Monday, May 22, 2017

Upstream 5: Vilnius

After my first weekend in Lithuania, in Vilnius (known in the Jewish world as Vilna), my head is spinning.  What have I learned?  Mostly, that humanity is vastly complicated--joyous and tragic, compassionate and cruel, strikingly brilliant and utterly foolish, heroic and evil.  This is not new to me, really, nor is it likely new to any of you reading this.  Yet one feels all these contradictions so powerfully here in the city that was known as "Jerusalem of the North," once the intellectual center of Jewish life and also the place of immense devastation as the community was decimated during the Shoah.  The Vilna that I knew, I'd experienced through black and white photos and newsreels and austere columns of pages of Talmud (published here), so I was quite taken aback by the vibrance and color of the city.  I'd expected a Soviet-looking place, grey and somber.  But Vilnius is far from that image.  It's a beautiful, hip, Baroque and very European place--much more like Prague and Budapest than the Soviet Eastern Europe of my childhood.  It is, in short, charming.  And it's disarming to find such charm in a place that was once a third Jewish, and where the ghosts of the Jewish past lurk around nearly every beautiful corner.  How could human beings enjoy the beautiful parks and concert halls and cafes and culture of such a city and then participate actively in slaughtering their Jewish neighbors, or stand idly by during the genocide?  It is inconceivable to me.  I do not blame the current generation of Lithuanians; they are not responsible for the sins of their parents and grandparents.  Nor do I, as an American, pass judgment.  After all, I live on land that once belong to tribes like the Shoshone-Bannock, and enjoy the fruits of a system that was, for a century, built on the backs of African-American slaves.  In the United States, we have our own genocide and mostly, I think the Europeans have been more honest in facing up to their history than us.

And still, I just don't understand.  One walks down these lovely streets, sees culture and kindness and beauty and it is just hard to reconcile with the brutality of seventy-five years ago.  I want to remember the past and also to enjoy the present, to honor the martyrs and also celebrate the joys of spring and music and art with those who live here and share it with me.

Enough generalities.  What have I done and seen?

First of all, this weekend was a festival of street music and dance.  Kids and teens were playing instruments and singing at every corner, and the entire city seemed to be dancing!  The weather was glorious, and the sight of hot air balloons flying over the Old Town was stunning.  There was even beach volleyball!  Who knew?

    I Sunday afternoon, I took a walking tour with a great group called Vilnius By Locals.  The guide, Milda, was young and enthusiastic and very knowledgeable.   We spent much of the tour in a section of Old Town known as Uzupis--or, by the residents' own reckoning, "the independent Republic of Uzipis."  They declared their independence, elected their own president, and wrote up their own constitution.  And every year, they celebrate their Independence Day--fittingly on April Fool's Day--by issuing visas and drinking beer.  This is the Lithuanian version of the "Conch Republic" in Key West or the People's Republic of Berkeley.  Uzipis is the artists' corner, hip and progressive and beautiful.  
 
   They have posted their constitution in numerous languages, including Yiddish!  It begins: "Everyone has the right to live by the river and the river has the right to flow by everyone."  Perfect for Rosa and me, as we prepare to spend a month on Lithuania's rivers.
 
  
 
The symbol of Uzupis is this angel, who rises from the central town square and watches over the citizens.
 And, per "people's republic" and the whole hippy thing, there's even a miniature "Tibet Square" which the Dalai Lama visited a few years back!
 Milda also walked us through the Jewish Quarter.  There are streets like Gaona Gatve (Gaon Street, named for the Vilna Gaon--more below) and Zhydu Gatve (Street of the Jews).  Very little remains, of course.  Before WWII, the city was 1/3 Jewish--around 100,000 people.  The history of Jews in Vilna is incredibly rich--I'll write much more on this when I return to Vilnius at the end of our paddling and we take a tour specially devoted to Jewish sites.  For now, I'll just note that we saw the site where the Great Synagogue stood (there were scores of smaller shuls where most people davenned, often organized by profession and neighborhood courtyards) and the memorial to the Vilna Gaon.  The Gaon--Rav Eliyahu of Vilna--lived in the early 18th century and introduced a method of Talmud study that became the foundation of the great Lithuanian yeshivot established by his students.  He believed in using reason and current knowledge to get at the plain meaning of the text.  He was a strict rationalist, and Litvaks--the Jews of Lithuania--followed his path and took great pride in his astounding knowledge.  The street named after him has a marker noting where the Ghettos (large and small) were located during the Shoah.  I suppose that for most contemporary Lithuanians, living on Gaon and Zhydu streets is not so different from the way we in America live in all sorts of places named after the Native Americans that we exterminated.  It is a strange feeling to walk here, to see the beauty and know the tragic history, too.
 
    This juxtaposition of the historical marker and the shoe store was especially striking to me.
 Walking through Old Town, we came to the Cathedral, and its square, which is at the center of town.  Just above it is a castle, built by Grand Duke Gediminas, who established the city in the 14th century.  The view from there is spectacular.  
 
