Monday, June 26, 2017

Upstream 21: Reviving the Dead (Monday, June 5, Neris River, near the confluence with the Nemunas)

It poured all night, then drizzled through the early morning.  Our breakfast--oatmeal today, like every other day--was even soggier than usual.

Out at 9:45, which is a pretty good start for us.  I am not a morning person.  We paddled steadily, with just one short break, until 1:30.  Our endurance is improving.  Along the way, dense grey clouds enveloped us, but at least the rain (mostly) held off.  Alas, when we arrive at our first landmark for the day--the highway bridge halfway between Keidainiai and Kaunas--I reached into the external pocket on the dry bag to grab my camera  and pulled it out--soaking wet.  Much to my chagrin, I realize I forgot to zip the pocket before bed last night, and it filled with with a good inch of rain water, all around the camera. Not surprisingly, this was more than enough to render it out of service.   So I fear that my good travel camera has now gone the way of the water wand.  I'm tempted to say that luck is not treating us well this week, but I can't really blame this one on luck; I obviously should have been more careful when stowing the camera on such a rainy night.  Damn!  I hope that at least the card, with so many of my pictures up to this point, is salvageable.  Meanwhile, I'll probably have to use my phone's camera from here on out.

At 1:30, we stopped for lunch at Babtai, a small village perched on a bluff above the river's left bank. Lithuanian tax documents show that my great great grandfather, Judel Finkelstein, lived here in 1874. I'm not sure what brought him here.  He and his wife, Feige Rivke, had their children in Kovno, and he left for the United States from there in 1906.  But thirty years before he came to America, he lived in Babtai.  It's now a bucolic, peaceful place.

As it turns out, Babtai--Bobt, in Yiddish--is one of Lithuania's oldest towns.  Boats and rafts would row by on their way to Prussia, just as we are doing now.  In the mid-19th century, when Judel Finkelstein was here, Babtai prospered, with the opening of the paved Kaunas-Riga road, which passed right through.  Local Jewish merchants thrived with the lumber trade.

Yet as the twentieth century approached, Babtai's heyday passed.  Jewish residents here, as everywhere, emigrated to the US, Palestine, and South Africa.  Fires plagued the city; in 1930, most of the town burned down.   By the beginning of World War II, only 40 Jewish families remained, and they relied on the services of the rabbi from Keidan.  Babtai's mayor, a cruel anti-Semite, presided over the murder of 83 Jews from  across the region on August 28, 1941, after first extorting them for money.   

20 men, 41 women, 22 children.  

They were buried in pits on the bank of the Nevezis, probably not far from the spot where we are eating lunch and the sun is trying, mostly unsuccessfully, the burn through the clouds.  

I am so fortunate that my family--Judel and his children--had long since left for America.  

I left a stone on the bank for the dead, sang El Malei Rachamim, and then we paddled downstream, toward Kaunas.


This turned out to be the toughest paddling stretch of the day--and maybe of the entire trip.  We hit a series of small meanders, followed by long, non-descript straightaways, with powerful headwinds howling at us the entire time.  It felt like we were paddling in place, struggling just to hold our ground against the wind.  The water felt dense and viscous, like we were stuck in a bog.  Downstream of the Kedainiai dam, the Nevezis has virtually no current whatsoever; it's essentially a long, narrow lake.  Every time we reached the end of a straightway, after a rigorous, painful effort,  and turned, either right or left, we forlornly beheld the same sight: a collection of radio towers we'd seen since before Babtai.  Just when it seemed we might pass them, there they'd appear, still in front of us, like giant middle fingers thrust up at us from the spiteful earth.  When, at long last, we finally put them behind us, after at least an hour of backbreaking effort, we whooped with joy and exhaustion and cursed those towers behind our back.


Things got better from there.  We took a break, at some dry fruit and pumpkin seeds, and I jumped into the river for a quick bath.  The wind even died down a bit.  Then the sun peeked out and our last couple hours of the day passed more easily.  A bit giddy from fatigue, Rosa and I couldn't stop joking about the name of a small town we'd passed earlier, "Murmuliai."  We decided it was an ideal appellation for a small furry rodent (singular: "murmur") eaten as a delicacy by the locals and, according to some esoteric Lithuanian Talmud scholars, the only mammal that does not drink its mother's milk and therefore pareve and permitted to be consumed with cheese.  Ah, how silly one gets at the end of a day on the river with headwinds and no current!


6:00-8:00 pm is often the nicest time to paddle here, a golden couple of hours.  More often than not, even on bad weather days, as evening falls, the sun comes out, wind dies down, waves ease away, and everything is calm, peaceful, and luminous.  

We made camp in a mowed field, ate polenta and cheese, and dried out all of our gear.  Everything is looking up, except for my camera, which is decidedly out of commission.  All told, life is good.  We are healthy, have abundant supplies, and we're on schedule, despite the wind and stagnant water.  We should hit the confluence with the Nemunas pretty early tomorrow.


This morning, in my davenning, I focused on the second blessing of the Tefillah, especially the closing line: Baruch attah. . . m'chayeh ha-metim--Praised are You, Eternal One. . . Who revives the dead."  The Reform movement, with its rationalist skepticism over bodily resurrection, long changed this to read m'chayeh ha-kol. . . Who gives life to everything.  That's how both my father and grandfather, rooted in the classical Reform approach, prayed the passage.  But I prefer the traditional formulation.  No, I do not believe in a supernatural God who will resurrect my corpse when the messiah arrives.  Yet metaphorical readings of this passage speak to me.  I see new life being born out of the "dead" every day along this river.  Plants grow in the soil made up of expired organisms.  And Rosa and I can be on the brink of utter exhaustion--"dead" to the world, as it were--and then a small thing like a short bath or a snack or water break can, almost miraculously, quicken our spirits.  I have seen moribund relationships revived; the Rabbis say that one should utter this blessing upon meeting a friend or loved one that one has not seen in a long time--which resonates for me on this trip with Rosa, who I so often go months without seeing in person.  What a privilege it is to have this time together!

And I chant these words with special fervor on this journey, for reviving the dead is at the heart of this metaphorically-upstream pilgrimage.  I want to revitalize my family's past, for myself and my loved ones, to renew--or create--bonds with this land and my ancestors and their friends who lived here, and with those born long after they left and now live in the towns that once bore their labors, hopes, and dreams.

Baruch attah Adonai, m'chayeh ha-meitim.

Praised are You, Eternal One, who revives the dead.

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