Everything Is Regurgitated: Jewish Memory in the old Jerusalem of Ukraine
Living off of Jewish memory in old Chernowitz, once the Jerusalem of Ukraine
Sonmez could not quite shake a pervasive feeling that he was being continuously misquoted if not essentially misdirected by his purported guide and translator. He began probing a quiescent Shevchenko on the reasons why she was interested in Jewish culture. She responded that she knew many Jews, though when he asked her what happened to all the Jews she had known, she responded that “they were gone now.” Galled by the vagueness of the answer, he pressed her to speak about the fate of her Jewish acquaintances, but Oleg intervened: “He said we could all deduce what happened, inviting me to be logical.” In one of those deliciously Wildean instances of life aping art, a disabused Sonmez had found in Shevchenko the double avatar of the Iron Tracks traveler-collector, pawning fragments of Jewish memory back to Jewish travelers, “minus” in his dry formulation, “the redemption.”
With most of its Jews gone, the town’s Jewish character is now emblazoned everywhere with statues and memorial plaques dedicated to obscure and long-dead Yiddish poets. These signs hang on houses down just about every street, with lines from their poems inscribed in Yiddish, Russian, and Ukrainian into the footpath stones of the major boulevards. With the exception of the occasional Bulgarian or Polish tour group or rogue German motorcyclist, the town was desolate. (We could not find any coffee on Sunday because no café in the city opened before noon.) The infrastructure was mostly in light decay, but gorgeous and unscathed. The blue Moorish cupolas of the grandiose Chernowitz Synagogue—once one of the main sites of Reform Judaism in Eastern Europe—had been demolished. The Soviets had made a half-hearted attempt at dynamiting the rest of the building after the war, but the foundation was so strong that the only thing that cracked was the façade of the building across the street. Left alone afterward and converted into a movie theater, it was festooned with humongous posters advertizing the latest Adam Sandler comedy.
We were welcomed at the newly rebuilt and renovated main synagogue by the tough and charismatic president of the Jewish community, Isaac Beznos. “Beznos” is a Russophication of a Hebrew name, Bez meaning without and nos, nose, so he is literally “Isaac the noseless,” a delightfully Gogolian name for a man who picks up on the slightest scent. He is a very particular east European type: the Jewish provincial strong-man who hold everything together with a combination of brains, muscle, and skill. The head of all sorts of local organizations and committees, he is trim and of wiry build; a colonel during Soviet times and now a reserve officer in the Ukrainian army. He had spent his youth as a professional folk dancer and an Olympic-caliber gymnast, working in Germany and traveling the world after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, he always returned to Chernowiz. He is now in his early sixties, and his wife—who it was obvious was once the best-looking girl in the city, if not the region—told us that he will still do the occasional standing back flip and land on his palms to entertain her when she is in a sullen mood.
When we first arrived and met Isaac in the synagogue, he took me to have a morning drink in memory of the anniversary of the death of his father. To my delight the old men drinking vodka with me in the synagogue at 11 in the morning joked and teased each other in a medley of Russian and Yiddish. Chernowitz is certainly the last place in Ukraine and probably the last place in Eastern Europe where a quorum of native speakers keeps the Jewish language living with daily use. Plans are afoot to capitalize on this and start a Yiddish festival, thus returning the city to its roots. Over the three days we were with Beznos and his family, we spent our meals telling Jewish jokes, translating them telephone-game-style from one end of the table to the other: from Russian and Yiddish into English, and from there to Turkish and French.
Chernowitz has seen something of a renaissance under the guidance of energetic and talented Lubavitcher Rabbi Menachem Mendel, who was newly installed by Chabad a few years ago. The opening of the city’s first kosher restaurant is slated for this fall. There are plans also to start up a travel and tourism company to facilitate Jewish pilgrimage and tourism. The community, whose average age skews ancient, is also in desperate need of a microbus or two to bring pensioners from their homes to the synagogue.
Issac soon placed us in the care of Mendel and his own personal driver, Misha, whom he considered a trustworthy young man. Misha did turn out to be an honest, industrious, and agreeable young Ukrainian who knew what he wanted in life—he had bought a pair of Mercedes-Benz cars on credit and worked 18-hour days in the hope of making the transition from driver to car-service owner. Mendel had appraised his qualities and had subtly encouraged him to study with the other men in the synagogue. Misha admitted that he could imagine himself converting. He explained that he had “never met Jews like you before—hip and young, easy to talk with and that don’t wear black or have beards.”
After spending the day seeing the sights, Misha asked us if we wanted to see the “other rabbi”—with whom the mainstream community had broken relations. The rumor was that the other rabbi “lives in a non-Jewish way,” Misha confided to us. There were also rumors that he was not really a rabbi at all, but “just a guy who was pretending to be one to make money”—and who was rumored to have trained as a cosmonaut in Moscow. Hearing this, we naturally instructed him to take us to the synagogue immediately.
John Zorn’s Tzadik record label compiles the radical work of the 1980s New York jazz group Hasidic New Wave