Everything Is Regurgitated
Living off of Jewish memory in old Chernowitz, once the Jerusalem of Ukraine
“You would not believe the kind of things the Ukrainian peasants ask me,” Tausher confided in me.“They really believe in his powers,” he continued, gesturing at the grave of the tzaddik while opening the gate to the crypt. “They come and all I ask them to do is to respect him by not crossing themselves in front of him.” He pantomimed a Ukrainian peasant making the Orthodox cross. “Last month a farmer came and begged the tzaddik for help getting his not-very-bright son into university. He prays and leaves. Then he comes back two weeks later yelling at me ecstatically: ‘Alexander Michaelovich! It worked! The tzaddik got my retarded son into University! It’s a miracle!’ I told him ‘good’ but then the farmer said to me, ‘I have one more problem. Can I ask the tzaddik for just one more favor?’ ‘Of course,’ I told him.” The farmer then recounted the long and unhappy tale of his neighbor’s horse continuously wandering into his yard and eating all the cabbage. It was a major problem, seemingly insoluble through less mystical solutions, and so could the holy tzaddik then please have God kill the horse?
“ ‘No. No,’ ” Tausher had rebuked the peasant gently, “ ‘we can’t ask him to kill anything. Maybe we could just pray about it and hope that God would fix things in another manner. Maybe your neighbor would sell the horse or something.’ ”
None of this is particularly new—the Yiddish literature that was born here was the secularized expression of the Hasidic tales of the Carpathians, just as now Applefeld’s stories are the deracinated teleological conclusion of that literary history.
We drove a few kilometers from the town up the mountain to a Carpathian ski resort that operates in the summer as a restaurant with an expansive view of the stunningly green mountains that the Baal Shem Tov wandered in the heartland of Ukrainian nationalism. The Ukrainian waiter at the restaurant spoke with Misha and Regina in a rustic argot peppered with Hungarian and Romanian words that to my ear was completely undecipherable. A billboard next to our table announced that Brezhnev had vacationed here half a century ago. “Is that true?” I inquired of a passing Ukrainian in his mid-thirties who had been eyeing me, an obvious foreigner, with pronounced curiosity. “He was really here?” “Don’t know about that,” the Ukrainian bantered back with a roguish grin. “All I know is that Stepa Andryiovich sure was!” He had used the affectionate diminutive appellation for Stepan Bandera—the virulently anti-Semitic Ukrainian nationalist who alternately fought the Russians, the Poles, and the Germans during World War II before being assassinated in a West Berlin café by Soviet Intelligence—which was probably our new friend’s way of trying to tell me what the inhabitants of these parts think of Russian tourists.
After we drove back down from the hilltop, we made the requisite stop, as all Jewish tourists do, for a dip in the Baal Shem Tov’s mikvah. Misha, almost as an afterthought, told us that he had the rabbi’s private CD still loaded in the Discman and inquired whether we wanted to give it a go. It turned out that on his off-time, a Lubavitcher rabbi listens to upbeat Hasidic folk songs set to the tunes and lyrics of classic Red Army marches. Invigorated by the spirit of the mountains and the mikvah, we began to joyfully sing along with these Chabad Red Army songs. Misha discreetly rolled up the windows of the car so that we would not get stoned by the locals.
Now steeped in a sleepy provinciality it had never known under the Austro-Hungarians, Chernowitz still retains all the characteristics of a feisty frontier town. Its location on the far western edge of the Soviet empire allowed it to take a leading role in the Refusenik movement, with underground Hebrew circles and secret study groups proliferating. Israel’s hard right diaspora relations minister Yuli Edelstein is from here and was active in the Hebrew circles before being deported to the gulag. A family friend who was born here, Tamara Silverman, now an Israeli living in New York, told me of the clandestine midnight baking of matzoh by a few families in the early ’60s—18 years old in the early ’70s, Tamara remembers walking into the chamber of Supreme Council of Soviets in the Kremlin and demanding that they let her and her people immigrate. The cream of the population were of course the first to immigrate, and it is a bittersweet fact that declining birth rates and assimilation are poised to finish what began with the labors of the Romanians and was speeded along by mass emigration.
Yet, if the chances of the community surviving into even the medium term are bleak, perhaps, this too is something Beznos can simply will away with the correct admixture of graceful guile and force. For now, that the community endures is a testament to its frontier grit as well as the town’s remarkable past and special role in Jewish history. You could do much worse than to visit on your next vacation: Bring a book of Celan’s poems, leave a note with the Vishnitze rabbi, brush up on your Yiddish. If you have a drink with Isaac, tell him I sent you.
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