Everything Is Regurgitated
Living off of Jewish memory in old Chernowitz, once the Jerusalem of Ukraine
The truth turned out to be much more strange and entertaining. We drove up to a badly tended synagogue with no security and an unlocked door—an odd thing in Ukraine but, according to Isaac, a sign of the town’s enduring philo-Semitism. The second-floor waiting room was crowded with about seven or eight twitchy and forlorn and truly unhappy-looking people.
“None of these people are Jews,” Regina whispered to Esther and me in French. “They’re all Ukrainian peasants. What are they doing here?”
I dutifully and leadingly inquired of the woman closest to me in Russian. “Are you here to see the rabbi? I have heard he has certain powers.”
She smiled at me condescendingly. “One can believe in anything if one wants too. He is a very interesting man and he knows many things. He served in the special forces as a paratrooper, you know.”
“Are you Jewish?” Regina asked her.
“No, no,” the woman admitted. Despite this, the rabbi helped her. “I have been coming to see him for a long time, but I go to see a priest as well,” she explained. We went on to find out that people traveled an entire night by bus from all over western Ukraine to receive the rabbi’s advice and predictions as well as to have him lift curses.
At that moment Rabbi Noikh Kaufsmansky walked out and invited us into his messy office. Being honored guests from Odessa, France, and America, we were walked into his office without having to wait in the receiving line. It was an hour before the setting of the Shabbat sun, and we thanked Kaufmansky for his sparing a few minutes for us. A pile of dollars, euros, and Ukrainian Hryvnia, in various states of crumple, lay uncounted in the middle of his desk.
After the Soviet army had retaken the city they had closed 85 of the town’s 86 synagogues, he told us, but his grandfather’s shul was allowed to operate in a low-key fashion for whatever reason. He had inherited his grandfather’s synagogue, largely because no one else needed or wanted it. He had been a professor of nuclear physics during the Soviet era and had only later become religious. This is what he professed, at least.
When we asked him about tensions between him and Rabbi Mendel, Kaufmansky chalked it up to the usual “two Jews, three synagogues” syndrome. The amusing post-Communist twist was that relations, apparently, came to an end when Kaufsmansky confronted Mendel about the obligatory portrait of the Lubavitcher Rebbe that the latter had put up: “Why don’t we just get it over with and pray to a picture of Stalin or Chairman Mao?” he yelled. Esther, who knows Yiddish, interrogated him about where he received his smicha—to which the rabbi replied, after some hesitation, “Netanya.”
We then inquired whether he charges a set price for a consultation from his clients. “They give me offerings of their own accord,” Kaufmansky replied. “I never ask for an exact amount. I tell them to give me whatever they feel comfortable with. This is not about money,” he continued. “The other synagogue, they only care about money. I am doing God’s will.” It seemed that Rabbi Kaufmansky had gone shaman.
As we were about to leave and were thanking him for his time, the rabbi abruptly told us that he was collecting money for an obelisk to the child victims of the Holocaust. “Glad to help,” I said and began reaching for my wallet, when the rabbi interjected: “No, no, that won’t be necessary. We are very transparent here. Everything you need is to be found here,” before handing me his business card with the details of his Kiev bank account on the back.
A similar medley of medieval superstition surrounds the grave of the Vishnitzer rebbe of the Hager dynasty in nearby Vishnitz, a village outside the city that can be reached after a 40-minute drive. The village is the next one over from where Applefeld was born, and it is the template for the shtetls in Iron Tracks. A Jewish community of about 15 people remains, out of a total population of 5,000 (the town used to be almost 97 percent Jewish). The 15 stalwarts live there essentially to keep up a presence for the purpose of keeping property under Ukranian law pertaining to religion, thus ensuring that somewhere down the line a parking lot is not built over the ancient Jewish cemetery. The village is one of four in the environs of Chernowitz that house the remains of great tzaddikim.
Alexander Tausher, a stout older man with gold teeth who runs the village dry-goods shop and arcade and holds the keys to the cemetery, met us after Misha called him on his cell phone. Local tradition holds that the tzaddik can grant any wish, and pieces of paper in Hebrew, Russian, and Ukrainian scrawled with scraps of dreams littered the tomb. I left one asking the tzaddik to find Esther a nice boyfriend.
John Zorn’s Tzadik record label compiles the radical work of the 1980s New York jazz group Hasidic New Wave