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'm thinking about this famous passage from Psalms, for as the Nevezis nears its confluence with the Nemunas, thick groves of willows have sprung up along the banks.  This is not surprising; as the psalm suggests, willows love water, and there is a lot of it here.

The psalmist's words resonate powerfully for me this morning.  When Litvaks filled this country, they, like the rest of their Jewish brothers and sisters scattered throughout the diaspora, must have felt the ache of their exile from Zion. Following our tradition's teachings, many of them surely longed for the Promised Land as they prayed thrice daily for its restoration.  Yet I imagine most of them also came to feel deeply at home here, after so many generations of living along these rivers.  So now, as I paddle amongst the willows, I feel a doubled sense of exile and loss--from both Zion and Lita, now nearly empty of its once-thriving Jewish community.  How can one not weep with the willows, for the thousands murdered in these woodlands, along these river banks?

So what do I make of present day non-Jewish Lithuanians' renewed interest in their nation's Jewish heritage?  Do we hear echoes of Psalm 137,  in which they, the contemporary descendants of the "captors" request of us joyful songs even as we still weep for our dead?  Can we, with integrity, speak and sing and rejoice in our past glories in this former homeland rendered alien by demonic hate? What do our melodies and memories mean in this once-beloved place turned utterly strange by genocide?  How should we, as Jews, respond to non-Jews' genuine desire to listen and learn from our stories?

The beginning of Psalm 137 is well-known but its ending is both challenging and obscure.  It concludes with an unapologetic prayer for vengeance; more often than not, when the psalm is cited, this rather uncomfortable section is left out:

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 Nazis' brutal extermination of Lithuania's Jewish community, with the help of far too many local collaborators, the psalmist's words are still difficult to read--yet they are also understandable.  In the wake of catastrophic injustice, lust for vengeance is an honest human emotion.  Psalm 137 speaks truth about the raw but real state of the hearts of the survivors and their children.  After the Shoah, we cannot easily dismiss its anger.

And yet. . . we, the Jewish people, have sung God's songs in many strange and alien lands. It's important to remember that not all singing is celebration.  We also moan the blues.  We chant dirges and keen heartbreaking laments.  These songs, too, are beautiful, in their own way.  Indeed, much of music's magic lies in its unique ability to express a vast array of deeply dissonant feelings, thus echoing the conflict and complexity of life itself: celebration and mourning, love and loss, despair and longing and hope--sometimes all in a single chord.

Today, by the willows of Lita, I want to sing that kind of paradoxical, contradictory song.  I sing, not for anyone else's self-satisfied entertainment at our distress, but for the Shoah's dead--and for today's living, Jewish and gentile.  I sing for the tragic end of Lita's Jewish communities--and for the centuries of vital life that they sustained here, which so profoundly shaped the traditions that I have inherited: sacred and secular, pious and revolutionary and artistic.  Here in my family's homeland, the Litvaks sang, for far away Zion and for their proud culture right here in the "Jerusalem of the north."

Now I sing for them.  With them.

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


In this morning's prayers, my focus fixes on Kedusha, in which we proclaim God's sanctity. Davening by the riverside, I ponder: What is the nature of holiness/kedusha?  The greatest of Jewish Torah commentators, Rashi, answers this query with one word: holiness is perushim--separateness.  For Rashi, to be holy is to be distinct, set apart from the rest.  It is the opposite of assimilation, of fitting in.

After he married Hannah Brager, Rabbi Shimon Finkelstein joined a group known by this same name, the  Kovno Kollel Perushim,  a coterie of separatist married yeshiva students organized by Israel Salanter's disciple, Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer.  They lived together in celibate community, returning home to their wives only on Shabbat.  They strove for holiness through long hours of study and strict comportment with the most rigorous, pious standards of Jewish observance.   Some saw them as saints, others as fanatics.

Either way, it's a very different kind of Jewish life from the one I've chosen.  A few days ago, in Kedainiai, I spoke with my brother, Jon, via Skype.  He has a longstanding interest in Musar and, with that in mind, asked what I thought our Litvak ancestors would make of us as liberal American Jews.  I told him that, being no prophet, I cannot know the answer.  I, too, wonder what they would think of our culture, in which "separateness"--and maybe holiness, too--is much diminished.  I like to believe that they would have recognized that every generation of Jews must find their own ways to live in the ever-changing world while remaining true to our evolving tradition.  But who knows? After nearly three decades in the rabbinate, I still don't have a good answer for what constitutes the proper balance of separation and engagement, holiness and secularity.  I am not Shimon or Mendel Finkelstein.  Boise isn't Kovno.  And my great great grandchildren, wherever they choose to live, will have their own relationships with Jewish wisdom, life, and law that will no doubt be very different from my own.  

So it goes.  So it has always gone.


