Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Upstream 22: By the Waters of Babylon (Tuesday, June 6, Nemunas River, outside Vilkija)

By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.  We hanged our harps upon the willows there, for those who carried us away captive demanded that we be joyful, saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion."  But how shall we sing the Eternal's song in a strange land?

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. . . " 
                                       (Psalm 137)

Today I have been thinking about this famous passage from Psalms.  As the Nevezis nears its confluence with the Nemunas, willows have begun to line the banks.  This is not  surprising. As the psalm suggests, willows love water, and there is a lot of it here.

The psalm's words resonate powerfully this morning.  When Litvaks filled this land, they--like their brothers and sisters across the Jewish diaspora for centuries--surely felt exiled from Zion, longing for the Promised Land and praying daily for its restoration.  Yet I imagine most of them also came to feel at home here, after so many centuries of living along these rivers.  So now, as I paddle amongst the willows, there is a doubled sense of exile and loss--from Zion and from Lita, now nearly empty of its once-thriving Jewish community.  How can one not weep with the willows, for the thousands murdered in these forests, along these river banks?

So what to make of the renewed interest in Lithuania's Jewish past amongst her current non-Jewish citizens?  Are there echoes of the psalm, as the descendants of the "captors" celebrate Jewish "songs" far too late?  Can we sing such songs in an alien land, a place once familiar but turned strange by genocide?  How should we, as Jews, respond to the non-Jews' interest in our stories?

Psalm 137 ends with a request for vengeance; more often than not, when the psalm is cited, this part is left out.  It reads:

O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall be they who pay you back 
   for what you've done to us.  
Happy shall be they who take your babies 
and dash them against the rock!

In the aftermath of the Shoah, after the brutal extermination of the Lithuanian Jewish community, these words  are still difficult to read--but they are also understandable.  Lust for vengeance is human, and the psalm speaks honestly about the raw but real state of survivors' hearts.

And yet. . . we, the Jewish people, have indeed sung God's song in many strange and alien lands.  Not all singing is celebration.  We also sing the blues.  Dirges.  Laments.  And the real magic of music is that it can contain a vast and even discordant wellspring of feelings, like life itself: celebration and mourning, love and loss, despair and longing and hope.

I want to sing that kind of song, full of contradictory tones, amidst these willows, on this journey.  I do not sing for the captors' entertainment, but for the dead--and for today's living, Jewish and gentile, for the tragic end of the Jewish communities of Lita, but also for the many centuries of vital life they sustained here: sacred and secular, pious and revolutionary and artistic.  They sang for Zion and they sang for their homeland here in the "Jerusalem of the north."  I sing with them, for them.

And welcome anyone with a sincere desire to listen, or better yet, sing along.


In this morning's prayers, I focused on the Kedusha, in which we praise God's holiness.  What is the nature of holiness/kedusha?  The greatest of our commentators, Rashi, answers with one word: holiness is perushim--separateness.  To be holy is to be distinct, set apart from the rest.  It is the opposite of assimilation, of fitting in.

After marrying Hannah Brager, Rabbi Shimon Finkelstein joined a group known as Perushim, the separate ones, a coterie of married yeshiva students connected to the Kovno Kollel, the study group organized by Israel Salanter's disciple, Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer.  Their strove to be separate, to be holy, to meet the most rigorous standards of pious Jewish observance down to the most minute detail.  One can view them as saintly.  Or fanatical.

Either way, this is a long distance from the life that I have chosen.  A few days ago, in a Skype call, my brother Jon asked what I thought our ancestors would make of us, liberal American Jews.  I told him that, being no prophet, I cannot know the answer.  I, too, wonder what they would think of our world, in which our "separateness"--and maybe our holiness, too--is much diminished.  I like to believe that they would have recognized that every Jewish generation must find its own ways to live Jewishly while still being true to the evolving tradition.  But who knows?  After nearly three decades in the rabbinate, I still don't have a formula for the establishing and maintaining the proper balance of separation and engagement, holiness and secularity.  I am not Shimon or Mendel Finkelstein, and Boise isn't Kovno.  And my great great grandchildren, wherever they choose to live, will have their own responses to Jewish wisdom, life, and law that will no doubt be very different from my own.  

So it goes.  So it has always gone.


We had a plan to stop at the confluence of the Nevezis and Nemunas, where Rosa would catch a cab into Kaunas to buy a fuel canister and water purification system to replace what we've lost, while I wait with the boat and gear.  We pulled over and Rosa walked ten minutes to the road--but could not get a cab to come get her so far from town.  So we went to plan B.  We left the boat on the bank, walked to a small restaurant and market near the confluence, and bought a bunch of bottled water--and some ice cream and a couple of excellent vegetarian kebabs.  No fuel in sight, but if we are judicious, we should have enough to get us to Jurbarkas, where Justas will bring us a refill from Vilnius.  The food was delicious and lifted our flagging spirits immensely.

