At Home and On the Road

Morning
I slept, despite the hill.  Benadryl definitely helps.  I woke to a rainstorm at 7:30, then back to sleep until almost 9:00 before waking again--this time, thankfully, to sunshine.  Much better.  Since we made good time on the river yesterday, even with all of the logjams and obstacles, we should have a fairly relaxed schedule today.


Lunchtime
This morning brought the trip's first "rapids": a couple small rock ledges under a quaint old bridge.  We lined the boat down.  After that, pretty smooth paddling, except for a time or two when we turned down the wrong direction.  As the river passes through the marshes, it becomes labyrinthine, and the current is so weak that it can be difficult to know which way to go.  Thankfully, Rosa is an excellent navigator, using Google maps on her cell phone and, even more impressively, riparian plant life.  She taught me to look closely at the plants growing beneath the surface: the direction in which they are bending indicates the river's flow.  

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Yesterday we made surprisingly good progress after our initial challenges, speeding through four pages of our maps.  Today is proceeding much more slowly--when we ate lunch at 1:30, we had not yet made it past map 5.  I think the scale must be different--alas, my homemade maps, printed out from Google Earth, do not indicate scale.  Unstable weather hasn't helped, either.  It's sunny one moment, deeply overcast another.  We're hoping fair weather prevails but I'm prepping myself for rain.  At least we did not wake up with poison ivy.  Hopefully we won't develop it any time soon!

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In my morning davenning, I focused on a phrase from the blessing that begins P'sukei d'Zimra, the psalms of praise: Baruch sh'amar v'haya ha-olam--Praised be the One who spoke and the world came to be. . . 
As many commentators note, this obviously refers to God, who, in Genesis, creates the world through speech--but also reminds us that we, too, shape our worlds with our words.  We do not miraculously generate life, ex nihilo, but the words we put forth do, indeed, significantly determine the environment we inhabit.  

Still, with all this focus on words, here on the waters of Lithuania, it is hard to miss the silences.  The Jewish voices--lives, prayers, deeds--were so cruelly muzzled and annihilated.  Yet they left us a legacy of words and multi-vocal wisdom: Zionist, Bundist, Talmudic, sacred and ordinary.  I hear their words and their worlds in the silences.

**********
Evening
The afternoon was challenging.  Shortly after lunch, we unexpectedly arrived at a dam.  Fortunately, there was an old Lithuanian farm house right beside, with the residents out sitting in their yard.  One of them--a man with a young son--greeted us in English.  It turns out that he grew up here but now lives in the UK and is just back for a visit.  He explained to us that the best way through is to portage along the left bank, and showed us the path, giving us permission to carry our boat and supplies through his family's property.  

The portage distance was around 400 yards.  It took multiple trips, shlepping our food and gear and the heavy boat to the put-in downstream of the dam.  Fairly arduous work.  When we finished, we rested for a few minutes, re-packed, then slipped the boat back into the water, tired but satisfied with a job decently done.  

A little later we hit another, much smaller dam.  This time we could--and did--pass through.  Still, this day demanded patience.  We did not even make it through two map pages by evening.  That means we'll have a long day tomorrow, including the canal that connects our current river, the Levuo, to the Nevezis, which we will paddle back to Kaunas.

We stopped a little early, exhausted.  Thankfully, after a short but tough day, we did find our best campsite of the trip.  We're perched high above the river, in a stretch of nice grass, sheltered by a grove of pines.  It's less buggy than most of the places we've been, which is a relief, given the mosquito bites we're accumulating.  We set up camp around 5:45, enjoyed a dinner of quesadillas, and then a long, quiet evening, tossing the frisbee, playing gin rammer, and doing some reading and writing, too.  We have a long day and a lot of time to make up tomorrow, so it is good to get this rest.
 
 
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Today the river took us near--though not directly through--one former Jewish shtetl--Subacious, known in Yiddish as Subtosh.  A century ago, it was a fairly prominent Jewish town; in 1897, the 376 resident Jews represented 45% of the total population of 850.  Only 50 or so remained in 1940, as most left, either for the bigger cities in Lithuania or the United States, South Africa, and Palestine.  

The Jews of Subtosh worked in the usual professions: grocers, butchers, bakers, tailors, textiles.  Many were Zionists and, as usual, divided by politics and religious practice: Labor, Revisionist, Mizrachi, etc.  In the end, of course, the few who did not get out were all murdered together in the forest, regardless of ideology.

Pinkas Kehillat Lita notes that one of those who got away before the genocide was Ephraim Frisch.  He left with his family in 1888, when he was just 8 years old.  The Frisches came to the US through the Great Lakes port of Duluth, Minnesota.  Ephraim was largely raised in the US, but inherited the Litvak penchant for religious scholarship and political activism.  His maternal great grandfather, Rabbi Alexander Sender, was hailed back in the Old Country as a gaon, a Talmudic genius.  And his cousin, Leonard Frisch, was a national Zionist leader and editor of American Jewish World, a Twin Cities weekly.  Ephraim grew up in Minneapolis and was ordained as a Reform rabbi at the Hebrew Union College in 1904.  At his first pulpit, in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, he supported a local African-American minister who hosted bi-racial gatherings in the pre-civil rights south.  Frisch also openly criticized the governor for invoking Jesus in a Thanksgiving Day proclamation.  

In 1912, Ephraim Frisch moved to more progressive pastures, in Queens, and a few years later founded the New Synagogue in Manhattan.  That congregation's credo stressed "humanitarian deeds, social action, flexible rituals, and liturgy augmented with secular readings."  In other words, it was a liberal, classical Reform synagogue of its place and time--a long way from Subtosh.  Frisch also followed classical Reform--and differed from many (though definitely not all) of his fellow Litvaks--in rejecting Zionism, referring to the 1918 Balfour Declaration as "a menace."

In 1923, Ephraim Frisch of Subtosh became the rabbi of my brother's current congregation, Temple Beth El in San Antonio, Texas.  In his tenure there, he would be a lighting rod for controversy in this conservative, formerly Confederate state.  He openly criticized compulsory Bible reading in the schools, denounced the city's squalid and segregated slums, and preached in support of FDR's New Deal.  In June of 1942, the congrgation's board forced him to take an early retirement.  He moved back to New York, where he died a bitter man.

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My grandfather, Rabbi Joseph Fink--himself a descendant of Litvaks--must have known his older colleague, Ephraim Frisch of Subtosh.  I wonder about their relationship.  Did they talk?  They shared many interests, including social justice and scholarship--both born of the Litvak legacy.  

From Subtosh to San Antonio.  Or Slabodka to Buffalo, New York.

It's a long journey.



Posted: June 23, 2017, 8:38 am
Up and packing early, and Justas arrived at 10:00 am to take us to our next put-in, on the Levuo river.

It was a long drive--two and a half hours or so--for us.  And way longer for Justas, who had began and finished back in Vilnius.  He devoted his entire day to our journey.  Again, I am astounded by his generosity and enthusiasm for our trip.  We could not even begin to do this expedition without him.  Over the next week and a half, while we are paddling to Keidainiai and then on to Jurbarkas, he will be on his own trip, to Tenerife.  We're wishing him safe, productive, and enjoyable travels.

In mid-afternoon, we arrived at our original designated put-in, just below the dam on the Levuo in the town of Kupiskes.  However, there was simply not enough water in the stream to navigate, so we drove a few miles further and Justas dropped us off a a hastily contrived spot beside a small bridge.  It wasn't idea--the bank was muddy and steep without a suitable place to park Justas's van and trailer with our kayak, but we made it work, unloading very quickly, saying our goodbyes, and then organizing ourselves.  We packed the boat, hoisting in all of our gear, including our now very heavy rejuvenated food bag, and set out.

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Before the World War II, the tiny town of Kupiskes (or, in Yiddish, Kupishok) was home to 1200 Jews--42% of the local population of 2830.  One of the themes of our trip is the important of shtetl life in rural Lithuania.  Most American Jews live in large urban areas, and we tend to think of ourselves as city folks.  Yet for much of our history here in Lita, we made up virtual majorities across the rural landscape.  This is an important heritage.  Long before Zionism and the return to Israel, Jews were living close to the land, surrounded by dense forests and networks of rivers--in community with one another.

Lest one think this too bucolic, even in those small towns, we often feuded amongst ourselves.  Here's what Pinkas Kehillat Lita has to say about Kupishok: 

Kupiskis Jewry divided off into two communities, the Hassidim and the Mitnagdim (Misnogdim or Opponents). As a result, the town had two official rabbis, one for each community (previously they had one rabbi for the whole town), but then they had two Shochtim (ritual slaughterers), two burial societies and four synagogues. Often, bitter quarrels arose between the rival communities. The Kashrut certification given by one was negated and declared Treif (not Kosher) by the other

By the end of the 19th century, many of the Kupishok Jews started to leave town, with most going to the US and South Africa.  Economic hardship took its toll, as did fires, which frequently ravaged small towns and cities alike--each with mostly wooden buildings--throughout Lithuania.  Still, the shtetl managed to sustain itself until the Nazis arrived in June of 1941.

Very shortly after the German invasion, Kupiskok filled up with Jews from neighboring areas, all fleeing the Nazis--to no avail.  In mid-July, the Germans established a small ghetto on Vilna Street and began to murder Jews in the forest outside of town.  Much of the killing was actually done by the Nazis' Lithuanian accomplices, including the local police chief and his deputy, and a high school teacher.  By the end of September 1941, not a single Jew remained alive; over 3000 souls from Kupishok and nearby towns were buried in the swamps and woods.  The chief murderer was tried after the war, but later released and moved to Germany under an assumed name.  

A few of the local Lithuanians did try to save Jews.  The local priest, I. Regauskas, who taught at the town high school, attempted to save some of his Jewish students--but informers tipped off the Germans.  The local gentile doctor took in the rabbi's wife, Kh. L. Pertzovski and Mrs. B. Meirovitz, together with their children--but again, Lithuanian neighbors soon discovered them and they were all murdered.  

And so this once vibrant Jewish town came to an end, with those on all side of the internal quarrels meeting the same cruel fate from the oppressors.

**********

Upon our launch, I blew the shofar, to announce our Jewish presence. 

We jumped in the boat and paddled off.  But not for very long.  For the first couple hours of this day, we realized we were not in a river but a rather smallish creek.  The water level was often too low for paddling, as we bottomed out on rocks and sandbars, so we ended up out of the boat more than in it, dragging it downstream.  Logjams were even more challenging.  Downed trees frequently blocked the entire creek, sometimes at intervals of roughly every fifty yards.  Each time we pulled up at one, we had to jump into murky water backed up to our waists and wade through thick brush, spider webs, dirty foam and the discarded plastic bottles and other garbage that tended to acccumulate at these jams--and then figure out a way to lift the boat over the morass.  And then repeat the whole messy procedure three minutes later, again and again and again.

