Saturday, May 27, 2017

Upstream 8: Cuckoos and Weed Wackers (Wednesday, May 24)

Up and mostly packed and davenning by 9:00 am.  I was struck this morning by this phrase from the liturgy:

Or chadash al tziyon ta-ir v'nizkeh kulanu m'heyra l'oro--A new light shall shine on Zion--may we all speedily benefit from its illumination!

Initially, many of the Sages opposed the insertion of this phrase into the Yotzer Or blessing, which speaks of the light of morning, and light that marked the beginning of God's creation.  The bulk of the prayer is universalitic and focuses on literal light, while this passage speaks much more metaphorically, and yet also tribally, about the longing for the land of Israel.  For the Rabbis, it did not fit.  But the ordinary people wanted it and, as usual in such matters, they won the day.  It stuck.  Its vision of a Zion restored, illuminating the world, must have provided hope and pride in hard times.  And there were a lot of hard times.

Centuries later, the Zionist movement sought to use secular means to transform the sentiment of this prayer into a political reality.  My Litvak family lived through the birth of political Zionism at the end of the 19th century.  My great-grandfather's brother, Rabbi Shimon Finkelstein was an early Orthodox Zionist.  During a visit to Palestine in the late 1920s or early 1930s, he became friendly with Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, a seminal Zionist voice in the Orthodox community and towering theological and political leader.  I can only assume that his brother, Rabbi Mendel Finkelstein's views were similar.  Both Shimon and Mendel Finkelstein died in 1947, one year before the state of Israel was born--and Mendel's grandson, my father, Rabbi Arnold Fink, celebrated his Bar Mitzvah.  Alas, Dad never met his grandfather.

At any rate, Zionism divided the Litvak community, as it did in the rest of the Jewish world.  Despite the support of some in the Orthodox community such as Rav Kook and the Rabbis Finkelstein, it was largely a secular and often socialist movement.  Many of the ultra-Orthodox here in Lithuania bitterly opposed it.  This community was full of factions: Orthodox and secular, Zionists and socialists and communists of all varieties.  Families and communities split over the ideological battles of the day.  

What did Litvaks make of these words--a new light in Zion?  How did they hear them?  Were they a theological yearning or a political charge?  For God or humanity?  And how many, as tragedy loomed, might have envisioned the new light dawning in the east?


We set out on the river by 9:30--for all of thirty minutes or so.  Then we stopped at Kernave, on the right bank.  It's a national park and UNESCO World Heritage site--an archaeological work in progress.  We walked through the remains of a fortress settlement that was the seat of Lithuanian power, culture, and civilization in the 13th and 14th centuries, before Grand Duke Gediminas established Vilnius as his capitol and built a small empire from there.  But Kernave's roots go back much farther, with Paleolithic settlements.  Relics from the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age have all been excavated here. Civilization centered on the river valley.  The Neris, which we've been paddling, made this a center for transportation, farming, and trades.

In 1253, Lithuania's first and only king, Mindaugus, was coronated here.  He defeated or eliminated most of his rivals--primarily family members--and made this city the seat of his throne.  He built up the natural earth mounds and fortified them, then ruled from here.  For a time he converted to Catholicism, in order to garner the support of Pope Innocent in his battle with the crusader Teutonic Order--then he reverted to paganism, as Lithuanians were wont to do, being the last bastion of Europe to remain pagan despite much pressure to become Christian.  This land lent itself to paganism, with its dense forests, full of nymphs and fairies, devils and spirits.  

Did any of this affect the Jews?  We don't know.  We don't really have good evidence for when the first Jews arrived here, though some propose that they were an offshoot of the Khazar kingdom and came in the 9th century.  But they, too, settled in the river valleys, in the shadow of the forests.  Many worked in those forests, harvesting timber and sending it down the rivers for trade.  Like many of their age, I suspect they both loved and feared the forest, which writer Robert Pogue Harrison calls "the shadow of civilization."  They lived and loved here.  Alas, many would die here, too.


