Author Elizabeth Gilbert captured the essence of her life-changing trip through Italy, India, and Indonesia in her memoir’s three-verb title: Eat, Pray, Love. Looking back on my month-long kayaking adventure through Lithuania with my daughter Rosa, I aspire to Ms. Gilbert’s eloquent economy. Tonight and through the coming Days of Awe, I’ll be offering my reflections on our pilgrimage. I am profoundly thankful to you, my congregational family, for granting me the generous sabbatical that made this possible; I consider it a great privilege to share what I learned there, along the rivers of my ancestral homeland. Our expedition became a meditation on history and memory, love and loss. It was an upstream journey back in time and place, a mirror on our present American Jewish moment and, I pray, a source of inspiration for our shared future. With due deference, then, to both Ms. Gilbert and the traditional Unetaneh Tokef prayer, I invite you to join me on a three part travelogue through Lithuania that I’m calling Teshuvah, Tefillah, Tzedakah. Or, in English: Turn, Pray, Liberate.
I begin tonight, as we commence in our prayer book, with teshuvah—the turning.
Journal entry, Monday, June 5. A little over halfway through our expedition, Rosa and I struggle through one of our most challenging stretches.
We hit a series of sluggish meanders, followed by long, nondescript straightaways, with ferocious headwinds howling upstream. We're on a kind of riparian treadmill, paddling with all of our might just to maintain our place. The water feels dense and viscous, like we we're stuck in a bog. Since the dam, the Nevezis River has seriously stagnated; it's now, essentially, a long, narrow lake with almost no trace of current. Every time we finally reach the end of a straightway, after an excruciating effort, we turn, hopeful for a moment, either right or left—only to forlornly behold the same hideous collection of radio towers we've been seeing since lunch, hours ago. Whenever it seems we might pass them, there they are, somehow still in front of us, like giant upthrust middle fingers taunting us, defiant maledictions from the spiteful earth.
What are we doing on this river, wrestling with wind and water and history? Why have we returned to the land that my great great grandfather, Rabbi Judel Girsch Finkelstein, fled with his family over a century ago? In 1874, he taught Torah in the shtetl of Babtai, here on the Nevezis. Sixty-seven years later, in the summer of 1941, the town’s mayor extorted his Jewish residents for money, then presided over their slaughter and threw them into pits dug into these riverbanks
What are we doing here, surrounded by specters of a once-grand Jewish presence decimated by the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators? Is it possible to go back, against the current, to explore the headwaters and return with a report that might transform what lies ahead? The rivers witnessed it all, the senseless slaughter, and the centuries of Litvak life that gave us pious yeshivot and secular Yiddish literature, Zionism and socialism, tradition and Enlightenment. Is that past firmly and forever fixed—or is it, we pray, like the river itself, fluid, cutting fresh channels, carving new directions.
Like the river, we are turning and returning, pressing forward, eddying back.
What are we doing here?
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner reminds us that history is dynamic. He writes:
Over time, things change meaning. I am reminded of how one of my children took a rare book I loved and innocently used a few pages of it for a coloring book. I was furious. But now, as I reflect on those scribblings, they bring not only nostalgia but tenderness. . . In this way, the present can change the past. Teshuvah, the act of returning to whom you were meant to be can change who we were. . . Obviously we cannot undo the past. What is done is done. But what we do now about what we did then, while not altering the past deed itself, can place it into a new context of meaning.
Or, as William Faulkner put it more succinctly: “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” We can’t revive the dead. But we can wrestle new inspiration from their lives, cut tragically short before their time.
Laima Ardaviciene believes wholeheartedly in the power of the past to change the present.
She teaches English to high school seniors in Kedainiai, where my great great grandfather was born. Known in Yiddish as Keidan, for centuries it was steeped in Jewish culture. Jews comprised nearly half of the local population—until the summer of 1941, when the Nazis and their Lithuanian accomplices massacred 2076 Keidaners in the forest outside of town. Today not a single Jew remains.
Yet Laima will not allow her students to forget the legacy of Keidan’s Jewish community. As a teacher, she developed a strong interest in her city’s heritage and has used the Facebook group Roots in Keidan to connect with descendants of Keidaners’ living all around the world. As Rosa and I paddled into town on the Nevezis, I posted a picture on that Facebook site; a few minutes later, Laima generously offered to provide us with guided tour.
