Impressions of our client’s congregation group who traveled in May to Russia nd Ukraine…. in May 2013

 Parshat Pinchas D’var Torah The story of the Jews is marked by challenges to monotheism, internal political, religious and social divisions, and most significantly threats to Jewish existence. This week’s portion, Pinchas, and the Haftorah reading from King’s, elucidate two periods where these challenges, divisions and threats were prominent. Pinchas is a rich collection of developments significant to the emergence of the Hebrews during their exodus from Egypt.  

We read of the decision to alter the practice of male heredity in instances where there are no male heirs, learn of the delineation of the borders of the Promised Land, of the first census and of the sacrificial rituals for festivals and of the laws concerning women’s vows. In keeping with our theme of the challenges, divisions and threats, we focus on the zealotry of Pinchas, grandson of Aaron.  Counter to the message from Sinai, some Hebrew men were worshipping Baal and cohabiting with Midianite women.  

The Midianites, enemies of the Hebrews, used their women to seduce and to infect the Hebrews, creating a plague that threatened the survival of the tribe.  Pinchas, incensed by this practice, slew a Midianite woman and her Hebrew lover in public.  This act stopped the plague, and for his action Pinchas’ descendents were accorded the priesthood. In the ninth century, BCE, some three hundred years later, we encounter the Prophet Elijah in our Haftorah reading, shortly after he had slain the prophets of Baal.  This act did not endear him to King Ahab, who, although a Hebrew, had fallen under the influence and faith of his Phoenician wife Jezebel.  Elijah flees, resigns himself to his death, but is guided by an angel to a cave.  When confronted by Ha-Shem, Elijah replies that the Hebrews have “forsaken the covenant” and that he is in despair of the dynasty of Israel.   He is guided to anoint another king, Jehu, who overthrows the dynasty and reinstates monotheism.  Elijah is bestowed everlasting affection for his dedication. In these instances, we may see that Pinchas who commits an act of impetuous zealotry, and Elijah, whose devotion results in a similar action, react to the challenge to their faith, heal internal divisions and ultimately save their nation.

A parallel may be found in the short life of an extraordinary philosopher and leader who died the central Ukraine in 1810.  At this time about ¾ of world Jewry lived under oppressive Czarist rule.  Restricted geographically by the Pale of Settlement, economically by the proscriptions against land ownership and the conduct of traditional commercial enterprises, and subjected to frequent devastating pogroms, Jews looked to their teachers for guidance.  Into this mix we encounter a child prodigy, born in 1772, a grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidism, who is ordained and married at thirteen in the village from where his grandfather hailed.  Called Rab Nachman, this illlui sought to find a path that harmonized the Hassidim and their critics, the Mitnadgim, and sought a rapprochement with the Maskilim who fused secular learning with religious observance.  

His philosophy was that our relationship with God was that of a friend, one with whom you could have a regular conversation.  He stressed that life was to be simple and joyful, that his disciples were to be versed in Talmud and Kabbalah, and that the human spirit could be rectified by reciting ten specific psalms.  Nachman went to Israel where he healed the divisions between Hassidim and the Opposers, met with Maskilim in Odessa, and preached throughout central Ukraine.  He settled in Bratslav in 1802, where his followers took the name “Breslovers”.  He succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of the 38 in the nearby town of Uman.  His casket remains there, and since his death except for the Communist period, pilgrimages to Uman have been essential for his followers.  While Nachman may not have saved Judaism as did Pinchas and Elijah, he can be considered as one who tried to heal internal divisions and to provide a joie de vivre during a long, dark period of Jewish existence. I bring up Rab Nachman of Breslov because our congregation visited Uman as part of a two week excursion to Russia and Ukraine in May.  

Our experiences in Uman and Kiev are the heart of our joy, grief, and contemplation of a remarkable journey measured by tolerance and hope. Rather than recite a travelogue, I’ll focus on four events. Our bus stopped a few hundred yards from Nachman’s casket.  We walked down a dusty road that had cheap accommodations for pilgrims with signs in English and Yiddish.  Turning down a narrow lane, we were accosted by Breslovers, who quickly divided us according to sex.  The women were led to one side of a ramshackle building, were rudely covered, and hovered in a small room from where they could glimpse the casket.  The men were surrounded, offered red strings (Kabbalah threads), which if accepted, resulted in demands for money.  The pecuniary pressure was maintained as we entered the casket room, where a young Hassid in perfect New York Hassidic inflected English, told of us the delights that awaited us if we recited the Ten Psalms.  For a price, of course.  A few of us, outraged by this assault, fled the building, pursued by devotees demanding alms.  I was furious, as I regarded these fanatics as being emblematic of the radical haredim that threaten the unity of Israel. 

On the bus, the Rabbi said, and I paraphrase:  “I know that you are angry, feel insulted, and that the teachings of the Rab are misdirected by his followers.  But, as Mordecai Kaplan said, ‘Everything is an experience’.”  Her message resonates in my mind.  Upon reflection, we were reminded that we are a tiny but complex and disputative nation.  Nahman died without an heir, but unlike many other Hassidic groups he was opposed to dynasties.  He said that each of us has to find our direction, and I, an unbeliever, take this teaching to heart.  He was a product of the Pale as were most of our ancestors.  A few of us were fortunate to know our bubbas and zaidas who fled the Pale a century ago.  In the span of Jewish history, it wasn’t that long ago – we have the obligation to keep and pass on that memory.  

