Friday, June 23, 2017

(Backup) Upstream 14: Dam It! (Monday, May 29, Levuo river near Karsakiskes)

I slept, despite the hill.  Benadryl definitely helps.  I woke to a rainstorm at 7:30, then back to sleep until almost 9:00 before waking again--this time, thankfully, to sunshine.  Much better.  Since we made good time on the river yesterday, even with all of the logjams and obstacles, we should have a fairly relaxed schedule today.

This morning brought the trip's first "rapids": a couple small rock ledges under a quaint old bridge.  We lined the boat down.  After that, pretty smooth paddling, except for a time or two when we turned down the wrong direction.  As the river passes through the marshes, it becomes labyrinthine, and the current is so weak that it can be difficult to know which way to go.  Thankfully, Rosa is an excellent navigator, using Google maps on her cell phone and, even more impressively, riparian plant life.  She taught me to look closely at the plants growing beneath the surface: the direction in which they are bending indicates the river's flow.  


Yesterday we made surprisingly good progress after our initial challenges, speeding through four pages of our maps.  Today is proceeding much more slowly--when we ate lunch at 1:30, we had not yet made it past map 5.  I think the scale must be different--alas, my homemade maps, printed out from Google Earth, do not indicate scale.  Unstable weather hasn't helped, either.  It's sunny one moment, deeply overcast another.  We're hoping fair weather prevails but I'm prepping myself for rain.  At least we did not wake up with poison ivy.  Hopefully we won't develop it any time soon!


In my morning davenning, I focused on a phrase from the blessing that begins P'sukei d'Zimra, the psalms of praise: Baruch sh'amar v'haya ha-olam--Praised be the One who spoke and the world came to be. . . 
As many commentators note, this obviously refers to God, who, in Genesis, creates the world through speech--but also reminds us that we, too, shape our worlds with our words.  We do not miraculously generate life, ex nihilo, but the words we put forth do, indeed, significantly determine the environment we inhabit.  

Still, with all this focus on words, here on the waters of Lithuania, it is hard to miss the silences.  The Jewish voices--lives, prayers, deeds--were so cruelly muzzled and annihilated.  Yet they left us a legacy of words and multi-vocal wisdom: Zionist, Bundist, Talmudic, sacred and ordinary.  I hear their words and their worlds in the silences.

The afternoon was challenging.  Shortly after lunch, we unexpectedly arrived at a dam.  Fortunately, there was an old Lithuanian farm house right beside, with the residents out sitting in their yard.  One of them--a man with a young son--greeted us in English.  It turns out that he grew up here but now lives in the UK and is just back for a visit.  He explained to us that the best way through is to portage along the left bank, and showed us the path, giving us permission to carry our boat and supplies through his family's property.  

The portage distance was around 400 yards.  It took multiple trips, shlepping our food and gear and the heavy boat to the put-in downstream of the dam.  Fairly arduous work.  When we finished, we rested for a few minutes, re-packed, then slipped the boat back into the water, tired but satisfied with a job decently done.  

A little later we hit another, much smaller dam.  This time we could--and did--pass through.  Still, this day demanded patience.  We did not even make it through two map pages by evening.  That means we'll have a long day tomorrow, including the canal that connects our current river, the Levuo, to the Nevezis, which we will paddle back to Kaunas.

We stopped a little early, exhausted.  Thankfully, after a short but tough day, we did find our best campsite of the trip.  We're perched high above the river, in a stretch of nice grass, sheltered by a grove of pines.  It's less buggy than most of the places we've been, which is a relief, given the mosquito bites we're accumulating.  We set up camp around 5:45, enjoyed a dinner of quesadillas, and then a long, quiet evening, tossing the frisbee, playing gin rammer, and doing some reading and writing, too.  We have a long day and a lot of time to make up tomorrow, so it is good to get this rest.

Today the river took us near--though not directly through--one former Jewish shtetl--Subacious, known in Yiddish as Subtosh.  A century ago, it was a fairly prominent Jewish town; in 1897, the 376 resident Jews represented 45% of the total population of 850.  Only 50 or so remained in 1940, as most left, either for the bigger cities in Lithuania or the United States, South Africa, and Palestine.  

The Jews of Subtosh worked in the usual professions: grocers, butchers, bakers, tailors, textiles.  Many were Zionists and, as usual, divided by politics and religious practice: Labor, Revisionist, Mizrachi, etc.  In the end, of course, the few who did not get out were all murdered together in the forest, regardless of ideology.

Pinkas Kehillat Lita notes that one of those who got away before the genocide was Ephraim Frisch.  He left with his family in 1888, when he was just 8 years old.  The Frisches came to the US through the Great Lakes port of Duluth, Minnesota.  Ephraim was largely raised in the US, but inherited the Litvak penchant for religious scholarship and political activism.  His maternal great grandfather, Rabbi Alexander Sender, was hailed back in the Old Country as a gaon, a Talmudic genius.  And his cousin, Leonard Frisch, was a national Zionist leader and editor of American Jewish World, a Twin Cities weekly.  Ephraim grew up in Minneapolis and was ordained as a Reform rabbi at the Hebrew Union College in 1904.  At his first pulpit, in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, he supported a local African-American minister who hosted bi-racial gatherings in the pre-civil rights south.  Frisch also openly criticized the governor for invoking Jesus in a Thanksgiving Day proclamation.  

In 1912, Ephraim Frisch moved to more progressive pastures, in Queens, and a few years later founded the New Synagogue in Manhattan.  That congregation's credo stressed "humanitarian deeds, social action, flexible rituals, and liturgy augmented with secular readings."  In other words, it was a liberal, classical Reform synagogue of its place and time--a long way from Subtosh.  Frisch also followed classical Reform--and differed from many (though definitely not all) of his fellow Litvaks--in rejecting Zionism, referring to the 1918 Balfour Declaration as "a menace."

In 1923, Ephraim Frisch of Subtosh became the rabbi of my brother's current congregation, Temple Beth El in San Antonio, Texas.  In his tenure there, he would be a lighting rod for controversy in this conservative, formerly Confederate state.  He openly criticized compulsory Bible reading in the schools, denounced the city's squalid and segregated slums, and preached in support of FDR's New Deal.  In June of 1942, the congrgation's board forced him to take an early retirement.  He moved back to New York, where he died a bitter man.


My grandfather, Rabbi Joseph Fink--himself a descendant of Litvaks--must have known his older colleague, Ephraim Frisch of Subtosh.  I wonder about their relationship.  Did they talk?  They shared many interests, including social justice and scholarship--both born of the Litvak legacy.  

From Subtosh to San Antonio.  Or Slabodka to Buffalo, New York.

It's a long journey.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Upstream 13: Back on the River--Misnagdim and Chasidim in Kupishok (Sunday, May 28)

Up and packing early, and Justas arrived at 10:00 am to take us to our next put-in, on the Levuo river.

It was a long drive--two and a half hours or so--for us.  And way longer for Justas, who had began and finished back in Vilnius.  He devoted his entire day to our journey.  Again, I am astounded by his generosity and enthusiasm for our trip.  We could not even begin to do this expedition without him.  Over the next week and a half, while we are paddling to Keidainiai and then on to Jurbarkas, he will be on his own trip, to Tenerife.  We're wishing him safe, productive, and enjoyable travels.

In mid-afternoon, we arrived at our original designated put-in, just below the dam on the Levuo in the town of Kupiskes.  However, there was simply not enough water in the stream to navigate, so we drove a few miles further and Justas dropped us off a a hastily contrived spot beside a small bridge.  It wasn't idea--the bank was muddy and steep without a suitable place to park Justas's van and trailer with our kayak, but we made it work, unloading very quickly, saying our goodbyes, and then organizing ourselves.  We packed the boat, hoisting in all of our gear, including our now very heavy rejuvenated food bag, and set out.