**********

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught that we need challenges to strengthen our resolve.  He taught: the obstacle creates the desire.  Many teachers have noted that without difficulties to overcome, travel is just a pleasure trip; it takes the tough passages to transform a journey into a pilgrimage. As the Talmud puts it: L'fi sachra, avdah--According to the labor, so is the reward.  If this is true--and I believe it is--then this afternoon was important for Rosa and me.  I experienced yesterday--Shabbat in Kovno--as a monumental day: leading services in the hometown of my forebears, sitting at Chiune Sugihara's desk, walking through the ghost map of Kovno and Slabodka, in the footsteps of Judel and Shimon and Mendel Finkelstein, of Toba Kagan Finkelstein, and Israel Salanter, Isaac Elchanan Spektor, Leah Goldberg, Abraham Mapu, and so many more.    But today was about overcoming ordinary obstacles, about pushing through where the river didn't, about working in partnership with my daughter, Rosa.  So when, after a couple of hours, the obstacles began to fall away and the creek, fed by tributaries, widened and deepened into a real river, meandering beautifully through tranquil wetlands, we felt proud of ourselves.  We decided to name our boat, thankful for how she carried us through the to this point.  We will call her Lita--a lovely, litlting name, and the traditional Yiddish word for "Lithuania."  Lita, homeland of the Litvaks.  And our home on the rivers by which they lived.

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Later, as day softened into evening, we hit a few more logjams.  And had a difficult time finding a camping spot.  Eventually we settled for one a stone's throw from the small road that runs parallel to the river, just behind an old house--on rather sloped, unlevel ground.  It will do.  I'm a little worried about the dense overgrowth of plants all around us; I fear we may be camped in a thicket of poison ivy--and know, from the burning and itching, that we are definitely in stinging nettle.  But we've washed and scrubbed in the river and put on long pants and now can only hope for the best.  

It was a hard day.  And a good day.

We retire to the tent.  I count the omer.  Day 48, just two more days until Shavuot.

Now off to sleep on the hill, head up, feet down, Rosa and I rolling with the earth.





Posted: June 22, 2017, 8:43 pm
One hundred and eleven years ago, Rabbi Yehudah Tzvi (Judel) Finkelstein departed Lithuania on a long sea voyage to join his family in the New World.  He was 82 years old, and like biblical Abraham and Sarah and countless other immigrants before him, he was leaving his land, his birthplace, his ancestral home, never to return.  For Judel Finkelstein, the passage to America was the beginning of a challenging late life adventure.  He would find himself an aged stranger in a strange land, where he did not speak the language or understand the culture. Born in Keidan, he is buried in Queens, amongst many who shared his fate.

Today, after a little over a month in Lithuania, I am heading home by jet plane via Helsinki and Reykjavik.  I will return to the comfortable, familiar and privileged life that I live as an American after a month-long odyssey on the rivers of my ancestral homeland.  I am immeasurably blessed by the choices of those who came before me; if Judel's son and daughter-in-law, Mendel and Toba had not left Lithuania, they and their children would have almost inevitably perished in the Shoah along with 90% of their Litvak friends and neighbors--and I would not be here.  As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: "Just to be is a blessing.  Just to live is holy."  I am so grateful for that holy blessing granted to me by my forebears' choices.  To be able to return to their native land and explore my roots is to be doubly blessed.

I owe my highest gratitude to my father, Rabbi Arnold Fink, z"l, for planting the seeds of this journey.  Wherever I went in Lita, by river and by land, he traveled with me.

I am deeply thankful to the multitude of Lithuanians who have aided, supported, and inspired me along the way.  It would have been a very different and diminished trip without your manifold kindnesses.  There are too many of you to recognize by name.  Aciu labai.  
I will, however, single out one who truly went above and beyond, giving inordinately of his time, resources, and expertise: the incomparable Justas Pipiras, who runs the Vilnius kayak company Pipiro Baidares.  I cannot even fathom this expedition without you.

Finally, to my family: Your love leads the way. 

Tanya, Mom, Jon and Julie: Your interest and support from afar never failed to inspire us.
Janet, Rachel and Jonah: You were a lifeline back home, and I am inordinately grateful to have been able to share the end of the journey with you.  
Rosa: My co-traveler who shared every heartbeat, rainstorm and paddle-stroke.  We did it, together.  Unforgettable.  For me, the trip of a lifetime.

 

**********

So what did I learn along the way?

I suspect it will take me many months to even start to sort through the barrage of thoughts and feelings running through my little brain.  For now, then, just a few, brief parting impressions.

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History matters. 

Our past--the line of choices that both we and our ancestors have made--largely determines who we are.

No one in my family has set foot in this land for over a century, and I did not come until well into middle age.  Yet I am a Litvak.  I am a son of Kovno and Slabodka.  I am a Keidaner.  I embrace the legacy of passionate Jewish commitment, rationalist inquiry, and ethical self-examination (through Mussar).  I am a Zionist, a Yiddishist, a Bundist, a lover of both tradition and Enlightenment.   That legacy has shaped me.  

Lithuania's pagan roots--embodied by the national love of forests and rivers--also run deep in my blood.  I want to claim the rabbinic scholarship of the Slabodka Jews, the spirit of the blue collar Jewish boatmen who floated lumber down the Neris, Nevezis and Nemunas rivers, and the naturalism that thrived here in Europe's last pagan outpost for centuries before either Judaism or Christianity arrived.  Mine is the Judaism of the cities, Vilna and Kovno--and also the rural shtetlach.  I treasure the sacredness of wood and water, history and nature.

Like trees, we are stronger when we recognize that our roots run deep.

I believe that this rich and contradictory past brought me to my present life, my family, my community in Boise, Idaho.

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But history need not be destiny.

Teachers like Laima Ardaviciene and Rimantas Zirgulis--and countless young, thoughtful and intellectually-curious Lithuanians I have met along the way--remind me that despite the inexorable influence of the past, we choose and create the future that we will inhabit.

The Litvaks are almost all gone.  There is no restoring the Jewish life that thrived here for centuries until the Shoah.  What remains?  Mostly ruins, some pictures--and oceans of words, in Hebrew and Yiddish and Russian and Polish and Lithuanian.  Poetry, philosophy, politics.  Torah and Talmud. 

To travel through Lita as a Jew is to largely explore a world of ghosts, words, and wreckage.

But today's Lithuanians are beginning to acknowledge and learn from that ghost world and words.  They are doing what they can to redeem the tragedy of their history.  Haltingly and imperfectly, as all such efforts proceed--but with real purpose and hope.  

And the Jews who are here--some descendants of the tiny fragment who survived the Shoah, others who have chosen to settle here in the shadows of pre-war Lita--are building and sustaining meaningful Jewish lives.  Vilna is not likely to ever again be an epicenter of Jewish culture and community, but those who dwell here--and in Kaunas and Klaipeda, Panevezys and Siauliai--can and will carry on the tradition in their own significant ways.  Just as people do in so many places on the periphery of Jewish life--like Boise, Idaho.

**********

I have learned that truth is complicated.

Does the tragedy of Lithuanian suffering under the Soviets in any way excuse or mitigate Lithuanian collusion with the Nazis in the Shoah?

No.

Still, I do not want to play the game of comparative martyrdom.   It is a contest that no one wins.  The history--the tragedy--of Lithuania is complex.  

Too many Lithuanians joined the Nazis in killing Jews.  Too few risked their lives to save them.

I am not judging.  I do not know what I would have done if I had been in their place.  I pray that I am never forced to confront that choice--though in Trump's America, it feels closer than it ever has before in my lifetime.

I live on land that was stolen from the natives who lived there before the Europeans arrived.  Who am I to cast stones?

Judgment doesn't help.  It's not about being right.  

It is about acknowledging and accepting responsibility.

Life is not neatly divided into heroes and villains, bystanders and upstanders.  

I hope, nonetheless, that I return home a better upstander.

Truth is complicated.

If you can tweet it in 140 characters, it probably isn't (wholly) true. 

Yes, I realize one can tweet that.  So take it with a grain of salt.

**********

Farewell, Lithuania.

L'hitraot.

Viso gero.

Zai gezunt.

God willing, I will return.

 

Posted: June 22, 2017, 10:50 am
Note: I'm about a month behind and playing catch up.  More of that in days to come.  This is a current piece.

Unless you are reading this blog for the first time (in which case, welcome!) you know that I am descended from a long line of rabbis on my father's side.

What you may not know is that my mother's father and grandfather, Ray and Harry Hoffman, were printers.  For many decades between the two of them, they ran a large printing press in Buffalo, New York.  When I was a boy, one of my favorite parts of our frequent visits to Buffalo was going to the office with my Papa.  We'd get up early in the morning and walk through as they started up the presses.  Everyone knew my grandfather as The Boss, and he loved the plant like his own family.  And I loved it, too: the unmistakable smell of ink and machine oil mixing Papa's cologne, the roar of the press, bright lights and constant action.

My rabbinic ancestors learned, taught, and treasured words.  My Papa put them on to paper.

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This confluence brought me here this evening.
 

In a now quiet, out of the way corner of Vilna, I came to the building that once housed the Widow and Brothers Romm Publishing House.  They printed everything: Yiddish poetry and novels, Zionist works, popular reading.  But they are best known for their 1886 edition of the Talmud, which remains the standard throughout the Jewish world over 130 years later.  As the ultimate formatters and editors of the Talmud, their role in shaping Jewish learning and life cannot be underestimated.

Alas, as Wikipedia tells the story: "On the night of July 7, 1941, just days after the German invasion of Vilnius, [the current manager at Romm] Mathus Rapoport was taken from his home at midnight and was murdered by the Nazis. Thus came to an end the greatest Jewish printing house in the world. With the end of the Second World War the building was confiscated by the Russians. They continued to use the printing house after the war until the beginning of the 1990s but with no connection to Judaism."

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This is where so many of the streams that brought me here meet, not far from the banks of the Neris River.  Rabbis Judel and Mendel and Shimon Finkelstein, my grandfather, Rabbi Joseph Lionel Fink, and my father, Arnold Fink.  And Harry and Ray and Inez Hoffman, and my mother, Karen Hoffman Fink.  Printers and teachers--all guardians of the word.

And the Widow and Brothers Romm, who took the words of Talmud and gave them to the world.
Posted: June 21, 2017, 6:10 pm
The heyday of Kovno Jewry came in the early to mid-nineteenth century.  The population had already begun to decline by the 1880s and 90s as many Jews left--most, like my great grandparents, for America.  Quite a few were fleeing the threat of conscription into the czarist army, which took young Jewish men for up to twenty-five years.  This was often a death sentence.  Even if, by chance, one happened to survive, one's Judaism commonly didn't.  Shimon and Mendel Finkelstein must have worried significantly over the possibility of being drafted.  When the Finkelstein family left for America, they were going to a less pious--but much safer--land.

The Finkelsteins were faithfully religious Jews.  They were drawn to Yisrael Salanter's Mussar movement, open to new ideas but also deeply rooted in Litvak Orthodoxy.  Thus they represented one of the three major factions into which the Kovno Jewish community was roughly divided in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: the traditionally observant.  Another third were Zionists--mostly secular and devoted to the rebuilding of the Jewish homeland in Palestine.   The last group was comprised of the socialists,  communists, and Bundists, whose first loyalty was to the struggle for the workers' revolution.  

Of course each of these groups was further factionalized into sub-groups united only by their fierce internal debates.  Among the religious: Mussarniks and anti-Mussar, Enlightenment advocates and traditionalists.  Among the Zionists: Labor and Beitar, political and cultural.  And among the revolutionaries: Leninists and Trotskyites, socialist democrats and communists, universalists who rejected Jewish peoplehood (like Kovno native Emma Goldman) and those whose revolution, conducted largely in Yiddish, made room, at least temporarily, for Jewishness.  