Chronologically, this is the last of the four events of our journey. But first the travelogue that I just said that I wouldn’t recite.  We met in Moscow which was as expected – vibrant, crowded, very rich and very poor, proud, ostentatious.  Next, beautiful, bustling yet serene St. Petersburg, the imperial city.  Last, remarkable Odessa, somewhat Russian, not Ukrainian, a mixture of European grandeur and Asiatic character.  Kiev was a revelation.  The Podil, or lower town, is struggling, a commercial centre surrounded by poor neighbourhoods, the historic centre of Jewish life.  The “Hill”, where cathedrals and brutal Communist museums and statues dominate, is also is the home of Independence Square and of broad avenues.   Three experiences in Kiev are central to our experience. 

Our first night in Kiev was Erev Shabbat.  We walked through the Podil to a small building housing the Masorti (Conservative) Olami Congregation, for an Oneg.  We were greeted by Rabbi Reuven Stamov and his small congregation.  In a cramped room, we shared a meal prepared at the homes of the congregants and brought to the synagogue.  Our Rabbi translated Rabbi Stamov’s greetings and explanation of the struggle of creating an alternative approach to Orthodoxy.  We talked with our hosts, sometimes by signs, and in my case in a melange of Russian, Hebrew and Yiddish.  Our hearts leapt when the four and six year old daughters of the Rabbi and his wife led us in Hebrew songs.  This was a remarkable night – eating, learning and singing with a group of Jews, from children to middle age, struggling valiantly to learn and to assert their Jewish identity. 

They are starting from scratch –reading Hebrew, understanding ritual, celebrating festivals - bellowing the embers of Yiddishkeit that had been almost obliterated by seventy years of Communism. Two nights later we met Rabbi Alexander Duchovny, an urbane, articulate and charismatic man, the only Progressive Rabbi in Ukraine, a country which has about the same number of people who identify themselves as Jews as does Canada.  Somehow the Rabbi oversees forty-five congregations in that vast land, with a small budget but with a remarkable spirit.  He came with three congregants from Khmelnitsky, a city 100 kilometres distant, but four hours by antiquated train travel and ironically named after the Cossack leader under whom thousands of Jews were killed in pogroms in 1648..  They are lay leaders, two of them in their twenties, and a woman of my generation.  When asked about opposition from traditional Jews to the presence of Progressive Judaism, the Rabbi said:  “Traditional?  Progressive Judaism is traditional.  It arose in Odessa at the same time as Hassidism.  It is as much part of the Jewish fabric of this country as is Orthodoxy.”  His congregants were humble, yet impressive.  

As in the synagogue two nights earlier, we saw the determination and the joy of Jews who had been separated from Torah and Yiddishkeit, now stoking the flames of memory and history. The fourth event (third in Kiev for those keeping score) is a two hour period that will remain with me while I’m sentient.  It began with a stop on a nondescript street outside central Kiev.  We disembarked and stood in front of a dilapidated apartment building from the immediate post-war era.  It was the house where our Rabbi spent her first ten years.  She drew us into her childhood, where Judaism had been suppressed, where her grandmother obtained better food because she knew “someone” in the market, where when you saw a line you joined it not knowing what was offered, where her great-uncle had sustained a widow with two little boys whose husband died in the Gulag.  Where our Rabbi’s family lived in one room of an apartment, sharing a kitchen and toilet with five other families, but had the comfort of having both sets of grandparents living in the same building.  Where, when she entered the building to see if we could follow, came out, ashen, saying “it’s just the same as it was forty years ago”. 

Ten minutes away by bus, we came to a large park.  We walked toward one end where there was a monument – we had come to Babi Yar, grandmother’s ravine, where in two days in September 1941, 33,771 Jews were shot at its edge, and another 70,000 or so, including Roma and Soviet POW’s, in subsequent round-ups - the largest civilian mass murder in Europe during WWII.  We were met by a young woman from the JDC – the Joint Distribution Committee that has supported Jewish communities for eighty years.  With her were two boys, one of whom carried a violin.  

At the edge, we recited El Mo Le Rachamim, the Kaddish, and we read “Babi Yar” by the celebrated Ukrainian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko.  The boy played the theme from Schindler’s List while the Rabbi, whose great-aunt’s ashes are in the ravine, sat down at the edge. Back on the bus, we arrived at the Jewish Community Centre (there is one in each of the cities we visited).  

We were taken into a room full of seniors who were being led in Yiddish songs.  We sat, amazed that we were with survivors, perhaps of Babi Yar, no matter, swept up in the mama loshen.  We listened to the bubba, red hair blazing, who strode to the microphone and put Al Jolson to shame.  What a moment – one voice, a remnant of the millions from the Pale, from the Gulag, from the Holocaust – from who we are.

In those two hours we had the capsule of what it means to be Jewish in Rab Nachman’s land.  How in tiny ways, Jewish life is re-born.  What we take for granted, these proud people struggle to re-create and pass on, in the face of challenges to their faith, of internal divisions, while living with ghosts. 

From Nachman, to the red haired survivor, to our rabbi’s family, in the spirit of Pinchas and Elijah - this was our brief and unforgettable journey.


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