    In Cathedral Squre, there is a special tile.  It was the starting point of a human chain of 2 million people who linked arms from Vilnius all the way to Tallinn, Estonia in 1989 as a remarkable peaceful protest against Soviet occupation.  Today, people go to this square and turn in a full circle, 360 degrees, while making a wish.  The notion is that if the dream of independence could come true, as it did, then this place has the power to make wishes come true for others. . . 
 We walked through Literatu Gatve--a street honoring literary figures with a connection to Vilnius and Lithuania.  It's a marvelous place.  I was drawn to the square honoring Moishe Kulbak, whose Yiddish poem "Vilna" is a classic--I'll share some excerpts later.
 
  We ended the day by walking in a beautiful garden and then having a bagel at Vilnius' only Jewish bagel shop, with a stop by the Frank Zappa statue.  It was a wonderful, puzzling, beautiful and mind-blowing day, really.

Tomorrow, on to the river!
     

Friday, May 19, 2017

Upstream 4: Around Ellis Island

Since I have been approaching our Lithuanian pilgrimage as a metaphorical journey upstream and back in time, it seemed fitting for Rosa and me to spend our last full day in New York where our ancestors' American saga began: Ellis Island.

Actually, the first family members to come to the New World--Rabbi Shimon and Hannah Brager Finkelstein and their children, arrived before Ellis Island opened for business in 1892.  They passed through its predecessor, Castle Garden, on the Battery at the bottom of Manhattan Island.  We met our tour guide, Matt, there, before boarding the ferry.  It's now known, again, by its earlier name, Castle Clinton (for New York's sixth governor, DeWitt Clinton--not Bill and Hillary), but from 1855 until 1890, it was the primary portal for immigration to the United States, a gateway for over seven million new Americans.
 From there, we caught the ferry to Liberty Island, home of the Statue of Liberty.  I'd seen this renowned American icon from a distance numerous times, but I've never visited up close.  Now, as I retrace my ancestors' journey--and as we live in an age in desperate need of symbols (and actions!) that embrace the immigrant experience--the time seemed right.
 

Lady Liberty did not disappoint.  Rosa and I were both struck by how powerful she is, how moving it is to see her, torch-raised, welcoming new Americans.  She was a gift from France, intended for America's centennial celebration but completed ten years late, in 1886--and she remains a potent and inspiring icon of freedom and hospitality.  I can hardly even imagine what it would be like to behold this beacon upon first landfall after an arduous two week sea passage in steerage!  Now, more than ever, we need the words penned for her pedestal by the Jewish poet Emma Lazarus:

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
       the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the tempest-tost, to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

 

Fr Our next--and last--stop was Ellis Island.  We toured the Great Hall, where terrified immigrants were questioned and inspected, their fate in the hands of immigration officials struggling to keep up with the flood of newcomers.
 
 We walked through fascinating exhibits on the American immigrant experience over the course of our nation's history.  As our tour guide explained it, the greenhorns quickly learned three very important truths:

1.  The streets of America are NOT paved with gold.
2.  The streets of America are not paved at all.
3.  They--the immigrants--were expected to pave the streets.

 Rosa and I spent half an hour in the genealogy research center.  I found the records for Yehuda Tzvi Finkelstein, who, as I've noted earlier, arrived in 1906 with his daughter Reise, son-in-law Solomon Lasdon, and their seven children.  I also found the manifest for my great grandfather, Rabbi Mendel Finkelstein.  To my great surprise, he came alone, without his wife Taube Kagan Finkelstein and their children.  He arrived on the ship "Moravia" out of Hamburg, at age 32 and headed for Cincinnati, where his brother Shimon was serving in his second American pulpit.  I can only conjecture that Taube and their daughters must have come over shortly thereafter, as my grandfather, Joseph, was born in Springfield, Ohio in 1895.

It is worth noting that the family name survived the Ellis Island experience.  Our tour guide taught us that this was the case more often than not; stories of immigration agents changing or even abbreviating immigrants' names turn out to be grossly exaggerated.  Far more commonly, the immigrants changed their own names, later, as they--or their children--sought to assimilate into American culture.  Here in America, my great grandfather Mendel became Emil and my great grandmother Taube became Tillie, but they remained Finkelstein.  It was my grandfather, Joe, who shortened it to Fink, upon the advice of one of his professors while he was in rabbinical school.  I have always found this humorous--was he worried that "Finkelstein"  was just too Jewish a name for a rabbi?!

Yet this, too, is part of the American Jewish story--and that of other immigrant groups as well.  If name changes were not typically imposed by government officials, they were strongly suggested by historical times and circumstances.  It was the age of the melting pot, and the new immigrants and their children dearly wished to fit in.  My life--and my family's--provide dramatic proof of their success in that endeavor.  Their efforts to Americanize, over time, succeeded wildly.  I am the beneficiary of their labors, and I will always be grateful for the sacrifices that they made.  