Kovno was an intellectually fertile, passionate place.  Every family member brought her or his own perspective to bear on the pressing issues of the day.  It was a city of rabbis and students, philosophers (such as Emmanuel Levinas, who was born here in 1906) and pioneers and revolutionaries and anarchists and writers and artists.

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This vibrant city was full of schools of all sorts.  I've mentioned the yeshivot, where my male family members studied--Knesset Bet Yitzchak, named for the renowned chief rabbi of the city, Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor, and Knesset Yisrael, named for Israel Salanter.  But there were also more secular institutions for Jewish boys and girls alike.  Our tour brought us to the Schwabe Hebrew Gymnasium, the Jewish high school opened in 1927.  A year later, its graduating class included one of my favorite poets, Leah Goldberg.  

She would go on to study German and Russian literature at Kaunas University, then went to Berlin and Bonn, where she earned her doctorate at age 22.  Upon her return to Kovno, Goldberg began writing Hebrew poetry, then moved to Palestine, with her mother, in 1935.  She became an acclaimed writer and literary scholar, founding the department of comparative literature at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where she taught until her death in 1970.  She is a much beloved poet in Israel, where many of her poems have been set to popular song.

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Many years ago, I translated a series of Goldberg's poems called "Shirei HaNachal--Songs of the River".  

I have always loved these pieces, which speak of the wonder I feel when I spend time  around rivers.  So standing here, at her high school, after arriving in this familial home by kayak, via the Neris River from Vilna, I naturally reflected on those poems--and the journey that Rosa and I are sharing.  What a gift, this marvelous poet, Leah Goldberg, who loved both of her homelands: Lithuania, the land of her birth, with its verdant forests, soft air, and meandering rivers--and Israel, her chosen land, with its ancient sacred sites and cleansing deserts.

Songs of the River

 

A chorus of small voices

                                         -Paul Verlaine

 

The River Sings to the Stone

 

I kissed the stone in her dream’s chilly calm,

For she is the silence and I am the psalm.

She is the riddle and I am the clue;

The same ageless source gave birth to us two.

 

I kissed the stone, her lonely flesh.

She’s the vow of the faithful, and I, faithlessness.

She is eternity, I’m transformation;

She’s creation’s secret, and I—revelation.

 

I know, having touched her mute heart as I purl:

I am the poet and she is the world.



The Tree Sings to the River

 

The one who bore my autumn gold,

Swept off my fallen leaves, so dear—

Will witness my spring when it unfolds

Anew with the turn of the year.

 

My brother, the river, always the stray,

Ever-changing, yet one, renewed every day

Between his two banks, he splashes and sprawls,

Flowing as I do between spring and fall.

 

For I am the blossom and I am the fruit,

I am my future and I am my roots,

I am the tree-trunk, barren and strong,

And you are my days, my season and song.


The Moon Sings to the River

 

High in the heavens, I am the one

In the waters below, I am many.

My likeness, my image, my twin

Looks back from the river at me.

 

 

High in the heavens, I am the truth,

In the waters below, I’m deceit.

My likeness looks up from the river,

My image conceding its fate.

 

Above I am shrouded in silence,

Below, music plays everywhere.

High in the heavens—I’m God.

In the river, I am prayer.

 

 

The Girl Sings to the River

 

Where will the stream carry my little face?

Why does he tear at my eyes?

My house is so far in its evergreen glade,

Sad are my rustling pines.

 

The river seduced me with sweet songs of praise, 

So farther and farther I roamed,

Drawn by his music, which called out my name, 

Forsaking my mother’s home.

 

And I am her only one, tender in years,

Now before me the cruel waters rise.

Where will the stream carry my little face?

Why does he tear at my eyes?

 

  

 


 

 


**********

Our next stop was back at the Choral Shul, where I began the morning.

We spoke there with Mausa Bairakas, one of the leaders of the congregation, who I had met earlier.  This time he spoke in Lithuanian, while our guide, Jonas, translated for us.  Mausa told us about growing up here in Kovno, where his family has lived for nearly three hundred years.  We asked about his experience with the community; he shrugged and said that things are "complicated."  The Jewish community is prospering--and assimilating away.  There are strong bridges to the non-Jewish world--and lingering anti-Semitism.  Hope and fear,  passion and apathy.  And factions: secularists and Yiddish revivalists and Zionists and religiously observant.  Mausa--who identifies strongly with the religious camp--shrugs his shoulders: "Like everywhere else."  

And so, in the last shul standing in a city that was once filled with them, much is new.  And much is old, too.
 

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We left the shul and entered a nearby courtyard.  Such spaces are all over this city, which is filled with hidden spaces in all sorts of unexpected places--but this one was extraordinary.

Upon moving into a house on E. Ozeskienes street, tucked away in a quiet corner near the Choral Shul, Lithuanian artist Vytenis Jakas uncovered numerous stories of the courtyard's pre-war Jewish residents.  Those tales--and lives--became the basis for a street art gallery featuring pictures of those Litvaks and scenes from their lives.  It's a poignant and beautiful tribute to the world that was, and a source of inspiration to all who are working to create a progressive and open community here today.    
 
 
   The artist.

And some of the current residents:
 

Thank you, Mr. Jakas, for your generosity of vision.

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We stopped briefly at the statue of Daniel Bolskis.  This Jewish singer spent just a few years in Kaunas before his premature death in 1931 but he is one of the most important figures in the history of Lithuanian music.  He was among the first popular artists to sing in Lithuanian.  Today, it is a common practice to fill his open hand with fresh cut flowers.

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The former Nachalat Yisrael Kloiz (synagogue) now serves as the city's Jewish community center.  Alas, it was not open when we stopped by.  But it was good just to see it--a piece of active Jewish life.  Only a remnant survived but yes, we are still here.

 




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The Kovno region is now a city built on three rivers--the Neris, Nemunas, and Nevezis.  We are paddling all three.  Originally, each sector was a separate town: Kovno and Slabodka and Aleksotas.  Today, of course, they have all merged into a single urban center.  Our guide likened it to Pittsburgh, also built on three rivers and marked by the many bridges spanning them.

But those dividing lines were once very important.  Aleksotas, on the south side of the Nemunas, was, for a time, a world away from Kovno and Slabodka.  After the Russians took control of most of Lithuania in 1795, Aleksotas remained part of Prussia.  Even after 1864, when it was annexed into the Russian empire, it retained its own laws and persisted in using the old Gregorian calendar, which differed from the revised Julian calendar by 12 days.  As a result, residents joked that the Aleksotas bridge was the longest in the world, because it took two weeks to cross!
 

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We ended our tour at the train station--where there is a moving memorial to Chiune Sugihara, who, as noted earlier, continued to issue visas until the very last minute, throwing them out the moving railroad car as he departed from here.  It was a beautiful and fitting place to bid farewell to Jonas--and mark the end of a remarkable Shabbat.

 
  
Posted: June 21, 2017, 10:18 am
I woke up, ate a quick breakfast, then caught a taxi to the Choral Shul, the only functioning synagogue in Kovno.  Before World War II, there were almost forty synagogues in town, often organized around trades--a Kloiz (congregation) for tailors, for masons, for petty merchants, butchers, etc.  The Nazis destroyed all but one--the grandest synagogue, attended by wealthy and stylish Enlightenment Jews.  Built in grand, neo-Baroque style in 1872 and financed by the successful merchant Lewin Boruch Minkowski, it was used for worship and also for large cantorial concerts.  

I walked in and looked around the sanctuary.  The bimah is renowned for its beauty, and it lives up to its reputation--but no one was there.  Instead, an elderly gentleman walked over from beside the entryway and greeted me in Hebrew.  He asked  if I was there to pray.  I answered, "Ken--Yes" and he led me into a tiny side room, where seven men were just beginning the Shabbat morning service.  They handed me a siddur, asked if I was Jewish and had I come to pray.  Then they inquired if I knew how to lead the service.  When I nodded, one of the men led me up to the shtender, the very humble podium, and asked me to serve as shaliach tzibur, the prayer leader.

I assumed they wanted to honor me with a brief part, that I would lead a short section or two of the introductory prayers.  And I was, indeed, honored and very deeply moved, leading the birchot ha-Shachar, the morning blessings, in the same city where my great-great grandfather, Judel Finkelstein taught Torah and his son, Mendel, studied with giants like Isaac Elchanan Spektor and Israel Salanter's disciples, Yosef Horowitz and Yitzchak Blazer.  There I stood, thanking the Holy One for making me free, for creating me as a Jew--here in Kovno in 5777/2017.

I finished davenning this section, arrived at the P'sukei d'Zimra, the psalms of praise--and went to sit down.   But the gathering insisted I continue.  So I davenned on, with and for the community: Kol HaNishama t'hallel Yah--Let the soul of all that lives sing praise to the Holy One!  All that lives, indeed--even if only a tiny fragment of the glory that was once Jewish Kovno.  Again I went to sit down--and they insisted: Tamshich--Continue!

So I chanted Yotzer Or and Ahavah Rabbah and Emet v'emunah, offering blessing to the Holy One for creating light--and darkness--and for abiding love and truth.  I sang Sh'ma and Mi Chamocha, praising the Eternal's power to redeem us in times of trial (alas, so arbitrary, that one. . . ) and insisting on God's oneness in a world that is so badly broken.  And still, they said, continue.  So in the absence of a minyan, we did the Tefilllah in silence, on our own.  Then, at their request, I read the first three aliyot of the Torah portion from the Chumash, followed by Aleynu and the usual closing song, Adon Olam.  Afterwards, everyone came up and shook my hand and offered yesher koach and then, the Orthodoxy of the community notwithstanding, mostly got in their cars and drove away.  

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I, not traditionally shomer Shabbos but decidedly car-less, walked away, through the streets of Kaunas' Old Town.  It was a stunning experience, leading the davenning in this place where my great great grandparents lived; I think it will take a long time, really, to sink in.  The morning went by in the blink of an eye, and I was so caught up in the moment,  worried about avoiding mistakes and trying to find a tune or two that they might know--with all of that going on, I could barely comprehend, let alone appreciate, the full measure of the hour as it unfolded.  Still, I was thankful for it.

**********

I strolled around a bit, waiting to meet Rosa.  As I walked the streets of Kovno, I listened to a podcast of a sermon by Rabbi Sharon Brous on the portion, Behar.    Her title was "Do Not Become a Hideous Beast," a reference to the Eugene Ionesco play, "Rhinoceros" depicting the insidous ways that authoritarianism seeps into a culture and turns regular people into unrecognizable beasts.  Rabbi Brous speaks of the power of the sabbatical year as a counter-cultural force, and a reminder that we must resist the temptation to yield to the status quo in dark and dangerous times.  She was, of course, speaking about both the past (fascism, Nazism, Communism) and the ugliness running rampant in Donald Trump's America.  And I cannot begin to describe how poignant and potent it was to hear her words here, in Kovno, where the ghetto once stood and where so many were murdered by those who did, in fact, yield to the temptation and became hideous beasts.

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But a few kept their humanity.

After I met up with Rosa, we headed for the home of Chiune Sugihara, the diplomat who served as a vice-consul of the Japanese consulate in Kaunas in 1939 and 1940.  It is in a quiet, leafy neighborhood on a hill above the center of town--lovely but unremarkable here, save for the Japanese lettering outside, and the lines of Japanese tourists here to honor a hero.

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When the Soviet Union occupied independent Lithuania in 1940, large numbers of Polish and Lithuanian Jewish refugees tried to acquire exit visas--yet virtually no countries were willing to issue them.  