We meet her the next morning in the plaza fronting two restored eighteenth century synagogues. Laima greets us warmly, in excellent English, then lovingly leads us into the former shul that’s now a museum and cultural center. Over the next few hours, she walks us through the narrow cobbled streets of Keidan’s Jewish quarter, past what were once Jewish homes, shops, and courtyards. She points out a house with vestiges of a sukkah attached, and the cheder where the Vilna Gaon learned as a boy. We follow the banks of the Nevezis upstream and cross through an expanse of fields to the old Jewish cemetery where my Finkelstein ancestors were buried over a century and a half ago. Laima comments: “These were the lucky ones, who died of natural causes, unlike those who followed them, murdered in the forest by the Nazis and their own Lithuanian neighbors.”
We stop at Laima’s high school and enter her classroom, which is decorated with Lithuanian and Israeli flags, a silver menorah, and numerous awards from human rights organizations. On the back wall, there’s an astonishing, student-designed and painted mural of a tree, composed of the surnames of the Jewish families who populated the city before the war; below it is a banner festooned with the proud Yiddish phrase beloved to generations of those Jews: Ich bin Keidaner—I am from Keidan! Laima shows us the projects that she and her class have taken on in recent years: they have made a ghost map of Jewish Keidan, a video exploring the role of Jewish women in the local community, and their own Lithuanian translations of pre-war Yiddish poetry. Laima’s students have celebrated Jewish festivals over cyberspace with a Hebrew school in Australia, and reached out to the Jewish grandchildren and great grandchildren of their former neighbors.
As morning turns to afternoon, we walk along a dirt road to the forest at the city’s edge, where the massacre took place. Laima brings her students here every year on September 23, Lithuania's Holocaust Memorial Day. They take turns reading the names of the victims, carved, like white fire, into the copper memorial that marks this horrible, holy site. I believe that when Laima and her students recite those names, they are, indeed, transforming the past. Alas, they cannot resurrect the dead. But they can posthumously affirm their human dignity, and in so doing, ignite the possibility that goodness might yet cast its light into even the darkest corners.
Today, the woods are quiet. A gentle breeze rustles the pines. I lay a Boise river stone to honor the dead. I chant the mourners’ prayer, El Malei Rachamim—God full of Mercy. . .for those whose lives ended with none. The birds sing with me. Rosa and I weep. Laima hugs us both. And in her firm embrace, in this place so devoid of grace, I feel the power of hope.
Laima’s moral fortitude is rooted in the courage to pursue, proclaim, and teach the truth. If we wish to illuminate the darkness of our past, we must muster the faith to address it head on. Individually and communally, teshuvah starts when we take responsibility for our failings and admit the truth about who we’ve been. As Maimonides taught in his Mishneh Torah: “A person who transgressed is obligated to confess, saying ‘I have sinned, I have done such-and-such, I am regretful for my actions.’” (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 1:1).
Such confessions do not come easily to our lips. In the face of harsh historical truths, it’s tempting to avert our gaze. But this is not how we grow, not how we transform who we’ve been into who, deep within our souls, we’re called to become.
Not every Lithuanian is Laima Ardaviciene. Many have yet to come to terms with their nation’s complicated past. Between 1941 and 1944, over 95% of Lithuania’s Jewish population was massacred—a more total destruction than in any other country affected by the Shoah. Historians attribute this extreme devastation to the locals’ all-too-eager collaboration with their Nazi occupiers. Doctors, lawyers, professors and priests volunteered for Lithuanian paramilitary groups that ruthlessly murdered their longtime Jewish neighbors. This horrific fact was largely brushed away during the post-war years of Russian occupation; even today, many Lithuanians still use that genuine legacy of suffering under the Soviets to excuse their parents’ and grandparents’ complicity in the Nazi genocide.
But most of the young people we met on our trip are confronting their history with remarkably brave openness—and thereby reshaping their difficult past into a better future. They remind me that sometimes, the work of teshuvah unfolds very slowly, over generations.
Rimantas Zirgulis, who designed the powerful memorial in the forest outside Kedainiai, now directs a human rights organization much like Boise’s own Wassmuth Center.
Photographer Richard Schofield is a British ex-pat living in Kaunas, where he directs the International Centre for Litvak Photography. He has dedicated his professional life to capturing the remnants of Lithuania’s Jewish past on film; for his “Back to Shul” project this summer, he hitchhiked across the country photographing one hundred former synagogues in twelve days.
Justas Pipiras was our guardian angel. He provided our kayak, helped us provision, and shuttled us countless hours down Lithuanian highways and dirt roads, to launch us at our put-ins and retrieve us from our take-outs. He transformed our dream of paddling across Lithuania into a reality with his constant material and moral support—because, as a student at Vilnius University, he developed an interest
in his nation’s Jewish past and when I reached out to him, he saw an opportunity to explore that heritage more deeply through our eyes.
