by David Epstein
Six years ago I spoke to you about a brief trip I had just made to Pskov, a Russian city with a struggling Jewish community: struggling for dignity and acceptance, struggling for religious fulfillment for themselves and their children, and struggling to work out how a relationship with an American congregation would develop. It has been a challenge to keep the flame of the Yad l'Yad partnership between Pskov and Congregation Kol Emeth alive.
Now I have returned from my fifth trip to Russia, and my second trip to Pskov. It is rewarding to see the progress that the Jewish community of Pskov has made in these years and to meet my acquaintances there again. There is a better Jewish Chessed which provides room for a variety of programs. There is recognition by the city administration of the existence of this minority throughout the 1,100 year history of the town. And now, thanks to your generous support, there is again a Torah in their midst.
We learned a great deal about the Jewish community of Pskov and about ourselves. Like the other trips to Russia, this trip was an adventure. Despite the best efforts of everyone, it did not always go as planned.
Nevertheless, I would encourage each of you to visit Russia, a land from which many of your ancestors arrived here. The differences between the ways of life of our two communities are so great, yet the people, our people, are the same.
Hope in Pskov
Chair of the Kol Emeth Social Action Committee
(Written to present during Shabbat services, Nov. 23)
I had a lot of problems writing this as I had a lot of vignettes but nothing that tied them together. Since I was told that this presentation needed to be brief I knew I had to do something. Finally I put aside all my notes and started fresh.
I asked myself if there was a word or phrase that could sum up what I experienced in Pskov. The word that came to me was HOPE.
Why hope? The fact that Judaism has survived at all in Pskov is reason to hope. The Jews of Pskov survived both the Soviets and the Nazi's. (Pskov was occupied by the Nazis and many Jews were executed.) Many Jewish customs and practices were lost during these times, including the practice of having Jewish names. When Rabbi Lewis asked, during the ceremony of presenting the Torah to the Jewish Community of Pskov, who had not seen a Torah scroll before, almost all of the Pskovians raised their hands, regardless of age.
Hope because we found a community that is very eager to learn and revive their Jewish practices. You could see that on Shabbat when they tried to watch the Torah readings. Those in the back row were standing, leaning forward to try to see. Those in the front row were sitting on the edge of their seats. All were trying to get as close as possible to the Torah.
Hope because of their children. We didn't see many of the children and teens so we asked were they where. We were there on a week that the children have off from school and most were away on vacations or seminars. We did meet with their 25 year old youth director, Oleg.
Oleg brought out an album of photos of some of the activities that they had. They were organized by holidays. It was wonderful to see. We will be working with Oleg to help him and the children and young adults in Pskov.
Hope that Bella Litvak, who runs Hesed expressed her wishes to have Jewish weddings. Bella herself, never had a Jewish wedding and would like one. There have been no Jewish weddings as they were illegal under the Soviets. This wish might be the reason for our next trip.
Now that we have given the Pskov Community a Torah, we have a great responsibility to help them learn how to use it and develop their Jewishness. They are on the way to doing this themselves but do need our support. We will be working with Bella Litvak of Hesed, Roman Kagan, chairman of the Community, Oleg Federov, Youth Director and others. We are looking forward to developing even closer ties to the Jewish community of Pskov. We will keep you informed of our Social Action projects.
Torah to Pskov
When does the itinerary for a trip become like the threads of a magic carpet? When we are journeying from San Francisco to Pskov. When do ordinary entries like "Departure" and "Tour of Jewish Sites" become extraordinary? When we are journeying to Pskov. So let me present the simple itinerary for our travels, and show how it magically grew into something more, much more than itself.
Rabbi Lewis carried the Torah to be presented to the people of Pskov in a kind of long canvas sack. Imagine, a Torah on Lufthansa! The young in-flight German crew watched over the Kashruth of our meals like a team of Jewish mothers, while the Torah rested cozily in its perch overhead. So much for the simple word "Departure", seeming to me instead the word "miracle".
TOUR OF JEWISH SITES
This simple entry on our itinerary for St. Petersburg encompassed the Light Center for Human Rights, a Jewish school, an arts and crafts center, and the Fund EVA girls choir. The Fund's community center for the elderly provided activities for several older Russian-Jewish women. One spoke to us of a grandson in Israel, while another played Yiddish and classical songs on the piano.
AFTER-DARK BUS TO PSKOV
By this time I was even more sure that our itinerary was magical. The stated "After-Dark Bus to Pskov" became a journey back in ancestral time for me, with white birch trees lining the roads in the snow. I even felt a measure of ancestral fear when we were briefly stopped at security checkpoints along the way.