Before the World War II, the tiny town of Kupiskes (or, in Yiddish, Kupishok) was home to 1200 Jews--42% of the local population of 2830.  One of the themes of our trip is the important of shtetl life in rural Lithuania.  Most American Jews live in large urban areas, and we tend to think of ourselves as city folks.  Yet for much of our history here in Lita, we made up virtual majorities across the rural landscape.  This is an important heritage.  Long before Zionism and the return to Israel, Jews were living close to the land, surrounded by dense forests and networks of rivers--in community with one another.

Lest one think this too bucolic, even in those small towns, we often feuded amongst ourselves.  Here's what Pinkas Kehillat Lita has to say about Kupishok: 

Kupiskis Jewry divided off into two communities, the Hassidim and the Mitnagdim (Misnogdim or Opponents). As a result, the town had two official rabbis, one for each community (previously they had one rabbi for the whole town), but then they had two Shochtim (ritual slaughterers), two burial societies and four synagogues. Often, bitter quarrels arose between the rival communities. The Kashrut certification given by one was negated and declared Treif (not Kosher) by the other

By the end of the 19th century, many of the Kupishok Jews started to leave town, with most going to the US and South Africa.  Economic hardship took its toll, as did fires, which frequently ravaged small towns and cities alike--each with mostly wooden buildings--throughout Lithuania.  Still, the shtetl managed to sustain itself until the Nazis arrived in June of 1941.

Very shortly after the German invasion, Kupiskok filled up with Jews from neighboring areas, all fleeing the Nazis--to no avail.  In mid-July, the Germans established a small ghetto on Vilna Street and began to murder Jews in the forest outside of town.  Much of the killing was actually done by the Nazis' Lithuanian accomplices, including the local police chief and his deputy, and a high school teacher.  By the end of September 1941, not a single Jew remained alive; over 3000 souls from Kupishok and nearby towns were buried in the swamps and woods.  The chief murderer was tried after the war, but later released and moved to Germany under an assumed name.  

A few of the local Lithuanians did try to save Jews.  The local priest, I. Regauskas, who taught at the town high school, attempted to save some of his Jewish students--but informers tipped off the Germans.  The local gentile doctor took in the rabbi's wife, Kh. L. Pertzovski and Mrs. B. Meirovitz, together with their children--but again, Lithuanian neighbors soon discovered them and they were all murdered.  

And so this once vibrant Jewish town came to an end, with those on all side of the internal quarrels meeting the same cruel fate from the oppressors.


Upon our launch, I blew the shofar, to announce our Jewish presence. 

We jumped in the boat and paddled off.  But not for very long.  For the first couple hours of this day, we realized we were not in a river but a rather smallish creek.  The water level was often too low for paddling, as we bottomed out on rocks and sandbars, so we ended up out of the boat more than in it, dragging it downstream.  Logjams were even more challenging.  Downed trees frequently blocked the entire creek, sometimes at intervals of roughly every fifty yards.  Each time we pulled up at one, we had to jump into murky water backed up to our waists and wade through thick brush, spider webs, dirty foam and the discarded plastic bottles and other garbage that tended to acccumulate at these jams--and then figure out a way to lift the boat over the morass.  And then repeat the whole messy procedure three minutes later, again and again and again.


Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught that we need challenges to strengthen our resolve.  He taught: the obstacle creates the desire.  Many teachers have noted that without difficulties to overcome, travel is just a pleasure trip; it takes the tough passages to transform a journey into a pilgrimage. As the Talmud puts it: L'fi sachra, avdah--According to the labor, so is the reward.  If this is true--and I believe it is--then this afternoon was important for Rosa and me.  I experienced yesterday--Shabbat in Kovno--as a monumental day: leading services in the hometown of my forebears, sitting at Chiune Sugihara's desk, walking through the ghost map of Kovno and Slabodka, in the footsteps of Judel and Shimon and Mendel Finkelstein, of Toba Kagan Finkelstein, and Israel Salanter, Isaac Elchanan Spektor, Leah Goldberg, Abraham Mapu, and so many more.    But today was about overcoming ordinary obstacles, about pushing through where the river didn't, about working in partnership with my daughter, Rosa.  So when, after a couple of hours, the obstacles began to fall away and the creek, fed by tributaries, widened and deepened into a real river, meandering beautifully through tranquil wetlands, we felt proud of ourselves.  We decided to name our boat, thankful for how she carried us through the to this point.  We will call her Lita--a lovely, litlting name, and the traditional Yiddish word for "Lithuania."  Lita, homeland of the Litvaks.  And our home on the rivers by which they lived.


Later, as day softened into evening, we hit a few more logjams.  And had a difficult time finding a camping spot.  Eventually we settled for one a stone's throw from the small road that runs parallel to the river, just behind an old house--on rather sloped, unlevel ground.  It will do.  I'm a little worried about the dense overgrowth of plants all around us; I fear we may be camped in a thicket of poison ivy--and know, from the burning and itching, that we are definitely in stinging nettle.  But we've washed and scrubbed in the river and put on long pants and now can only hope for the best.  

It was a hard day.  And a good day.

We retire to the tent.  I count the omer.  Day 48, just two more days until Shavuot.

Now off to sleep on the hill, head up, feet down, Rosa and I rolling with the earth.

Upstream: Returning (Thursday, June 22--Vilnius airport)

One hundred and eleven years ago, Rabbi Yehudah Tzvi (Judel) Finkelstein departed Lithuania on a long sea voyage to join his family in the New World.  He was 82 years old, and like biblical Abraham and Sarah and countless other immigrants before him, he was leaving his land, his birthplace, his ancestral home, never to return.  For Judel Finkelstein, the passage to America was the beginning of a challenging late life adventure.  He would find himself an aged stranger in a strange land, where he did not speak the language or understand the culture. Born in Keidan, he is buried in Queens, amongst many who shared his fate.

Today, after a little over a month in Lithuania, I am heading home by jet plane via Helsinki and Reykjavik.  I will return to the comfortable, familiar and privileged life that I live as an American after a month-long odyssey on the rivers of my ancestral homeland.  I am immeasurably blessed by the choices of those who came before me; if Judel's son and daughter-in-law, Mendel and Toba had not left Lithuania, they and their children would have almost inevitably perished in the Shoah along with 90% of their Litvak friends and neighbors--and I would not be here.  As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: "Just to be is a blessing.  Just to live is holy."  I am so grateful for that holy blessing granted to me by my forebears' choices.  To be able to return to their native land and explore my roots is to be doubly blessed.

I owe my highest gratitude to my father, Rabbi Arnold Fink, z"l, for planting the seeds of this journey.  Wherever I went in Lita, by river and by land, he traveled with me.

I am deeply thankful to the multitude of Lithuanians who have aided, supported, and inspired me along the way.  It would have been a very different and diminished trip without your manifold kindnesses.  There are too many of you to recognize by name.  Aciu labai.  
I will, however, single out one who truly went above and beyond, giving inordinately of his time, resources, and expertise: the incomparable Justas Pipiras, who runs the Vilnius kayak company Pipiro Baidares.  I cannot even fathom this expedition without you.

Finally, to my family: Your love leads the way. 

Tanya, Mom, Jon and Julie: Your interest and support from afar never failed to inspire us.
Janet, Rachel and Jonah: You were a lifeline back home, and I am inordinately grateful to have been able to share the end of the journey with you.  
Rosa: My co-traveler who shared every heartbeat, rainstorm and paddle-stroke.  We did it, together.  Unforgettable.  For me, the trip of a lifetime.



So what did I learn along the way?

I suspect it will take me many months to even start to sort through the barrage of thoughts and feelings running through my little brain.  For now, then, just a few, brief parting impressions.


History matters. 

Our past--the line of choices that both we and our ancestors have made--largely determines who we are.

No one in my family has set foot in this land for over a century, and I did not come until well into middle age.  Yet I am a Litvak.  I am a son of Kovno and Slabodka.  I am a Keidaner.  I embrace the legacy of passionate Jewish commitment, rationalist inquiry, and ethical self-examination (through Mussar).  I am a Zionist, a Yiddishist, a Bundist, a lover of both tradition and Enlightenment.   That legacy has shaped me.  

