From our Journeyers: Odessa

June 26, 2013 by jewish journeys


Simchat Torah came a little late this year in Odessa.  The Rabbi had been too sick to come from Kiev so the small, growing Reform community, Imanu-El, celebrated on the Shabbat before last – a welcome postponement for thirty-odd visitors from the UK on a Jewish Journey…a five-day odyssey  to the past, present and, one hopes, the future of the Jews of Odessa and Kishinev.

A strictly Orthodox visitor would not have been impressed.  The group lighting of Shabbat candles was delayed for a collection of contributions from the visitors; The Sefer Torah, its Ark a basic wooden cupboard, was held aloft and then unrolled and re-rolled  by the singing and dancing congregation.  The glamorous Chazanit – she had been to cantorial school in Moscow – sang beautifully, accompanied by her assistant on his guitar.

The adherents of the main, Great, Orthodox synagogue in Odessa are similarly unimpressed by the burgeoning Reform presence. “It’s only two years old,” the guide replied dismissively – and inaccurately – when questioned.

The re-birth of Jewish communities in a region where hundreds of thousands of Jews were slaughtered by fascists and where Judaism  virtually obliterated by the Soviets is a cause for wonderment.  Many organisations world-wide have helped the regeneration, none more so than Chabad/Lubavitch.  The passionate dedication of Chabad has brought Judaism to parts hitherto unreached, not just to new communities but to, for instance, Israelis on their gap year in Thailand who may never have celebrated the Festivals back home.

While Chabad is to be applauded unconditionally, the Judaism it is bringing to the Ukraine and Moldova is more or less a replica of the Orthodoxy prevailing in ‘der haime’.  Is it too much to ask that, just as we all venerate their achievements, they, reciprocally, might appreciate that progressive Judaism is breathing a fresh, 21st Century  Jewish life into those who are kindling communities faraway in time and mind-set from the shtetls of the past?

For we all have a shared history.  The Torah belongs to us all even when Halachic interpretations differ.  Perhaps the most poignant memorial on this Jewish journey was to be found in the Jewish cemetery in Kishinev.  Through  narrow paths, overhung with drooping branches, deep in the woods stood the largest tombstone of all.  It was not the grave of the murdered Jews in the 1903 Kishinev pogrom, but the tomb of the Sifrei Torah that had been desecrated in the pillage and destruction.   The dead were buried, but the Sifrei Torah remnants were processed through the streets in coffins, sanctified, buried and honoured with a tombstone proclaiming the ten commandments.

“Thou shalt not kill”!.

The killing fields of this part of the world are an inevitable part of a Jewish Journey.  We mourned the Jews of Odessa and Kishinev at too many heartbreaking sites and monuments. The strains of El Malei Rachamim, rendered by Vladimir Lapin, a New York cantorial student who left the region as a child, rose hauntingly upwards and inwards to our souls.  Kaddish has never felt so poignant as recited by these thirty-odd men and women, re-tracing the tragedies of our Jewish past.   If tears can travel to Heaven, then perhaps those slaughtered souls will be touched by our sorrow and our paean to their sacrifices.

The survivors of that Kishinev pogrom re-built their community, not knowing that later devastation was to come.  Similarly, with the help of world Jewry, those Ukrainian and Moldovan communities are regenerating.

How inspiring to visit Migdal in Odessa, which, having begun as a dance troupe twenty years ago, is now a Jewish cultural centre for a thousand families – with no questions asked about their Jewish denominational affiliation.  Eyes were moist as we were entertained to Hebrew singing, dancing and acrobatics by the youngest (yes, babies in their mothers’ arms) and the oldest who performed a stately, dignified song and dance routine.  All, Holocaust survivors.

And the Jewish Community Centre in Kishinev, supported by the Joint Distribution Committee, World Jewish Relief and many other caring Jewish organisations world-wide, concentrates on empowering all-comers to learn and absorb Jewish culture. It also tries to ameliorate the desperate poverty endured by so many in Moldova, reputedly the poorest country in Europe.

Under the expert, charismatic guidance of our leader, Jeremy Leigh, we revisited the sites of the giants of Jewish Enlightenment, Zionism and modern Hebrew literature.  Of course, we trailed down (but not up!) the famous Potempkin steps…and paused at the points of embarkation of the Jews fleeing to Palestine, at the port and at the railway station.  Jeremy told us of a group of secular Jews, called Am Ha’Olam who, paradoxically, took a Sefer Torah with them to Palestine.  Apparently, at each train stop they disembarked and raised the Sefer Torah, Hagbah-style, and pronounced  “This is the symbol of our people”!

The happiest moments came at the close of Shabbat.  In respect for the fire alarms inside the magnificent Hotel Londonskaya, we gathered in the porch, looking on a rain-soaked Primorsky Boulevard (which, by the way, was replicated in Odessan nostalgia in Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard!).  Remarkably, Jeremy had a Havdalah candle in his rucksack…but a hotel shower gel had to suffice as the b’samim (the requisite spice)!

Halachic-lite maybe.   But the place, the ritual, the emotion all captured an unforgettable  Jewish Journey  to the past, in the present.  It would be good to hope that the flame from that Havdalah candle will illuminate a coming together of Jews of all shades, in Israel and the Diaspora, so we can all be brothers and sisters in harmony.  How good that would be!

26 October 2012 (as published in the Jewish Telegraph)


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July 2022: Warsaw - Lodz

July 2022: Warsaw - Lodz

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