Saturday, May 27, 2017

Upstream 8: Cuckoos and Weed Wackers (Wednesday, May 24, Neris River between Kernave and Jonava)

I'm up, mostly packed and davening by 9:00 am.  This morning I'm struck 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 offers thanks for morning's light and reminds us that light that marks the beginning of God's creation. This brachah has a universalist focus--all of the Holy One's creatures benefit from the blessing of sunlight--and tends toward the literal, while the inserted passage speaks of a more metaphorical--and tribal--radiance,  about the Jewish people's longing for the land of Israel.  For many of the Rabbis, it was dissonant with the prayer's primary theme.  But the ordinary people wanted to include it and, as usual in such matters, they won the day.  It stuck.  The illuminating vision of a Zion restored, enlightening 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 transform the sentiment of this prayer into a geo-political reality through largely secular means.  My Litvak family witnessed the birth of modern Zionism at the end of the 19th century.  My great grandfather's brother, Rabbi Shimon Finkelstein became an early Orthodox Zionist.  During a visit to the land of Israel in the late 1920s or early 1930s, he became friendly with Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Palestine and a seminal Zionist voice in the Orthodox community.  I can only assume that the views of his brother, Rabbi Mendel Finkelstein, were similar.  Both Shimon and Mendel Finkelstein died in 1947, one year before the state of Israel was born.   Mendel's grandson--my father, Rabbi Arnold Fink--celebrated his Bar Mitzvah just weeks after Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948.  Alas, Dad never met his grandfather.

From the start, Zionism was a fractious endeavor.  It divided the Litvak community, as it did  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.  So did the anarchists and revolutionaries on the far left.  This community was full of warring ideologies: Orthodox and secular, Zionists and socialists and communists of all varieties.  Families and communities split over the philosophical battles of the day.  

What did Litvaks make of these words--or chadash, a new light in Zion?  How did they hear them? Were they taken as an ancient theological yearning or a current clarion call for 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 am--for all of thirty minutes.  Then we stop at Kernave, on the right bank.  It's a national park and UNESCO World Heritage site--an archaeological work in progress.  We walk 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 river, which we've been paddling, made this place a hub for transportation, farming, and trade.

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 with an iron fist.  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 reverted to paganism.  Lithuanians were wont to follow that path, remaining the last pagan bastion of Europe 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 lack any good evidence for when the first Jews arrived here, though some scholars propose that they were an offshoot of the Khazar kingdom who came in the 9th century.  But whenever the first Jewish settlers made their way into Lita, they, too, settled in the river valleys, in the shadow of the forests.  Many worked in those woods, harvesting timber and sending it down the rivers for trade.  Like most of the citizens of their era, I suspect they both revered and feared the forest, which writer Robert Pogue Harrison calls "the shadow of civilization."  Once they arrived, the Jews put down roots, living, loving, and laboring here for centuries.  Alas, many would die tragically here, too.


After Kernave, we get back in our boat and kayak until lunch, which we enjoy on a bucolic little island, then continue downstream, working fairly hard as the current atrophies.  The river grows placid and lake-like, which means less floating and more paddling.  And the landscape becomes less forested and more agrarian.  We start to pass numerous houses, many quite nice--more likely summer homes for the well-to-do than country peasant dwellings.  We're taken aback by the amount of new, upscale construction out here.

We have a short conversation with a man catching a local ferry across the river with his motorcycle. He greets us with Laba diena--which we recognize as Good afternoon, since Rosa and I are trying to study a few minutes of Lithuanian every day, using an app that I downloaded on my cell phone.

We ask: "English?"
He responds: "Where are you going?"
Us: "Kaunas."
He laughs and says, "Straight down the river."

Although it's not much, it is, nonetheless, our first real river dialogue of any sort with locals, so it's a start. Things are looking up.  And after the ferry station,  the river straightens out, with far less meandering.  This makes for a bit of dull paddling, but decent downstream speed.  We're making time again.

During our last paddling break, around 5 pm, I take a bath.  I strip down, jump in, soap, wash, hop out and towel dry--all within about two minutes because both the air and the water are chilly!  Still, it's refreshing and feels so good to be a little cleaner.  Two hours later we make camp.  As per our now standard routine, I set up and pitch the tent while Rosa starts the cooking.  We're working well together here, too.

The mosquitos buzz around in thick clouds, so we eat quickly,  then retreat into the tent, where we play gin rummy and get ready for bed.


One last observation: rural Lithuanians like their weed wackers.  We hear the rumble and roar of weed wackers everywhere!  This makes sense, as everything organic grows like gangbusters here--especially weeds.  The dense overgrowth that makes it challenging to find a decent campsite speaks to this reality.  So Rosa and I laugh at our version of the soundtrack of  Lithuania's countryside:

"Cuckoo!  Cuckoo!  Rrrrrrrrrrr (weed wacker sound!).  Cuckoo!  Rrrrrr!"

Repeat ad infinitude.  

Cuckoos and weed wackers.  We'll take it.

