Voo is di mezuzah? (Where is the mezuzah?) was the question at the heart of our
tour of various Jewish sites in Ukraine, preceding the recent Limmud FSU
festival in Odessa.
After landing in Kiev, our first destination was
Berdichev, or in the language of Shalom Aleichem, Yehupetz, and we also found
ourselves in Katrielevka.
Our trip was in a modern minivan, but the views
from the window were of the horsedrawn wagons which are still in use and which
gave us the feeling that at any minute we would encounter Tevyeh the
A central issue in our discussions was, “is there still a shtetl
called Anatevka?” (The answer, by the way, is no. It was just one of the many
fictitious place names coined by the famous Jewish-Russian-Hebrew-Yiddish
writer, Sholem Rabinowitz, better known as Shalom Aleichem).
was but a few of the participants in yet another Limmud festival, the
educational and cultural happening founded six years ago for young
Russian-speaking adults. Before the festival began, we experienced a
brief but intensive fork-full of Judaism.
“We” in this case being Chaim
Chesler, the founder and chair of the executive of Limmud FSU, Dan Brown, editor
of the e-Jewish Philanthropy website, Natan Roee, editor of the Jewish Agency’s
website, Edvard Doks, a travel guide and Ukrainian correspondent for Yediot
Aharonot, and myself.
On the way, we passed a fish market, which appeared
much as it has been from time immemorial: Dozens of varieties of smoked fish
threatening to fall off their hooks; alongside them were basins with live carp
waiting for someone to put them out of their misery. In my mind’s eye, I
visualized hundreds of Jews on a Thursday market day waiting in turn to buy fish
for the Sabbath – probably most of them on credit.
IN ZHITOMER we began
our visit in what was for years the home of Israel’s national poet, Haim Nahman
Bialik. Many of his poems were written in this house, where he lived with his
mother. An old house with an iron door and a courtyard shared with the
neighbors. Forlorn. Unkempt.
Several families live in the house,
including one Jewish one. The place looks as if time has stopped in its tracks
and at any moment Bialik’s mother might appear and yell at her son, “Haim
Nahman, come inside this minute to eat! And stop reading for a moment!”
washing line is an under-vest which has more holes than material. Shalom
Aleichem described all this very well in his “Scenes from Zhitomer.” The
owner of the house comes out to us and pleasantly points out where the Bialiks
lived. Chesler draws near and loudly asks: “Voo is di mezuzah?” – but there is
no trace of a mezuzah .
I searched for evidence of nails that might have
held a mezuzah in place, but they too have disappeared, either through the
ravages of time or communism. Outside the street is being cleaned – even this
seems as if the youthful Haim Nahman is still around. An elderly woman
with a broom of branches tries in vain to get rid of the autumn
leaves. Perhaps at any minute Bialik will appear and record the scene
with pencil and paper.
We were certain that there would be a plaque
outside the house attesting to the fact that Bialik lived there. Our guide, Eddy
Doks, tells us that the house owner who had welcomed us so pleasantly is
demanding payment for a plaque to be attached to her house.
But there is
no one to pay for it – not the Ukrainian government, not the municipality, not
even the Jewish organizations, one of which is the American Jewish Joint
Distribution Committee, which spends $100 million in welfare relief for the Jews
of Ukraine. So in Zhitomer there is no mezuzah for the religious and no plaque
for the secular.
We continued our tour of Zhitomer, once a major center
of Jewish life, eventually arriving at a building which is considered to be the
most beautiful in town. Indeed, it is a beautiful and architecturally unusual
building in shades of pale green. A Talmudic academy used to occupy the
Again Chesler queried, “Ver is di mezuzah?” But here too, there
was no mezuzah and no plaque. Nobody here asked for money, but neither did
anyone volunteer to pay for it. In any event, today the beautiful building is
abandoned and derelict. No mezuzah. No plaque.
THE ISRAELI government
could take a lesson from the Tsarist empire in terms of its attitude to
religion. First they built two colleges for the study of precious metal-working
so that the students would not just study the Bible but could also learn a
profession and have an income.
