The Second Limmud FSU in Moldova

photo courtesy George Omen
photo courtesy George Omen

by Mordechai Haimovitch

The event opened modestly. Blue and orange balloons, a blue ribbon and a lone firework mark the opening of the second Limmud FSU conference in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova. Without the mass of people in New York, without the sparkle of Moscow and without the intellectual spirit of Odessa, but nevertheless, with a great deal of excitement and loads of welcome – people here smile at you, not just as a welcoming gesture but simply because that is the way they are. The fact that Moldova is the poorest country in Europe, changes nothing. An atmosphere of goodness pervades the air.

In our hotel human engineering is somewhat lacking: the shower curtain doesn’t reach the floor and you end up surrounded by a small lake. The rooms have no telephone and the TVs have no remote control. But the rather spartan conditions reflect the spirit of Limmud. There is no falsity but rather a sense of modesty and avoiding any sense of hierarchy. There are no commanders and no soldiers, everyone is at the same eye level.

300 Moldavians paid 40 dollars each in order to crowd together in basic conditions, to get one hard-boiled egg for breakfast, but also to choose between the 80 different presentations and lectures on offer. In a country where the average pension is 50 dollars a month, a decision to invest 40 of these is irrefutable evidence of the desire to draw closer to Judaism and to share in the Israeli dialectic.

The president of the Moldavian Jewish community, Alexander Belinkis takes over the stage. He describes Chaim Chesler, the founder of Limmud FSU as “a man who can shift mountains. Chesler asked me if I am prepared to be president of Limmud Moldova. I answered that I have absolutely no idea what that entails, but I agree.” And that is how it all began on an even more modest scale back in 2010. Now the restless Chesler is already talking about Limmud Moldova Number Three.

Chisinau (then Kishinev) is embedded in the Jewish consciousness because of the infamous pogrom of 1903, immortalized in Haim Nachman Bialik’s iconic poem “City of Slaughter.” Kishinev is a miserable city. Already as you leave the airport, you are oppressed by a feeling of Eastern European gloom. Everything seems so faded. The whole of the city center is a market and the sidewalks are the stalls. Everything is on display, everything is for sale, everything is imperfect. Taps which are no longer manufactured, tattered rugs, a primus stove which gave up the ghost long ago. The public in a slalom of poverty among the piles.

But here I must inject a personal note. My grandfather survived the Transnistria concentration camp near Kishinev. 300 kilometers further away from here, my father was born in the Romanian town of Botosani and many years later, he died in the arms of Yulia from Moldova. I have come to Moldova in sorrow but also with a certain sense of gratitude. For Israel, Moldova is a source of caregivers who accompany our parent’s generation through days and nights. These women see our elderly through all the afflictions of old age. Michael of the Joint American Distribution Committee in Moldova tells me that despite this, all the women dream of leaving.

Shabbat morning is fine. The rain that poured all night has stopped. The wind has dropped and the atmosphere is full of calm. Some people lay out blankets in the nearby woods, set up a barbeque and open the bottles of vodka. The air is full of flakes that look as if from a plucked chicken. But they are seeds from the plane trees which land gently on your shoulders like a dove and on the hair of the attractive blondes with a smartphone in the back pocket of their jeans.

One of the blondes is Martina Lakartzeva, a Limmud activist. She says that Limmud gives the participants a fresh mentality, bringing them to the normality of freedom. If you do not enjoy a session, you are free to leave it, come back and leave again. This is a dramatic change for these people, whose every action in the Soviet system was dictated from above.

Karina Rozhika’s face is made-up in decadent paleness. 21 years old, born in Transnistria, her father is Jewish and her mother, Russian. Everything she knows about Judaism came from her grandmother – Passover, Rosh Hashana, but especially Hanuka, thanks to the “Hanuka Gelt” that her grandmother would give her. She works as coordinator of activities at Hillel, the Jewish students’ organization and that is where she met her husband Sergei. For her, Limmud is the logical continuation.

A visit to Jewish Kishinev is a journey in the footsteps of death – that of 1903. In my ears resound the words of Bialik: “Executioner! Here is a neck to hew with your mighty axe,” from “City of Slaughter.” The pogrom began in the church and I am standing in the entrance. Here the rioters set out on the last day of Passover and the first day of Easter. In the church two old women hold out their hands in supplication; standing beside them is an old man his face covered with sores. At Kirilinko Street number 13, the house is still standing in which five Jews were murdered. A policeman was stationed at the end of the street but instead of stopping the rioters, he directed them to the Jew’s house.

The Herzl school; courtesy LImmud FSU
The Herzl school; courtesy LImmud FSU

But often history likes to mock evil and place its foot on the neck of the oppressor. Opposite number 13 there is now a Jewish high school called “Herzl.” As I approach, I hear joyful sounds from the courtyard. Singing and dancing, the 12 year students are preparing for their graduation party. They greet us with “Shalom.” They know all about the pogrom and Kirilinko 13. The first boy I speak to is called Freddy. He wants to immigrate to Israel and study computers at an Israeli university, he tells me. “Will you join the army,” I ask. “Yes, after university,” he answers.

Yevgeniy has Israeli nationality. He lived in Israel for 11 years and returned to his grandmother in Kishinev six months ago. I ask, “Why did you return?” “Not permanently. After school I shall go back to Israel and join the army. “Doing what?” I ask. “I don’t know yet.” “A fighting unit?” I persist. “My mother won’t agree; I am an only child.”

We return to the hotel. Visions of the tour and the responses of the students reverberate in my mind : the narrow street separating Kirilinko 13 from the Herzl school. “The whole world is a narrow bridge”, the Limmud participants are singing at havdala marking the end of Shabbat.

Translated and edited by Asher Weill