Lithuania's pagan roots--embodied by the national love of forests and rivers--also run deep in my blood.  I want to claim the rabbinic scholarship of the Slabodka Jews, the spirit of the blue collar Jewish boatmen who floated lumber down the Neris, Nevezis and Nemunas rivers, and the naturalism that thrived here in Europe's last pagan outpost for centuries before either Judaism or Christianity arrived.  Mine is the Judaism of the cities, Vilna and Kovno--and also the rural shtetlach.  I treasure the sacredness of wood and water, history and nature.

Like trees, we are stronger when we recognize that our roots run deep.

I believe that this rich and contradictory past brought me to my present life, my family, my community in Boise, Idaho.


But history need not be destiny.

Teachers like Laima Ardaviciene and Rimantas Zirgulis--and countless young, thoughtful and intellectually-curious Lithuanians I have met along the way--remind me that despite the inexorable influence of the past, we choose and create the future that we will inhabit.

The Litvaks are almost all gone.  There is no restoring the Jewish life that thrived here for centuries until the Shoah.  What remains?  Mostly ruins, some pictures--and oceans of words, in Hebrew and Yiddish and Russian and Polish and Lithuanian.  Poetry, philosophy, politics.  Torah and Talmud. 

To travel through Lita as a Jew is to largely explore a world of ghosts, words, and wreckage.

But today's Lithuanians are beginning to acknowledge and learn from that ghost world and words.  They are doing what they can to redeem the tragedy of their history.  Haltingly and imperfectly, as all such efforts proceed--but with real purpose and hope.  

And the Jews who are here--some descendants of the tiny fragment who survived the Shoah, others who have chosen to settle here in the shadows of pre-war Lita--are building and sustaining meaningful Jewish lives.  Vilna is not likely to ever again be an epicenter of Jewish culture and community, but those who dwell here--and in Kaunas and Klaipeda, Panevezys and Siauliai--can and will carry on the tradition in their own significant ways.  Just as people do in so many places on the periphery of Jewish life--like Boise, Idaho.


I have learned that truth is complicated.

Does the tragedy of Lithuanian suffering under the Soviets in any way excuse or mitigate Lithuanian collusion with the Nazis in the Shoah?


Still, I do not want to play the game of comparative martyrdom.   It is a contest that no one wins.  The history--the tragedy--of Lithuania is complex.  

Too many Lithuanians joined the Nazis in killing Jews.  Too few risked their lives to save them.

I am not judging.  I do not know what I would have done if I had been in their place.  I pray that I am never forced to confront that choice--though in Trump's America, it feels closer than it ever has before in my lifetime.

I live on land that was stolen from the natives who lived there before the Europeans arrived.  Who am I to cast stones?

Judgment doesn't help.  It's not about being right.  

It is about acknowledging and accepting responsibility.

Life is not neatly divided into heroes and villains, bystanders and upstanders.  

I hope, nonetheless, that I return home a better upstander.

Truth is complicated.

If you can tweet it in 140 characters, it probably isn't (wholly) true. 

Yes, I realize one can tweet that.  So take it with a grain of salt.


Farewell, Lithuania.


Viso gero.

Zai gezunt.

God willing, I will return.


Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Upstream: Where Streams Meet (June 21, Vilna)

Note: I'm about a month behind and playing catch up.  More of that in days to come.  This is a current piece.

Unless you are reading this blog for the first time (in which case, welcome!) you know that I am descended from a long line of rabbis on my father's side.

What you may not know is that my mother's father and grandfather, Ray and Harry Hoffman, were printers.  For many decades between the two of them, they ran a large printing press in Buffalo, New York.  When I was a boy, one of my favorite parts of our frequent visits to Buffalo was going to the office with my Papa.  We'd get up early in the morning and walk through as they started up the presses.  Everyone knew my grandfather as The Boss, and he loved the plant like his own family.  And I loved it, too: the unmistakable smell of ink and machine oil mixing Papa's cologne, the roar of the press, bright lights and constant action.

My rabbinic ancestors learned, taught, and treasured words.  My Papa put them on to paper.


This confluence brought me here this evening.

In a now quiet, out of the way corner of Vilna, I came to the building that once housed the Widow and Brothers Romm Publishing House.  They printed everything: Yiddish poetry and novels, Zionist works, popular reading.  But they are best known for their 1886 edition of the Talmud, which remains the standard throughout the Jewish world over 130 years later.  As the ultimate formatters and editors of the Talmud, their role in shaping Jewish learning and life cannot be underestimated.

Alas, as Wikipedia tells the story: "On the night of July 7, 1941, just days after the German invasion of Vilnius, [the current manager at Romm] Mathus Rapoport was taken from his home at midnight and was murdered by the Nazis. Thus came to an end the greatest Jewish printing house in the world. With the end of the Second World War the building was confiscated by the Russians. They continued to use the printing house after the war until the beginning of the 1990s but with no connection to Judaism."


This is where so many of the streams that brought me here meet, not far from the banks of the Neris River.  Rabbis Judel and Mendel and Shimon Finkelstein, my grandfather, Rabbi Joseph Lionel Fink, and my father, Arnold Fink.  And Harry and Ray and Inez Hoffman, and my mother, Karen Hoffman Fink.  Printers and teachers--all guardians of the word.

And the Widow and Brothers Romm, who took the words of Talmud and gave them to the world.

(Backup) Upstream 12: Kaunas, part 3 (Saturday, May 27, ctd)

The heyday of Kovno Jewry came in the early to mid-nineteenth century.  The population had already begun to decline by the 1880s and 90s as many Jews left--most, like my great grandparents, for America.  Quite a few were fleeing the threat of conscription into the czarist army, which took young Jewish men for up to twenty-five years.  This was often a death sentence.  Even if, by chance, one happened to survive, one's Judaism commonly didn't.  Shimon and Mendel Finkelstein must have worried significantly over the possibility of being drafted.  When the Finkelstein family left for America, they were going to a less pious--but much safer--land.

The Finkelsteins were faithfully religious Jews.  They were drawn to Yisrael Salanter's Mussar movement, open to new ideas but also deeply rooted in Litvak Orthodoxy.  Thus they represented one of the three major factions into which the Kovno Jewish community was roughly divided in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: the traditionally observant.  Another third were Zionists--mostly secular and devoted to the rebuilding of the Jewish homeland in Palestine.   The last group was comprised of the socialists,  communists, and Bundists, whose first loyalty was to the struggle for the workers' revolution.  

Of course each of these groups was further factionalized into sub-groups united only by their fierce internal debates.  Among the religious: Mussarniks and anti-Mussar, Enlightenment advocates and traditionalists.  Among the Zionists: Labor and Beitar, political and cultural.  And among the revolutionaries: Leninists and Trotskyites, socialist democrats and communists, universalists who rejected Jewish peoplehood (like Kovno native Emma Goldman) and those whose revolution, conducted largely in Yiddish, made room, at least temporarily, for Jewishness.  

Kovno was an intellectually fertile, passionate place.  Every family member brought her or his own perspective to bear on the pressing issues of the day.  It was a city of rabbis and students, philosophers (such as Emmanuel Levinas, who was born here in 1906) and pioneers and revolutionaries and anarchists and writers and artists.


This vibrant city was full of schools of all sorts.  I've mentioned the yeshivot, where my male family members studied--Knesset Bet Yitzchak, named for the renowned chief rabbi of the city, Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor, and Knesset Yisrael, named for Israel Salanter.  But there were also more secular institutions for Jewish boys and girls alike.  Our tour brought us to the Schwabe Hebrew Gymnasium, the Jewish high school opened in 1927.  A year later, its graduating class included one of my favorite poets, Leah Goldberg.  

She would go on to study German and Russian literature at Kaunas University, then went to Berlin and Bonn, where she earned her doctorate at age 22.  Upon her return to Kovno, Goldberg began writing Hebrew poetry, then moved to Palestine, with her mother, in 1935.  She became an acclaimed writer and literary scholar, founding the department of comparative literature at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where she taught until her death in 1970.  She is a much beloved poet in Israel, where many of her poems have been set to popular song.


