The Shtetl: Medzhybizh Then and Now

by Nathan Roi

Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, better known as the “Baal Shem Tov,” usually abbreviated to “Besht,” was a mystic rabbi who is considered the founder of Hassidism. He was born either in 1698 or 1700 according to different sources, lived in the small Ukrainian village of Medzhybizh and died there in 1760.

On the way to Medzhybizh, we pass through a small town called Tolchin: along the road are galvanized tin shacks selling a variety of smoked fish to people who come from all over Ukraine, even as far as Kiev, as the prices are evidently far less. In large basins carp are swimming. Decades ago they would have been destined to end up as gefilte fish on the Sabbath tables of the more affluent Jews in the shtetl. It could well be that the disciples of the Besht could not afford them. Today Tolchin has no Jews but on the outbreak of the Second World War, 44 percent of its population was Jewish. Most of them were slaughtered, but a small remnant settled in Netanya.

Before the Limmud FSU festival for young Russian-speaking Jews taking place in Odessa, a group of us embark on a short tour of some of the typical Jewish shtetls of this region where the Besht Tov lived and preached. The family roots of Chaim Chesler, the founder and chair of the executive of Limmud FSU, who was treasurer of the Jewish Agency and head of the Agency’s delegation to the former Soviet Union, lie in Poland but he is fascinated by hassidic tales. His interest may stem from the fact that his father and his mother were both adherents of the tolerant strain of Eastern European Judaism (they are buried in Bnai Brak adjacent to the grave of R. Eliezer Shach, the leader of Lithuanian Jewry during and after the war.) The elder Chesler was known for his tolerance and was also as an expert in the field of kashrut, especially the stage of porging – cleaning the meat after slaughter.

During our journey, Chesler tells me,“I am anxious to introduce the study of the Baal Shem Tov and hassidut into the Limmud FSU program. That is the best way to study the Jewish history of Ukraine, especially the great schism between Hassidut and the Mitnagdim (“Opponents,”) as well as the period of the Enlightenment when many Jews opted for Russian rather than Jewish culture, like the writer Boris Pasternak, the sculptors Mark Antokolski, the painter Isaac Levitan and others.”

All of Ukraine, but this area in particular, is saturated with memories of riots and pogroms. Jewish blood was spilled here by the Cossacks, the Swedes, the Poles, the Ukrainians and the Germans. The anti Jewish actions reached a peak during the infamous Chmielnicki massacres of 1648-9 and are recorded in the monumental work, Abyss of Despair, by Rabbi Nathan Hanover, a famous 17th century chronicle depicting Jewish life in Russia and Poland of that period. Bogdan Chmielnicki was leader of the Cossack and peasant uprising against Polish rule in the Ukraine in 1648 which resulted in the destruction of hundreds of Jewish communities. A popular hero to Ukrainians, for Jews, the name Chmielnicki is synonymous with terror, murder and oppression.

We enter Medzhybizh over a river. The small bridge leads to a village where time has stopped still. Small dilapidated houses, courtyards overgrown with weeds. At the end of the village is the cemetery where the Besht, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren and many of his disciples are buried. During the course of the Holocaust most of the Jewish inhabitants of Medzhybizh were killed. The gravestones were destroyed, including that of the Besht and was renewed some years ago, together with a memorial set up by an ultra-orthodox rabbi from Bnei Brak, Rabbi Meir Gabbai. The complex is run by an Israeli couple and includes a kosher kitchen, a restored synagogue based on old plans and documents, where the circumcision of R. Nachman of Bratslav, the great grandson of the Besht was celebrated, the cemetery which is being renovated, and a study hall. Another synagogue which had been used as a fire station during the communist era was also acquired by Rabbi Gabbai and is being restored. The complex will shortly be opened to the public.

Anyone wishing to study the works of the Baal Shem Tov has a virtually impossible task. He left no written record (except for one letter to his brother in law). The only effective way is to study the corpus of works written by his disciples which include legends and stories associated with him. One of the leading scholars on the Besht is Prof. David Assaf who has also written extensively on the subject.

The colorful old cemetery and the building over the Besht’s tomb are quiet and inactive by comparison to the tomb of R. Nachman of Bratslav but there are still some visitors who have arrived from Israel to pray at the site.

Images courtesy the author.