Sugihara decided to grant visas on his own.  He ignored legal requirements and issued ten-day visas to Jews for transit through Japan, in direct violation of his orders.  He also persuaded the Soviet authorities to allow these Jews passage across the country via the Trans-Siberian railroad to Vladivostok, where they boarded boats to Tsuruga, Japan.  He continued to write out these visas, by hand, until September 4, when the consulate was closed and he was forced to vacate his post.  According to witnesses, Sugihara continued to issue visas after boarding the train in Kaunas station, throwing them into the crowd of desperate refugees as the train pulled out for Berlin.  In parting, he cried out: "Please forgive me--I cannot write anymore.  I wish you the best" and then bowed deeply to the people.  When asked about this later, he simply noted: "They were human beings and they needed help.  I am glad I found the strength to make the decision to give it to them."  It is estimated that Sugihara issued visas for around 6,000 Jews--and today, nearly 40,000 descendants of those refugees are alive because of his brave actions.  

Of those who reached Japan, some got asylum in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Burma, the United States, Palestine, and Argentina.  Others stayed in Japan until they were deported to Shanghai, which had a large Jewish community during the war.  

In 1985--45 years after the Soviet invasion of Lithuania--Chiune Sugihara was recognized by Yad VaShem in Israel as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.  He died a year later.  When his widow, Yukiko, traveled to Jerusalem in 1998, she was met by tearful survivors who showed her the yellowing visas that her husband had granted them.  
  

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After the Sugihara house, we stopped for a bite of lunch--fittingly, at a sushi place nearby.  Then we met Jonas, our tour guide for an extraordinary Shabbat afternoon walk through the remnants of Jewish Kaunas--Kovno and Slabodka.

We began by the old Bikkur Cholim Jewish hospital, on Jaksto Street.  Built in the mid-19th century, it was financed by the local Jewish community and the municipality.  Like much of old Jewish Kovno, it now stands vacant.
 The old Bet HaMidrash, at 4 Pilies Street, is also largely run down.
 

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As I have noted, both here and in Vilna, most Jews affiliated with a congregation (Kloiz) based on their occupation.  This was the butchers' synagogue.
 

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I have already mentioned Abraham Mapu, and will return to him again. . . He was the very first Hebrew novelist and an important early Zionist.  He spent much of his life here in Kovno, where there is a street named after him (there are also Mapu streets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem).
 There is also a street named for Jewish Kovno resident Ludwig Zamenhof.  He grew up speaking Yiddish, Russian, Belarusian, German, French, Hebrew and Polish.  In school he studied Greek, Latin, and Aramaic and later learned some English, too.  He wrote a book on Yiddish grammar.  But despite--or maybe because of--knowing all of these languages, he decided to create his own.  L.L. Zamenhof is the father of Esperanto.

Of course the dream of a common language goes back to the Tower of Babel--and, is, of course, doomed to failure.   Esperanto remains the most widely spoken artificially constructed language in the world; according to Wikipedia, as of 27 May, 2017, over one million users have started to learn Esperanto on Duolingo.  But even before his own death in 1917, Zamenhof must have known that the world would not unify under Esperanto or any other tongue.  

It's a pipe dream.  Still, this kind of grand universalist ideal, as unrealistic as it may have been, is so Jewish.  We are, despite everything, a nation of dreamers.
 

We passed an old bet midrash, a school where young Jewish children once learned their aleph-bet.  During the Soviet period, it was turned into an auto mechanics shop.
 

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Next week, we will be paddling on the Nevezis River, which runs into the Nemunas on the western outskirts of Kovno.  Before it reaches here, it passes through Keidainiai (Keidan), where Judel Finkelstein was born.  Slabodka was founded by Jews from Keidan, and many years later, they built a shul in Kovno named for the Nevezis River.  The founder of the mussar movement, Rabbi Israel Lipkin Salanter taught there, at the Neviazher Kloiz, after moving from Vilna to Kovno.  

So I felt a strong connection when we passed the old Neviazher Kloiz, due to my Keidan family, my admiration for Salanter and the mussar movement, and my forthcoming time on the Nevezis river.

Here it is:
 
 
Posted: June 17, 2017, 6:51 pm
We woke to chilly rain.  But it diminished over the course of the morning, and our hot tea at breakfast was revitalizing.

In this morning's davenning, I was struck by one of the opening blessings: "Praised are You, Eternal One. . . Roka ha-aretz al ha-mayyim--Who founds the earth firm upon the waters."  

These days, we are on the water as much--or more--than the ground.  I love water and rivers, but the experience really does make me appreciate the solid earth.  Every time I get out of the boat after a long stretch of paddling, I experience "sea legs"--a state of wobbly and weak imbalance--for a bit before I re-orient and feel the ground again, firm beneath my feet.  I am grateful for both: the water that sustains and carries us, and the earth, comfortable and steady and solid.

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The skies have been grey most of the day but the rain has more or less held off.  We've made good time, and stop for lunch at 1:30 on a sandy island on the outskirts of Kaunas.  Rosa and I like the houses, which are all unique, so eclectic and different from one another: large and small, contemporary and aged, brightly painted and greying wood.  Our next stop will be Kaunas--in Yiddish, Kovno--where, about a mile upstream on the Nemunas, after the confluence with the river we are paddling, the Neris, we will meet our contact, Egidijus, who will pick us up at the appointed take out.

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After Vilna, Kovno was the second-biggest Jewish center in Lithuania.  It was also the home of my great-great grandparents, Judel and Feige Rivke Finkelstein.  Though, to be more precise, they lived in a section of town that was, at the time, distinct from Kovno, across the Neris, on its western bank, which we will pass on river left as we come through town.  It is now known as Vilijampole, but back in the day, it was called Slabodka.  In his memoir of growing up there, in a one room hut with a dirt floor, Rabbi Shimon Finkelstein notes: "When a Jew from Slabodka became rich, he moved to Kovno.  When a Jew from Kovno became impoverished, he moved to Slabodka."  

Slabodka was originally founded by Jews from Keidan, where Judel Finkelstein was born.  From the start, it was also home of the most pious Jews in the Kovno area.  It had two renowned yeshivas.  The first was inspired by the founder of the Mussar movement, Yisrael Salanter.  He taught for nine years in the Neviazher Kloiz, a synagogue named for the Nevezis River, which we will be paddling next week, which passes through both Keidan and Kovno before its confluence with the Nemunas.  Later, in 1882, his disciple, Natan Tzvi Finkel founded the Slabodka yeshiva, Knesset Bet Yisrael, which focused on mussar teaching.    A rival yeshiva, rooted in the misnagdic tradition and opposed to the dissemination of Mussar was founded in 1897 and named Knesset Bet Yitzchak, for the renowned chief rabbi of the city, Isaac Elchanan Spektor.  The renowned Soloveichik family also had deep roots in Kovno.  Rabbi Shimon Finkelstein--and likely his brother, my great grandfather, Mendel-- studied with both Spektor and two of Salanter's  most renowned disciples, Rabbis Yitzchak Blazer and Yozel Horowitz.  And he was ordained by Rabbi Judah Meshil HaCohen, of Aleksot, the section of town where we will be staying for the weekend.  

 But not everyone in Kovno--or even Slabodka--was pious.  The community was also home to Bundists, Zionists, Communists and all sorts of other Jews.  The Haskallah--Jewish "Enlightenment'--also had a strong presence in town, including the writer Abraham Mapu, who was born and lived much of his life here, and is considered the first Hebrew novelist.  Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew, visited the city in 1901 and other famous guests included Moses Montefiore and Marc Chagall.

In 1897, just after my great grandfather left, the Jewish population of Kovno and Slabodka reached 25,448, making up 36% of the general population.  This made the Jewish community a relative majority in this multi-national and multi-lingual city, which was otherwise 25.6% Russian, 22.8% Polish, 6.8% Lithuanian and 4.7% German.  

Alas, nearly the entire population was wiped out by the Germans and their local accomplices, who imprisoned the community in the Kovno Ghetto and then shot them, men, women, and children, into the ditches they had dug in the forest outside of town, in an area known as the Ninth Fort.

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The Finkelstein family--Rosa and me--did not make a grand re-entry into our ancestral home.  Our take out spot was about a kilometer north--upstream--on the Nemunas, and after we reached the confluence, we quickly realized the current was too strong to paddle against for any real distance.  So get out and lined the boat along the marshy shoreline, making our way through the muck and mud that lined the banks.  Finally, we had to cross the river to meet Egidijus on river right.  This entailed paddling like mad, struggling against the stream, until we neared the cement wall on the other side and passed under a large bridge.  Finally we spotted Egidijus and threw him a rope, which enabled us to make it upstream with a whole lot of effort, us paddling and him pulling.  At last we made it to the takeout, where we loaded our kayak onto his van and threw our bags and in the back--and he very graciously insisted on driving us to our bed and breakfast, accepting no payment for the time and effort.  
 
 
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I cannot emphasize enough that this journey is entirely a team effort.  Rosa and I are doing the paddling, but we could not begin to make this trip without the logistical support and tremendous kindness of many others.  Starting, of course, with the amazing Justus Pipiras, who made all of the arrangements.  But also the many contacts who are helping us along the way, like Egedijus.  His assistance, encouragement, and graciousness are a beacon.
 
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Justus dropped us off at our place, arranged through AirBnB, in Aleksotas, the section of town where the rabbi who ordained Shimon Finkelstein once lived.  The accommodations are perfect--a beautiful home with a spectacular garden.  We spread our stuff out to dry, settled into our rooms, had a good dinner and then lit Shabbat candles.  We are so grateful for the comforts of civilization and rest of the Shabbat day!
 
 



Posted: June 10, 2017, 4:48 pm
Note: I am, obviously, playing catch up with my blogging.  Bear with me.

I'm standing on the bank of the river after breakfast, davenning, as per my usual morning routine.  it's a gorgeous day, the sun warm on my face.  I sing the Sh'ma very slowly, Shhh-----mmmm----ahhh--Listen!  I hear the constant chorus of birdsong, the music of the river flowing pastel--and then the unmistakable sharp percussion of gun shots (and yes, I know the sound of gun shots in the rural landscape--I do not own a firearm, but I am an Idahoan, after all. . . )

It is terribly--chilling--to hear gunshots here.  I cringe and think: "How many were saying Sh'ma, like me, in this very forest, by this very river--as gun shots sent them to their death in the ditches they had just dug?"

I suspect that this was someone shooting targets, or just blasting away with a rifle, as folks are wont to do.  There were too many shots, in too rapid a succession, for this to be a hunter.  The shooter likely has no idea how terrifying this act of firing a gun in this forest can be, how it summons up the most tragic ghosts of history for Rosa and me.  I tremble--then count myself among the lucky ones, listening here and now, at a safe distance, rather than seventy five years ago on a similarly warm summer day.  

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The morning paddling was rather mundane.  We set out at 10 and made it into the town of Jonava around 1:00.  We pulled onto the land at a riverside park by the main bridge connecting the town across the Neris.  It was uncrowned, with just a few folks sunbathing and enjoying a late lunch.  We walked up to a bench beside a large cross facing the river--a Catholic memorial of some sort--and gathered our things.  Then I got on Google maps on my phone and did a search for the memorial to the Jews of Jonava--or, in Yiddish, Yaneve--killed in the Shoah.  It was too far away for us, limited by being on foot and reluctant to leave our boat alone for very long.  But with my few words of acquired Lithuanian, I found Zydu Kapines Parkas.  Well, I know that Zydu is "Jewish" and kapines is "cemetery" and figured that parkas is "park": Jewish Cemetery Park, just half a kilometer away.  So while Rosa rested and watched the boat, I followed the Google map (thank you, Google--this tool is a great blessing on this trip!) and set off into town.