Evidently the Tsar thought that it was
inconceivable that rabbis would not know the local tongue so he created a
college for them to learn Russian. I am reminded that for some of the
rabbis in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim, who speak faultless Yiddish, the local
language, Hebrew, is forbidden outside of prayer.
From there we make our
way to another large old building. The word Typografia (“Printing House”
in Russian) is still visible on it. It turns out that this is where the Talmud
and several other religious works were printed. Again – no sign of a plaque or a
mezuzah. The building belongs to one Georgiy Matritzky – a non-Jew who has
studied the Jewish history of Zhitomer and identified Bialik’s house – who also
made off with the local Jewish archives. No one has asked for them to be
There were 200 synagogues in Zhitomer at the beginning of the
20th century, of which not one remains. The resurgent Jewish community has
managed to build a new one. But other than that, not one mezuzah and not one
AFTER ZHITOMER we continued on to Berdichev, also known to us as
Shalom Aleichem’s Katrielevka. On a dark and moonless night we stepped out of
the mini-van to find ourselves opposite an old gate. Beside it an elderly man,
his face deeply wrinkled, wrapped up in an overcoat and thick scarf, waited for
The man is the caretaker of the Jewish cemetery. In the headlights of
the van allowed us to make out broken gravestones, each bearing a Hebrew
inscription. The caretaker showed us to an old stone building and when he opened
the door, we saw the tomb of Rabbi Levy-Yitzhak of Berdichev, known as the
“Defender of Israel” who was celebrated for asking God to have mercy on His
Back at home I had promised our Orthodox
neighbors that that I would offer up a prayer for them at the tomb, and I recite
the prayer for successful family life in the name of their children. For good
measure I add the names of my own children. I break my teeth over the
Yiddish, but maybe it’s worth it. It may not help but it will certainly not
hinder! Berdichev/ Katrielivka was packed with Jewish sites. Most of the town’s
population was Jewish and there were dozens of synagogues, prayer halls, schools
and mikvot, or ritual baths.
Rabbi Levy-Yitzhak’s tomb is unusual amongst
the Jewish shtetls of Ukraine, inasmuch as the cemetery was largely destroyed
but the modest tomb itself is in relatively good condition. It seems like
a good place to intercede with our creator. Most Jewish sites did not
survive the ravages of Nazism and communism. The Nazis destroyed the physical
evidence and the communists destroyed the spiritual heritage.
cemetery, we visit the newly restored synagogue where we are received by a group
of local hassidim and their rabbi. This is Rabbi Broyer, an American Satmar
Hassid, and most of the pupils are from the Toldot Aharon sect in Jerusalem. It
seems that the Ukrainian atmosphere of a hundred years earlier tears down
The yeshiva students, dressed in the striped garments of their
sect, joined us in singing hassidic melodies. It was a truly surrealistic scene
to see us secular people joining in dancing with a group of Toldot Aharon Satmar
disciples, who are considered to be the most extreme orthodox sect in
With another few hundred kilometers to go Odessa, the site of
the Limmud FSU festival, our journey from Kiev (Shalom Aleichem’s Yehupetz) had
not yet reached its end. In the small town of Vinnitsa we encountered another
reply to the mezuzah question. At a building in a fairly bad state of repair,
our host told us it was a gym, but the building was evidently a large central
synagogue where Selman Waksman, who won the Nobel prize for medicine in 1952,
used to pray as a boy.Today it is a miserable- looking fitness center with a
trampoline and one exercise machine.
The women’s gallery has been
preserved. On the eastern wall, there is plaster that has been used to conceal
the niche of the Ark. Depressed, we hurriedly made our way
outside. Naturally, there was no mezuzah, but I convinced myself I could
make out holes where nails might have been. No evidence of the building’s
history – other than an inscription showing that it was built in 1903. Its
Jewish past has been totally erased.