But something was lost, too.  Can it be regained, in some form?  I hope so.  In that spirit, I will end this last American blog entry with a favorite poem by Michael Blumenthal:

Letters Floating Around Ellis Island

Today I was thinking about the millions of letters 
that must still be floating around Ellis Island--
of Mrs Rubin, the butcher's widow, who lost her witz 

when she disembarked from Bialystok, of Mr. Slavin, 
whose ski was taken from him when he arrived from Kiev, 
of the millions of steins and thals and bergs and schlags 

that are still floating in those waters, and of what 
they must be thinking these days in late April 
when the moon hangs like a tired sickle in the sky 

and the earth trembles from all its corners like 
an old sheet, and even the once-simple syllables 
of men and women do not know, anymore, their place 

in the wide world of flux.  I think of those letters 
floating like flotsam in that dimmed sea, and of all 
they have survived during their shaken hours--

the kelped and sewaged light; the harsh embrasure 
of cold ships; the ransacked air of old bottles and smoke 
that must, these many years, have surrounded them; 

the deaths, even, of the larger names they fell from.
Sometimes when all hope seems to fall from my life 
like a syllable ripped from a name at Ellis Island, 

I think how they must rise into the dank air like songs 
even the dead can sing from their old beds of longing, 
how they are willing to stand for the old ways in a 

vast sea of hype and incontienence, how they are able 
to forgive everything over the wild din of all that has 
fallen from them.  I think of those syllables each day, 

when my heart grows heavy as a stone and I look up 
to ponder what survives in the end: the floating witz, 
the ever-rising berg, the revivifying thal.



Upstream 3: Gates of Mercy

The best journeys do not unfold too easily.  Obstacles help transform a mundane trip into a pilgrimage.  So I don't begrudge Old Montefiore Cemetery its relatively inconvenient location for the car-less traveler coming from Brooklyn.

I took the L train to the J train, which I rode for a hot, sweaty hour until the end of the line at Jamaica Center.  I waited there for a bus, which I took to a stop where I waited for another bus, which finally dropped me off about a quarter mile's walk from the cemetery.  

I suspect that when Rabbi Shimon Finkelstein buried his aged and beloved father here, this working class Queens neighborhood was home to many Jews, much like the Brownsville section of Brooklyn where Rabbi Shimon lived with his family.  `Today the neighborhood is multicultural and eclectic--predominantly African-American, with sizable Hispanic, Filipino and East African communities.  But after the white flight of the late 20th century, there are not many Jews living here.

But there are myriads of dead ones--over 150,000 Jews buried in Montefiore cemetery.  It's a virtual city of the dead, with street signs enumerating the lanes that crisscross this vast expanse of headstones: 1st through 10th streets, and Abraham, Benjamin, Carmel, Montefiore, Ezra, David, Gideon, and Herzl Avenues.  I stopped by the office, built into the large square entranceway, where the receptionist handed me a map with directions to Judel Finkelstein's grave: block 88, row 20R, grave 20, section 2, near the intersection of 6th Street and Benjamin Avenue.  

Alas, this location looks much clearer on the map than it is in reality, on the ground.  I walked over to the designated gate, 148N, into the United Hebrew Community section--and found hundreds of graves, with no clue to my great-great-grandfather's whereabouts.  So I started to walk, row by row, over and around the stones, searching through the sea of Hebrew and Yiddish inscriptions.  It was like seeking a needle in a haystack.  
 
 
Then three of the groundskeepers, in neon green shirts, approached me and asked, in broken English, what was I looking for?  I told them: "Judel Finkelstein" and handed them the map.  They began to speak amongst themselves in their native Spanish, then started counting off rows and paces.  In short order, they led me right to the granite headstone marking my great-great-grandfather's gravesite.  I don't think I would have found it without their assistance. So I thanked them profusely, in my very poor Spanish, then shook their hands, and took their picture by the marker.

 Then I spent some time alone.  Before leaving Boise, I'd packed a bag of pebbles that I collected along the banks of the Boise River, right below the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial.  I set one of those stones atop the headstone, now over a century old.  Yehuda Tzvi (Judel) Finkelstein died on the first day of Pesach, 15 Nisan, 5678/1916.  I pondered the events of the intervening century, joyous and immeasurably tragic: the utter destruction of his homeland and culture, the birth of the state of Israel (which he, as an observant Orthodox Jewish man, prayed for three times every day), the flowering and challenges of the American Jewish community that he joined in the final decade of his long life.  I chanted "El Malei Rachamim", the traditional prayer asking the Holy One  to mercifully grant perfect rest to his soul.  And I read the Hebrew words engraved on the marker: "Here lies Rabbi Yehuda Tzvi, son of Rabbi Shimon HaLevi Finkelstein.  Great in Torah, Godfearing in truth and righteousness."  I wondered--and still wonder--what this pious Old World rabbi would have made of his great-great-grandson, a Reform rabbi in Boise, Idaho.  I want to believe that despite the years and differences that divide us, he would have offered me his blessing.
 On my way out, I wandered through the cemetery, passing the final resting places of so many Jews, mostly ordinary men and women, and also a few famous--and infamous--ones.  Among those buried here: actor Fyvush Finkel, songwriter Shalom Secunda, anthropologist Oscar Lewis, and the great modernist painter Barnett Newman, whose headstone, fittingly, resembles on of his momental color squares.
 
