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.

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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?

Back to Odessa

Just landed back in Odessa to continue the genealogical research I put on hold in order to participate in the Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz and then engage in my own bearing witness retreats in Krakow and Lviv. Time to dig for family tree gold!

Our Struggles Are Intertwined

I’m in Lviv, Ukraine, where the pre-Holocaust Jewish population was over 110,000, made up one-third of the city’s population, and constituted a major center of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe. The Jews who remain (roughly only 1,000) are battling the continuing legacy of cultural genocide. This photo was taken at what remains of the oldest Jewish cemetery in Lviv.

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The cemetary was established in the 15th century and had an estimated 25 to 30 thousand people buried in it over the six hundred years of its existence. It was desecrated by the Nazis, along with the destruction of all of the city’s synagogues and murder of nearly all of the city’s Jewish residents during the Holocaust. The destruction of the cemetery was completed by the Soviets after the war when they built a market place on top of the majority of it. The old gravestones were used for paving streets and retaining walls.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the city’s remaining Jewish residents have been battling the local Ukrainian government over the expansion of the market into the last remaining small plot of undeveloped land where their ancestors are buried. Just two weeks ago, the community discovered the city in mid-excavation of a piece of that land, making way for more market space. City workers noticed the bones coming out of the ground, but did nothing to stop the digging until an injunction from the court through legal action taken by community leader and head of the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union, Meylakh Sheykhet, stopped them. Now the members of the Jewish community are reburying the bones. I joined them for one day of this holy work. It was gut-wrenching and heart-breaking to watch my new friends pulling skulls, fingers, and other remains of their ancestors out of the mounds of dirt that had been dug up. I prayed deeply for the peace that had been disrupted for the souls that once inhabited those old bones to be restored.

When I told Meylakh and the other community members about the struggle at Standing Rock and the desecration of Native American sacred ancient burial grounds to make way for an oil pipeline, they shook their heads in grief and disgust. When I asked them if they wanted to participate in a global day of action called for by Standing Rock, to stand in solidarity with the water protectors, they said “Absolutely! Acting in solidarity is one of the most important things a person can do.” Though we’re half a world apart, we feel the connection to the struggle in North Dakota. We Jews know the pain of having our sacred sites destroyed. We know the pain of cultural genocide and ethnic cleansing. It is this knowing that compels those of us committed to the Jewish tenet of Tikkun Olam, repair of the world, to stand in solidarity with others fighting to protect their rights, sacred lands, and the sources of life for us all.

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In the background of these photos are mounds of rubble and dirt from the centuries-old Jewish burial grounds the city excavated. And yes, that is a gas pipeline running through these burial grounds. That one was completed, but the one (on a much more massive scale) being built through North Dakota doesn’t have to be. May all who protect sacred lands and sacred waters be blessed with success.

#NoDAPL #EndCulturalGenocide #SolidarityAcrossOceans #WaterIsLife #GlobalDayOfAction #StandWithStandingRock

Is This Real?

I haven’t written much about my journey in a while because I’ve been largely without words the past few weeks. In shock and grief over the past and present.

I’ve been processing my experience of the Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz that I participated in at the beginning of the month. I’ve been walking through the streets of the old Jewish Quarter in Krakow, now a gentrified memorial of the culture that once flourished and was practically extinguished there. And I’ve been reading the surreal news of current events back home: Trump’s shocking win, the subsequent spike of hate speech and hate crimes across the country, the militarized state violence against peaceful and prayerful indigenous water protectors at Standing Rock.

I’m unsure of whether I’m presently walking through history or history is walking through the present. I feel like I’m in some surreal realm where time is folding, in which the past and the present are overlapping on top of each other. I don’t know how to react. I wasn’t done processing the grief of confronting one of the darkest, most horrific, and widespread genocides in history, in which my people and others were scapegoated for a country’s problems and subjected to methodical, systematic torture and extermination. Then I woke up to the news that back home, one of the most bigoted, xenophobic, misogynistic candidates in modern history won the U.S. presidential election, riding a wave of fear-mongering and scapegoating straight to victory.

I just walked through the archaeological remains of synagogues turned into museums, ghettos, train wagons, barracks, and gas chambers that show vividly where this can lead when taken to its terrifying extremes.