We start the day with a plan to stop at the confluence of the Nevezis and Nemunas, where I'll wait with the boat and gear while Rosa catches a cab to a camping store in Kaunas, to purchase a spare fuel canister and new water purification pump or wand.  When we arrive at the settlement closest to the confluence, we proceed accordingly.  We haul the kayak up onto the bank and Rosa walks ten minutes to the road--but try as she might, with our language barrier she cannot convince a taxi to pick her up so far from town.  So, on the spot, we improvise plan B.  We leave the boat--a little worried, hoping no one messes with our stuff-- and hike out to a small restaurant/market, where we buy six large jugs of water for drinking and cooking, along with some ice cream and a couple of excellent vegetarian kebabs.  There's no fuel in sight, but with the bottled water relieving our need to boil, our meager remaining canister should carry us to Jurbarkas, where we should arrive for the weekend on Friday afternoon.  Once we're there,  Justas will bring us a refill from Vilnius for next week.  We trek back to the boat, and, to our great relief, find it undisturbed.  We fill the hull with water, then enjoy the delicious kebabs and ice cream, which almost immediately  lift our flagging spirits.

Forty minutes after this break, we arrive at the confluence itself.  The Nemunas is known throughout Lithuania as the "Father of Rivers" and once we enter it, we understand why.  After paddling small rivers for so many days, this is a real shift in perspective.  The horizon opens, the sky expands, the water darkens and deepens and, best of all, after the stagnant Nevezis, the powerful current pushes us downstream with impressive strength and constancy.  As we cross the eddy line into the mainstream, we sing Sh'hecheyanu.  Praised are You, Eternal One. . . for bringing us to this time.  Then, for an hour or so, with a breeze at our backs, we ride the flow to the Zapiskis pier, where we take out to rest, read, and write.


In the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, Zionist pioneers in the land of Israel created the mythology of a new breed of tough, blue collar Jews.  Mostly young, secular, and socialist, they looked back at the diaspora they'd left behind as a place where their parents and grandparents 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."  These New Jews imagined that they were making a conscious, radical break from the past, living on kibbutzim and earning their living by the sweat of their brows.   Slabodka epitomized the world they wished to leave behind.

But those stereotypes were simplistic from the start, blind to the complexities and varieties of Eastern European Jewish diaspora life.   Many of Jews who lived along Lithuania's rivers were every bit as rugged and acculturated to the natural environment as their brothers and sisters in Palestine.  While my male ancestors learned Torah in Keidan and Slabodka, other, very different Litvaks 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 tradesmen and women. 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.


The Zapiskis pier is also a ferry station.  Although it isn't currently running, in another few weeks, as we reach high summer, the ferryboat will make regular trips across the river to Kulautuva.  It's a five minute journey, but back in the 1930s, the opposite banks of the Nemunas housed very different worlds.  Unlike tough, working class Sapizishok,  just across the way Kulautova (in Yiddish, Kalatove) was a popular vacation resort area for well-to-do Jews from nearby Kovno.  They would arrive via lovely boats known as kitriot, which sailed up and down the Nemunas on summer days.   From 1935 until the war, Kalatove even housed a summer synagogue for the vacationers, who would pack this heavily-forested region during the vacation months, then empty out as the fall High Holy Days drew near.


As much as these two towns, just a river's width apart,  Zapiskis and Kulautova, differed from one another, in the end, they shared a common fate.   In the summer of 1941, the tough Jews and and their moneyed landsmen died side by side, shot into they ditches they dug into the forested banks. 

Hitler's henchman made no distinctions.


We move so quickly down the Nemunas!  In less than five minutes, we cover distances that took at least half an hour on yesterday's stagnant Nevezis.  The current sweeps us along, past one former shtetl after another.  They line the banks like clockwork.

We make camp in a field on the left bank, just before Vilkija (Yiddish: Vilki).  We're 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 think of Rosa and myself as following in the footsteps--or paddle strokes--of these konzhortniki, the Jewish river rats.   The analogy is, of course, imperfect.  Their lot was incomparably more arduous: risking life and limb to haul timber, day in, day out, through spring floods, summer drought, winter's bone-chilling snow and ice.  We are more like the Kulautova vacationers, galavanting downstream in our state-of-the-art hardshell kayak, with stops for drinks, kebabs and  fries along the way.  Still, these Jewish outdoorsmen inspire me.  I love knowing that while my ancestors sat in Slabodka debating Talmud and Musar, a very different breed of Jews were out riding the rivers.  Indeed, it is worth noting that Rabbi Israel Salanter created the Musar movement for these working people at least as much as for the scholars.  Over time, Musar was marginalized, hidden away in elite ultra-Orthodox yeshivot.  But Salanter loved--and most dearly wished to influence--amchah, the ordinary people.  Under the leadership of Alan Morinis, today's Musar revival among non-Orthodox American Jews continues in that spirit.  Body and soul, brains and brawn, Torah and rivers.


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

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