Montefiore is the burial place of Solomon Blumgarten, better known by his pen name, Yehoash.  He was a Yiddish literary giant, renowned as a poet, raconteur, short story writer, and translator (into Yiddish) of both the Hebrew Bible and Longfellow's Hiawatha.  Like my great-great-grandfather, he was born in Lithuania.  They share this sacred earth with the boxer Al "Bummy" Davis, New York State assemblymen Sidney Fine, Philip Kleinfeld and Irwin Steingart--and Prohibition-era mobsters Jacob Shapiro and the Amberg brothers, Hyman, Joseph and Louis.  And perhaps most notably, for many, there is the grave of the seventh--and last--Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who many Chabadniks still believe to have been the Messiah.  His stone, and that of his wife, Mushke, sit on the outskirts of the cemetery in a large, tent-like structure known as the "Ohel".  It is a pilgrimage site for Lubavitchers and quite a few others, too; Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump came here shortly before Election Day to offer a prayer for Donald.  

 

I didn't go into the Ohel.  My Litvak ancestors, including Yehuda Tzvi Finkelstein, were proud misnagdim, strict rationalists and ardent opponents of Hasidism, which spread like wildfire through the Ukraine and Poland but never took much root in the Lithuanian Jewish culture.  Their blood runs strong in me.  I walked past, respectfully, then went out the exit and caught the bus back to the other bus to the two long subway rides back to Brooklyn.

On the return trip, I had plenty of time to reflect and found myself thinking a great deal about the diversity of 21st century America.  My Old World ancestors lived in shtetls and impoverished, entirely Jewish pockets of cities, dwelling, markedly, amongst their own people.  They interacted relatively rarely--and not always by choice--with the wider, non-Jewish world.  I, by contrast, ride the bus and the subway in New York City with people from every corner of the earth--and find the gravesite of my great-great-grandfather by the grace of the Hispanic groundskeepers who lovingly tend to it. Who knows what kind of worlds--Jewish and beyond--my descendants will inherit.  I hope and pray for the best of both, in which they might live proud, knowledgeable and committed Jewish lives while also deeply engaged with their neighbors, of all nations, creeds, and colors.

Later that evening, Rosa and I went uptown, to Broadway, where we watched Paula Vogel's extraordinary new play, "Indecent."  It's a masterpiece, and it fits perfectly with the journey that I'm now embarked upon.  It is a play within a play, telling the story of Sholem Asch's revolutionary drama Gott fun Nekoma, "God of Vengeance."  The narrative is both old and new, a tale of history and memory, tradition and radicalism, art and responsibility, Old World literature and the first lesbian love scene to play on Broadway, back in 1923--which resulted in the entire cast being put on trial for obscenity.
It is tragic and hopeful, raising more questions than answers.  And it's incredibly timely.  As the curtain fell, the entire audience applauded--and wept.
 

It was a day of weeping, for loss and discovery and love and beauty, endings and beginnings.


Thursday, May 18, 2017

Downstream 2: Returning

The last member of my family to set foot in Lithuania was my great-great-grandfather, Rabbi Yehuda Tzvi (Judel) Finkelstein, who left in the spring of 1906.  He was 82 years old when he departed on the passenger ship "Barcelona" out of Hamburg, accompanied by his daughter Reise, son-in-law Solomon Lasdon, and their seven young children.  He settled in New York, where his oldest son, Shimon, was established as a prominent rabbi and teacher, living in Brooklyn with his wife Hannah and their children.

Neither Yehuda nor Shimon ever returned to the Old Country.  Neither did Yehudah's younger son, my great-grandfather Rabbi Mendel Finkelstein and his wife, Taube Kagan Finkelstein--or any of their six daughters.  Their one son, my grandfather, Joseph Fink (who changed his name upon the advice of a professor while in Reform rabbinical school) was a worldly man, but he never went back either.  And although my father, Rabbi Arnold Fink, did the lion's share of the genealogical research from which I am drawing in these entires, he, too, did not make the journey.  So when we touch down in Vilnius, my daughter Rosa and I will be the first people in our branch of the Finkelstein/Fink family to stand on Lithuanian soil in 111 years.

I am, of course, profoundly grateful to those who left. Surely they could not have foreseen the extent of thei horror that lay ahead, consuming nearly all who stayed behind.  Yet they saw more than their share of desperate poverty, raging anti-Semitism and personal suffering.  Yehuda Tzvi  buried his first wife, Feige Rivke Cohen when she was just 39 years old, then married--and later buried--her younger sister, Lieb.  At any rate, something moved them to cast their lot with the millions of immigrants who came to America in search of a better life for their children and grandchildren.  We are the beneficiaries of the sacrifices of the immigrant generation.  How difficult it must have been for them to leave behind all they'd known, despite the difficulties.  They walked away from their homeland, their language, the place of their memories, the proud history of centuries of Lithuanian Jewry--to become greenhorns--strangers in a strange land.  I can't even imagine how Yehuda Tzvi made this passage at age 82, especially as the documents from Ellis Island note that he suffered from "hernia" and "senility."

