above, during the meal after kiddush, we made a l’chaim in honor of her and the life she lived and the life she helped make possible for the rest of the family.

Maria and her son, Ernest, were the first in our family to leave the Soviet Union and cross the sea to what was the modern promised land for a great many Soviet Jews: the U.S. (There were a couple relatives who left in the early 1900’s, but the family completely lost contact and connection with them as maintaining communication was dangerous. I’m trying to find info about them and their families.)

Ernest was our Nachshon. In a prominent rabbinical Midrash about the moment of the parting of the Red Sea, the story goes that the seas did not part until the leader of the Judah tribe, Nachson, walked into the sea and kept walking until the water rose past his nose and he could no longer breath. Only then did the seas part. It was Nachshon’s faith that opened the path to freedom for the Israelites.

Ernest, with his mother Maria, applied for emigration out of the Soviet Union at a time when doing so was a great personal risk, especially for Jews. Most were denied exit visas and were obligatorily fired from their jobs for what was seen as grave betrayal of their mother country. (They were labeled “Refusniks“).They were then denied almost all other jobs except in some cases the most menial. If they weren’t able to find even menial employment, they were arrested and imprisoned for “parasitism”. Despite the risk of drowning in that sea of Soviet oppression, Ernest applied for emigration and pulled as many strings as he could to make it happen. Miracles ensued and the sea parted for him and Maria. His faith and fortitude showed my parents that they too could cross the sea to freedom, which they did (still at great personal risk) a few years later.

Maria was our Miriam. (Interestingly, the name Maria is derived from the Hebrew name Miriam.) The biblical prophetess Miriam, the elder sister of Moses and Aaron, led the Israelite women in song and dance of praise after they crossed the sea and the seas closed back up on the pursuing Egyptian army.

My great-aunt Maria too loved to sing. She carried songs and stories from the old country across that great sea that she and Ernest crossed, and reminded us of our own family’s redemption out of oppression and persecution.

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Maria in her old apartment in Odessa

Maria was our wise elder. She lived through unimaginable times. She was born in 1913, lived through the First World War, the Russian Revolution and subsequent Russian Civil War, the Holodomor (Stalin’s forced famine that killed millions in Ukraine), Stalin’s Great Purges, The Second World War, and decades of persecution of the Soviet Jewry.

Her husband, Yefim, was drafted into mandatory military service before the Second World War crossed into the Soviet Union’s borders. Maria was left to care for their young son, only three years old at the time, on her own. They believed that Yefim would only be gone a couple years, that the war wouldn’t come into Soviet territory, that he would be back after his mandatory peace-time conscription. Then the Nazis invaded. When Maria heard the news that the war came to their door and that all able-bodied service men were heading to the front, she fell to the ground and fainted.

She hid in bomb shelters with her son during the blitzkrieg of Moscow (where they were living at the time). She barely caught the last train out of Moscow after finding the administration office, where they needed to get their evacuation papers stamped with an official seal of approval, already abandoned. She frantically searched for and found the stamp she needed, filled out and stamped her papers herself, and ran as fast as she could to the last train with her son.

They were evacuated to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Everyone not fighting was put to work for the war effort. Food was scarce for the refugees as the priority was placed on feeding the soldiers. Maria later recalled how she and other mothers (including my grandmother who was with her in Tashkent) saved their meager scraps of bread to feed the children when they would wake up crying and screaming in the middle of the night due to hunger.

Maria and Ernest made their way back to Moscow after the tide of war shifted and the city was safe. Maria’s husband, Ernest’s father, Yefim, never made it back from the front.

Some years later, Maria, with Ernest, moved back to her home city of Odessa. After a couple years, they settled into the apartment building that I found myself in making kiddush on the 7th night of Passover, the night of the crossing of the Red Sea.

Maria worked as an English teacher in the Soviet Union. Her knowledge of English helped our immigrant family adapt and find comfort in a strange new land, the way Miriam’s qualities helped the Israelites find water in the wilderness on the other side of the sea.