PRESENTATION OF THE TORAH TO THE JEWS OF PSKOV
And then there was dancing around with the Torah, and the joyous celebrations that ensued. The Torah covering had been lovingly embroidered in California by Miriam, who accompanied it now to Pskov. Later we attended a choral group of Jewish women, and a young-people's orchestra that soon had us dancing around the room.
There was a tour to the nearby town of Izbursk, where I bought some snow-dusted apples from a shivering young boy hawking his scant wares in the snow. There were trees with red berry-like clusters everywhere, partly covered with white snow.
BACK TO ST. PETERSBURG, TOUR OF THE HERMITAGE
Can this begin to describe the treasures we had seen? There was a large old portrait that startled me by its resemblance to Galit, one of the young women in our American group, and caused me to ponder more deeply our ancestral roots in this land.
NIGHT TRAIN TO MOSCOW
They brought us tea in glasses with silvery holders, and someone was selling little breads with caviar. Security warnings caused me to sleep on my purse, and I suffered more from the discomfort of this than from any threat of intruders to the locked compartment. In Moscow, we went our separate ways, some to the airport for Israel, and Oscar and I and briefly Shira to the Hotel Moskva, where rooms overlooked the Kremlin and the colored onion domes of the churches outside.
On our last day we were invited by David who, along with Pnina from the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal, had been one of our outstanding tour leaders, to a musical performance at a Jewish Center in Moscow. There were wonderful instrumental ensembles, and a male chorale that performed in Russian, Hebrew, and Yiddish, and even a little Yinglish (combination of Yiddish and English), with a rendition of Bei Mir Bist du Shane (To Me You are Beautiful), which I had last heard belted out by the Andrews sisters when I was a little girl in Brooklyn. We ended with the entire audience singing "Tum Balalaika, Frailach Sol Zein." Frailach means happy, and I was.
The Chasm of Language
I have been to many places where I didn't speak the language. Although a limitation and an annoyance, I could make up for it by seeing the sights and going to the museums. And there was always CNN.
The trip to Russia was different - though there was the Hermitage and the ballet, I really wanted to talk to the Jewish people. Not through a translator, though ours was first-rate, since the conversion of short stretches of language hobbled the free flow of conversation that allows ideas and memories to be batted around. I wanted to find out what life had been and was like now for the Jews of Pskov.
We smiled at each other, separated by the chasm of language.
To Russia With Love
I have pictures dancing around my head of very poignant moments in Russia. Very quickly, these pictures worked their way into my heart, where they will be cherished forever. I would like to share some of these pictures with you.
It is the day we presented the Torah to the Congregants of Chessed Shul in Pskov. We danced in with the Torah under a Chuppah, and by chance I glanced up to see the beaming faces of the recipients. They were singing and dancing and the look on their faces were not only of joy but of pride in having this beautiful gift in their shul. A father took his baby's hand and placed it on the scroll; the hopes, dreams and prayers of a generation before in that baby's hand. Kleenex moment #1.
Another picture, on Shabbat morning when crisp clean new Tallaism were distributed and for some of the men it was the first time they donned a Tallis. Picture Shirley Bob showing one man how to drape it over his shoulder so as not to drag it on the floor. Kleenex moment #2?
Picture the Kohen being asked his Hebrew name and his answer was, I don't have one. Rabbi Lewis soon remedied that and helped him with the prayer and showed him how to place his tstses on the Torah in the proper place. His hand lingered there, surely savouring the moment, not wanting to remove it from this precious scroll. It was quite a moment for the Kohen and another tissue for us.
Picture the singing and dancing and toasting (with Vodka) for 3 days straight!!! Picture us, with this language barrier between us, yet, within moments of our coming together we were "mishpucha", communicating with love.
The last picture is that of the Kol Emeth travelers boarding our bus to return to St. Petersburg, in a blinding snowstorm. All the Pskovians were gathered in the lit doorway of their tiny little Shul, waving and saying goodbye. One young man then yelled out loud and clear "Come back soon". I think we will.
I would be remiss if I didn't remind you that this mission would not have been possible if it were not for Pnina Levermore and her staff at the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal. They work dilegently to connect Jews in the FSU to their Jewish heritage through education, preservation of human rights and dignity and various programs to aid Jewish survival and revival in Russia. I cannot praise Pnina Levermore and David Waksberg before her for the work they do.
Israel trip reports and more Russia trip reports will be published as soon as they are received.
On to Israel
Four of us had the opportunity to continue from Russia on to Israel. We met up with the other 20 members of our group who flew from San Francisco to Tel Aviv, at the airport in Tel Aviv.