We had lunch on a very nice little island, then paddled on, working fairly hard as the current slowed down.  The river became placid and lake-like, which meant less floating with the stream and more work.  And the landscape became less forested and more agrarian.  We began to see many houses, many quite nice--more likely summer homes for the well-to-do than country peasant dwellings.  We were surprised at the amount of new construction out here.

We had a short conversation with a man riding a local ferry across the river with his motorcycle.  He greeted us with "Laba diena"--which we recognized as "Good afternoon" since we have begun doing a few minutes of Lithuanian study in the mornings using an app that I downloaded.  Then we asked, "English?"  He responded: "Where are you going?"  Us: "Kaunas."  He laughed and said, "Straight down the river."  Not much, but our first real river dialogue of any sort with locals, so it's a start.  From there, the river also straightened out, with far less meandering.  This made it easier to make good time, but also more boring to paddle.

At our last paddling break, around 5 pm, I took a bath--stripped down, jumped in, soaped, washed, out and towel dry.  All within about two minutes because it was cold!  But it was also refreshing and it felt so good to be a little cleaner.  Two hours later we made camp.  As per our now standard routine, I pitched the tent and set up camp while Rosa started the cooking.  We're working well together this way, too.

The mosquitos were thick as clouds, so we ate quickly and then retreated into the tent, where we played rummy and then readied for bed.

Oh, and one last observation: rural Lithuanians like their weed wackers.  We hear the roar of weed wackers everywhere!  This makes sense, as things grow with great gusto here--especially weeds.  The dense overgrowth that makes it a bit difficult to find a campsite speaks to this.  So Rosa and I both laughed at our version of the soundtrack of the Lithuanian countryside: "Cuckoo!  Cuckoo!  Rrrrrrrrrrr (weed wacker sound!).  Cuckoo!  Rrrrrr!"  Repeat ad infinitude.  

Cuckoos and weed wackers.  We'll take it.

Upstream 7: Kernave

I woke up thinking it was 6:30 or 7:00 am, as the sunlight was growing strong outside and the birds were singing with such gusto.  Then I looked at my watch and saw that it was 4:15!  Come late spring/summer, there is not much darkness in this northern land!  It was hard to go back to sleep, because a cuckoo was calling so loudly and constantly.  I did not see it, nor am I an expert of any sort on bird calls, but this one was easy, as the bird speaks its name so unmistakably: "Cuckoo, cuckoo!"  I also gained some understanding as to why we use the term "cuckoo" to indicate craziness--the incessant repetition of this call can be a little maddening.  At any rate, I eventually fell back asleep until 8:15, despite the cuckoo and the light.  

We paddled for a couple of hours, had lunch on an island around 1:30.  Rosa and I are working well together as a team, and so far, the weather has been lovely--blue skies, temperatures in the mid-60s.  The breeze can be stiff, especially when it is blowing upstream right at us, but we are making good progress.  Tomorrow the forecast calls for rain, but we shall see.

Before we set out in the morning, I sounded the shofar.  I plan to start each day, except Shabbat, this way.  I think of the Partisan's Song, written in the Vilna Ghetto, which ends with "Mir zaynen daw--We are here!"  I want to honor those who were here with the shofar's call, which, for me, echoes that same message: "Hinenu--We are here!"  We are here, still, the descendants of those who left before the war and those who survived.  The Jewish people.  It is a call of defiance in the face of destruction.  It is a trumpeting of pride.

The pattern of shofar calls reinforce this.  We begin with tekiah--a whole, unbroken blast.  One, it says, we were whole.  Then shevarim and teruah--three shorter and then nine even shorter staccato blasts.  The sound of brokenness.  But we end with tekiah again--the promise of wholeness restored. And so we move, with the shofar calls, and in life, from wholeness to brokenness and back, we hope, toward the promise of wholeness restored.  Of course in this world, that restoration is never in full.  The immense horror of the Shoah cannot be redeemed.  But we who are blessed to be here, now, must do our part to work toward wholeness.  Once there was a wholeness to Jewish life here in Lithuania.  It was hard and poor, but also filled with the beauty of learning, of Torah and tradition and revolution, too.  Now there are tiny sparks and shards of that life.   I hope to collect some of those as my tikkun during my time here.  

