Saturday, May 27, 2017

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

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.

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