Upstream 7: The River, Twice (Outside Kernave, Neris River, Tuesday, May 23)

I woke up thinking it was 6:30 or 7:00 am, as the sunlight was strong even through the tent walls and the birds were singing gustily.  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 somewhere just outside, a cuckoo was calling, with brain-hammering volume and constancy. I did not see it, and I know practically nothing about bird calls, but this one was unmistakable, just like the clock: "Cuu-ckoo, cuu-ckoo!"  I also gained some insight into why we use the term "cuckoo" as slang for insanity--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 eat and pack, then paddle for a couple of hours, until we break for 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's blowing upstream in our faces, but we are making good progress.  Tomorrow the forecast calls for rain, but we shall see.

Before we set out in the morning, I sound 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 both those who left before the war and the tiny remnant who stayed and survived.  The Jewish people endure.  It is a call of defiance in the face of destruction, a trumpeting of pride.

The pattern of shofar calls echoes this message.  We begin with tekiah--a whole, unbroken blast. Once, it reminds us, we were whole.  Then shevarim and teruah--three short, then nine even shorter staccato bursts.  The sound of brokenness.  But we end with tekiah again--the promise of wholeness restored. And so, the shofar teaches us, we move through this 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 renewal.  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 Enlightenment and activism and revolution, too.  Now only tiny sparks and shards of that life remain.   I hope to collect some of those as an act of tikkun during my time here.

Finally, as I daven this morning in my tallit and tefillin---another practice I am committed to daily during my time here--two phrases from the liturgy leap out at me.  I've uttered them hundreds of times, but the context here gives them new meaning and emphasis, which is part of the beauty of prayer. The first is the blessing thanking God for making me a Jew--Baruch atah Adonai. . . Sh'asani Yisrael.  I try to imagine saying this when the words were, effectively, a death sentence. How to praise God for making one a Jew (or, as my ancestors would have said, using the traditional negative 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 blessing just before the recital of Shema.  We ask God to have mercy on us. . . ba'avor avotayanu v'imotaynu, 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 the killing grounds!  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 countless Litvaks who put their faith in God  and learned these laws of life: brutality, torture, death?  What about the other laws of life--kindness, cooperation, compassion, blessing, justice and the like?  Perhaps God leaves it up to us to teach and embody these to one another.  Does the Holy One call us to meet this challenge--and does God lament when, so often, we fail to do so?  Can we trust enough, with full awareness of history's ravages,  to merit blessing?



After lunch, we stopped at a very long staircase leading up from the river bank into thick forest.  We pulled over, tied up the boat, and climbed the 200+ stairs to Neris Regional Park, where we hiked for about for 30 minutes, through dense, fragrant, wind-rustled pines  Then we paddle a few more hours, until 8:00 pm.  This is a bit too long for our first day on the river.  We're exhausted, but keep going because we have such a tough time finding a decent campsite.  Finally, as the evening sun sinks toward the horizon and we grow ever more eager to call it a day, we settle for a rather overgrown spot.  It's buggy and not so scenic, but very welcome, thank you.  We have macaroni and cheese for dinner and I do my best, with almost no cell phone coverage, to text my daughter, Rachel, a happy 17th birthday!  I'm so 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 here in the Old Country, 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 Feige Rivke Finkelstein, or for those who were murdered in these forests.  Much has changed, for better and for worse.   Endless water has passed under the bridges and streets.  Still, it feels significant 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, alive, on this earth, at this moment, beyond all odds, precisely because my family left Kovno when they did.  And grateful, too, to be here, on this very place of water and stone and soil, on the Neris, moving from Vilnius to Kaunas--Vilna to Kovno--with my beloved daughter, Rosa.

I am grateful to be here.  

To learn.

To live.

To grow.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Upstream 6: Secret Destinations (Monday, May 22, near Grigiskes, on the Neris River)

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

We launch our river journey with a push off from the shore of the Neris River east of Vilnius.   We're Kaunas-bound. 

Or maybe our expedition really began last night, around midnight, when, against my expectations, the airline called to report that my lost bag containing much of our camping gear had arrived in Vilnius. Either way, this morning Rosa and I packed up, then left our hostel with Justas Pipiras, the extraordinary Lithuanian kayaker who has so generously agreed to lead our support team  for this journey.  He picks us up around noon in his workhorse white van  and drives us to a regional park on the right bank of the Neris around 10 km to the east,  upstream of Vilnius.  He is providing our kayak and equipment, shuttling us, and taking care of so many logistics.  And he's really excited about our trip.  It seems that while Lithuania is full of kayakers, it's pretty unusual to spend a month on the rivers here, 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 expedition's "angel"--we could not do it without him.  

We paddle an hour through verdant countryside, slowly getting a feel for the boat and one another's paddling strokes,  then arrive back in Vilnius.  After three days in town, it's familiar, but good to see by river.  To the city's great credit, they've set up some special art for paddlers to enjoy, hanging three large contemporary metal sculptures from the bridges that we pass under.  It's terrific to see it displayed on the river!

