Friday, May 19, 2006

Unaware Of The Preceding Chapters

A cheder in Shepetovka, Ukraine
(Picture courtesy of The Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before and During the Holocaust)

On my lunch hour I occasionally take walks with a Ukrainian Jewish man named Yevgeny. Yevgeny, now in his fifties, was able to leave Soviet Union with his family in the 1980's and now works in my building.

During our walks we commonly talk about Jewish history. Growing up under communism, Yevgeny was never taught about his country's rich Jewish history and culture. His knowledge of his country's history begins at 1917. While I realize that information on Jewish religion and history was suppressed by the Soviet government, it is still is amazing to me that a Jew born and raised in Ukraine may never have heard about the Baal Shem Tov, the Maggid of Mezeritch, Rebbe Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, Rebbe Yaakov Yosef of Polonoye, Rebbe Pinchas of Koretz, Rebbe Zusia of Anapol, or Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.

Being unaware of what came before him, Yevgeny cannot appreciate why I am so interested in Ukraine and what prompted me to visit my family's rural Ukrainian shtetl in the summer of 2001. He continues to be perplexed why some in American Jews spend their hard earned money to visit ancestral shtetls and see mass graves and the ruins of shuls and Jewish cemeteries.

I explained to Yevgeny that for the majority of American Jews, our knowledge of our family history begins with our immigrant ancestor. By returning to visit the shtetls where our families once lived, we connect with what came before us. Our visit allows us to view the history of our family in greater context; perhaps even giving us insight into our own role in history.

Despite my explanation, Yevgeny still does not understand. After all, how can one be expected to appreciate what one has no knowledge of? If his history book began on chapter 15, how could he know the contents of the preceding chapters?

A mass grave outside of Slavuta


At May 19, 2006 at 8:50:00 AM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

"for the majority of American Jews, our knowledge of our family history begins with our immigrant ancestor. By returning to visit the shtetls where our families once lived, we connect with what came before us."

Come on, ASJ! Jewish history began long before Jews were in Eastern Europe. If you don't connect to the Land of Israel, to David HaMelech, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, you should be lamenting yourself and not Yvgeny who had his Jewish roots uprooted from him by decades of Communist tyrrany!

American Jewry should be doing a cheshbon HaNefesh if it can't connect to Eretz Yisrael, Me'arat HaMachpela, the Kotel HaMaaravi, Kever Rachel, Yosef, Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochan, Meron, Tiveria, Tzfas, Yerushalayim! Woe to us who only want to connect to Eastern Europe, as important as that Tekufa [period] was!

Shalom from Yerushalayim, Ir HaKodesh!

At May 19, 2006 at 9:03:00 AM EDT, Blogger Mottel said...

I think that most American Jews themselves can not understand their desire to visit their ancestral lands (see the posts on my blog about my own experiences in the matter)
We go because we are looking for shleimus . . . for a completion or connection that we hope we will find in our roots. This can be both good and bad.
Our true shleimus comes through keeping the torah . . .
Only there will we find true meaning and roots. What is to be gained from out shtetlach is only supplementary . . . yet the mystery still draws us there.

At May 19, 2006 at 9:13:00 AM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Yitz: Perhaps you never read what I wrote here

Mottel: That was a very insightfull comment, my friend.

At May 19, 2006 at 9:35:00 AM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

Thanks for calming me down, ASJ. But don't you think you're overdoing the Ukranian thing at the expense of Artzeinu HaKedosha [our Holy Land]?

And yes, Mottel is right - BUT our connection to Torah is that much deeper in Eretz Yisrael. This cannot be explained to someone who hasn't experienced it.
Good Shabbos!

At May 19, 2006 at 9:48:00 AM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Yitz: I do not believe that Ukraine is a "holy land". Today it is a big cemetery, but nevertheless it is a land where many of our families lived for hundreds of years - thus making it significant for us.

Eretz Yisrael is THE holy land. Ultimately it is where we come from and where we desire to go.

At May 19, 2006 at 9:53:00 AM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

Looking forward to your Aliya LaAretz - SOON!
Shabbat Shalom u'Mevorach!

At May 19, 2006 at 1:33:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yitz - don't fall into the trap of overdoing inyan of Eretz Yisroel "for its own sake". This is dangerous as well.