Finally, as I davvened this morning in my tallit and tefillin---another practice I am committed to daily during my time here--two phrases from the liturgy jumped out at me.  I've uttered them hundreds of times, but the context here gave them new meaning and emphasis, which is part of the beauty of prayer. The first was the blessing thanking God for making me a Jew--Baruch atah. . . Sh'asani Yisrael.  I try to imagine saying this when the words were, effectily, a death sentence.  How to praise God for making one a Jew (or, as my ancestors would have said, using the traditional formulation, for not making them non-Jews), when Jews were being rounded up for execution?  I, who am blessed to live in happier and easier times, want to affirm those words.  

And second, from Ahavah Rabbah, the second blessing before the recital of the Shema.  We ask God to have mercy on us, " Ba'avor avotayanu sh'batchu v'chah va-t'lamdem chukay chaim--for the sake of our ancestors, who trusted in You, so you taught them the laws of life."   What a statement to make here, in the shadow of our history!  Our ancestors trusted in You--and you taught them the laws of life.  Not the laws of Torah, the mitzvot, that some of them studied so ardently.  The laws of life, good and bad.  What to make of those who put their faith in God here and learned these "laws of life": brutality, torture, death?  What about the other laws of life--kindness, cooperation, compassion, blessing, justice?  Perhaps God leaves it up to us to be the teachers of these to one another, calling us to rise to the challenge and lamenting when, so often, we do not?  Can we trust enough, even knowing the ravages of history, to merit blessing?


After lunch, we made a stop at a very long staircase leading up from the river banks to a park.  We pulled over, tied the boat up, and climbed the 200+ stairs to Neris Regional Park and hiked about for 30 minutes or so.  Then we paddled a few more hours, until 8:00 pm.  This was a bit too long for our first day on the river.  We were exhausted, but had a tough time finding a good campsite.  Finally, as it got late and we grew more eager to call it a day, we settled for a rather overgrown spot that was buggy and not so scenic, but very welcome, thank you so much.  We had macaroni and cheese for dinner and I did my best, with almost no cell phone coverage, to text my daughter, Rachel, a happy 17th birthday!  Proud of her and missing her on this big day!

Heraclitus famously taught: "You can't step in the same river twice."  He was the pre-Socratic philosopher of flux, and of course he's right.  The river is, by definition, always changing.  And so are we, along with the rocks and trees, wind and weather.  So not only is it never the same river, it's not the same "you" either.  

I'm acutely aware of this on this trip, as I return to places where my ancestors lived over a century ago.  In a real sense, Thomas Wolfe was right--you can't go home again.  Lithuania is not Lita--not the same place it was for Yehuda Tzvi and Soreh Finkelstein, or for those who were murdered in these forests.  It is not the same--lamentably, and thank goodness.  Much water has passed under the bridges and streets.  Still, it means something significant, at least to me, to stand in this river, even if neither I nor it can ever be the same.  I am grateful, beyond words, to be here--in every sense.  Grateful to be here, meaning in this life, on this earth, at this moment, alive, beyond all odds, precisely because my family left the Old Country when they did.  And grateful, too, to be here, on this very place of water and earth, on the Neris, moving from Vilnius to Kaunas, from Vilna to Kovno, with my beloved daughter, Rosa.  Grateful to be here to learn, to live, to grow.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Upstream 6: Secret Destinations

Monday, May 23--Near Grigiskes, on the Neris River

"All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware"
             -Martin Buber

Our river journey launches with a push off from the shore of the Neris River east of Vilnius.   We are now bound for Kaunas.