Many years ago, I translated a series of Goldberg's poems called "Shirei HaNachal--Songs of the River".  

I have always loved these pieces, which speak of the wonder I feel when I spend time  around rivers.  So standing here, at her high school, after arriving in this familial home by kayak, via the Neris River from Vilna, I naturally reflected on those poems--and the journey that Rosa and I are sharing.  What a gift, this marvelous poet, Leah Goldberg, who loved both of her homelands: Lithuania, the land of her birth, with its verdant forests, soft air, and meandering rivers--and Israel, her chosen land, with its ancient sacred sites and cleansing deserts.

Songs of the River


A chorus of small voices

                                         -Paul Verlaine


The River Sings to the Stone


I kissed the stone in her dream’s chilly calm,

For she is the silence and I am the psalm.

She is the riddle and I am the clue;

The same ageless source gave birth to us two.


I kissed the stone, her lonely flesh.

She’s the vow of the faithful, and I, faithlessness.

She is eternity, I’m transformation;

She’s creation’s secret, and I—revelation.


I know, having touched her mute heart as I purl:

I am the poet and she is the world.

The Tree Sings to the River


The one who bore my autumn gold,

Swept off my fallen leaves, so dear—

Will witness my spring when it unfolds

Anew with the turn of the year.


My brother, the river, always the stray,

Ever-changing, yet one, renewed every day

Between his two banks, he splashes and sprawls,

Flowing as I do between spring and fall.


For I am the blossom and I am the fruit,

I am my future and I am my roots,

I am the tree-trunk, barren and strong,

And you are my days, my season and song.

The Moon Sings to the River


High in the heavens, I am the one

In the waters below, I am many.

My likeness, my image, my twin

Looks back from the river at me.



High in the heavens, I am the truth,

In the waters below, I’m deceit.

My likeness looks up from the river,

My image conceding its fate.


Above I am shrouded in silence,

Below, music plays everywhere.

High in the heavens—I’m God.

In the river, I am prayer.



The Girl Sings to the River


Where will the stream carry my little face?

Why does he tear at my eyes?

My house is so far in its evergreen glade,

Sad are my rustling pines.


The river seduced me with sweet songs of praise, 

So farther and farther I roamed,

Drawn by his music, which called out my name, 

Forsaking my mother’s home.


And I am her only one, tender in years,

Now before me the cruel waters rise.

Where will the stream carry my little face?

Why does he tear at my eyes?







Our next stop was back at the Choral Shul, where I began the morning.

We spoke there with Mausa Bairakas, one of the leaders of the congregation, who I had met earlier.  This time he spoke in Lithuanian, while our guide, Jonas, translated for us.  Mausa told us about growing up here in Kovno, where his family has lived for nearly three hundred years.  We asked about his experience with the community; he shrugged and said that things are "complicated."  The Jewish community is prospering--and assimilating away.  There are strong bridges to the non-Jewish world--and lingering anti-Semitism.  Hope and fear,  passion and apathy.  And factions: secularists and Yiddish revivalists and Zionists and religiously observant.  Mausa--who identifies strongly with the religious camp--shrugs his shoulders: "Like everywhere else."  

And so, in the last shul standing in a city that was once filled with them, much is new.  And much is old, too.


We left the shul and entered a nearby courtyard.  Such spaces are all over this city, which is filled with hidden spaces in all sorts of unexpected places--but this one was extraordinary.

Upon moving into a house on E. Ozeskienes street, tucked away in a quiet corner near the Choral Shul, Lithuanian artist Vytenis Jakas uncovered numerous stories of the courtyard's pre-war Jewish residents.  Those tales--and lives--became the basis for a street art gallery featuring pictures of those Litvaks and scenes from their lives.  It's a poignant and beautiful tribute to the world that was, and a source of inspiration to all who are working to create a progressive and open community here today.    
   The artist.

And some of the current residents:

Thank you, Mr. Jakas, for your generosity of vision.


We stopped briefly at the statue of Daniel Bolskis.  This Jewish singer spent just a few years in Kaunas before his premature death in 1931 but he is one of the most important figures in the history of Lithuanian music.  He was among the first popular artists to sing in Lithuanian.  Today, it is a common practice to fill his open hand with fresh cut flowers.


The former Nachalat Yisrael Kloiz (synagogue) now serves as the city's Jewish community center.  Alas, it was not open when we stopped by.  But it was good just to see it--a piece of active Jewish life.  Only a remnant survived but yes, we are still here.



The Kovno region is now a city built on three rivers--the Neris, Nemunas, and Nevezis.  We are paddling all three.  Originally, each sector was a separate town: Kovno and Slabodka and Aleksotas.  Today, of course, they have all merged into a single urban center.  Our guide likened it to Pittsburgh, also built on three rivers and marked by the many bridges spanning them.

But those dividing lines were once very important.  Aleksotas, on the south side of the Nemunas, was, for a time, a world away from Kovno and Slabodka.  After the Russians took control of most of Lithuania in 1795, Aleksotas remained part of Prussia.  Even after 1864, when it was annexed into the Russian empire, it retained its own laws and persisted in using the old Gregorian calendar, which differed from the revised Julian calendar by 12 days.  As a result, residents joked that the Aleksotas bridge was the longest in the world, because it took two weeks to cross!


We ended our tour at the train station--where there is a moving memorial to Chiune Sugihara, who, as noted earlier, continued to issue visas until the very last minute, throwing them out the moving railroad car as he departed from here.  It was a beautiful and fitting place to bid farewell to Jonas--and mark the end of a remarkable Shabbat.


Saturday, June 17, 2017

Upstream 11: Kaunas, part 2 (Saturday, May 26)

I woke up, ate a quick breakfast, then caught a taxi to the Choral Shul, the only functioning synagogue in Kovno.  Before World War II, there were almost forty synagogues in town, often organized around trades--a Kloiz (congregation) for tailors, for masons, for petty merchants, butchers, etc.  The Nazis destroyed all but one--the grandest synagogue, attended by wealthy and stylish Enlightenment Jews.  Built in grand, neo-Baroque style in 1872 and financed by the successful merchant Lewin Boruch Minkowski, it was used for worship and also for large cantorial concerts.  

I walked in and looked around the sanctuary.  The bimah is renowned for its beauty, and it lives up to its reputation--but no one was there.  Instead, an elderly gentleman walked over from beside the entryway and greeted me in Hebrew.  He asked  if I was there to pray.  I answered, "Ken--Yes" and he led me into a tiny side room, where seven men were just beginning the Shabbat morning service.  They handed me a siddur, asked if I was Jewish and had I come to pray.  Then they inquired if I knew how to lead the service.  When I nodded, one of the men led me up to the shtender, the very humble podium, and asked me to serve as shaliach tzibur, the prayer leader.

I assumed they wanted to honor me with a brief part, that I would lead a short section or two of the introductory prayers.  And I was, indeed, honored and very deeply moved, leading the birchot ha-Shachar, the morning blessings, in the same city where my great-great grandfather, Judel Finkelstein taught Torah and his son, Mendel, studied with giants like Isaac Elchanan Spektor and Israel Salanter's disciples, Yosef Horowitz and Yitzchak Blazer.  There I stood, thanking the Holy One for making me free, for creating me as a Jew--here in Kovno in 5777/2017.

I finished davenning this section, arrived at the P'sukei d'Zimra, the psalms of praise--and went to sit down.   But the gathering insisted I continue.  So I davenned on, with and for the community: Kol HaNishama t'hallel Yah--Let the soul of all that lives sing praise to the Holy One!  All that lives, indeed--even if only a tiny fragment of the glory that was once Jewish Kovno.  Again I went to sit down--and they insisted: Tamshich--Continue!

So I chanted Yotzer Or and Ahavah Rabbah and Emet v'emunah, offering blessing to the Holy One for creating light--and darkness--and for abiding love and truth.  I sang Sh'ma and Mi Chamocha, praising the Eternal's power to redeem us in times of trial (alas, so arbitrary, that one. . . ) and insisting on God's oneness in a world that is so badly broken.  And still, they said, continue.  So in the absence of a minyan, we did the Tefilllah in silence, on our own.  Then, at their request, I read the first three aliyot of the Torah portion from the Chumash, followed by Aleynu and the usual closing song, Adon Olam.  Afterwards, everyone came up and shook my hand and offered yesher koach and then, the Orthodoxy of the community notwithstanding, mostly got in their cars and drove away.  