I'm dubious about the senility.  Whose mental state would be determined as good in a six-second medical examination conducted by alien American doctors in a foreign language at the end of a long sea passage?  At any rate, as Yehuda's grandson, Rabbi Louis Finkelstein--who would serve for many decades as the president and chancellor of the flagship Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary--tells the story, Yehuda got to kvell at his son's success:

"As I remember, my grandfather (Yehuda Tzvi Finkelstein) of blessed memory arrived in New York just before Passover. . . Since until then he had only known his son as a young man who suffered from stage fright, he was very impressed by the honor that was given to my father by the members of his synagogue, and by his position in the [Brownsville, New York] community.  On Shabbat Ha-Gadol, the first Shabbat that grandfather spent in the United States, he heard my father preach.  Grandfather was very moved by what he saw and heard.  He was amazed at the enormous audience who had come to hear his son, and he was surprised by my father's talent, and that he was able to endgame the audience for three or four hours in everything that he spoke about. . . . When he saw the feelings of his father, who was sitting in front of him in the congregation, my father was also much moved.  And so my father tried even harder than he usually did to enchant the audience and to arouse them.  He cried and the audience cried with him, he laughed and the audience laughed with him."  (from Louis Finkelstein's introduction to his father Shimon Finkelstein's commentary to the prayer book, Siach Yitzchak, translation by Joseph Davis)

Most of what I know about my last ancestor to leave Lithuania, I have learned from the memoirs of his son, Shimon.   He describes his father as a learned, quiet, pious and witty man, who enjoyed sharing his wisdom with his children.  He and his wife, Feige Rivke, presided over memorable and beloved Shabbat observances each week.  Shimon writes: "On the Sabbath day, our table offered a foretaste of Paradise.  My father, free from the anxieties of the weekdays, was no longer a poor teacher of children, but a prince of the Torah.  My mother, decked in her finest habiliments, poor and simple, yet beautiful, was a princess.  The angels, whom the ancient Rabbinic sages describe as accompanying one home from synagogue on the Sabbath eve, were visibly present.  our song of welcome to them was sincere and literal. . . . To this day, whenever I sing the Sabbath table hymns to the melodies of my childhood home, I feel a singular thrill; I am suddenly transferred to the fields and meadows of long ago, to the presence of my mother and my father, to a world in which nothing mattered save the fulfillment of the Divine Will as reflected in the Torah."

But lest one overly idealize the scene, Shimon goes on to note that his parents home was not free of interpersonal challenges: 
"I know that there was a cloud over the brightness of our home. . . My grandmother, who loved my father, her only child, with especial passion and my mother were almost always at odds.  My grandmother thought my father was being neglected; she considered my mother selfish; perhaps she resented my mother's unusual beauty and my father's evident delight in it. . . . Because of this friction, my grandmother decided that she would not sit at the family table on the Sabbath, but prepared her own.  I was seven years old when this happened; while I loved my mother and silently sided with her in the controversy, I could not bear to watch my aged grandmother alone, deserted as it were, on the festive Sabbath eve."

In the end, of course, Shimon's mother, Soreh, and his wife, Feige Rivke, were both buried Kovno.  Yehuda Tzvi is the lone member of his generation to be buried in America.

On Tuesday, I went to visit his grave.

(Continued in part 3)




Monday, May 15, 2017

Upstream--Post 1: "That beautiful city. . . "

To follow a river upstream is to go back in time.  Rivers flatten and age as they approach their inevitable rendezvous with the sea.  To return to the headwaters, then, is to turn back the clock, to embark upon a journey into history, in search of origins.

This is the nature of the pilgrimage I'm commencing this week with my daughter, Rosa.  We will soon be kayaking through my ancestral homeland of Lithuania, paddling along the Neris/Vilija, Leuvo, Nevezis, Nemunas, and Minija rivers from Vilna to the Baltic Sea.  Along the way, we will pass by cities, towns and shtetls populated for centuries by a proud and ancient Jewish community.  We'll experience the beautiful streams and dense forests where Litvaks worked, prayed and played--and where, starting in the summer of 1941, over 90% were brutally murdered and buried in mass graves by some of their own longtime neighbors working in concert with the Nazi occupiers.  

My hope is to follow the river back, as much as possible, to the past, to recall the horrors of the Shoah but also to reclaim and better understand the achievements that preceded it. I want to celebrate the phenomenal culture of Jewish learning and living that my Litvak ancestors and their peers created and enjoyed.  The challenge is to fully acknowledge the tragic ending without letting it consume all that came before.  I want to go back to the headwaters, to celebrate the extraordinary creativity of Jewish Lithuania, which gave us rigorous yeshivot and secular Yiddish art and literature, Zionism and socialism and communism, tradition and Enlightenment.  I want to listen to the rivers, which witnessed it all.