Forty minutes after this break, we arrive at the confluence itself.  The Nemunas is enormous.  After paddling small rivers for so many days, it's a real shift in perspective.  Best of all, after the stagnant Nevezis, the current here is powerful, pushing us downstream with impressive strength and consistency.  When we crossed over into the Nemunas, known in Lithuania as the "Father of Rivers," we sang Sh'hecheyanu, then rode the flow for an hour or so to the pier at Zapiskis, where we got out to rest, and where I am now writing. . . 


The Zionist pioneers sought to create--and become--what they called "new Jews."  They saw the Diaspora as a place where Jews lived cut off from nature, huddled in dimly-lit study halls, physically weak and unaccustomed to manual labor.  The foremost philosopher of this movement, A.D. Gordon wrote: "And when you. . . return to Nature, that day your eyes will open, you will stare straight into the eyes of Nature and in its mirror you will see your image.  You will know that when you hid from Nature, you hid from yourself.  We who have been turned away from nature--if we desire life, we must establish a new relationship with nature."  The Zionists saw themselves as a conscious, radical break from the past, a new generation of tough Jews, living on kibbutzim and earning their living by the sweat of their brows.   Slabodka was the epitome of the world they wished to leave behind.

But as it turns out, these stereotypes are simplistic. Right here on these rivers there were plenty of Litvaks who fit the description of the tough, new Jews.  While my male ancestors learned Torah in Keidan and Slabodka, others ran timber downstream, living on rafts and camping in the nearby fields. The towns along the Nemunas were almost all shtetlach, rural villages full of Jewish shopkeepers, merchants and innkeepers.  This is what Pinkas Kehillot Lita  says about Zapiskis (in Yiddish, Sapizishok):

Jews probably began to settle in Sapizishok at the beginning of the 19th century. . . They made their living in the timber trade, transporting logs around the Nemunas River.  They were village folk, and like their neighbors, they would react to injustice with fists.  At the same time, they had warm Jewish hearts and open minds towards charity issues. . . They owned the flour and saw mills. . . and a Zionist atmosphere prevailed.


Right across from where we're sitting, there is a dock for a ferry that runs across the river to Kulautuva.  What a difference a crossing made: in the 1930s, unlike tough, working class Sapizishok, Kulautova (in Yiddish, Kalatove) was a luxury vacation spot, a popular resort area for nearby Kovno Jews who enjoyed its 1500 acres of dense pine forest.  They arrived on lovely boats known as kitriot, which sailed up and down the Nemunas on summer days.  The region was packed in the vacation months, then emptied out come fall with the arrival of the High Holy Days.  From 1935 until the war, there was even a summer resort synagogue.  


Zapiskis and Kulautova were a just a river's width apart, two Jewish villages on the Nemunas, worlds away from one another.  Yet in the end, the tough Jews died, side by side, with the spa-goers, in the summer of 1941, shot into ditches in the forest, alongside the river where loggers and vacationers had so recently sailed downstream.  

Genocide made no distinctions.


We move so quickly down the Nemunas!  In less than five minutes, we cover distances that took thirty on the stagnant Nevezis yesterday.  The current is so strong, bearing us from one former shtetl to another.  They line the banks regularly.

Finally, we made camp in a field on the left bank, just before Vilkija (Yiddish: Vilki).  We are about thirty kilometers northeast of Kaunas; when Jews first settled here, in the 18th century, the only link between Vilki and Kovno was by boat.  Indeed, the entry in Pinkas Kehillot Lita notes:

A number of Jews worked for Jewish residents of Vilki.  The latter were merchants of forest products and the former engaged in a special profession: they transported timber on rafts on the Nemunas River.  These rowers were called konzhortniki.  The lumber was brought from the suburbs of Vilnius and Kaunas and was sent to Germany."

I like to imagine that Rosa and I are following in the footsteps--or paddle strokes--of the konzhortniki, the Jewish river rats.   The analogy is, of course, imperfect.  Their task was far more arduous: day in, day out, through all four seasons, including winter snow and ice.  We are summer pilgrims, with a state-of-the-art hardshell kayak, stopping for water and fries and kebabs along the way.  Still, they inspire me.  I love knowing that while my ancestors were debating Talmud and Mussar in Slabodka, a very different breed of Jews were riding the rivers.  Indeed, I think that Israel Salanter created the Mussar movement for these working people at least as much as for the scholars.  Over time, Mussar would become marginalized (before Alan Morinis revived the tradition among non-Orthodox Americans) and hidden away in ultra-Orthodox yeshivot.  But Salanter loved--and dearly wished to influence--amchah, the ordinary working people.


This evening in camp, we get to bathe, rest, relax.  Indeed, our pace should be leisurely for the next few days.  Jurbarkas is well within reach by Friday, given the distance and strength of current.  We are thinking--and hoping--that the toughest paddling is behind us--at least until we reach the Curonian Lagoon.

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