I, not traditionally shomer Shabbos but decidedly car-less, walked away, through the streets of Kaunas' Old Town.  It was a stunning experience, leading the davenning in this place where my great great grandparents lived; I think it will take a long time, really, to sink in.  The morning went by in the blink of an eye, and I was so caught up in the moment,  worried about avoiding mistakes and trying to find a tune or two that they might know--with all of that going on, I could barely comprehend, let alone appreciate, the full measure of the hour as it unfolded.  Still, I was thankful for it.


I strolled around a bit, waiting to meet Rosa.  As I walked the streets of Kovno, I listened to a podcast of a sermon by Rabbi Sharon Brous on the portion, Behar.    Her title was "Do Not Become a Hideous Beast," a reference to the Eugene Ionesco play, "Rhinoceros" depicting the insidous ways that authoritarianism seeps into a culture and turns regular people into unrecognizable beasts.  Rabbi Brous speaks of the power of the sabbatical year as a counter-cultural force, and a reminder that we must resist the temptation to yield to the status quo in dark and dangerous times.  She was, of course, speaking about both the past (fascism, Nazism, Communism) and the ugliness running rampant in Donald Trump's America.  And I cannot begin to describe how poignant and potent it was to hear her words here, in Kovno, where the ghetto once stood and where so many were murdered by those who did, in fact, yield to the temptation and became hideous beasts.


But a few kept their humanity.

After I met up with Rosa, we headed for the home of Chiune Sugihara, the diplomat who served as a vice-consul of the Japanese consulate in Kaunas in 1939 and 1940.  It is in a quiet, leafy neighborhood on a hill above the center of town--lovely but unremarkable here, save for the Japanese lettering outside, and the lines of Japanese tourists here to honor a hero.


When the Soviet Union occupied independent Lithuania in 1940, large numbers of Polish and Lithuanian Jewish refugees tried to acquire exit visas--yet virtually no countries were willing to issue them.  

Sugihara decided to grant visas on his own.  He ignored legal requirements and issued ten-day visas to Jews for transit through Japan, in direct violation of his orders.  He also persuaded the Soviet authorities to allow these Jews passage across the country via the Trans-Siberian railroad to Vladivostok, where they boarded boats to Tsuruga, Japan.  He continued to write out these visas, by hand, until September 4, when the consulate was closed and he was forced to vacate his post.  According to witnesses, Sugihara continued to issue visas after boarding the train in Kaunas station, throwing them into the crowd of desperate refugees as the train pulled out for Berlin.  In parting, he cried out: "Please forgive me--I cannot write anymore.  I wish you the best" and then bowed deeply to the people.  When asked about this later, he simply noted: "They were human beings and they needed help.  I am glad I found the strength to make the decision to give it to them."  It is estimated that Sugihara issued visas for around 6,000 Jews--and today, nearly 40,000 descendants of those refugees are alive because of his brave actions.  

Of those who reached Japan, some got asylum in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Burma, the United States, Palestine, and Argentina.  Others stayed in Japan until they were deported to Shanghai, which had a large Jewish community during the war.  

In 1985--45 years after the Soviet invasion of Lithuania--Chiune Sugihara was recognized by Yad VaShem in Israel as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.  He died a year later.  When his widow, Yukiko, traveled to Jerusalem in 1998, she was met by tearful survivors who showed her the yellowing visas that her husband had granted them.  


After the Sugihara house, we stopped for a bite of lunch--fittingly, at a sushi place nearby.  Then we met Jonas, our tour guide for an extraordinary Shabbat afternoon walk through the remnants of Jewish Kaunas--Kovno and Slabodka.

We began by the old Bikkur Cholim Jewish hospital, on Jaksto Street.  Built in the mid-19th century, it was financed by the local Jewish community and the municipality.  Like much of old Jewish Kovno, it now stands vacant.
 The old Bet HaMidrash, at 4 Pilies Street, is also largely run down.


As I have noted, both here and in Vilna, most Jews affiliated with a congregation (Kloiz) based on their occupation.  This was the butchers' synagogue.


I have already mentioned Abraham Mapu, and will return to him again. . . He was the very first Hebrew novelist and an important early Zionist.  He spent much of his life here in Kovno, where there is a street named after him (there are also Mapu streets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem).
 There is also a street named for Jewish Kovno resident Ludwig Zamenhof.  He grew up speaking Yiddish, Russian, Belarusian, German, French, Hebrew and Polish.  In school he studied Greek, Latin, and Aramaic and later learned some English, too.  He wrote a book on Yiddish grammar.  But despite--or maybe because of--knowing all of these languages, he decided to create his own.  L.L. Zamenhof is the father of Esperanto.

Of course the dream of a common language goes back to the Tower of Babel--and, is, of course, doomed to failure.   Esperanto remains the most widely spoken artificially constructed language in the world; according to Wikipedia, as of 27 May, 2017, over one million users have started to learn Esperanto on Duolingo.  But even before his own death in 1917, Zamenhof must have known that the world would not unify under Esperanto or any other tongue.  

It's a pipe dream.  Still, this kind of grand universalist ideal, as unrealistic as it may have been, is so Jewish.  We are, despite everything, a nation of dreamers.

We passed an old bet midrash, a school where young Jewish children once learned their aleph-bet.  During the Soviet period, it was turned into an auto mechanics shop.


Next week, we will be paddling on the Nevezis River, which runs into the Nemunas on the western outskirts of Kovno.  Before it reaches here, it passes through Keidainiai (Keidan), where Judel Finkelstein was born.  Slabodka was founded by Jews from Keidan, and many years later, they built a shul in Kovno named for the Nevezis River.  The founder of the mussar movement, Rabbi Israel Lipkin Salanter taught there, at the Neviazher Kloiz, after moving from Vilna to Kovno.  

So I felt a strong connection when we passed the old Neviazher Kloiz, due to my Keidan family, my admiration for Salanter and the mussar movement, and my forthcoming time on the Nevezis river.

Here it is:

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Upstream 10: Kaunas, part 1 (Friday, May 26)

We woke to chilly rain.  But it diminished over the course of the morning, and our hot tea at breakfast was revitalizing.

In this morning's davenning, I was struck by one of the opening blessings: "Praised are You, Eternal One. . . Roka ha-aretz al ha-mayyim--Who founds the earth firm upon the waters."  

These days, we are on the water as much--or more--than the ground.  I love water and rivers, but the experience really does make me appreciate the solid earth.  Every time I get out of the boat after a long stretch of paddling, I experience "sea legs"--a state of wobbly and weak imbalance--for a bit before I re-orient and feel the ground again, firm beneath my feet.  I am grateful for both: the water that sustains and carries us, and the earth, comfortable and steady and solid.


The skies have been grey most of the day but the rain has more or less held off.  We've made good time, and stop for lunch at 1:30 on a sandy island on the outskirts of Kaunas.  Rosa and I like the houses, which are all unique, so eclectic and different from one another: large and small, contemporary and aged, brightly painted and greying wood.  Our next stop will be Kaunas--in Yiddish, Kovno--where, about a mile upstream on the Nemunas, after the confluence with the river we are paddling, the Neris, we will meet our contact, Egidijus, who will pick us up at the appointed take out.


After Vilna, Kovno was the second-biggest Jewish center in Lithuania.  It was also the home of my great-great grandparents, Judel and Feige Rivke Finkelstein.  Though, to be more precise, they lived in a section of town that was, at the time, distinct from Kovno, across the Neris, on its western bank, which we will pass on river left as we come through town.  It is now known as Vilijampole, but back in the day, it was called Slabodka.  In his memoir of growing up there, in a one room hut with a dirt floor, Rabbi Shimon Finkelstein notes: "When a Jew from Slabodka became rich, he moved to Kovno.  When a Jew from Kovno became impoverished, he moved to Slabodka."  