Jonava is a pleasant place.  I passed lots of pedestrians, bustling shops, a library and a cultural center advertising a forthcoming Jonava festiva. Finally, I arrived at the Google destination and found. . . nothing.  Old houses, a dilapidated street.   Then I noticed a few stones in the overgrown field.  Well, that field had been the old Jewish cemetery--and it was now a "park" where folks walk their dogs among the crabgrass and dandelions.

I found one very old marker intact, with a Jewish star on it.  Before this journey, I gathered a bunch of stones from the banks of the Boise River, near the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights memorial--with the intent to leave these stones at Jewish burial sites here.  I deposited one, along with a Hamsa bracelet that Jonah and I made.  Then I sang El Malei Rachamim, the traditional Jewish mourners' prayer, right there in the old cemetery, for the Jews of the city buried there, and those murdered in the forests nearby.  I lingered and pondered their fate and my own, how much in our lives depends upon luck and fate, being born in the right--or wrong--time and place.  Then I walked back to meet Rosa, stopping in the market for a little beer and chocolate, which we shared on the riverbank before setting back out on our way.

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My Litvak ancestors were rabbis and rebbetzins, pious Torah scholars from the yeshivas of Keidan and Slabodka--in many ways, the images we tend to conjure of Old Country Jews.  But there were many other types of Jews, especially here in Jonava/Yaneve.  

Samuel Goldsmith describes this community in his memoir, "My Yaneve":

It is true to say that Yaneve was never a center of Jewish learning. Some Lithuanian towns, Volozhin, Telzh, Lyda, Slobodka near Kovno (I refer to “Classical Lithuania”) used to be famous as places of Jewish learning. And then there was Vilna. Yaneve claimed no such fame. There were one or two great Talmudic scholars in the place, but they had come from other places and brought their learning with them. There was no Yeshiva in Yaneve. Nor was there a Jewish high school. All Jewish Yaneve had was a Hebrew primary school and a Yiddish school of rather low standing. The rabbis came from outside and so did the teachers. The children of Yaneve usually continued their education in larger towns.

It would be difficult to name a world-famous Jew who hailed from Yaneve. Here and there a scholar; here and there a painter. Neither of them very well known. But the Jews of Yaneve as a group made a profound impact upon Jewish life in the Diaspora. They were profound, devoted to Eretz Israel, stubborn fighters for Jewish rights. Every Jew within this group was a man and a brother. I cannot recall a really bad Jewish character in the town. I still like to say, “We men of Yaneve…”

Before Israel and Zionism and chalutzim kibbutzniks, there were already plenty of tough Jews who earned their living by the sweat of their brows and lived close to the land and its rivers.  Goldsmith adds:

significant part of the Jews of Yaneve drew their livelihood from the river and the dense forests in the district. The trees used to be cut, rolled into the river, tied together into rafts with special ropes, and navigated downstream to Germany. For the Viliya flows into the Nieman, which flows into the Baltic Sea on the German side.  There were several specialties in this trade: the merchants, the navigators, and the middlemen. Some of this timber used to be bought by local Jewish furniture makers. Yaneve was – and still is – a world center of the furniture industry. Many other Jews made a living in subsidiary trades. There were leather merchants, smiths – gold and black -, cobblers, tailors, and grain dealers. My father was a leather merchant. . . There were some poor Jews, of course, but it was not a “Shtetl” as described by American Jewish novelists. Nobody opened up a shop and hoped that the Almighty will send him customers. The Jews in Yaneve knew what they wanted to do, and the craftsmen were well trained. The furniture made in Yaneve used to be sold all over the world.

Best of all I remember the expert navigators, who took the rafts down to the Baltic Sea. They were not unlike British seamen or Norwegian fishermen. It is the influence of long hours on the river or at sea. They used to eat and drink on the rafts. To be a good navigator, you had to have physical strength, agility, powers of observation and endless patience.

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On this journey, I realize that I am drawn to both of these Jewish traditions--the scholars, represented by my rabbinic ancestors, but also the Yanover burlakes, the tough Jewish river rats of Yaneve and other nearby towns.  I want to be a rabbi and a river runner, to embrace Yaneve and Slabodka.

And to remember that in the summer of 1941, the tough Jews and the pale Talmudic sages died in the same forests.

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We left around 3:30 pm.  The morning and early afternoon were sunny but we could feel the weather changing, with the wind whipping up saves and the gusts of chilly, damp air blowing in from the west carried more than a hint of the Baltic Sea.  I suggested we paddle hard to make some miles before the squalls came in, and we did--but within thirty minutes, the heavens let loose a downpour.  Rosa put on her raincoat; I just got soaked.  We both paddled even harder and picked up speed in the storm.  

Around 6 pm we found a campsite--a real, dedicated campsite, high on the bank, river left.  It was hard work to get the kayak and all of our things ashore, but well worth it, as the weather cleared and we enjoyed a great night in a flat, lovely site and lit a bonfire.  I strung up a clothes line, and our things dried nicely in the 9 pm sun--and we got a good phone signal so we sent text messages and I got to speak with Janet and Jonah.  It was a beautiful evening, the end of an eventful day.




Posted: June 9, 2017, 8:28 pm
I am now over a week behind in my blogging.  It is hard--maybe impossible--to keep up.  I'm overwhelmed by all that I've seen and experienced, and since we're on the river paddling most days, 8-10 hours a day, I don't have either the time or connection to catch up.

When I get home, I will try to put up posts belatedly, as I have, at least, been keeping a good journal.  I have so much to report from last weekend, when we were in Kaunas/Kovno for Shabbat--and I ended up leading the Shabbat morning service at the Choral Shul, the only remaining synagogue in Kaunas, where, before WWII, there were over thirty.

But I'll have to add that later.  Rosa and I had such a remarkable day today, though, that I do want to get some thoughts and pictures down while they are still fresh.  We spent much of the day with a real hero, and I want to share that experience, because it doesn't happen too often.

We arrived in Keidainiai/Keidan late Friday afternoon after a long day paddling down the Nevezis River from near Surviliskis/Survilishok.  Much of the day was chilly and we had a difficult portage over a dam.  But we finally pulled into town and into the backyard of Gertune and her husband, acquaintances of Justus who agreed to store our kayak in their garden shed while we are in town.  They insisted on driving us to our Airbnb accommodations, across town, where we are staying with Audrius, a young Keidainiai resident.  All of these folks are vital to the journey that we are making.  We could not even begin to attempt this trip without the good will and kindness of Justus and all the others who are supporting us.  

In the evening, we enjoyed a nice dinner out and lit Shabbat candles in our room.  I posted a few pictures on the Facebook site, "Roots in Keidan"--and promptly got a message for Laima Ardaviciene, a Keidainiai high school teacher who invited us to meet her.  We made plans to meet by the old synagogues at 10:00 this morning.

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Keidan is a special place for my family.  I began this journey with a visit to the gravestone of Rabbi Yehudah Tzvi (Judel) Finkelstein in Queens.  He spent out of his life in Kovno/Slabodka, but he was born here in Keidan.  Here's how his son, Rabbi Shimon Finkelstein tells the story:

My father was descended from a long line of rabbinic scholars who had lived in Keidan, a town noted in our district for rabbinic learning.I would have remained in complete ignorance of the distinction of his ancestry had I not early in life met a cousin, the daughter of my famous aunt, Chaya Etta of Kovno.  My aunt was one of the few Jewish women of her country and generation who had broken through the conventions which barred her sex from public life and had graduated as a nurse from a St. Petersburg school. She had received a medal from the Tsar for excellence in her studies, and in my time was known everywhere in Kovno not only for her eminence in her profession, but also for her wide influence in the community, where she was credited with having been the decisive factor in the selection of various rabbis. Her daughter, who she reared in her own profession and who also attained unusual distinction, was my informant regarding family history.  Despite my father's reticence about his forebears, except when he quoted "their Torah," he was aware, as I now understand, of his obligation to them and very eager that his sons should measure up to their standards of learning. 

My own father, Arnold Fink, always expressed pride in our Keidaner ancestry.  Apparently there was good precedent for this.  In his memoir, "Worlds Gone By", Dr. Chaim Yakov Epstein notes: "Keidan was not just another Lithuanian town.  It was a city with a noble lineage. Proud was the Jew who, when asked, "Where do you hail from?" could stand up tall and respond, "Ich bin Keidaner--I am a Keidaner."

The city boomed in the 17th century, under the patronage of the ruling Radvila family.  Unlike most Lithuanians, in this very Catholic country, they were Calvinists, and big believers in religious tolerance.  Keidan attracted Germans and Scots--and Jews.  The Jewish community here were merchants and brewers and weavers--and also farmers, who cultivated fruits and vegetables and sugar beets.  And Keidan's cucumbers, grown by Jewish farmers, were famous throughout Lithuania--and beyond.

It was also a place of deep Jewish learning.  David Katzenellenbogen was a famous rabbi here.  In 1727, a six year old boy arrived in Keidan from Vilna. His natural talent stunned the rabbis of Keidan, who saw his potential and educated the lad.  He would become Rabbi Eliyahu--the Vilna Gaon, one of the greatest Jewish scholars who ever lived.  His wife, Channa, was also a Keidaner.  

Over the years, this town raised many eminent Jews--religious and secular, Zionists and Talmudists and Bundists and communists and more.  Among them were the Hebrew writer Moshe-Leib Lilienblum, a Hebrew writer and poet and leading light in the awakenings of Zionism. 

But there was also the stuff of daily life, as described by Boruch Cassel and Chaim Epstein in their memoirs of life in Keidan:

A Saturday night in Tammuz (June/July).  After a hot day, the evening has called things off a little, and with the new moon in a clear skyline, the whole city is outdoors.  The old bridge is packed with strollers, mostly young people.  Girls go with girls, and boys with boys. They walk in pairs, in groups of three or four or more in a row, usually of the same age.  The line of boys follows after a line of girls, making jokes at their expense, but the girls give as good as they get, laughing and throwing wisecracks of their own back in the boys direction.  

. . . It was was not a long bridge and could be crossed, back and forth, many times, thus giving young men and women many chances to meet.

Who knows?  Perhaps my great-great grandparents, Yehuda and Soreh, met on this bridge--which stood in exactly the same place over the Nevezis River where Rosa and I passed into town yesterday.

**********

We met Laima in the old marketplace, outside the two old synagogues, one for the summer and one for the winter.  One is now an art school.   The other is a museum and cultural center.  Both are beautiful.

 

There is a large Holocaust memorial outside, which contains 2076 bullet shells, one for each victim killed in the fields outside of town on August 28, 1941.  There are also many large stones.  I added a small stone of my own, one of many that I picked up from the bank of the Boise River by the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial.
 

     Near these two synagogues is the Talmud Torah where the future Vilna Gaon studied as a boy.
 
 

Then Laima led us into the former synagogue that is now a cultural center.  Downstairs is an exhibit of art, dedicated the life of an aging local monk who risked his life to save local Jews during the Shoah.  