But I am getting ahead of--or maybe behind--myself.  Let me begin, midstream, in Syracuse, NewYork. I have come to town for Rosa's graduation from the SUNY School of Environmental Science and Forestry, class of 2017.  Over a century ago, Rabbi Shimon Yitzchak Finkelstein arrived here in the city's heyday to take a position as the rabbi of Syracuse's then-growing Orthodox community, which he would serve from 1896-1902.

Finkelstein was born in Slabodka, the densely-settled and direly poor Jewish neighborhood on the outskirts of Kovno, Lithuania.  As he later wrote in a short memoir, "When a citizen of Slabodka became rich, he moved to Kovno; when a citizen of Kovno was impoverished, he moved to Slabodka."  Young Shimon grew up in a one-room hut with an earthen floor, together with his parents, paternal grandmother, three sisters, and one younger brother.  Food was sometimes scarce, but learning was always abundant.  Shimon's father, Rabbi Yehuda Tzvi Finkelstein (or Judel Girsch, in Yiddish) was a teacher of Torah and Talmud, descended from a long line of rabbinic sages from the nearby city of Keidan.  Shimon followed in his footsteps, studying with some of the most renowned sages of the time: Kovno's chief rabbi, Yitzchak Elchanan Spector, who confirmed his ordination, and Rabbis Yitzchak Blazer and Yosef Yozel Horowitz, the two primary disciples of Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin Salanter, the founder of the Mussar movement.  [More on all of this in the days and weeks to come]

Upon completing his yeshiva study, Rabbi Shimon Finkelstein married Hannah Brager and proposed a move to Germany, where he might continue his studies at a secular university.  The new rebbetzin had other plans.  As Finkelstein tells the story: " 'It cannot be,' my wife said.  'You will emerge from the university a German, while I will remain a Lithuanian Jewess.  We will cease to be a pair.  If you feel life here too restricted, let us go to America.' "

So. . . the young couple arrived in the United States in 1886.  Rabbi Finkelstein served a congregation in Baltimore until 1890, then moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he befriended Isaac Mayer Wise, the father of American Reform Judaism and founder of my alma mater, the Reform rabbinical seminary Hebrew Union College.  Rabbi Wise offered his younger Orthodox colleague a teaching position on the HUC faculty.  Rabbi Finkelstein later recalled: "I could not reconcile my religious views with those taught at the Hebrew Union College and while I would have liked to be a student and a teacher, I was compelled to decline the invitation.  Despite our differences, Dr. Wise and I remained fast friends during the years of my stay in Cincinnati. . . I recognized, even at the time, his remarkable generosity and greatness of spirit, particularly the assistance he gave to visiting [Orthodox] scholars from abroad, despite his awareness of their basic antagonism to his teachings and his activities."

A few years later, Rabbi Finkelstein accepted a call to Syracuse, which he described rather surprisingly as "that beautiful city, whose climate is so much superior to that of either of the cities in which I had been located before."  (Given that snowy Syracuse is, in fact, the least sunny city in America, I suppose the grey, wintry weather must have reminded Finkelstein of his boyhood home in Lithuania). At any rate, during his time in Syracuse, he became dear friends with the city's most prominent Jewish resident, Louis Marshall, at the time a promising young lawyer--and Reform Jew.  Marshall would later become the preeminent Jewish lay leader and philanthropist in early twentieth century America.  He worked closely with Louis Brandeis to mediate labor disputes in the garment industry, organized the American Jewish Committee, and gave generously to countless Jewish organizations, helping to establish and fund both Hebrew Union College and the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary.  Marshall was also an ardent conservationist.  His sons, Bob and George Marshall would found the Wilderness Society and Louis, himself, was the primary creator and first board president of the New York State College of Forestry--the academic institution that would become the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, where my daughter, Rosa, graduated this weekend.

In 1902, Rabbi Finkelstein left Syracuse for Brownsville, New York, a heavily Jewish section of Brooklyn.  He remained there, as rabbi of Congregation Ohev Shalom, until his death in 1947.  But his time with Louis Marshall in Syracuse, coupled with his friendship with Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise in Cincinnati, left a lasting mark--different from, yet scarcely less significant than, the influence of his teachers back in Slabodka.  In his elderly years, Rabbi Finkelstein pondered the future of American Judaism and noted:

"My acquaintance with Wise and Marshall, the one destined to be the leading Reform rabbi, the other the leading Reform layman of American Jewry, convinced me of the sincerity and devotion of these men who so fundamentally disagreed with me.  I could not accept their views even in a slight measure.  I developed a high respect for them as persons, however, and respected that while their therapy for the ailments of American Jewry was futile, they might be partially right in their criticism of some of our ways as orthodox rabbis.  The conviction grew in me that neither they nor we were able to establish any effective Jewish community in America, in which the spiritual power of ancient Slabodka would be combined with the broad understanding characteristic of America.  Despite their good intentions, the Reform Jews were too little aware of the remarkable joy and beauty of traditional Judaism; while some of us failed to appreciate sufficiently the extent to which America was a fulfillment of our moral teaching.  I wished that I could have consulted Rabbi Israel Salanter regarding this dilemma, feeling that he, with his remarkable spiritual insight and love of man, would have found some means for retaining these great men to traditional Judaism, and yet retain their outlooks, which could be so useful to our faith."