Slabodka was originally founded by Jews from Keidan, where Judel Finkelstein was born.  From the start, it was also home of the most pious Jews in the Kovno area.  It had two renowned yeshivas.  The first was inspired by the founder of the Mussar movement, Yisrael Salanter.  He taught for nine years in the Neviazher Kloiz, a synagogue named for the Nevezis River, which we will be paddling next week, which passes through both Keidan and Kovno before its confluence with the Nemunas.  Later, in 1882, his disciple, Natan Tzvi Finkel founded the Slabodka yeshiva, Knesset Bet Yisrael, which focused on mussar teaching.    A rival yeshiva, rooted in the misnagdic tradition and opposed to the dissemination of Mussar was founded in 1897 and named Knesset Bet Yitzchak, for the renowned chief rabbi of the city, Isaac Elchanan Spektor.  The renowned Soloveichik family also had deep roots in Kovno.  Rabbi Shimon Finkelstein--and likely his brother, my great grandfather, Mendel-- studied with both Spektor and two of Salanter's  most renowned disciples, Rabbis Yitzchak Blazer and Yozel Horowitz.  And he was ordained by Rabbi Judah Meshil HaCohen, of Aleksot, the section of town where we will be staying for the weekend.  

 But not everyone in Kovno--or even Slabodka--was pious.  The community was also home to Bundists, Zionists, Communists and all sorts of other Jews.  The Haskallah--Jewish "Enlightenment'--also had a strong presence in town, including the writer Abraham Mapu, who was born and lived much of his life here, and is considered the first Hebrew novelist.  Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew, visited the city in 1901 and other famous guests included Moses Montefiore and Marc Chagall.

In 1897, just after my great grandfather left, the Jewish population of Kovno and Slabodka reached 25,448, making up 36% of the general population.  This made the Jewish community a relative majority in this multi-national and multi-lingual city, which was otherwise 25.6% Russian, 22.8% Polish, 6.8% Lithuanian and 4.7% German.  

Alas, nearly the entire population was wiped out by the Germans and their local accomplices, who imprisoned the community in the Kovno Ghetto and then shot them, men, women, and children, into the ditches they had dug in the forest outside of town, in an area known as the Ninth Fort.


The Finkelstein family--Rosa and me--did not make a grand re-entry into our ancestral home.  Our take out spot was about a kilometer north--upstream--on the Nemunas, and after we reached the confluence, we quickly realized the current was too strong to paddle against for any real distance.  So get out and lined the boat along the marshy shoreline, making our way through the muck and mud that lined the banks.  Finally, we had to cross the river to meet Egidijus on river right.  This entailed paddling like mad, struggling against the stream, until we neared the cement wall on the other side and passed under a large bridge.  Finally we spotted Egidijus and threw him a rope, which enabled us to make it upstream with a whole lot of effort, us paddling and him pulling.  At last we made it to the takeout, where we loaded our kayak onto his van and threw our bags and in the back--and he very graciously insisted on driving us to our bed and breakfast, accepting no payment for the time and effort.  

I cannot emphasize enough that this journey is entirely a team effort.  Rosa and I are doing the paddling, but we could not begin to make this trip without the logistical support and tremendous kindness of many others.  Starting, of course, with the amazing Justus Pipiras, who made all of the arrangements.  But also the many contacts who are helping us along the way, like Egedijus.  His assistance, encouragement, and graciousness are a beacon.

Justus dropped us off at our place, arranged through AirBnB, in Aleksotas, the section of town where the rabbi who ordained Shimon Finkelstein once lived.  The accommodations are perfect--a beautiful home with a spectacular garden.  We spread our stuff out to dry, settled into our rooms, had a good dinner and then lit Shabbat candles.  We are so grateful for the comforts of civilization and rest of the Shabbat day!

Friday, June 9, 2017

Upstream 9: The River Jews of Yaneve (Thursday, May 25/Omer day 44)

Note: I am, obviously, playing catch up with my blogging.  Bear with me.

I'm standing on the bank of the river after breakfast, davenning, as per my usual morning routine.  it's a gorgeous day, the sun warm on my face.  I sing the Sh'ma very slowly, Shhh-----mmmm----ahhh--Listen!  I hear the constant chorus of birdsong, the music of the river flowing pastel--and then the unmistakable sharp percussion of gun shots (and yes, I know the sound of gun shots in the rural landscape--I do not own a firearm, but I am an Idahoan, after all. . . )

It is terribly--chilling--to hear gunshots here.  I cringe and think: "How many were saying Sh'ma, like me, in this very forest, by this very river--as gun shots sent them to their death in the ditches they had just dug?"

I suspect that this was someone shooting targets, or just blasting away with a rifle, as folks are wont to do.  There were too many shots, in too rapid a succession, for this to be a hunter.  The shooter likely has no idea how terrifying this act of firing a gun in this forest can be, how it summons up the most tragic ghosts of history for Rosa and me.  I tremble--then count myself among the lucky ones, listening here and now, at a safe distance, rather than seventy five years ago on a similarly warm summer day.  


The morning paddling was rather mundane.  We set out at 10 and made it into the town of Jonava around 1:00.  We pulled onto the land at a riverside park by the main bridge connecting the town across the Neris.  It was uncrowned, with just a few folks sunbathing and enjoying a late lunch.  We walked up to a bench beside a large cross facing the river--a Catholic memorial of some sort--and gathered our things.  Then I got on Google maps on my phone and did a search for the memorial to the Jews of Jonava--or, in Yiddish, Yaneve--killed in the Shoah.  It was too far away for us, limited by being on foot and reluctant to leave our boat alone for very long.  But with my few words of acquired Lithuanian, I found Zydu Kapines Parkas.  Well, I know that Zydu is "Jewish" and kapines is "cemetery" and figured that parkas is "park": Jewish Cemetery Park, just half a kilometer away.  So while Rosa rested and watched the boat, I followed the Google map (thank you, Google--this tool is a great blessing on this trip!) and set off into town.

Jonava is a pleasant place.  I passed lots of pedestrians, bustling shops, a library and a cultural center advertising a forthcoming Jonava festiva. Finally, I arrived at the Google destination and found. . . nothing.  Old houses, a dilapidated street.   Then I noticed a few stones in the overgrown field.  Well, that field had been the old Jewish cemetery--and it was now a "park" where folks walk their dogs among the crabgrass and dandelions.

I found one very old marker intact, with a Jewish star on it.  Before this journey, I gathered a bunch of stones from the banks of the Boise River, near the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights memorial--with the intent to leave these stones at Jewish burial sites here.  I deposited one, along with a Hamsa bracelet that Jonah and I made.  Then I sang El Malei Rachamim, the traditional Jewish mourners' prayer, right there in the old cemetery, for the Jews of the city buried there, and those murdered in the forests nearby.  I lingered and pondered their fate and my own, how much in our lives depends upon luck and fate, being born in the right--or wrong--time and place.  Then I walked back to meet Rosa, stopping in the market for a little beer and chocolate, which we shared on the riverbank before setting back out on our way.


My Litvak ancestors were rabbis and rebbetzins, pious Torah scholars from the yeshivas of Keidan and Slabodka--in many ways, the images we tend to conjure of Old Country Jews.  But there were many other types of Jews, especially here in Jonava/Yaneve.  

Samuel Goldsmith describes this community in his memoir, "My Yaneve":

It is true to say that Yaneve was never a center of Jewish learning. Some Lithuanian towns, Volozhin, Telzh, Lyda, Slobodka near Kovno (I refer to “Classical Lithuania”) used to be famous as places of Jewish learning. And then there was Vilna. Yaneve claimed no such fame. There were one or two great Talmudic scholars in the place, but they had come from other places and brought their learning with them. There was no Yeshiva in Yaneve. Nor was there a Jewish high school. All Jewish Yaneve had was a Hebrew primary school and a Yiddish school of rather low standing. The rabbis came from outside and so did the teachers. The children of Yaneve usually continued their education in larger towns.