Of course Eretz Yisroel is highly important! But without connecting to our ancestors and mesoyro this inyan can be misused as well. For many inhabitants of Eretz Yisroel, kivrey tzadikim in Ukrain (and even in Eretz Yisroel!) mean no more than to that Ukraninan Yid. They only know there are "Israelis" without any knowledge whatsoever what Yiddishkayt is!

Ideology of “new Jews” or even “new Israelis” is pretty similar to that of “new soviet man” without any memory of our mesoyro and history. Be careful with it, it can be dakusdik as well.

At May 19, 2006 at 1:54:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Communists did a terrible thing. They erased almost all knowledge and memory about Yiddishkayt from Yiddn in Russia. This was the only way they could make loyal “internationalists/soviet people” out of them. Their lack of knowledge is so horrible, that often even Yiddn who live right near historical Jewish centers know nothing about it! (Boruch Hashem, now this starts to improve slowly though, after communist are no more).

You can’t imagine, but many parents who still knew something deliberately made their children completely ignorant. Because of fear I suppose.

Your friend left before communists collapsed, so I assume he is a classical “soviet man”. The only way to cure it is knowledge. If someone like this wishes to learn – he will find everything. It is not a secret anymore. Let him only wish.

I can suggest for him to get a book “100 Jewish shtetlach of Ukraine” (it is in Russian). It is invaluable historical resource, which gives actually a horrible feeling about an immense churbon that happened to Yiddien there starting from communists and completed by nazis yimach shmom! I had some hard time reading it. (My other friend couldn’t even finish because of pain). It is made by recent Jewish researchers from Russia (not shoymrey mitzvoys unfortunately, but also not haters of Yiddishkayt in any sense).

I'll give you the link to the book a bit later.

At May 19, 2006 at 2:12:00 PM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

A Yid: I can't tell you how much I appreciate your frequent comments. I hope one of these days you will write a quest posting about your experiences coming to this country. I am sure everyone would be facinated to read it.

At May 19, 2006 at 3:55:00 PM EDT, Blogger MEKUSHOR said...

A Yid is right on the money!

And that's a great picture.

At May 20, 2006 at 12:12:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At May 20, 2006 at 1:54:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I always find your writings inspirational.
Whats hard to understand is not why a person doesn't have the first '15 chapters' ...but rather when they are finally given the awareness and chance that there are missing chapters that they dont seize them for what they are.

Each of those chapters represent an oppression, a kin who struggled to exist,it is only fitting that they and their struggles are acknowledged.

I wrote a review on a dvd tonight it is called:
Everything is Illuminated
written by Liev Schreiber

It is about an Young American Jewish man who returns to the Ukraine to seek out a woman who saved his grandfather during WWII.

Although a lot of artistic license is taken, it is a strongly emotional experience.It is a beautifully filmed movie, I thoroughly recomend it.

If I may say, I actually feel it may be a path to further insight for your friend.

Beautiful writing, I look forward to your blogs.



At May 20, 2006 at 4:46:00 PM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

A Yid, I'm not a pie-in-the-sky Zionist with rose-colored glasses. I'm well aware of the shortcomings that the Mensheviks brought to our people in Artzeinu HaKedosha. That tikkun will surely come.
And of course, we have to do our best to serve Hashem wherever we are.
But when someone emphasizes our Eastern European heritage, important as it is, [seemingly] over our heritage that originated in Eretz Yisrael - well, that gets me commenting!
And one more thing - ein Torah k'Toras Eretz Yisrael, the Torah that's learned here is just deeper and more connected to our souls. And there's an amazing Teshuva movement amongst heretofore completely ignorant Russian Jews that have found their way to our Holy Land and back to the Torah of their forefathers! It's an awesome phenomenon! I imagine some of that exists in the US as well, but I haven't heard too much about it.
Shavua Tov!

At May 20, 2006 at 4:59:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I myself come from the Ukraine, and also didn't know a thing about Yidishkeit. The problem is that the damage kommunists YM'S did runs much deeper than just ignorance. I wish it were just ignorance. They made the whole society so so EVIL that even after Russian Jews become frum it's still very very hard for many of them to fix up their lives... The evil just got absorbed in us so deeply. (For an American Jew it's hard to relate to just how utterly evil the whole place was - R' Moshe Feinstein ZT'L even said that Russia is compared to the bathroom and one cannot be expected to live his whole life there.) Hashem help us!
Is Yid also from Russia? I really enjoy his comments too.