Turning places of worship, including
churches, into public buildings was common during the communist era. Some of the
churches received government support for their preservation, or at least to
erect a memorial plaque of some sort. With us not even a nail
In another part of the town we come across a section typical of
the Jewish shtetls of the 18th and 19th centuries. The decrepit buildings are
preserved. Upstairs, the working area for small enterprises or traders,
underneath, the living accommodation. It was in this area that Hitler
established his command bunker during the invasion of the Soviet Union in
Operation Barbarossa of June 1941.
FROM BERDICHEV we traveled to
Medzhybizh, the home town of Rabbi Israel Ben-Eliezer, known as the Baal Shem
Tov or Besht, the mystical rabbi who is considered to be the founder of
Medzhybizh seemed a little bit more developed. A local woman
showed us the way to a prominent tomb adjacent to the Jewish cemetery, and our
guide, Eddy Doks, told me on the way that he was anxious to discover something
about Hershele Ostropoler, a prominent figure in Jewish humor. He was a
prankster who lived in poverty and targeted the rich and powerful, both Jew and
Gentile – a sort of Yiddish Robin Hood.
“Isn’t he just a legend? Did he
really exist?” I asked. Certainly, I was assured. He was court jester to a
prominent local rabbi and it is said that he is buried in Medzhybizh. Doks told
me he has visited the cemetery several times but has never managed to locate
I don’t give up easily, and began to make my way along
the graves and piles of stones. I suddenly came across a small sign, “Here is
buried Zvi of Ostropol, who is Hershele Ostropoler.” (Hirsch in German and
Hershele in Yiddish is Zvi in Hebrew). Both Doks and I were excited by the
discovery. We not only found the founder of hassidism, but also its court
The rabbi in charge of the tomb of the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi
Gabbai, received us with a hot drink and a typical Jewish- style cookie, hot
from the oven. At the site we saw a group of women kneading dough and the odor
of sugary fresh baking permeated the air.
In fear that a triple shot of
insulin won’t help us, we hurried to leave for a tour of the village. Near the
tomb, Rabbi Gabbai and his students show us an old building that has been
restored. This was a synagogue at the beginning of the hassidic movement and is
now a fire station. Beside it are archeological excavations.
synagogue has been located and this one is being restored in every
detail. We decide to enter and we mutter a few prayers exactly where the
Baal Shem Tov prayed. On the way out, I asked the students if they knew where
Hershele lived. “Over there” they say immediately, pointing to a small
greenpainted house nearby.
From Medzhybizh we continue on our way to
Odessa, but decide to stop of for a short visit to Uman, the town where the tomb
of the celebrated Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the founder of the Breslov hassidic
movement, is located.
Every Rosh Hashana, there is a major pilgrimage by
tens of thousands of hassidim from around the world to the grave site. Here I
had the feeling that I’d ended up in a suburb of Bnei Brak, not in a small town
in the middle of Eastern Europe.
The place is commercialized, full of
advertisements and shops selling Jewish ritual objects. A veritable
industrialized haunt of the righteous.
We visitrf the tomb. Here the
atmosphere is different. A small group of men are praying with great devotion
and we took the opportunity to whisper to Rabbi Nachman, “What happened to the
mezuzot – where did they all disappear to?”
For me, by the way, everything is
clear. When I get home I will try to find a solution at least to the missing
plaques. Maybe by an appeal to the president of Ukraine, who is due to
visit Israel shortly. To allow a hundred years of Jewish history to disappear
without trace is just not acceptable.
Three hours later we arrived in
Odessa. We arrived at the modest Viktoria Hotel where 700 young Russian-speaking
Limmud participants were already ensconced. The lobby is packed from wall to
wall with young Jews enjoying life. A klezmer band is playing in one corner and
in another a group is deep in a discussion of Jewish cuisine. The whole
orchestra is being conducted by Osik Akselrud, chair of Limmud FSU in Ukraine,
and Galina Rybnikova, the project manager, who are coordinating and presiding
over the whole affair.
And in case we have forgotten, Chesler asks again
“Ver is di mezuzah?”
Pointing to the 700 participants thronging the area, I
reply in the same vein, “dos is di mezuzah!” Translated by Asher Weill.