 
    Upstairs, there is an exhibit dedicated to the history of the local Jewish community.  It reminded me how important it is to not let the tragic end of the story become the whole story.  Of course we cannot forget the Shoah--but it would be terrible, too, to forget the hundreds of years of beautiful Jewish life there that preceded it.

 
    

Next, Laima led us through the streets of the city, pointing out buildings that had once been Jewish homes and workplaces--the old drug store, a house with a sukkah attached, merchants' stores.  I got teary, thinking of my family living here.  We always see pictures of old shtetls in black and white.  But life was lived in full color.
 
    

When we arrived back at the bank of the Nevezis River, upon which Rosa and I entered the city, we saw a sign for C. Miloso Street.  It is named for the Nobel prize winning author, Czeslaw Milosz, who was born near here and who loved Keidan and the Nevezis, which he fictionalized as the Issa River Valley.  

In that book, he writes:  The Issa Valley has the distinction of being inhabited by an unusually large number of devils.  It may be that the hollow willows, mills, and thickets lining the riverbanks provide a convenient cover for those creatures who reveal themselves only when it suits them. . . And how is one to tell them apart, those creatures coinciding with the advent of Christianity from those native inhabitants of bygone days, like the forest witch who switches children in their cradles, or the little people who stray all night from their places under the roots of the elderberry bushes? Are the devils and those other creatures joined in a pact, or do they simply exist side by side like the jay, the sparrow, and the crow?  And where is that realm where both species would take refuge when the earth was plowed up by the tracks of tanks; when those who were about to be executed dug their own shallow graves by the river; and when, in blood and tears, Industrialization rose up, surrounded by the halo of History?

To honor Milosz--who bore witness to so much that happened on these banks--the city put up a giant sculpted chair, looking out over the Nevezis.  It invites us to sit in Milosz's place, to see the beauty and the horror, to listen and learn.

 
 

**********

I mentioned the Radvila family, and their patronage of this city.  Outside the town hall, their is a statute in their honor--and they are buried in the Reformation Protestant church, which Laima took us through.  

 

    Then we went to see a beautiful old gymnasium/high school.

 

Next, we walked a bit out of town to see the Jewish cemetery.  Most of the graves here are over a century old--an even older cemetery adjacent is now destroyed.  But there are hundreds of headstones in the intact cemetery.  The majority are illegible, the engraving worn away by time and weather.  We could read a few.   Somewhere here, my Finkelstein ancestors are buried.  Laima noted: "These are the lucky ones, who got to pass away rather than being murdered in the forest."  I left another stone and sang the traditional mourners' prayer, "El Malei Rachamim."

 

    

**********

In memory of those whose graves we saw, a poem (in Leonard Wolf's English translation from the Yiddish) by Keidan native Abraham Reisen:

Future Generations

Future generations,
Brothers still to come,
Don't you dare
Be scornful of our songs.
Songs about the weak,
Songs of the exhausted
In a poor generation,
Before the world's decline.

We were all imbued
With the idea of freedom,
Yet sang our songs about it
With voices lowered.
Far from our good fortune
We met at night, in darkness,
And worked at building bridges
In secrecy.

We hid from the foes
Who lay in wait for us,
And this is why our songs
Resonate with grief,
And why our melodies
Have a dismal longing
And a hidden rage
In their warp and woof.

**********

Then came what was, for me, in many ways, the most remarkable--and inspiring--part of the day.

We walked from the cemetery to Laima's school, Atzalyno Gimnazija, where she teaches English to high school seniors.  School ended for the students yesterday--but Laima let us in.  We were struck, immediately, by the mural at the entrance--a testimony to Keidan's different religious traditions.  Like all the art in this school, it was painted by students.
 
 

Just a little further down the hall is another school project--a map showing the places where the Soviets exiled so many Lithuanians during the Russian occupation.  They were shipped off to Siberia--and did not all return alive.  As we remember the Shoah, and honor the Litvak Jewish community murdered by the Nazis and Lithuanian accomplices, it is important to recall that Stalin, too, bears responsibility for the slaughter and suffering of millions, including multitudes of Lithuanians.
 




  

The halls are filled with art--they testify to the power of art to tell stories, to bear witness, to inspire and move us.

 
  

**********

And then we came to Laima's classroom.  

There are flags from Lithuania and Israel, a menorah,  and certificate of honor gifted to Laima by the Tolerance Center, the local organization headed by another hero, Rimantas Zirgulis, doing the hard work of preserving history and using the lessons of the past to build a better future, anchored in human rights for all.  There is a map of Lithuania, a poster of London, and numerous great books in English and Lithuanian.  But the most prominent feature in the classroom is a large, wall-sized mural of Keidan's two synagogues beneath a giant tree, which is made up of over 1700 names--the names of the Jewish families who lived in this city.  At the bottom are those famous Yiddish words of pride, "I am a Keidaner."  

This brought me to weeping--for what was lost, but, much more, for the heroic effort Laima and her students are making to honor their city's Jewish past.  They have looked straight into the worst of tragedy and brought, against all odds, a belated grace note of redemption.  No, nothing can overcome the horror of the Shoah, of 2076 Jews shot into ditches.  But this teacher and her students give me hope despite that horror.  They remind me that the past need not be prologue to the future, that people and communities and nations can change, that the youth really are the promise of a better tomorrow.

And Laima is leading the way.  She showed us projects that her classes have taken on in recent years, YouTube videos of their efforts to map Jewish Keidan, to honor the women of the old Jewish community, to celebrate Chanukah, via Skype,  with a Jewish day school in Perth, Australia.  And much, much more.  She is one of the righteous of the nations, doing sacred work.  It was a privilege and an inspiration to sit in her classroom.
 

 
   

**********

For the last destination of the day, Laima called a cab and rode with us past the outskirts of town, down a dirt road, to the place in the forest where the massacre took place.

There are no words to describe this.

I will only say that the contrast, between the peaceful forest and fields and flowers, with their bird song and gentle breeze--and the horror of what happened here--is inconceivable.  I cannot begin to fathom it.  

But the memorial here is right, in every sense, because it bears the names of those who died--affirming the names, the unique humanity of each of those souls who the Nazis and their local accomplices chose to de-humanize and reduce to mere numbers in order to be able to slaughter them.  

Thanks to Rimantas Zirgulis, who conceived of this project, and saw it through to the finish.  And to Laima, who brings her students here, every year, where they read the names of the Keidaners who died here.

They were not numbers.  They were--and will always be--names.  Souls.  Humans, created in the Divine Image.  This marker, in the face of the utter horror of what happened here, asserts this.  The students who read the names inscribed here are, in my mind, praying--in the best sense of the word.  They are affirming the Divine in the most godless of places.

With Rosa and Laima, again I wept.  And sang El Malei Rachamim.  And wept.

 
   

**********

We returned to town around 4:00.  The cab dropped us off back in Old Town, where we had begun, nearly six hours earlier.  We hugged and exchanged addresses.  I will be in touch with Laima and her students, of this I am certain.

 

And at day's end, I was not the same person I'd been when the sun rose.  

It was a day of awe and learning and tears and despair and inspiration and, in the end, hope.

It was a blessed Shabbat.

Shavua tov.  May it be a week of peace.
Posted: June 3, 2017, 9:47 pm
Up and mostly packed and davenning by 9:00 am.  I was struck this morning by this phrase from the liturgy:

Or chadash al tziyon ta-ir v'nizkeh kulanu m'heyra l'oro--A new light shall shine on Zion--may we all speedily benefit from its illumination!

Initially, many of the Sages opposed the insertion of this phrase into the Yotzer Or blessing, which speaks of the light of morning, and light that marked the beginning of God's creation.  The bulk of the prayer is universalitic and focuses on literal light, while this passage speaks much more metaphorically, and yet also tribally, about the longing for the land of Israel.  For the Rabbis, it did not fit.  But the ordinary people wanted it and, as usual in such matters, they won the day.  It stuck.  Its vision of a Zion restored, illuminating the world, must have provided hope and pride in hard times.  And there were a lot of hard times.

Centuries later, the Zionist movement sought to use secular means to transform the sentiment of this prayer into a political reality.  My Litvak family lived through the birth of political Zionism at the end of the 19th century.  My great-grandfather's brother, Rabbi Shimon Finkelstein was an early Orthodox Zionist.  During a visit to Palestine in the late 1920s or early 1930s, he became friendly with Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, a seminal Zionist voice in the Orthodox community and towering theological and political leader.  I can only assume that his brother, Rabbi Mendel Finkelstein's views were similar.  Both Shimon and Mendel Finkelstein died in 1947, one year before the state of Israel was born--and Mendel's grandson, my father, Rabbi Arnold Fink, celebrated his Bar Mitzvah.  Alas, Dad never met his grandfather.

At any rate, Zionism divided the Litvak community, as it did in the rest of the Jewish world.  Despite the support of some in the Orthodox community such as Rav Kook and the Rabbis Finkelstein, it was largely a secular and often socialist movement.  Many of the ultra-Orthodox here in Lithuania bitterly opposed it.  This community was full of factions: Orthodox and secular, Zionists and socialists and communists of all varieties.  Families and communities split over the ideological battles of the day.  

What did Litvaks make of these words--a new light in Zion?  How did they hear them?  Were they a theological yearning or a political charge?  For God or humanity?  And how many, as tragedy loomed, might have envisioned the new light dawning in the east?

**********

We set out on the river by 9:30--for all of thirty minutes or so.  Then we stopped at Kernave, on the right bank.  It's a national park and UNESCO World Heritage site--an archaeological work in progress.  We walked through the remains of a fortress settlement that was the seat of Lithuanian power, culture, and civilization in the 13th and 14th centuries, before Grand Duke Gediminas established Vilnius as his capitol and built a small empire from there.  But Kernave's roots go back much farther, with Paleolithic settlements.  Relics from the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age have all been excavated here. Civilization centered on the river valley.  The Neris, which we've been paddling, made this a center for transportation, farming, and trades.

In 1253, Lithuania's first and only king, Mindaugus, was coronated here.  He defeated or eliminated most of his rivals--primarily family members--and made this city the seat of his throne.  He built up the natural earth mounds and fortified them, then ruled from here.  For a time he converted to Catholicism, in order to garner the support of Pope Innocent in his battle with the crusader Teutonic Order--then he reverted to paganism, as Lithuanians were wont to do, being the last bastion of Europe to remain pagan despite much pressure to become Christian.  This land lent itself to paganism, with its dense forests, full of nymphs and fairies, devils and spirits.  

Did any of this affect the Jews?  We don't know.  We don't really have good evidence for when the first Jews arrived here, though some propose that they were an offshoot of the Khazar kingdom and came in the 9th century.  But they, too, settled in the river valleys, in the shadow of the forests.  Many worked in those forests, harvesting timber and sending it down the rivers for trade.  Like many of their age, I suspect they both loved and feared the forest, which writer Robert Pogue Harrison calls "the shadow of civilization."  They lived and loved here.  Alas, many would die here, too.

**********

We had lunch on a very nice little island, then paddled on, working fairly hard as the current slowed down.  The river became placid and lake-like, which meant less floating with the stream and more work.  And the landscape became less forested and more agrarian.  We began to see many houses, many quite nice--more likely summer homes for the well-to-do than country peasant dwellings.  We were surprised at the amount of new construction out here.