At May 20, 2006 at 5:18:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's why many Russian Jews seem so not receptive when you try to talk to them about yiddishkeit. They (we) have suffered much internal damage to their souls. You can still daven that Hashem helps. May be do that next time before you speak to Yevgeniy? We really need much Hashem's help with Russian Jews.
Shavua Tov.

At May 21, 2006 at 2:05:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mosh: I'm from Russia as well (my grandparents are from Ukraine though).

At May 21, 2006 at 2:11:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yitz: Tshuvo is a global phenomenon. In Russia itself, in America, really all around. However I noticed also one thing. Even though many Yidn from Russia really do tshuvo in Eretz Ysroel, many as well become extremely hostile towards Yiddishkayt, even though they weren't before! This unfortunately is catalyzed by the antitraditional society in Eretz Yisroel. It is almost like the poison of "evsektziya" (Jewish section of communist party) in Russia. It's impossible to deny.

At May 21, 2006 at 2:15:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here is a link to that book:

At May 21, 2006 at 4:16:00 AM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

A Yid: Unfortunately, the mix of politics and religion that exists in Artzeinu HaKedosha has caused much backlash amongst those who are not yet religious. This is of course a terrible thing, and not easily rectified. Hashem should help us!
There is another terrible phenomenon here & that is the vast amount of non-Jewish "immigrants" that were brought here by the Labor party, some of whom are virulently anti-Jewish. The profilieration of non-kosher meat that is now sold here, whether legally or not, is in major part due to these people.
However, we must keep our faith in Hashem, that He will redeem us from our Galut - even in Eretz Yisrael!

At May 21, 2006 at 12:54:00 PM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Mi-KUSH-er: Thanks for your comment. I am glad to see that you have started your own new blog.

And if not now, when?: It is interesting that you wrote about the DVD "Everything is Illuminated". A few weeks ago on Yevgeny's recommendation I watched this movie and we spent some time discussing it.

Mosh: aha - a landsman! Thank you for your comment, my friend. Where in Ukraine are you from?

A Yid: Thanks for the link. Unfortunately, I do not read or speak Russian. Are there lots of pictures in this book? Also, do you know where I might be able to order it in the United States?

At May 21, 2006 at 5:55:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ASJ: I was born and lived in Kiev, then moved to NY and now B'H in E'Y.
Really enjoy your blog and all the discussions on Chassidus. Ken Yirbu. "Az nidbru yirei Hashem..."

At May 21, 2006 at 5:59:00 PM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Mosh: I appreciate the compliments. G-d willing, there willing be many more discussions on Chassidus on the blog!

At May 21, 2006 at 6:36:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ASJ: The book has lots of info and photos. However when it comes there to describing Yiddishkayt one should be careful - because they really don't know what they are talking about. But what is useful - dates and statistics, historical events etc.

Information about ordering is on that site. I thought you can give the link to your friend and he can order it if he wants.

At May 22, 2006 at 6:42:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A Yid: why recommend this book to someone who has never experienced the light of Yiddishkeit? If he will first only find out more of the dark side of Jewish history why would he want to join the Jewish people?
May be first invite him for Shabbos or something?
Just a thought, may be I'm mistaken. What happens often in "kiruv" is that you can do all the wrong things but the person starts keeping Torah and Mitzvos, and the opposite is also true. Hashem decides.

At May 22, 2006 at 9:56:00 AM EDT, Blogger Mottel said...

"That's why many Russian Jews seem so not receptive when you try to talk to them about yiddishkeit"

Mosh . . .
From my experience many of them are very receptive to Yiddishkiet, more so then most others. The average Russian had it ripped away from him, like it or not . . .
Seeing the schools here in Lithuania and the number of children, People getting brissin in their old(er) age . . . -it blows the mind.

At May 22, 2006 at 1:13:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mottel: Yes, there's a lot of good there too. Glad to hear you're witnessing it.

At May 22, 2006 at 5:47:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mosh: He might not be interested to read about Shabos. He doesn't appreciate his ancestors past. Why should he suddenly change anything? Thats why it may be useful to learn a bit history for him. However there is no universal approach. Every person is different.


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