Friday, June 23, 2017
Thursday, June 22, 2017
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.
Wednesday, June 21, 2017
Songs of the River
A chorus of small voices
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?
Saturday, June 17, 2017
Saturday, June 10, 2017
Friday, June 9, 2017
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…”
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.