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Was this a memorial or a timely warning? Am I dreaming? I can’t distinguish anymore between the grief over the past and the grief over what’s happening in the present and the possible future we’re walking into. I see and feel that, like the ocean currents in the Gulf and the winds in Europe, it’s all connected.

Friends back home, I see you, I feel you, and I love you. My Muslim friends, my Mexican friends, my LGBTQ friends, my Native American friends, my Black friends, my Jewish friends and family, all my relatives: I love you. My friends at Standing Rock: I LOVE YOU!!!!! I’m so inspired by you. I’m so grateful for you. With every report I read from you I’m tempted to cut my ancestral roots journey short and join you. But for now the ancestors tell me to keep going, and so I send my prayers and support for you from here.

If the black snake is not yet dead when I complete this journey, I know where I’m heading upon my return to the states. Sending you all my love, gratitude, and prayers. Prayers for your safety and success. Prayers for honoring the treaties and respecting the human rights and dignity of indigenous peoples and the land. Prayers for healing. Healing for the victims as well as the perpetrators of oppression. Prayers for an end to the cycles of trauma. Prayers for hearts to crack open to the cries of Mother Earth and her children who have suffered and are suffering. Prayers for those blinded by fear and greed to wake up to the sacredness of all life. I am praying.

I just remembered that it’s Thanksgiving – or rather ThanksTaking as Native Americans know it – over there today. I guess this is my thanks-giving. May the conversations and prayers around the tables tonight be in service to truth-telling, reconciliation, healing, and the actual establishment of right-relations.

Bearing Witness

My family parted ways with me almost three weeks ago after a powerful and moving tour of our family history in Odessa. I’ve been immersed in research at the Odessa archives since, digging through birth records over a hundred years old to find the names of great and great-great-grandparents and the places they moved to Odessa from.

In the process, as I skim through hundreds of names of people born before WWII, who would have been in their thirties during the war and the Holocaust, I wonder how many of these people died at the hands of the Nazis. There were death camps in Ukraine. There were death camps in the Odessa region. Massacres of Jews in Odessa. Only about half of the city’s Jewish population (the third largest Jewish population in the world at the time, after New York and Warsaw) made it out before the Nazis occupied.

I thank Creator that my grandparents were among the ones who made it out, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. My two grandfathers fought in the war, one just in the defense of Odessa (until it fell to the Nazis), and the other throughout the whole war. They survived. My grandmothers struggled through starvation in the refugee camps. We know we had some relatives from my mother’s side who died in the Holocaust. Much of my father’s side of the family tree is still a mystery, but I found reports of Berchenko’s from the same region as my great-grandfather Mendel Berchenko, who were killed by Nazi firing squads. Two of my grand-uncles, as well as more distant relatives, died in the war fighting the Nazis. One of my great-grandparents died from starvation during the war.

This was a side of my ancestors’ stories I had already known something about and knew I was going to face head on in this journey. Being here at the Holocaust memorials and war memorials, reading the horrific history of what happened here, and standing on the soil of where it happened, I feel the weight of this side of history more than ever. I feel my whole body welling up with tears and wanting to scream. I feel the need for some deep processing.

So I’m taking a break from my archival research in Odessa and heading to Krakow, Poland for the 2016 Auschwitz Bearing Witness Retreat, which begins on Monday. During the retreat, we will have a service in which we’ll light Yahrzeit (Memorial) Candles on the grounds of Auschwitz and read aloud the names of loved ones who perished. If you would like a candle to be lit for one of your ancestors, you can order a candle through the website below (go to the section titled “Memorial (Yahrzeit) Candles”). The money goes to the retreat scholarship fund, which is what is allowing me to participate. Please let me know if you order a candle. It would be a humbling honor to bear witness to your ancestors as well.

Her Name was Rivka

Breakthrough in my genealogical research! Since my mother, brother, and cousin left Odessa five days ago, I’ve been immersed in research at the State Archives of Odessa. Today I found my grandmother Dina’s birth record!

I now know the names of all my great-grandparents. The missing name was of my great-grandmother from my father’s mother’s side. Here she is in my grandmother’s birth record! Rivka Minsky (her maiden name still remains a mystery). I now also know the name of my great-grandfather Srul’s father: Shulim! And I now know the name of the town they came from: Yuzefpol.

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