After another hour, we reach the end of town, which is marked by a large television tower.  It's the tallest structure in Lithuania, and an important historic site; it played a major role in the end of the Cold War on January 13, 1991, when 14 unarmed Lithuanian civilians died, with hundreds more injured, while resisting Soviet troops who seized the tower and temporarily took control of the airwaves.  It remains a powerful local symbol of freedom.

From there, we pass through a lush, leafy park, then a bleak 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 verdant country, with birdsong omnipresent.  We see flocks of mallards, mergansers, and gulls on the river, and the forest is full of songbirds that we do not see but very definitely hear.  Their music is lovely.

We also float past an assortment of people, mostly older and silent, a few shouting their hellos (Labas in Lithuanian).   Boats line the riverbank, too--narrow tapered and  painted flat black--essentially hollowed out logs.  They look quite traditional, a type of craft that folks have probably been paddling for hundreds of years.  Very different from our bright red hardshell plastic Perception tandem kayak! 

Around  7:15 pm we make camp.  In this late Baltic spring, it stays light until nearly 11:00 pm, so there is plenty of time to paddle!  We set up our kitchen on a mudflat by the river, with the tent perched further up the bank, tucked into a small forest clearing.  After rehydrating some Pad Thai for dinner, I ponder an excerpt that I've read from Ellen Cassady's  deeply moving story of her Lithuanian sojourn, We Are Here.   It's gleaned 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 moment of passage, full of beauty and terror, 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 our 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.  For better and for worse, they don't give a damn.  And yet that, too, is part of nature's attraction, at least for me.  It is bigger than us, not immoral but, yes, amoral.  

The Rabbis recognized this long ago.  In Talmud, they ask why stolen seeds will germinate and grow for the one who stole them--and why a raped woman may get pregnant.  Their answer: "Olam noheg k'minhago--the world pursues its natural course."   So it is.  God offers Job essentially the same message.  The world is not designed to fit our needs and echo our ethical concerns.

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 tikkun, 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: Jerusalem of the North (Vilnius, Friday, May 19-Sunday, May 21)

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." Before World War II, Vilna was a major intellectual center of Jewish life.  After the Nazis invaded in June of 1941, it became a place of death and devastation as the community was decimated during the Shoah.  Before landing in Vilna, I'd experienced this city through black and white photos and newsreels and the proud but austere columns of the Talmud pages famously published here, so I was quite taken aback by the city's vibrant, colorful beauty.  I'd expected a Soviet-looking, grey and somber place, but Vilnius is far from that image.  It's a charming, hip, Baroque and very European place--much more like Prague and Budapest than the ugly Soviet kitsch that I'd envisioned since my Cold War boyhood.  It's also more than a bit 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 lovely corner.  How could human beings enjoy the elegant 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?  This 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 belonged to tribes 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 we have.

Still, I don't understand.  We walk down these graceful streets, witnessing culture and kindness and beauty and it is just so 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 and philosophizing.  What have we done and seen?

We arrived on a perfect spring festival weekend, dedicated to street music and dance.  Kids and teens were busking 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?

On Sunday afternoon, I took a walking tour with a great group called Vilnius By Locals.  The guide, Milda, was young, 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."  In 1997, local bohemians declared their independence, elected their own president, and wrote up their own constitution.  Every year since, they celebrate their Independence Day-- 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' district, hip and progressive and beautifully quirky.

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 Zydu Gatve (Street of the Jews).  Very little remains, of course.  Before WWII, the city was 1/3 Jewish--around 80,000 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 (before the war, Vilna was home to nearly one hundred smaller shuls where most people davened) and the memorial to the father of Lithuanian Jewish Talmud and Torah scholarship, 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 contemporary knowledge as tools to get at the plain meaning of the sacred text.  He was a strict rationalist; 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 Vilna 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.

Walking through Old Town, we came to Vilnius' great Cathedral, bell tower, and square, at the city center. Just above it is a castle, built by Grand Duke Gediminas, who established Vilnius 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.  Here's the ending:

You are a dark amulet set in Lithuania.
Figures smolder faintly in the restless stone.
Lucid white sages of a distant radiance,
Small, hard bones that were polished by toil. 
The red tunic of the steely Bundist.
The blue student who listens to gray Bergelson--
Yiddish is the homely crown of the oak leaf
Over the gates, sacred and profane, into the city.
Gray Yiddish is the light that twinkles in the window.
Like a wayfarer who breaks his journey beside an old well,
I sit and listen to the rough voice of Yiddish.
Is that the reason why my blood is so turbulent?
I am the city: the thousand narrow doors into the universe,
Roof over roof, to the muddy-cold blue.
I am the black flame, hungry, licking at these walls--
That glows in the eyes of the Litvak in an alien land.
I am the grayness!  I am the black flame!  I am the city!

And, on the old synagogue, a frozen water carrier,
Small beard tilted, stands counting the stars.

We ended the afternoon walking through the entrancing Bernardinu Gardens and then having a bagel at Vilnius' only Jewish bagel shop, with a stop by a statue of American rocker Frank Zappa, whose iconoclastic non-conformity made him a hero to the Lithuanian independence movement.  It was a wonderful, puzzling, beautiful and paradoxical day that I will long contemplate.

Tomorrow, on to the river!