In her youth Maria was a child actress in the Odessa Yiddish Theater her parents were actors in. She maintained that flamboyant, bright energy and naturally, dramatic personality of an actress into her elder years. Yes she also at times displayed the classically stereotypical worries and anxiety of a Jewish grandmother. It would be surprising if she wasn’t anxious after all she lived through. But overall, I remember her (I knew her in her elder years) for her cheerful vitality, her bright smiles, and her love.

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Maria in her apartment in Odessa

She had immense love for and devotion to her family. Despite all the hardship and pain she lived through, she showed us how to rejoice in the lives we have and to praise the miracles that delivered us out of persecution. How appropriate that I found myself in our Miriam’s old building that night.

Journey (thus far) Roundup

I’m still in Odessa, the city my family immigrated to the U.S. from, but will be moving on soon. I rode out the winter here as the other parts of Ukraine and Eastern-Europe where my great-grandparents were born and moved to Odessa from were in a deeper freeze than I anticipated and was geared for. Plus Odessa is a great place to learn/practice Russian (one of my big goals) as it is still mostly Russian speaking, while my further destinations are mostly Ukrainian speaking. I’ve been here long enough now that I know my way around much of the city without a map, can have a basic to intermediate level conversation in Russian, and have many friends and even community who I’ll dearly miss when I depart. I hadn’t imagined, before I began this journey, that I’d get to know the city my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents are from this intimately. It’s been quite the experience.

Here’s a roundup of the major happenings on my journey thus far, (mostly) in order from the beginning to now:

Read what is essentially the manifesto of my journey here. Read about my route here.

I began my journey in Ulan-Ude, Siberia. Click here to read about my experience there.

I volunteered with a trail building project around Lake Baikal, the sacred land my tiny percentage of Yakut ancestry is indigenous to.

I traveled to the Altai Mountains, the mountains my uncle use to spend his summers backpacking through while he was on summer break as a professor at Barnaul University. My experience in Altai was powerful. Read about me getting to know the land and people here. Learn about the nature park I volunteered at, which protects the sacred valley. Listen to the sounds of the Altai here.

After traveling through “European Russia” (as the Siberians call Moscow and St. Petersburg), I arrived in Odessa, the home city of my parents (and older brother), grandparents, and great-grandparents. Magic ensued and I actually got to see the inside of the apartment my grandparents (who I never got to meet) lived in. I paid my respects at the graves of my grandparents and great-grandparents, which I had never been to before as oceans separated us. I rang in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the city my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were forbidden to observe their cultural traditions. I began digging through files at the Odessa State Archives and found the name of the great-grandmother we knew nothing about!

I greeted the grief that is part of my family’s and my people’s history, and decided to take a pause from Odessa to participate in a program at Auschwitz. I processed my experience at Auschwitz and my shock at the unfolding of the election back in the U.S.

I left Poland after spending a month there, returned to Ukraine, and spent a few weeks in Lviv. I connected with the remnants of the Jewish community there, witnessed, and provided a hand in their struggle against the continuing legacy of cultural genocide (of course the history goes beyond just the cultural form of genocide) there.

I returned to Odessa and continued my genealogical research at the archives. I learned where my great-grandparents Srul and Rivka lived and visited the courtyard of their old building!

I helped my father’s cousin find her long lost relatives, and I found my mother’s long lost relatives in Novosibirsk!

I led a few Jewish Renewal style Kabbalat Shabbat rituals for Odessans who had never experienced this movement of Judaism before, and some who had never participated in a Shabbat service before.

From here I’ll be heading to the villages my great-grandparents were from, a few of which I found only recently through my research at the Odessa State Archives. Subscribe and stay tuned for further updates as the journey continues.

Shabbat Shalom

This journey is taking me in directions I hadn’t imagined. Last Friday, in Odessa, I led for the third time in five weeks a Jewish Renewal style Kabbalat Shabbat ritual. I led the first one at the Beit Grand Jewish Cultural Center. About twenty-five young adults were in attendance. A few who weren’t able to make it then asked if I could lead another one. I led one at a friends apartment in an artist collective. We began with ten and the numbers grew to about twenty-five over the course of the ritual. Those in attendance as well as others who weren’t able to attend that one asked if we could do it again. So back by popular demand was Odessa’s third Jewish Renewal style Kabbalat Shabbat.