I believe this challenge endures.  Seventy-five years after Rabbi Shimon Finkelstein wrote these words, Jewish leaders--myself included--still struggle to combine Old World piety and New World freedom.  How do we bring the Litvak experience, so rich in tradition and learning, to our American communities?  Perhaps here, too, the rivers might have something to teach me.

Oh, and one more detail. . . A few years after Rabbi Shimon Finkelstein arrived in America, his younger brother, Rabbi Mendel Finkelstein, followed him.  Like Shimon, Mendel was educated in the renowned yeshivot of Lithuania.  He, too, got married as a young man, to Toba Nakka Kagen, from the shtetl of Srednik on the banks of the Nemunas River.  And undoubtedly influenced and inspired by his older sibling, Rabbi Mendel and Toba Nakka Finkelstein emigrated to America.  They settled in Dayton, Ohio, where he served as the rabbi of the Orthodox synagogue, Beth Jacob, until he, like his brother, died in 1947.  Rabbi Mendel and Toba Nakka (later known as Tillie) had six daughters: Fannie, Leah, Helen, Sarah, Clara, and Rosella.  Their only son, Joseph, left home immediately after his Bar Mitzvah.  He headed south, to Cincinnati, where he enrolled in the same school where his uncle had declined Rabbi Wise's proffered appointment, the Reform rabbinical seminary, Hebrew Union College.  During his time there, at a professor's recommendation, he changed his name from Finkelstein to Fink.  He went on to an illustrious career as a Reform rabbi, mostly in Buffalo, New York.  His son--my father, Rabbi Arnold Fink--never met his grandfather, Mendel.  Perhaps for this reason, Dad developed a lifelong interest in genealogy.  He spent countless hours researching the family history, especially the years in Lithuania.  But he never went there.

I'm going for him.















Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Mancha de Rolando: a Tale of Music, Travel, and Serendipity


Two weeks ago.  I'm sitting in a pub in El Chalten, a tiny frontier town on the border between Argentina and Chile.  My daughter, Tanya, and I have just finished eight days of trekking and camping in Argentina's Glaciares National Park and Chile's Torres del Paine.  The hikes were astounding: immense landscapes of mountains, glaciers and rivers, twisted Nothofagus trees, fields of heather and endless rocks.  Patagonia is an elemental place: Stone.  Ice.  Sky.  Water.  And earth, tinged with early autumn's red and gold fire.  We've climbed to the base of FitzRoy, named after the captain of the Beagle on Darwin's famous Patagonian journey.  We've walked along roaring rivers, pitched our tent at the foot of ice fields, forded swollen creeks.  We're both content and exhausted.

And we're deeply grateful for our wine and cheese plate, which would be delicious anywhere but tastes even better after many nights of freeze-dried camping cuisine.  We're enjoying the whole scene so much, when a song playing over the pub's stereo system catches my ear.  It's nothing fancy--straight up rock and roll, like most of my favorite music, as elemental as the local terrain: Bass lines, rising and falling.  Swell of the keyboard.  Great guitar grooves.  And the drums, strong and steady, driving it all along.  

I tell Tanya: "Listen.  It sounds like Bruce Springsteen meets Eddie Vedder, with a bit of Latin flair around the edges.  I love it."  Then I ask our server, who is sweet, earnest, and blessedly good in English: "Who is that band we're hearing?"  

He responds: "Mancha de Rolando." He writes this name on a small piece of paper and I tuck it into my shirt pocket.

Fast forward.  I'm back in Buenos Aires, showered and laundered and with good internet access.  I go to Apple Music and search for Mancha de Rolando.  I download a bunch of their tunes and love them all.  Just as I remember from the pub in El Chalten, it is great, no-frills rock and roll, sung with honesty and integrity that somehow comes through even though I can't understand a word.  I learn that the song I first heard is one of their biggest hits, a standard called "Arde la ciudad"--"Burn the City."  I listen, again and again, to two different versions, one from their 2001 album Caballo Loco and the other from their 2010 live record, Vivire Vianjando.  I'm not sure which I like more!

Two days later, I'm walking down the street in the Colegiales neighborhood of BA and look up at a big screen atop an office building.  It's advertising a bunch of stuff: wine, depilatories, cell phones--and a Mancha de Rolando concert at La Trastienda Samsung, a venue in the old Buenos Aires neighborhood of San Telmo!  If there are tickets, I'm going!