It was a real blessing to be in Israel right now and to have the opportunity to travel outside of just Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. To sum up the trip in a few paragraphs isn't possible. Instead of trying to do that I would like to say a few words about our extraordinary trip leaders. The archeological expert on our trip (which was focused on archeology) was David Meir-Levi. Our Keshet guide, Yishai Avital, added to both the archeological and rabbinic sides plus his knowledge of and love for the land of Israel. Rabbi Lewis provided the Rabbinic expertise as well as nurturing all of us.
David Meir-Levi was an archeologist when he lived in Israel and some of the sites we visited were ones that he had worked on. Many of us have taken classes that David has offered over the years at Kol Emeth. A number of people selected this trip because David would be leading it. He really brought the sites we visited to life. You could imagine people living in the ruins, see how they lived and understand some of the difficulties that archeologist have in trying to unravel the layers of history that they find in a dig.
There are 2 very special but totally different events with our guide, Yishai that I will always remember. The first, near sunset in the Galilee,. We drove to a spot, not far from Yodfat, where we could stop and watch the sunset and could see most of Israel. You could see from the Galilee to the Mediterranean. The beauty of the country is something that I can not put into words. One thing that really struck me, was how Yishai expressed his love of the beauty of Israel. (This is something that I've rarely heard men speak of.) Yishia was very eloquent in his expressions. The next event was in Zefat when we visited the Joseph Karo synagogue and then the "Holy Apple Orchard" synagogue. Yishia, who was raised in an Orthodox family, gave us a drash at each synagogue that was done without opening texts, but quoting from Torah, Talmud, the Shulchan Aruch and other texts that he knew from heart. His ability to speak both eloquently and from the heart but based in our ancient Jewish texts I had not expected from a guide, only from a rabbi. It was very moving.
This was my first opportunity to be in Israel with Rabbi Lewis. It is very special to be their with him. If you get a chance to join him on a future trip, I urge you to do so. No matter what the focus of the trip is, Rabbi Lewis' love of Israel shines through. His patience with sometimes tired travelers is wonderful. His willingness to share his knowledge, rabbinic or other, is a delight.
I strongly encourage everyone who can, to visit Israel soon. I would like to especially encourage those who visit to travel outside of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. People in Zefat, Beersheva and other cities need our support as well. They are really hurting and appreciate visitors.
Impressions from the Israel trip
I was one of 4 people in our group of 24 in Israel who had also been on the March, 2002, visit. Two anecdotes illustrate the difference between then and now and can give us hope for the State of Israel.
On Shabbat morning in Tzvat in March, I walked up to the citadel, where there are ruins of a Crusader fort, as well as a monument to the Haganah members who had died during the '48 War of Independence. When I arrived at the top, with GPS on my belt, alone, some school girls who had gone there as a group became extremely fearful - you might say 'spooked'. This happened around the time of the bombing in Jerusalem at the Moment Cafe, when all of Israel was on edge. I carefully went to the side of the citadel away from the girls, where I would seem less threatening, and it wasn't until 4 other members of the Kol Emeth group arrived that they appeared to be a little more at ease. The whole time our group was in Israel, we were accompanied by a series of Uzi-toting young men in their '20s to be our protectors.
This time, post Operation Defensive Shield, it was very different. First off, we needed no extra guard, though our guide, Yishai, carried a side arm discretely under his shirt. The country intensely follows the situation with respect to the Arabs who live nearby, but with more attitude and determination now, and less immediate fear. The person least at ease was the Israeli Arab we met in the town of Ramla, Mikhail Fanous, both a city council member and the manager of a preschool in town. He viewed his school program as a matter of affirmative action for the young Arab children, rather than an opportunity for Jewish children and Arab children to play together. Unlike in March, he professed his identity to be that of a Palestinian Arab, which set off somewhat of a hostile reaction in our group when we were speaking with him. Perhaps that does not bode as well for good Jewish-Arab relations where there is a need for coexistence, but then that is additional fallout from Defensive Shield.
Memorable moments from the Israel trip
Looking down a deep well in am iron-age ruin, I saw pigeons flying back and forth between their nests among the rocks, layer after layer down, criss-crossing like escalators in a hotel.
On the way to Mount Hermon, where well-kept rock walls criss-cross the rising land, creating terraces for gardens and orchards, we saw husky, shaggy cattle roaming freely, sometimes putting their front feet up trees to browse low branches.
The Huleh valley farmers, to feed migrating cranes while protecting the crops, dedicate certain fields to bird feeding; they put out grain every evening, and around the sunset the entire sky fills with squawking flocks, who gather, whirl, and finally settle with the darkness.
On the way north from Bet Shean, we passed a series of kibbutz-owned fish-ponds. Between two of them was an enclosure full of miniature horses - not ponies, donkeys, burros, mules or onagers. Nobody knew who in Israel raises them, but there they were.