We had a short conversation with a man riding a local ferry across the river with his motorcycle.  He greeted us with "Laba diena"--which we recognized as "Good afternoon" since we have begun doing a few minutes of Lithuanian study in the mornings using an app that I downloaded.  Then we asked, "English?"  He responded: "Where are you going?"  Us: "Kaunas."  He laughed and said, "Straight down the river."  Not much, but our first real river dialogue of any sort with locals, so it's a start.  From there, the river also straightened out, with far less meandering.  This made it easier to make good time, but also more boring to paddle.

At our last paddling break, around 5 pm, I took a bath--stripped down, jumped in, soaped, washed, out and towel dry.  All within about two minutes because it was cold!  But it was also refreshing and it felt so good to be a little cleaner.  Two hours later we made camp.  As per our now standard routine, I pitched the tent and set up camp while Rosa started the cooking.  We're working well together this way, too.

The mosquitos were thick as clouds, so we ate quickly and then retreated into the tent, where we played rummy and then readied for bed.

Oh, and one last observation: rural Lithuanians like their weed wackers.  We hear the roar of weed wackers everywhere!  This makes sense, as things grow with great gusto here--especially weeds.  The dense overgrowth that makes it a bit difficult to find a campsite speaks to this.  So Rosa and I both laughed at our version of the soundtrack of the Lithuanian countryside: "Cuckoo!  Cuckoo!  Rrrrrrrrrrr (weed wacker sound!).  Cuckoo!  Rrrrrr!"  Repeat ad infinitude.  

Cuckoos and weed wackers.  We'll take it.
Posted: May 27, 2017, 9:30 pm
I woke up thinking it was 6:30 or 7:00 am, as the sunlight was growing strong outside and the birds were singing with such gusto.  Then I looked at my watch and saw that it was 4:15!  Come late spring/summer, there is not much darkness in this northern land!  It was hard to go back to sleep, because a cuckoo was calling so loudly and constantly.  I did not see it, nor am I an expert of any sort on bird calls, but this one was easy, as the bird speaks its name so unmistakably: "Cuckoo, cuckoo!"  I also gained some understanding as to why we use the term "cuckoo" to indicate craziness--the incessant repetition of this call can be a little maddening.  At any rate, I eventually fell back asleep until 8:15, despite the cuckoo and the light.  

We paddled for a couple of hours, had lunch on an island around 1:30.  Rosa and I are working well together as a team, and so far, the weather has been lovely--blue skies, temperatures in the mid-60s.  The breeze can be stiff, especially when it is blowing upstream right at us, but we are making good progress.  Tomorrow the forecast calls for rain, but we shall see.

Before we set out in the morning, I sounded the shofar.  I plan to start each day, except Shabbat, this way.  I think of the Partisan's Song, written in the Vilna Ghetto, which ends with "Mir zaynen daw--We are here!"  I want to honor those who were here with the shofar's call, which, for me, echoes that same message: "Hinenu--We are here!"  We are here, still, the descendants of those who left before the war and those who survived.  The Jewish people.  It is a call of defiance in the face of destruction.  It is a trumpeting of pride.

The pattern of shofar calls reinforce this.  We begin with tekiah--a whole, unbroken blast.  One, it says, we were whole.  Then shevarim and teruah--three shorter and then nine even shorter staccato blasts.  The sound of brokenness.  But we end with tekiah again--the promise of wholeness restored. And so we move, with the shofar calls, and in life, from wholeness to brokenness and back, we hope, toward the promise of wholeness restored.  Of course in this world, that restoration is never in full.  The immense horror of the Shoah cannot be redeemed.  But we who are blessed to be here, now, must do our part to work toward wholeness.  Once there was a wholeness to Jewish life here in Lithuania.  It was hard and poor, but also filled with the beauty of learning, of Torah and tradition and revolution, too.  Now there are tiny sparks and shards of that life.   I hope to collect some of those as my tikkun during my time here.  

Finally, as I davvened this morning in my tallit and tefillin---another practice I am committed to daily during my time here--two phrases from the liturgy jumped out at me.  I've uttered them hundreds of times, but the context here gave them new meaning and emphasis, which is part of the beauty of prayer. The first was the blessing thanking God for making me a Jew--Baruch atah. . . Sh'asani Yisrael.  I try to imagine saying this when the words were, effectily, a death sentence.  How to praise God for making one a Jew (or, as my ancestors would have said, using the traditional formulation, for not making them non-Jews), when Jews were being rounded up for execution?  I, who am blessed to live in happier and easier times, want to affirm those words.  

And second, from Ahavah Rabbah, the second blessing before the recital of the Shema.  We ask God to have mercy on us, " Ba'avor avotayanu sh'batchu v'chah va-t'lamdem chukay chaim--for the sake of our ancestors, who trusted in You, so you taught them the laws of life."   What a statement to make here, in the shadow of our history!  Our ancestors trusted in You--and you taught them the laws of life.  Not the laws of Torah, the mitzvot, that some of them studied so ardently.  The laws of life, good and bad.  What to make of those who put their faith in God here and learned these "laws of life": brutality, torture, death?  What about the other laws of life--kindness, cooperation, compassion, blessing, justice?  Perhaps God leaves it up to us to be the teachers of these to one another, calling us to rise to the challenge and lamenting when, so often, we do not?  Can we trust enough, even knowing the ravages of history, to merit blessing?
 ______________________________________

Evening

After lunch, we made a stop at a very long staircase leading up from the river banks to a park.  We pulled over, tied the boat up, and climbed the 200+ stairs to Neris Regional Park and hiked about for 30 minutes or so.  Then we paddled a few more hours, until 8:00 pm.  This was a bit too long for our first day on the river.  We were exhausted, but had a tough time finding a good campsite.  Finally, as it got late and we grew more eager to call it a day, we settled for a rather overgrown spot that was buggy and not so scenic, but very welcome, thank you so much.  We had macaroni and cheese for dinner and I did my best, with almost no cell phone coverage, to text my daughter, Rachel, a happy 17th birthday!  Proud of her and missing her on this big day!

Heraclitus famously taught: "You can't step in the same river twice."  He was the pre-Socratic philosopher of flux, and of course he's right.  The river is, by definition, always changing.  And so are we, along with the rocks and trees, wind and weather.  So not only is it never the same river, it's not the same "you" either.  

I'm acutely aware of this on this trip, as I return to places where my ancestors lived over a century ago.  In a real sense, Thomas Wolfe was right--you can't go home again.  Lithuania is not Lita--not the same place it was for Yehuda Tzvi and Soreh Finkelstein, or for those who were murdered in these forests.  It is not the same--lamentably, and thank goodness.  Much water has passed under the bridges and streets.  Still, it means something significant, at least to me, to stand in this river, even if neither I nor it can ever be the same.  I am grateful, beyond words, to be here--in every sense.  Grateful to be here, meaning in this life, on this earth, at this moment, alive, beyond all odds, precisely because my family left the Old Country when they did.  And grateful, too, to be here, on this very place of water and earth, on the Neris, moving from Vilnius to Kaunas, from Vilna to Kovno, with my beloved daughter, Rosa.  Grateful to be here to learn, to live, to grow.
Posted: May 27, 2017, 9:50 am
Monday, May 23--Near Grigiskes, on the Neris River

"All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware"
             -Martin Buber

Our river journey launches with a push off from the shore of the Neris River east of Vilnius.   We are now bound for Kaunas.

Or maybe it began last night, around midnight when, against my expectations, the airlines found my lost bag containing much of our camping gear.  At any rate, this morning, Rosa and I packed up and left our hostel with Justus Pipiras, the extraordinary Lithuanian kayaker who has so generously taken on the task as our support team leader for this journey.  He picked us up in his van around noon and drove us to a park on the right bank of the Neris around 10 km east upstream of Vilnius.  He is providing us with the kayak and equipment, shuttling us, and taking care of so many logistics.  And he is excited about our trip.  It seems that Lithuania has many kayaker, but it is unusual here to spend a month on the rivers, camping and covering the length of the country.  We'll be checking in with him regularly and he's planning to follow and post our progress on his Facebook page--I encourage readers to look him up and "like" his page.  He is our "angel" on this trip--we could not do it without him.  

 

We paddled an hour through the countryside before arriving back in Vilnius, which was familiar after three days here.  But it was good to see it by river.  The city has done something great for paddlers, hanging three large contemporary metal sculptures from the bridges that we pass under.  Great fun to have art displayed on the river!

After another hour, we reach the end of town, which is marked by a big television tower.  From there, we passed through a green park space, then an industrial zone.  Lithuania is decidedly not flat.  There are no real mountains, but the banks are marked by rolling hills, much like the American Midwest, and there are so many shades of green.  It's lush, verdant country.  And birdsong is omnipresent.  We saw mallards and gulls on the river, but the forest is full of songbirds that we do not see but decidedly do hear.  Their music is lovely.

We also floated past many people on the banks, mostly silent, a few shouting their hellos ("Labas" in Lithuanian).  We saw many boats parked along the bank, too--very narrow and painted black, essentially hollowed out logs.  They looked quite traditional, a kind of craft that folks have probably been paddling for hundreds of years.  Very different from our bright red hardshell plastic Perception tandem kayak! 

Made camp around 7:15 pm.  It stays light until nearly 11:00 in this Baltic late spring, so there is plenty of time to paddle!  Set up our kitchen on a mudflat by the river, with the tent further up the bank, tucked into a clearing in the woods.  Had dinner and thought a lot about a passage I'd read from Ellen Cassady's  deeply moving story of her Lithuanian sojourn, We Are Here.   She gleaned it from the memoir of a Lithuanian survivor of the Shoah, Levi Shalat, who wrote it in July of 1944, upon the liquidation of the Shavli ghetto:

Through the half-open doors of the cattle cars, we could see the lush Lithuanian countryside, the golden-yellow sheaves of rye standing in the fields.  The aromas of field and forest were intoxicating. . . 

The train sped through the stations, past the very towns where we had been born and raised.  With wistful eyes we looked out into the Lithuanian provinces where we had friends and family, places that had long since become Judenrein,  cleared of all Jews.  The train sped through Lita, as if offering a final farewell tour--one last look at all the years we had dwelled in this country before hurling us into purgatory.

In that beautiful and terrible moment, Levi Shalat's words point to a question that still haunts me, all these years later.  How does one reconcile the beauty of the landscape, of the natural world, with the human horror that happened here?  Rosa and I are camping in the same forests, by the same rivers, that flowed with the blood of my people.  And yet the birds sing, blissfully unaware, as they likely sang then, too.  I think we humans want to anthropomorphize nature, to have it share our experiences.  We want landscape and weather to echo us, to respond to us, to care about us.  But they don't.  They don't give a damn either way.  And yet that, too, is part of nature's attraction, at least for me.  It is bigger than us, not immoral but amoral.  

The Rabbis recognized this, of course.  In Talmud, they ask why stolen seeds will germinate and grow for the one who stole them--and why raped women still get pregnant.  Their answer: "Olam noheg k'minhago--the world pursues its natural course."   So it is.  God offers Job essentially the same message.  

Should the birds stop singing because so many suffered and died here? I can't understand this crazy world, natural and human.  It boggles my mind to contemplate.  But I am glad they sing.  I am grateful for their songs, and for the river's, even--or maybe, especially--here.  

The work of ticking, of consciously repairing the world, is not theirs.  It's ours.  I hope that I am worthy of my tiny portion of that task.