Or maybe it began last night, around midnight when, against my expectations, the airlines found my lost bag containing much of our camping gear.  At any rate, this morning, Rosa and I packed up and left our hostel with Justus Pipiras, the extraordinary Lithuanian kayaker who has so generously taken on the task as our support team leader for this journey.  He picked us up in his van around noon and drove us to a park on the right bank of the Neris around 10 km east upstream of Vilnius.  He is providing us with the kayak and equipment, shuttling us, and taking care of so many logistics.  And he is excited about our trip.  It seems that Lithuania has many kayaker, but it is unusual here to spend a month on the rivers, camping and covering the length of the country.  We'll be checking in with him regularly and he's planning to follow and post our progress on his Facebook page--I encourage readers to look him up and "like" his page.  He is our "angel" on this trip--we could not do it without him.  


We paddled an hour through the countryside before arriving back in Vilnius, which was familiar after three days here.  But it was good to see it by river.  The city has done something great for paddlers, hanging three large contemporary metal sculptures from the bridges that we pass under.  Great fun to have art displayed on the river!

After another hour, we reach the end of town, which is marked by a big television tower.  From there, we passed through a green park space, then an industrial zone.  Lithuania is decidedly not flat.  There are no real mountains, but the banks are marked by rolling hills, much like the American Midwest, and there are so many shades of green.  It's lush, verdant country.  And birdsong is omnipresent.  We saw mallards and gulls on the river, but the forest is full of songbirds that we do not see but decidedly do hear.  Their music is lovely.

We also floated past many people on the banks, mostly silent, a few shouting their hellos ("Labas" in Lithuanian).  We saw many boats parked along the bank, too--very narrow and painted black, essentially hollowed out logs.  They looked quite traditional, a kind of craft that folks have probably been paddling for hundreds of years.  Very different from our bright red hardshell plastic Perception tandem kayak! 

Made camp around 7:15 pm.  It stays light until nearly 11:00 in this Baltic late spring, so there is plenty of time to paddle!  Set up our kitchen on a mudflat by the river, with the tent further up the bank, tucked into a clearing in the woods.  Had dinner and thought a lot about a passage I'd read from Ellen Cassady's  deeply moving story of her Lithuanian sojourn, We Are Here.   She gleaned it from the memoir of a Lithuanian survivor of the Shoah, Levi Shalat, who wrote it in July of 1944, upon the liquidation of the Shavli ghetto:

Through the half-open doors of the cattle cars, we could see the lush Lithuanian countryside, the golden-yellow sheaves of rye standing in the fields.  The aromas of field and forest were intoxicating. . . 

The train sped through the stations, past the very towns where we had been born and raised.  With wistful eyes we looked out into the Lithuanian provinces where we had friends and family, places that had long since become Judenrein,  cleared of all Jews.  The train sped through Lita, as if offering a final farewell tour--one last look at all the years we had dwelled in this country before hurling us into purgatory.

In that beautiful and terrible moment, Levi Shalat's words point to a question that still haunts me, all these years later.  How does one reconcile the beauty of the landscape, of the natural world, with the human horror that happened here?  Rosa and I are camping in the same forests, by the same rivers, that flowed with the blood of my people.  And yet the birds sing, blissfully unaware, as they likely sang then, too.  I think we humans want to anthropomorphize nature, to have it share our experiences.  We want landscape and weather to echo us, to respond to us, to care about us.  But they don't.  They don't give a damn either way.  And yet that, too, is part of nature's attraction, at least for me.  It is bigger than us, not immoral but amoral.  

The Rabbis recognized this, of course.  In Talmud, they ask why stolen seeds will germinate and grow for the one who stole them--and why raped women still get pregnant.  Their answer: "Olam noheg k'minhago--the world pursues its natural course."   So it is.  God offers Job essentially the same message.  

Should the birds stop singing because so many suffered and died here? I can't understand this crazy world, natural and human.  It boggles my mind to contemplate.  But I am glad they sing.  I am grateful for their songs, and for the river's, even--or maybe, especially--here.  

The work of ticking, of consciously repairing the world, is not theirs.  It's ours.  I hope that I am worthy of my tiny portion of that task.

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.