Bedouins raise camels for milk. The Negev is full of triangular red-rimmed signs showing a camel in outline. We saw a long-legged baby camel nursing from an even longer-legged mother camel.
A square of stones with a rock semi-circle making a hearth in one corner was the place where a woman once spent her working life.
At Tel Arad, we saw a local temple built before centralization of worship in Jerusalem, which included an inner sanctuary containing two standing stones (matzevot.) I wonder whether the two tablets of the commandments entered our mythology as a way of explaining such stones.
At the Galilee moshav where we spent one night, I got up at 4 AM, cramped from too much sitting, and went out for a walk - female! alone! at night! in my bathrobe!
I took a Shabat afternoon walk in Jerusalem, less than 24 hours after the Hebron ambush. There were trees, birds, flowers, and dogs. There were also people, but each small group kept its eyes turned only towards each other, not greeting nor smiling at strangers
Israeli and American ideas of death in war are very different. Our guide Ishai spoke of one "terrible battle" within his lifetime in which 36 people were killed. To Americans that would be a skirmish. But Israel is a pro-child society, in which the army is the normal transition from childhood to adulthood. Every death in war is a death in the family.
We met some friends for dinner in Jerusalem, at a Thai restaurant in a three-story shopping center with metal detectors at all the entrances, and a bustling crowd filling all four wings of all three floors on an ordinary Tuesday night. This, not the deserted Ben Yehuda street, is where Israelis shop.
We took a taxi in Jerusalem, helping the driver struggle through the eternal Jerusalem traffic jam, worsened by Muslims with no blood sugar left trying to get home by sunset when they could break the Ramadan day-time fast.
Since trees were small and scrubby, I thought that the soil and rainfall must be poor, but our guide said that because Arab warfare doesn't spare trees, it is hard for Israeli trees to live to be very old. He pointed out one grove that Muslims hold sacred, and therefore never attack, which shows what Israeli trees should look like, quite as substantial as any in the US.
We watched the sun set from a little parking lot adjacent to someone's front yard, overlooking the ruins of Yodfat, where Josephus Flavius had been commander during the war against the Romans. Despite the mist, a single glance could take in the country from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Galilee - from sea to (not exactly) shining sea. Jessie said she had never before realized how small Israel is, and how precious.
We recognized formerly Syrian territory because the roads are bordered by barbed wire fences bearing yellow "Danger! Mine Field!" signs.
From our hotel in downtown Zefat, we saw a huge hill without a single house in the day or a single light at night, and only sporadic towns on the Galilean hills rising like waves to the west.
The combination of soft limestone and the East African Rift creates a geographical feature in the central and southern Negev that exists nowhere else in the world: a mountain range that collapses from the top inward, like an arch that has lost its capstone. The largest of these, Maktesh Ramon, is 30 miles long and 6 miles wide, and still growing, washing towards the Jordan as the sides slowly fall in. On each side of the enormous gap, some of the original mountainside still juts upward.
We had missed a heavy rain by two weeks. It nourished fast-growing plants in the canyon bottom, including one called "fragrant star" that tasted like mint and melon, as well as soap and salt bushes.
Dead Sea water on my legs was thick and viscous like heavy body-lotion.
On the way back from the Wall, we passed a group of secular teenagers going to a movie theater near the hotel. Seeing this in Jerusalem on Shabbat made me inordinately happy. The Black Hats DON'T rule!
Our guide Yitzchak said that every Israeli will do whatever it takes to get the US to take out Saddam Hussein, because Saddam Hussein is not susceptible to mutually-assured-destruction politics. He doesn't have to care about his people's survival; he does care about his place in history; therefore he could nuke Israel out of existence regardless of the chance of massive retaliation.
Most of us have heard that the 16th century followers of Isaac Luria used to go out into the fields dressed in white at sunset every Friday to greet Shabbat, singing Lecha Dodi. In fact, they always went to one particular field in Zefat, which was then an apple orchard. Now there is a synagogue there, called The Holy Apple Orchard - which is one of the names of the tenth sephira in Lurianic kaballah, along with The Assembly of Israel and The Divine Presence. Here we stood in the connection: The apple orchard where Israel assembled to greet the Divine Presence every Shabbat!
The pillars of the ark were carved into delicate screens, leaving many places where people had inserted notes.
In many Jerusalem streets, we saw frequent small light-green back-lit billboards showing the silhouette of a woman's head and the words "He doesn't have the right to hit you" followed by the phone number of the battered women's shelter. In Hebrew, "he doesn't have the right" means more precisely "he doesn't have the religious merit" - a subtle way of taking/keeping the divine seal of approval off violence against women.
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