The first one at the JCC introduced a group of Jews already involved in Jewish community to a new style of practice they hadn’t experienced yet. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, cities in the former Soviet states which still have a Jewish population have been experiencing a Jewish cultural revival. This is true in particular for Odessa and Kiev here in Ukraine, the country which birthed Chasidism back in the 18th century. While this region was at one point a cultural hub for Judaism, in their revival they’re looking to the modern hubs (Israel and the U.S.) for guidance and help remembering and recovering their Jewish cultural traditions. Orthodox Rabbis are imported from Israel and the U.S. to lead the Orthodox congregations here. JDC brings fellows from the U.S. to help guide the cultural programming at the JCCs.

During dinner after a community Kabbalat Shabbat service I attended at the Hillel of Odessa, the person who facilitated it asked how it compared to services I attend in the U.S. I didn’t compare, but I explained to her that in the U.S. we have a new movement gaining a lot of traction, called Jewish Renewal. I described how it draws from the mystical and earth-based traditions of Judaism and brings services to life through beautifully soulful prayer songs. This peaked her interest and the interest of others at our table.

The conversation led to a plan being hashed out for me to lead an informal Kabbalat Shabbat service to give them a taste of what this Jewish Renewal movement is about. A few weeks later, the local JCC was hosting Odessa’s first Jewish Renewal style Kabbalat Shabbat. To note: I had previously only co-led one Shabbat service in my life, with friends in my home in Oakland. But being the only person in Odessa who was actively involved in, let alone knew anything about, the Jewish Renewal movement made me the resident expert. I emailed my mentor back in the Bay for help with resources, I borrowed a guitar, and got to preparing.

The other two Kabbalat Shabbat gatherings were in apartments of friends from communities of artists, dancers, mystics, and the like, and introduced many to Shabbat for their first time. I’ve been meeting a lot of people here through different and overlapping communities. I found a Contact Improv Dance community and have been attending classes/jams and getting to know the people who frequent. I’ve been going to banya weekly with a group I connected with through some people in the dance community. I went to a mystical drum jam I found out about through someone in the group that goes to banya. I met a guy who runs an artist collective through one of the people I met at the drum jam.

As I get to know the locals, it usually comes out that I’m Jewish. Either through them asking when my parents left the Soviet Union. (There was a big wave of Jews who got out in  ‘79. So when I tell them my parents left in ‘79 and they look at my face, they connect the dots: “Ah, you’re Jewish, yeah?”) Or I mention it in conversation. I’m open about it, which is a far cry from my youth when I was afraid to claim my Jewishness. With some frequency, the next thing that happens is they reveal that they have Jewish roots too. I’ve met a number of Odessans who are either half or a quarter Jewish, but aren’t open about it until they see my openness about my Jewishness. Then they tell me.

One of these folks, whose grandfather miraculously escaped from Auschwitz, wanted to come to the Shabbat service that I led at Beit Grand, but he couldn’t make it. He’s heading to India for a month, and he really wanted to experience what this Jewish Renewal Shabbat is all about before he and I part ways, so I offered to lead another one.

I invited the others who revealed their Jewish roots to me. I’ve known these people for only a short time. When I ask if they knew that so and so also has Jewish roots, a person they’ve known for much longer than I have, more often than not the answer was “no” with a look of excited surprise. They just welcomed in Shabbat together for the first time as a community, some of them welcoming in Shabbat for the first time in their lives. It was a huge honor to get to bring them together in this way. Some non-Jews who have a reverence for the Jewish cultural history of Odessa and an interest in mystical traditions also attended and experienced Shabbat for their first time.

They’re asking me when we’re going to do it again. They want more. There’s a hunger for the heart and wisdom of our ancestors that often gets forgotten in the form that so many are attached to. I’m considering leading one more before I move on from Odessa and continue on the path.

Here’s a video snippet from the second one I led, made by the artist who hosted us. He has German-Jewish ancestry and had never been to a Shabbat service before, but was eager to host one when he heard what Jewish Renewal rituals are like. Note: the bulk of the crowd is not seen here as they arrived and joined in shortly after this prayer song, following the Shabbos bride clearly.