It would be difficult to name a world-famous Jew who hailed from Yaneve. Here and there a scholar; here and there a painter. Neither of them very well known. But the Jews of Yaneve as a group made a profound impact upon Jewish life in the Diaspora. They were profound, devoted to Eretz Israel, stubborn fighters for Jewish rights. Every Jew within this group was a man and a brother. I cannot recall a really bad Jewish character in the town. I still like to say, “We men of Yaneve…”

Before Israel and Zionism and chalutzim kibbutzniks, there were already plenty of tough Jews who earned their living by the sweat of their brows and lived close to the land and its rivers.  Goldsmith adds:

significant part of the Jews of Yaneve drew their livelihood from the river and the dense forests in the district. The trees used to be cut, rolled into the river, tied together into rafts with special ropes, and navigated downstream to Germany. For the Viliya flows into the Nieman, which flows into the Baltic Sea on the German side.  There were several specialties in this trade: the merchants, the navigators, and the middlemen. Some of this timber used to be bought by local Jewish furniture makers. Yaneve was – and still is – a world center of the furniture industry. Many other Jews made a living in subsidiary trades. There were leather merchants, smiths – gold and black -, cobblers, tailors, and grain dealers. My father was a leather merchant. . . There were some poor Jews, of course, but it was not a “Shtetl” as described by American Jewish novelists. Nobody opened up a shop and hoped that the Almighty will send him customers. The Jews in Yaneve knew what they wanted to do, and the craftsmen were well trained. The furniture made in Yaneve used to be sold all over the world.

Best of all I remember the expert navigators, who took the rafts down to the Baltic Sea. They were not unlike British seamen or Norwegian fishermen. It is the influence of long hours on the river or at sea. They used to eat and drink on the rafts. To be a good navigator, you had to have physical strength, agility, powers of observation and endless patience.


On this journey, I realize that I am drawn to both of these Jewish traditions--the scholars, represented by my rabbinic ancestors, but also the Yanover burlakes, the tough Jewish river rats of Yaneve and other nearby towns.  I want to be a rabbi and a river runner, to embrace Yaneve and Slabodka.

And to remember that in the summer of 1941, the tough Jews and the pale Talmudic sages died in the same forests.


We left around 3:30 pm.  The morning and early afternoon were sunny but we could feel the weather changing, with the wind whipping up saves and the gusts of chilly, damp air blowing in from the west carried more than a hint of the Baltic Sea.  I suggested we paddle hard to make some miles before the squalls came in, and we did--but within thirty minutes, the heavens let loose a downpour.  Rosa put on her raincoat; I just got soaked.  We both paddled even harder and picked up speed in the storm.  

Around 6 pm we found a campsite--a real, dedicated campsite, high on the bank, river left.  It was hard work to get the kayak and all of our things ashore, but well worth it, as the weather cleared and we enjoyed a great night in a flat, lovely site and lit a bonfire.  I strung up a clothes line, and our things dried nicely in the 9 pm sun--and we got a good phone signal so we sent text messages and I got to speak with Janet and Jonah.  It was a beautiful evening, the end of an eventful day.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Upstream--Keidan/Keidainiai: A Tale of Beauty, Tragedy, and Hope

I am now over a week behind in my blogging.  It is hard--maybe impossible--to keep up.  I'm overwhelmed by all that I've seen and experienced, and since we're on the river paddling most days, 8-10 hours a day, I don't have either the time or connection to catch up.

When I get home, I will try to put up posts belatedly, as I have, at least, been keeping a good journal.  I have so much to report from last weekend, when we were in Kaunas/Kovno for Shabbat--and I ended up leading the Shabbat morning service at the Choral Shul, the only remaining synagogue in Kaunas, where, before WWII, there were over thirty.

But I'll have to add that later.  Rosa and I had such a remarkable day today, though, that I do want to get some thoughts and pictures down while they are still fresh.  We spent much of the day with a real hero, and I want to share that experience, because it doesn't happen too often.

We arrived in Keidainiai/Keidan late Friday afternoon after a long day paddling down the Nevezis River from near Surviliskis/Survilishok.  Much of the day was chilly and we had a difficult portage over a dam.  But we finally pulled into town and into the backyard of Gertune and her husband, acquaintances of Justus who agreed to store our kayak in their garden shed while we are in town.  They insisted on driving us to our Airbnb accommodations, across town, where we are staying with Audrius, a young Keidainiai resident.  All of these folks are vital to the journey that we are making.  We could not even begin to attempt this trip without the good will and kindness of Justus and all the others who are supporting us.  

In the evening, we enjoyed a nice dinner out and lit Shabbat candles in our room.  I posted a few pictures on the Facebook site, "Roots in Keidan"--and promptly got a message for Laima Ardaviciene, a Keidainiai high school teacher who invited us to meet her.  We made plans to meet by the old synagogues at 10:00 this morning.


Keidan is a special place for my family.  I began this journey with a visit to the gravestone of Rabbi Yehudah Tzvi (Judel) Finkelstein in Queens.  He spent out of his life in Kovno/Slabodka, but he was born here in Keidan.  Here's how his son, Rabbi Shimon Finkelstein tells the story:

My father was descended from a long line of rabbinic scholars who had lived in Keidan, a town noted in our district for rabbinic learning.I would have remained in complete ignorance of the distinction of his ancestry had I not early in life met a cousin, the daughter of my famous aunt, Chaya Etta of Kovno.  My aunt was one of the few Jewish women of her country and generation who had broken through the conventions which barred her sex from public life and had graduated as a nurse from a St. Petersburg school. She had received a medal from the Tsar for excellence in her studies, and in my time was known everywhere in Kovno not only for her eminence in her profession, but also for her wide influence in the community, where she was credited with having been the decisive factor in the selection of various rabbis. Her daughter, who she reared in her own profession and who also attained unusual distinction, was my informant regarding family history.  Despite my father's reticence about his forebears, except when he quoted "their Torah," he was aware, as I now understand, of his obligation to them and very eager that his sons should measure up to their standards of learning. 

My own father, Arnold Fink, always expressed pride in our Keidaner ancestry.  Apparently there was good precedent for this.  In his memoir, "Worlds Gone By", Dr. Chaim Yakov Epstein notes: "Keidan was not just another Lithuanian town.  It was a city with a noble lineage. Proud was the Jew who, when asked, "Where do you hail from?" could stand up tall and respond, "Ich bin Keidaner--I am a Keidaner."

The city boomed in the 17th century, under the patronage of the ruling Radvila family.  Unlike most Lithuanians, in this very Catholic country, they were Calvinists, and big believers in religious tolerance.  Keidan attracted Germans and Scots--and Jews.  The Jewish community here were merchants and brewers and weavers--and also farmers, who cultivated fruits and vegetables and sugar beets.  And Keidan's cucumbers, grown by Jewish farmers, were famous throughout Lithuania--and beyond.

It was also a place of deep Jewish learning.  David Katzenellenbogen was a famous rabbi here.  In 1727, a six year old boy arrived in Keidan from Vilna. His natural talent stunned the rabbis of Keidan, who saw his potential and educated the lad.  He would become Rabbi Eliyahu--the Vilna Gaon, one of the greatest Jewish scholars who ever lived.  His wife, Channa, was also a Keidaner.  

Over the years, this town raised many eminent Jews--religious and secular, Zionists and Talmudists and Bundists and communists and more.  Among them were the Hebrew writer Moshe-Leib Lilienblum, a Hebrew writer and poet and leading light in the awakenings of Zionism. 

But there was also the stuff of daily life, as described by Boruch Cassel and Chaim Epstein in their memoirs of life in Keidan:

A Saturday night in Tammuz (June/July).  After a hot day, the evening has called things off a little, and with the new moon in a clear skyline, the whole city is outdoors.  The old bridge is packed with strollers, mostly young people.  Girls go with girls, and boys with boys. They walk in pairs, in groups of three or four or more in a row, usually of the same age.  The line of boys follows after a line of girls, making jokes at their expense, but the girls give as good as they get, laughing and throwing wisecracks of their own back in the boys direction.  

