Ver Is Di Mezuzah?

by Yoram Dori

Ver 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 mini-van, but the views from the window were of horse-drawn wagons which are still in use and which gave us the feeling that at any minute we would encounter Tuviya the milkman. A central issue in our discussions was – is there still a stetl called Anatevka? The answer, by the way, is no. This and the above, were just some of the many fictitious place names coined by the famous Jewish-Russian-Hebrew-Yiddish writer, Sholem Rabinowitz, better known to us as Shalom Aleichem.

We are a small group of participants in yet another Limmud festival, the educational and cultural happening founded six years ago for young Russian-speaking adults. Before the festival begins, we are experiencing a brief but intensive fork-full of Judaism. “We” in this case, are Chaim Chesler, the founder and chair of the executive of Limmud FSU, Dan Brown, founder and editor of the eJewish Philanthropy website, Natan Roi, editor of the Jewish Agency’s Hebrew website, Edvard Doks, a travel guide and Ukrainian correspondent for Yediot Aharonot, and myself.

On the way, we pass a fish market. Just as it must have been once: dozens of varieties of smoked fish threatening to fall off their hooks; alongside them basins with live carp waiting for someone to put them out of their misery. In my mind’s eye, I visualize hundreds of Jews on a Thursday market day waiting in turn to buy fish for the Sabbath – probably most of them on credit.

We arrive in Zhitomer and we begin our visit in what was for years the home of our national poet, Hayim Nahman Bialik. Many of his poems were written in this house in which 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, one of them is Jewish. The place looks as of time has stopped in its tracks and at any moment Bialik’s mother might appear and yell at her son, “Hayim Nahman: come inside this minute to eat and stop reading for a moment.” On a 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 “Ver is di mezuzah?” – but of a mezuzah there is no trace. I search 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 youth Hayim 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, Edy 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. So in Zhitomer there is no mezuzah for the religious and no plaque for the secular.

We continue our tour of Zhitomer which was once a major center of Jewish life and arrive 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 building. Again Chesler queries, “Ver is di mezuzah?” But here too, there is 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.

Israeli governments 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 Meah 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 returned.

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 plaque.

From Zhitomer we continue our quest – this time to Berdichev, also known to us as Shalom Aleichem’s Katrielevka. On a dark and moonless night we alight from the mini-van and find ourselves opposite an old gate and beside it an elderly man, his face deeply wrinkled, wrapped up in an overcoat and thick scarf is waiting for us. It turns out that he is the caretaker of the Jewish cemetery. In the headlights of the van we make out broken gravestones each bearing a Hebrew inscription. The caretaker leads us to an old stone building and when he opens the door, we see the tomb of Rabbi Levy-Yitzhak of Berdichev, known as the “Defender of Israel,” who was celebrated for interceding for mercy for his long-suffering brethren.

Back at home I had promised our Orthodox neighbors 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 mikva’ot – ritual baths.

The tomb of Levy-Yitzhak is unusual for the Jewish stetls 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.

After the 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 from New City, New York, 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 barriers. The yeshiva students, dressed in the striped garments of their sect join us in singing hassidic melodies. 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 Judaism.

Our journey from Kiev (Shalom Aleichem’s Yehupetz) had not yet reached its end. There are another few hundred kilometers to Odessa, the site of the Limmud FSU festival, and we stop on the way at the small town of Vinnitsa.

Here there is another reply of the mezuzah situation. We arrive at a building in a fairly bad state of repair. What is inside?, we ask; a gym we are told. “And what was here before?” Evidently a large central synagogue where Selman Waksman, the Nobel prizewinner 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 make our way outside. Naturally no mezuzah, but I convince myself that I can 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 remains.

In another part of the town we come across a section typical of the Jewish stetls 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 are now on our way 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 hassidism. Medzhybizh seems to be a little bit more developed. A local woman shows us the way to a prominent tomb adjacent to the Jewish cemetery. Our guide, Edi Doks, tells me on the journey that he is 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 ask. Certainly, I am assured: he was court jester to a prominent local rabbi and it is said that he is buried in Medzhybizh. Doks tells me that he has been to the cemetery several times but has never managed to locate Hershele’s grave. I do not give up easily and begin to make my way along the graves and piles of stones. I suddenly come 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 are excited by the discovery. Here we have not only the founder of hassidism, but also its court jester.

The rabbi in charge of the tomb of the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Gabbai, receives us with a hot drink and a typical Jewish style cookie hot from the oven. At the site we see a group of women kneading the dough and the odor of sugary fresh baking permeates the air.

In fear that a triple shot of insulin won’t help us, we hurry 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. Another old 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 ask the students if they know where Hershele lived, “Over there” they say immediately, pointing to a small green painted house nearby.

From Medzhybizh we continue on our way to Odessa, but decide to stop for a short visit to Uman, the town where the tomb of the celebrated Rebbe 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 have the feeling that I have landed up in a suburb of Bnei Brak many years ago and not to 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 decide to pay a visit to the tomb. Here the atmosphere is different. A small group of men are praying with great devotion and we take the opportunity of whispering to Rebbe 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 hundred years of Jewish history to disappear without trace is just not acceptable.

Three hours later and we arrive in Odessa. We arrive at the modest Viktoria Hotel where 600 young Russian-speaking Limmud participants are 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 600 participants thronging the area, I reply in the same vein, “dos is di mezuzah!”

Yoram Dori is Senior Advisor to the President of Israel, Shimon Peres.

Images by Nathan Roi
Translation by Asher Weill