Remembering to Breathe Out

There is grief in the air here, in the land. It is palpable. You can see it in the smiles that hold a tinge of frown in them. You can see it in the eyes of the people. Eyes that are big, bright, and beautiful, and appear to be holding something back, like a dam. Holding back a flood that if you peer through the eyes long and deep enough can be seen. Can be felt. Sometimes just looking long enough brings the tears the out. It is grief from old, ancestral trauma of Soviet-era oppression, of pre-Soviet era oppression, of the unimaginable horrors of war and Holocaust that took place here. It is new grief and despair from the recent trauma of a revolution being stolen by power hungry bandits – replacing one extremely corrupt government for another extremely corrupt government. It is the grief of the current and continually unfolding trauma of war in the east, where the sons of Ukraine go to die for a government and a notion that the people have less and less faith in everyday.

I’ve met veterans of the war, younger than me, who lost their brothers in arms within feet of them. I’ve met refugees from the Donetsk region who left families behind. Almost every Ukrainian I’ve met knows someone or they know someone who knows someone who had to fight in the war. They rarely talk about it, but everyone feels the impact of it.

It is hard not to breathe in the air of grief and take in into your lungs. The longer you’re here, the deeper you breathe it in and the deeper it seeps into your system. It’s difficult to not feel the weight of despair that seems to me to be the unspoken and unaddressed baseline here. If I’m transparent and honest, I’ve felt the weight of it and haven’t always been so skillful at releasing it and letting it pour through me, rather than fill me up like a stopped sink. The deep freeze and overcast skies of winter compounded the emotional sludge I found myself trudging through. There were some days I hardly left my hostel, save to buy groceries. Reading the news of all that has been happening back in the U.S. (Trump, Standing Rock, the spike in hate crimes, the erosion of so much that actually protects what and who make America great) added to the piles of grief. Now with the coming of spring and the thawing of the land around, the sludge is loosening. The grief and emotions are moving. I’m finding the ability to release again. And to move into action on this journey with intention again. It feels good to be transparent and share honestly my inner state.

This isn’t to say the last few months have been all emotional sludge with no progress or joy. I made more breakthroughs in my genealogical research, found the apartment a couple great-grandparents lived in, and I connected with long lost relatives in Novosibirsk! I made progress on learning and improving my Russian, one of my big goals of this journey. I led Jewish Renewal style Kabbalat Shabbat services for communities that had either never experienced this style of Shabbat, or simply never experienced Shabbat before. I experienced love and connection.

There has been joy through the winter. But this isn’t to gloss over the grief. I came to understand a few years ago that grief is not something that can simply be glossed over or simply transformed by positive thinking. It needs to be processed. I needs to be given channels to move, to be expressed, to be released. Then it can be composted and transmuted into something else. One of my takes on the culture here is that it is very good at memorializing tragedy, but very poor at actually grieving it (I see parallels with modern mainstream Jewish culture). Thus the grief stagnates, and builds with each new tragedy. This is actually something most of the world needs to get better at: Grieving. I’m still learning the art of it myself.

I’m sharing openly now these reflections and my inner emotional journey as part of my process, giving myself an additional channel for release (though ritual is the best channel I’ve found – perhaps more on that another time). I thank you for reading and listening.

Authoritarian Regimes Tore Us Apart, But Decades Later We Found Each Other

I feel hesitant and self-conscious about sharing personal good news in the midst of all the collective shock, anger, sorrow, and grief out there right now. But I also believe it’s important to share the moments of light in these dark times. So here are a couple of recent stories of reconnection and reconciliation through the tracing of my roots.

I’ve been building my family tree online and made it public so that if any long lost relatives happen to search for common ancestors that we know of, t000044_8460370689h387le554w72hey’ll find my tree and thus we find each other. Recently I was contacted, not by a relative, but by a professional genealogist who is helping a family find potential long lost relatives. Much, if not most, of the family members were murdered during the Holocaust and many of the child survivors lost connection with each other through the carnage and were unaware of each other’s existence in the aftermath. This genealogist identified two separate branches with the same last name that she suspected were related.

My father’s cousin, Shura, was suspected by this genealogist to be a member of one of these branches, related through her mother’s side (my relation with her is through her father’s side). The genealogist found her through the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial records. Her grandmother, with the same last name as those searching for potential surviving family, was not able to get out of Odessa and was murdered along with her husband in the Holocaust. The genealogist was searching for Shura in hopes that she had information that could confirm whether the separate branches were indeed related.