And since returning to America, I’ve been speaking with Agneska Avin, a Lithuanian grad student interning at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City. She read about our trip online and reached out to me:
Coming from Vilnius. . . we often encountered evidence of Jewish heritage. But our experiences were always very fragmented and episodic. We could feel the Jewish essence fluttering in the streets of our city but were never able to touch it. Moving to New York and meeting Jewish people with their roots in the Old Country was crucial in understanding our history and rethinking our self-identities as Lithuanians. Today, we feel a great responsibility to represent young future-oriented Lithuanians, willing to rebuild the past and present in order to create a brighter tomorrow for our country and Lithuanian-Jewish relations.
These resolute Lithuanians embody the possibility of teshuvah, our capacity to transform past failings, individual and communal, into future opportunities. They inspire me—and remind me that, lest we be too quick to condemn Lithuanian bystanders, we have plenty of our own turning to do. Before I leap to judge those now living in our former homes on Vilna’s Zydu Gatve, the Street of the Jews, I must remember that I, too, dwell on purloined property, brutally seized from its Native American owners. We, Americans, tend to obfuscate and avoid our own nation’s original sins of slavery, genocide, and xenophobia. I returned from my ancestral homeland that was decimated by the Nazis and their accomplices only to watch, just a few weeks later, as Nazis and Klansmen marched through the heart of my alma mater chanting “Jews will not replace us!” I listened, stunned and appalled, to our president’s tepid response to that evil. And I wrestle with my own complicity in the systemic racism woven into the fabric of our nation. Before we criticize others, let us tend to our own gardens.
But my journeys have taught me that even the darkest chapters of our past can be prologue to a brighter future, if we confront them with integrity and courage. Over seventy years after the Shoah, there are still ample openings for teshuvah. The descendants of the perpetrators have the opportunity to teach by example, like Laima, to acknowledge the sins of their ancestors, to stand up to racism and bigotry, and to lead us all in bending the moral arc of the universe toward justice. We Jews should stand with them, even as we honor our dead by recommitting our own lives to creative Jewish living, spiritual growth, and acts of lovingkindness.
On Monday, June 5, a couple days south of Kedainiai, I wrote about our effort to paddle down a tough stretch of stream, how we struggled to push past what I called a “hideous collection of radio towers” taunting us. I asked myself: What are we doing here?
Two months after I posted this passage on my blog, I received a response from Harry Gorfine, an Australian fisheries biologist who I met in Vilnius. Well after the fact, his words completely transformed the way I understood our adventure on the Nevezis. He wrote:
I keep meaning to tell you about those radio masts that were driving you nuts as you and Rosa paddled between Babtai and Kaunas. They were of critical importance to native Lithuanians during January 1991 as ordinary citizens mobilized in their campaign for independence from the oppressive Soviet regime. Gorbachev ordered tanks from the Soviet military compounds to wrest back control from a native uprising. Many came out to demonstrate and were maimed as the tanks driven by young Russians ran over them, crushing their limbs into the muddy ground.
Those radio towers were the means by which the underground operatives of the de facto Lithuanian government in Kaunas desperately got a message to the West, to let them know what was happening as it unfolded. Time was of the essence. Without swift communication the world might have awoken to news about a large scale massacre. That’s all history now, but as much as I am aware of what you were up against on that stretch of the river, had I been paddling beside you, I would have drawn motivation to persevere, for the demoralizing headwinds and cold, wet conditions that you faced were trivial in comparison to what others have endured in this land of our forebears. I gather the towers remain in use today, but even if they were abandoned, I doubt that permission to demolish them would ever be granted, given the legacy of freedom that they helped to secure for the country.
What are we doing here, on the eve of this new year, wrestling with the changing winds and weather of our lives, looking forward, looking back?
As Harry Gorfine and Laima Ardaviciene and so many others I’ve had the blessing to encounter on my sabbatical remind me, we are affirming that the past is not prologue to a fixed future.
We are remembering that with honest commitment, we can transform our failings—and those of our forebears—into the vision of a better world in the making.
And on the threshold of 5778, we are insisting, proudly and defiantly, that our task this Rosh Hashanah and beyond is not to make America or Judaism or even ourselves great again—not to restore such a mythical, idealized and ultimately false version of the past; our calling is acknowledge our flawed histories, to learn from our mistakes, and in so doing, begin to approach the true greatness we yet aspire to achieve.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that God speaks slowly in our lives, a syllable at a time. It is not until we reach the end of life that we can read the sentence backward. Our stories are not over until we write the final utterance, which has the capacity to change all that came before.
Tonight, my friends, as always, the Holy One lays the Book of Life open before us.
Each of us, you and I, choose the stories that we will inscribe.
May they be for a blessing.