Saturday night, April 1.  We show up at the venue at 6 pm and get general admission tickets for the 9 pm show.  When we arrive, we somehow find terrific seats in the balcony, just to the left of the stage.  The place reminds me a lot of Boise's Knitting Factory.  The band comes on at 9:10, and the music, live, is even better than what I've heard on recordings.  Way better.  The crowd is young and passionate.  They know the words to every song--and they sing along.  They sing and surge back and forth and dance and chant and toss red and black balloons and spray confetti everywhere.  The band plays for two hours, all cylinders firing on every tune.  It's one of the best shows that I have ever seen.  I didn't understand a word.  And I understood a lot, beyond the words, because that's how it is with music.
I still can't believe it.  Sitting in a tiny bar in an outpost town in Argentine Patagonia, I serendipitously caught a song by a band that I had never heard of before.  Two weeks later, I'm marveling at their show.  

Of course they ended the set with  "Arde la ciudad". 

It rocked.  All of it.  

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Shuffling off to Buffalo

I'm in Buffalo, New York, for a few days, visiting family.  I haven't been here since my grandmother's funeral in late 2002, which is way too long.  Although I never lived here, it's a kind of second home to me.  Both of my parents grew up here, and as a child, I spent lots of time here with grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins--my whole extended family, really.  I'm staying with my Aunt Toby and Uncle John in their beautiful contemporary home that my uncle--a very accomplished architect--designed, and it is a real pleasure.

My aunt and I begin the morning with a short driving tour of the city.  A lot has happened since I've last been here.  Like many Rust Belt cities, Buffalo has been down for a long time.  Even when I came as a boy, there were lots of abandoned warehouses, decaying infrastructure, dilapidated neighborhoods.  The steel mills and other heavy industry left in the late '60s and early '70s and the bottom fell out of the economy.  Folks moved away, largely to warmer sun belt cities.  Young people departed in droves.  When my grandfather, Joseph Fink, was a rabbi here, Buffalo was a major American city, in the nation's top ten most populous urban areas.  Today it doesn't crack the top fifty.

But the city is experiencing a renaissance.  As we drive through the streets of downtown, I see some of those abandoned warehouses being transformed into urban condos, where young people want to live.  There are micro-brew pubs on many corners and a renewed sense of civic pride.

Our first stop is Forest Lawn Cemetery.  It's a huge place, a city of the dead, including quite a few historical figures of note.  I go to my paternal grandparents' gravesite and leave two stones.  My grandfather, Rabbi Joseph Fink, died when I was a small boy and I have only the dimmest memories of him.   Yet many folks here still remember him fondly and vividly, and I like to think that some of his spirit lives on in me.  I hope that I have some of his gifts as a rabbi and a teacher.   By contrast, my grandmother, my Oma, was a powerful force in my life.  She was the unquestioned matriarch of our family: incredibly smart, tough, gracious, loyal.  She encouraged me to be a writer, to stand tall in my beliefs, to speak my mind.  It is a great honor to visit their graves.

My maternal grandparents, Ray and Inez Hoffman, are also in Forest Lawn.  But they are not buried.  My grandfather hated the thought of being in the earth, so he bought vaults in the mausoleum or, as he called it, "The Condo."  I went there, too, but did not take a picture, as it felt weird taking pictures indoors in the mausoleum.  They were both enormously influential people in life.  My Papa owned a prominent printing press in town.  He was quite the character: strong, opinionated, sometimes prickly but a very loving grandfather, and a master story teller.  We loved hearing his tall tales and I like to think that some of that wore off on me.  My grandmother was the hostess par excellence, a superb cook and baker, generous and kind.  A good friend, a wonderful listener.

All of my grandparents gave me extraordinary gifts.

After the cemetery, we go to the Albright-Knox Gallery.  One wouldn't know, from the neo-classical exterior, that it is one of the finest contemporary art galleries in the country.  Aunt Toby and I have lunch in their very hip cafe and then take in the collection: Jackson Pollack, Rothko, Calder, etc.  I see a lot that I like but my favorite is the piece outside, made up entirely of old aluminum canoes.  The first boat I ever owned as a Grumman, which I bought for $50 from a suite-mate my freshman year of college.  There's nowhere I'd rather be than on a river, but this was pretty close: a kind of wild flowering of canoes!




In the afternoon, I go for a walk down Elmwood Ave, which is at the heart of Buffalo's urban renewal, a strip that features old houses, new boutiques, restaurants, and parks.  It feels to me like the heart of this city, the combination of old grandeur from its urban heyday at the turn of the 20th century and the grit that has sustained it through more difficult times.  There's a kind of beauty in the decay, too--and I've always been drawn to that kind of beauty.

I pass the house where my mother's parents lived just before she got married to my dad.  It's still pretty grand.

Then I walk by so many classic Buffalo vistas, houses and pubs and grungy streets and elegant avenues.






Dinner is back at Toby and John's, with my cousin Lynn Hirsch and the new rabbi at Beth Zion and his wife, who is an accomplished ketubah artist.  It's a great evening of conversation, laughter, shared memories, new perspectives, fabulous food and thought-provoking discussion.

It's good to be back here.