. . . It was was not a long bridge and could be crossed, back and forth, many times, thus giving young men and women many chances to meet.

Who knows?  Perhaps my great-great grandparents, Yehuda and Soreh, met on this bridge--which stood in exactly the same place over the Nevezis River where Rosa and I passed into town yesterday.


We met Laima in the old marketplace, outside the two old synagogues, one for the summer and one for the winter.  One is now an art school.   The other is a museum and cultural center.  Both are beautiful.


There is a large Holocaust memorial outside, which contains 2076 bullet shells, one for each victim killed in the fields outside of town on August 28, 1941.  There are also many large stones.  I added a small stone of my own, one of many that I picked up from the bank of the Boise River by the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial.

     Near these two synagogues is the Talmud Torah where the future Vilna Gaon studied as a boy.

Then Laima led us into the former synagogue that is now a cultural center.  Downstairs is an exhibit of art, dedicated the life of an aging local monk who risked his life to save local Jews during the Shoah.  

    Upstairs, there is an exhibit dedicated to the history of the local Jewish community.  It reminded me how important it is to not let the tragic end of the story become the whole story.  Of course we cannot forget the Shoah--but it would be terrible, too, to forget the hundreds of years of beautiful Jewish life there that preceded it.


Next, Laima led us through the streets of the city, pointing out buildings that had once been Jewish homes and workplaces--the old drug store, a house with a sukkah attached, merchants' stores.  I got teary, thinking of my family living here.  We always see pictures of old shtetls in black and white.  But life was lived in full color.

When we arrived back at the bank of the Nevezis River, upon which Rosa and I entered the city, we saw a sign for C. Miloso Street.  It is named for the Nobel prize winning author, Czeslaw Milosz, who was born near here and who loved Keidan and the Nevezis, which he fictionalized as the Issa River Valley.  

In that book, he writes:  The Issa Valley has the distinction of being inhabited by an unusually large number of devils.  It may be that the hollow willows, mills, and thickets lining the riverbanks provide a convenient cover for those creatures who reveal themselves only when it suits them. . . And how is one to tell them apart, those creatures coinciding with the advent of Christianity from those native inhabitants of bygone days, like the forest witch who switches children in their cradles, or the little people who stray all night from their places under the roots of the elderberry bushes? Are the devils and those other creatures joined in a pact, or do they simply exist side by side like the jay, the sparrow, and the crow?  And where is that realm where both species would take refuge when the earth was plowed up by the tracks of tanks; when those who were about to be executed dug their own shallow graves by the river; and when, in blood and tears, Industrialization rose up, surrounded by the halo of History?

To honor Milosz--who bore witness to so much that happened on these banks--the city put up a giant sculpted chair, looking out over the Nevezis.  It invites us to sit in Milosz's place, to see the beauty and the horror, to listen and learn.



I mentioned the Radvila family, and their patronage of this city.  Outside the town hall, their is a statute in their honor--and they are buried in the Reformation Protestant church, which Laima took us through.  


    Then we went to see a beautiful old gymnasium/high school.


Next, we walked a bit out of town to see the Jewish cemetery.  Most of the graves here are over a century old--an even older cemetery adjacent is now destroyed.  But there are hundreds of headstones in the intact cemetery.  The majority are illegible, the engraving worn away by time and weather.  We could read a few.   Somewhere here, my Finkelstein ancestors are buried.  Laima noted: "These are the lucky ones, who got to pass away rather than being murdered in the forest."  I left another stone and sang the traditional mourners' prayer, "El Malei Rachamim."




In memory of those whose graves we saw, a poem (in Leonard Wolf's English translation from the Yiddish) by Keidan native Abraham Reisen:

Future Generations

Future generations,
Brothers still to come,
Don't you dare
Be scornful of our songs.
Songs about the weak,
Songs of the exhausted
In a poor generation,
Before the world's decline.

We were all imbued
With the idea of freedom,
Yet sang our songs about it
With voices lowered.
Far from our good fortune
We met at night, in darkness,
And worked at building bridges
In secrecy.

We hid from the foes
Who lay in wait for us,
And this is why our songs
Resonate with grief,
And why our melodies
Have a dismal longing
And a hidden rage
In their warp and woof.


Then came what was, for me, in many ways, the most remarkable--and inspiring--part of the day.

We walked from the cemetery to Laima's school, Atzalyno Gimnazija, where she teaches English to high school seniors.  School ended for the students yesterday--but Laima let us in.  We were struck, immediately, by the mural at the entrance--a testimony to Keidan's different religious traditions.  Like all the art in this school, it was painted by students.

Just a little further down the hall is another school project--a map showing the places where the Soviets exiled so many Lithuanians during the Russian occupation.  They were shipped off to Siberia--and did not all return alive.  As we remember the Shoah, and honor the Litvak Jewish community murdered by the Nazis and Lithuanian accomplices, it is important to recall that Stalin, too, bears responsibility for the slaughter and suffering of millions, including multitudes of Lithuanians.


The halls are filled with art--they testify to the power of art to tell stories, to bear witness, to inspire and move us.



And then we came to Laima's classroom.  

There are flags from Lithuania and Israel, a menorah,  and certificate of honor gifted to Laima by the Tolerance Center, the local organization headed by another hero, Rimantas Zirgulis, doing the hard work of preserving history and using the lessons of the past to build a better future, anchored in human rights for all.  There is a map of Lithuania, a poster of London, and numerous great books in English and Lithuanian.  But the most prominent feature in the classroom is a large, wall-sized mural of Keidan's two synagogues beneath a giant tree, which is made up of over 1700 names--the names of the Jewish families who lived in this city.  At the bottom are those famous Yiddish words of pride, "I am a Keidaner."  

This brought me to weeping--for what was lost, but, much more, for the heroic effort Laima and her students are making to honor their city's Jewish past.  They have looked straight into the worst of tragedy and brought, against all odds, a belated grace note of redemption.  No, nothing can overcome the horror of the Shoah, of 2076 Jews shot into ditches.  But this teacher and her students give me hope despite that horror.  They remind me that the past need not be prologue to the future, that people and communities and nations can change, that the youth really are the promise of a better tomorrow.

And Laima is leading the way.  She showed us projects that her classes have taken on in recent years, YouTube videos of their efforts to map Jewish Keidan, to honor the women of the old Jewish community, to celebrate Chanukah, via Skype,  with a Jewish day school in Perth, Australia.  And much, much more.  She is one of the righteous of the nations, doing sacred work.  It was a privilege and an inspiration to sit in her classroom.



For the last destination of the day, Laima called a cab and rode with us past the outskirts of town, down a dirt road, to the place in the forest where the massacre took place.

There are no words to describe this.

I will only say that the contrast, between the peaceful forest and fields and flowers, with their bird song and gentle breeze--and the horror of what happened here--is inconceivable.  I cannot begin to fathom it.  

But the memorial here is right, in every sense, because it bears the names of those who died--affirming the names, the unique humanity of each of those souls who the Nazis and their local accomplices chose to de-humanize and reduce to mere numbers in order to be able to slaughter them.  

Thanks to Rimantas Zirgulis, who conceived of this project, and saw it through to the finish.  And to Laima, who brings her students here, every year, where they read the names of the Keidaners who died here.

They were not numbers.  They were--and will always be--names.  Souls.  Humans, created in the Divine Image.  This marker, in the face of the utter horror of what happened here, asserts this.  The students who read the names inscribed here are, in my mind, praying--in the best sense of the word.  They are affirming the Divine in the most godless of places.

With Rosa and Laima, again I wept.  And sang El Malei Rachamim.  And wept.



We returned to town around 4:00.  The cab dropped us off back in Old Town, where we had begun, nearly six hours earlier.  We hugged and exchanged addresses.  I will be in touch with Laima and her students, of this I am certain.


And at day's end, I was not the same person I'd been when the sun rose.  

It was a day of awe and learning and tears and despair and inspiration and, in the end, hope.

It was a blessed Shabbat.

Shavua tov.  May it be a week of peace.