In searching for her, the researcher found my family tree online. So she contacted me explaining that she was looking for Shura’s contact info and why. I retrieved her number from my family and shared it with the genealogist. She made the call. They combined the information they had, connected the dots, and the missing link was found. The separate branches were indeed related! Shura was elated to learn she has other cousins she never before knew existed. She spoke on the phone with one who lives in Florida and another who lives in Italy. After seventy-five years of not knowing that each other existed, the surviving family members were reunited.

Another story: In the early stages of my personal genealogical research, a couple years ago, I learned through interviewing my mother that we have relatives potentially still in Novosibirsk, Russia (Siberia). My mother’s mother had three sisters. They were all extremely fortunate to be evacuated from Odessa to Uzbekistan before Odessa fell to the Nazis. Two of my grandmother’s sisters moved to Novosibirsk some time after the war. One had a son, Victor. They were in regular communication and made the occasional visit between Novosibirsk and Odessa where my grandmother eventually returned to with my WWII veteran grandfather after the war. When my parents, grandmother, and brother left the Soviet Union and took refuge in the U.S in 1979, they lost connection with the family in Novosibirsk because Victor was fearful of the authoritarian Soviet regime coming down on him as a “dissident” for communicating with “the enemy” (Americans), a very real danger at the time.

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My family’s photo from a profile on Soviet Jewish refugees in Cincinnati Magazine, 1980

I had hopes to find Victor, or at least learn of his whereabouts, while stopping in Novosibirsk during the Russia portion of my journey. But I was unable to find him then. I found many Victors with matching last names on a Russian social networking site I learned about while I was in Russia. One of their profile photos popped out at me as the face in it reminded me of my grandmother’s. Similar eyes, nose, lips, chin, and overall face shape. I sent him a message. Asked if his mother’s name was Klava, if her parents were Hillel and Ida from Odessa. Because if so, we are relatives, and my grandmother, Nina, was his mother’s sister.

A couple weeks ago, I finally received a response: “Yes, that’s me!” He only very occasionally logs onto that online social network, so it took months for him to see my message. We began back and forth correspondence. He has two children: a son and daughter. My cousins. The son was born the exact same year as my older brother, and the daughter was born the exact same year as me. They’re all still in Novosibirsk. My mother is now back in communication with her cousin, after thirty eight years without any word or either knowing the whereabouts of the other.

Authoritarian regimes, their persecution, and their violence lead to disconnection and separation amidst all the carnage they cause. Muslim families in the U.S. are now beginning to experience this, with people returning home or trying to visit family living in the U.S. being detained at airports simply because of their religion and/or country of origin. Will those family members living in the U.S. eventually be labeled “political dissidents” simply for communicating with their family, who the authoritarian regime now in the White House has made the enemy? Is that the direction this regime is taking us?

My thoughts and prayers are with those families impacted by the immigration/refugee ban, and I hope their children don’t have to hire researchers and dig through archival records decades later in order to find each other and reunite. May we hold tight to each other, our family, our friends, and to our ancestors. The ancestors will guide us back to each other if we get lost.

Ever Get That Feeling?

Ever get the feeling when a dog approaches and interacts with you on the street that part of your great-grandfather’s soul is in that dog? And that’s why after greeting you like he knows you, he leads you up the block to the gate of the apartment building you’re looking for. This building, you just learned through an archival research find you’ve been digging for the past few weeks, was the building your great-grandparents had lived in. So you follow the dog up to the gate, he wags his tail, but you tell him you don’t know the code to get in.

Then the dog’s human walks up the street and opens the gate. They go in and the dog’s human holds the gate open for you. You walk through and into the courtyard your great-grandparents must have walked through a thousand times. You watch as the dog and its human go into the building that your great-grandparents lived in. You can see that as they go up several flights of stairs, each time they ascend to a new floor and pass the window that looks out to the courtyard, the dog pauses and looks out directly at you, perhaps somewhat wistfully, until his human beckons him to follow. Ever get that feeling that a part of your great-grandfather is looking at you through those dog’s eyes?