Posted: May 27, 2017, 6:22 am
After my first weekend in Lithuania, in Vilnius (known in the Jewish world as Vilna), my head is spinning.  What have I learned?  Mostly, that humanity is vastly complicated--joyous and tragic, compassionate and cruel, strikingly brilliant and utterly foolish, heroic and evil.  This is not new to me, really, nor is it likely new to any of you reading this.  Yet one feels all these contradictions so powerfully here in the city that was known as "Jerusalem of the North," once the intellectual center of Jewish life and also the place of immense devastation as the community was decimated during the Shoah.  The Vilna that I knew, I'd experienced through black and white photos and newsreels and austere columns of pages of Talmud (published here), so I was quite taken aback by the vibrance and color of the city.  I'd expected a Soviet-looking place, grey and somber.  But Vilnius is far from that image.  It's a beautiful, hip, Baroque and very European place--much more like Prague and Budapest than the Soviet Eastern Europe of my childhood.  It is, in short, charming.  And it's disarming to find such charm in a place that was once a third Jewish, and where the ghosts of the Jewish past lurk around nearly every beautiful corner.  How could human beings enjoy the beautiful parks and concert halls and cafes and culture of such a city and then participate actively in slaughtering their Jewish neighbors, or stand idly by during the genocide?  It is inconceivable to me.  I do not blame the current generation of Lithuanians; they are not responsible for the sins of their parents and grandparents.  Nor do I, as an American, pass judgment.  After all, I live on land that once belong to tribes like the Shoshone-Bannock, and enjoy the fruits of a system that was, for a century, built on the backs of African-American slaves.  In the United States, we have our own genocide and mostly, I think the Europeans have been more honest in facing up to their history than us.

And still, I just don't understand.  One walks down these lovely streets, sees culture and kindness and beauty and it is just hard to reconcile with the brutality of seventy-five years ago.  I want to remember the past and also to enjoy the present, to honor the martyrs and also celebrate the joys of spring and music and art with those who live here and share it with me.

Enough generalities.  What have I done and seen?

First of all, this weekend was a festival of street music and dance.  Kids and teens were playing instruments and singing at every corner, and the entire city seemed to be dancing!  The weather was glorious, and the sight of hot air balloons flying over the Old Town was stunning.  There was even beach volleyball!  Who knew?

    I Sunday afternoon, I took a walking tour with a great group called Vilnius By Locals.  The guide, Milda, was young and enthusiastic and very knowledgeable.   We spent much of the tour in a section of Old Town known as Uzupis--or, by the residents' own reckoning, "the independent Republic of Uzipis."  They declared their independence, elected their own president, and wrote up their own constitution.  And every year, they celebrate their Independence Day--fittingly on April Fool's Day--by issuing visas and drinking beer.  This is the Lithuanian version of the "Conch Republic" in Key West or the People's Republic of Berkeley.  Uzipis is the artists' corner, hip and progressive and beautiful.  
 
   They have posted their constitution in numerous languages, including Yiddish!  It begins: "Everyone has the right to live by the river and the river has the right to flow by everyone."  Perfect for Rosa and me, as we prepare to spend a month on Lithuania's rivers.
 
  
 
The symbol of Uzupis is this angel, who rises from the central town square and watches over the citizens.
 And, per "people's republic" and the whole hippy thing, there's even a miniature "Tibet Square" which the Dalai Lama visited a few years back!
 Milda also walked us through the Jewish Quarter.  There are streets like Gaona Gatve (Gaon Street, named for the Vilna Gaon--more below) and Zhydu Gatve (Street of the Jews).  Very little remains, of course.  Before WWII, the city was 1/3 Jewish--around 100,000 people.  The history of Jews in Vilna is incredibly rich--I'll write much more on this when I return to Vilnius at the end of our paddling and we take a tour specially devoted to Jewish sites.  For now, I'll just note that we saw the site where the Great Synagogue stood (there were scores of smaller shuls where most people davenned, often organized by profession and neighborhood courtyards) and the memorial to the Vilna Gaon.  The Gaon--Rav Eliyahu of Vilna--lived in the early 18th century and introduced a method of Talmud study that became the foundation of the great Lithuanian yeshivot established by his students.  He believed in using reason and current knowledge to get at the plain meaning of the text.  He was a strict rationalist, and Litvaks--the Jews of Lithuania--followed his path and took great pride in his astounding knowledge.  The street named after him has a marker noting where the Ghettos (large and small) were located during the Shoah.  I suppose that for most contemporary Lithuanians, living on Gaon and Zhydu streets is not so different from the way we in America live in all sorts of places named after the Native Americans that we exterminated.  It is a strange feeling to walk here, to see the beauty and know the tragic history, too.
 
    This juxtaposition of the historical marker and the shoe store was especially striking to me.
 Walking through Old Town, we came to the Cathedral, and its square, which is at the center of town.  Just above it is a castle, built by Grand Duke Gediminas, who established the city in the 14th century.  The view from there is spectacular.  
 
    In Cathedral Squre, there is a special tile.  It was the starting point of a human chain of 2 million people who linked arms from Vilnius all the way to Tallinn, Estonia in 1989 as a remarkable peaceful protest against Soviet occupation.  Today, people go to this square and turn in a full circle, 360 degrees, while making a wish.  The notion is that if the dream of independence could come true, as it did, then this place has the power to make wishes come true for others. . . 
 We walked through Literatu Gatve--a street honoring literary figures with a connection to Vilnius and Lithuania.  It's a marvelous place.  I was drawn to the square honoring Moishe Kulbak, whose Yiddish poem "Vilna" is a classic--I'll share some excerpts later.
 
  We ended the day by walking in a beautiful garden and then having a bagel at Vilnius' only Jewish bagel shop, with a stop by the Frank Zappa statue.  It was a wonderful, puzzling, beautiful and mind-blowing day, really.

Tomorrow, on to the river!
     
Posted: May 22, 2017, 8:52 am
Since I have been approaching our Lithuanian pilgrimage as a metaphorical journey upstream and back in time, it seemed fitting for Rosa and me to spend our last full day in New York where our ancestors' American saga began: Ellis Island.

Actually, the first family members to come to the New World--Rabbi Shimon and Hannah Brager Finkelstein and their children, arrived before Ellis Island opened for business in 1892.  They passed through its predecessor, Castle Garden, on the Battery at the bottom of Manhattan Island.  We met our tour guide, Matt, there, before boarding the ferry.  It's now known, again, by its earlier name, Castle Clinton (for New York's sixth governor, DeWitt Clinton--not Bill and Hillary), but from 1855 until 1890, it was the primary portal for immigration to the United States, a gateway for over seven million new Americans.
 From there, we caught the ferry to Liberty Island, home of the Statue of Liberty.  I'd seen this renowned American icon from a distance numerous times, but I've never visited up close.  Now, as I retrace my ancestors' journey--and as we live in an age in desperate need of symbols (and actions!) that embrace the immigrant experience--the time seemed right.
 

Lady Liberty did not disappoint.  Rosa and I were both struck by how powerful she is, how moving it is to see her, torch-raised, welcoming new Americans.  She was a gift from France, intended for America's centennial celebration but completed ten years late, in 1886--and she remains a potent and inspiring icon of freedom and hospitality.  I can hardly even imagine what it would be like to behold this beacon upon first landfall after an arduous two week sea passage in steerage!  Now, more than ever, we need the words penned for her pedestal by the Jewish poet Emma Lazarus:

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
       the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the tempest-tost, to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

 

Fr Our next--and last--stop was Ellis Island.  We toured the Great Hall, where terrified immigrants were questioned and inspected, their fate in the hands of immigration officials struggling to keep up with the flood of newcomers.
 
 We walked through fascinating exhibits on the American immigrant experience over the course of our nation's history.  As our tour guide explained it, the greenhorns quickly learned three very important truths:

1.  The streets of America are NOT paved with gold.
2.  The streets of America are not paved at all.
3.  They--the immigrants--were expected to pave the streets.

 Rosa and I spent half an hour in the genealogy research center.  I found the records for Yehuda Tzvi Finkelstein, who, as I've noted earlier, arrived in 1906 with his daughter Reise, son-in-law Solomon Lasdon, and their seven children.  I also found the manifest for my great grandfather, Rabbi Mendel Finkelstein.  To my great surprise, he came alone, without his wife Taube Kagan Finkelstein and their children.  He arrived on the ship "Moravia" out of Hamburg, at age 32 and headed for Cincinnati, where his brother Shimon was serving in his second American pulpit.  I can only conjecture that Taube and their daughters must have come over shortly thereafter, as my grandfather, Joseph, was born in Springfield, Ohio in 1895.

It is worth noting that the family name survived the Ellis Island experience.  Our tour guide taught us that this was the case more often than not; stories of immigration agents changing or even abbreviating immigrants' names turn out to be grossly exaggerated.  Far more commonly, the immigrants changed their own names, later, as they--or their children--sought to assimilate into American culture.  Here in America, my great grandfather Mendel became Emil and my great grandmother Taube became Tillie, but they remained Finkelstein.  It was my grandfather, Joe, who shortened it to Fink, upon the advice of one of his professors while he was in rabbinical school.  I have always found this humorous--was he worried that "Finkelstein"  was just too Jewish a name for a rabbi?!

Yet this, too, is part of the American Jewish story--and that of other immigrant groups as well.  If name changes were not typically imposed by government officials, they were strongly suggested by historical times and circumstances.  It was the age of the melting pot, and the new immigrants and their children dearly wished to fit in.  My life--and my family's--provide dramatic proof of their success in that endeavor.  Their efforts to Americanize, over time, succeeded wildly.  I am the beneficiary of their labors, and I will always be grateful for the sacrifices that they made.  

But something was lost, too.  Can it be regained, in some form?  I hope so.  In that spirit, I will end this last American blog entry with a favorite poem by Michael Blumenthal:

Letters Floating Around Ellis Island

Today I was thinking about the millions of letters 
that must still be floating around Ellis Island--
of Mrs Rubin, the butcher's widow, who lost her witz 

when she disembarked from Bialystok, of Mr. Slavin, 
whose ski was taken from him when he arrived from Kiev, 
of the millions of steins and thals and bergs and schlags 

that are still floating in those waters, and of what 
they must be thinking these days in late April 
when the moon hangs like a tired sickle in the sky 

and the earth trembles from all its corners like 
an old sheet, and even the once-simple syllables 
of men and women do not know, anymore, their place 

in the wide world of flux.  I think of those letters 
floating like flotsam in that dimmed sea, and of all 
they have survived during their shaken hours--

the kelped and sewaged light; the harsh embrasure 
of cold ships; the ransacked air of old bottles and smoke 
that must, these many years, have surrounded them; 

the deaths, even, of the larger names they fell from.
Sometimes when all hope seems to fall from my life 
like a syllable ripped from a name at Ellis Island, 

I think how they must rise into the dank air like songs 
even the dead can sing from their old beds of longing, 
how they are willing to stand for the old ways in a 

vast sea of hype and incontienence, how they are able 
to forgive everything over the wild din of all that has 
fallen from them.  I think of those syllables each day, 

when my heart grows heavy as a stone and I look up 
to ponder what survives in the end: the floating witz, 
the ever-rising berg, the revivifying thal.



Posted: May 19, 2017, 4:56 pm
The best journeys do not unfold too easily.  Obstacles help transform a mundane trip into a pilgrimage.  So I don't begrudge Old Montefiore Cemetery its relatively inconvenient location for the car-less traveler coming from Brooklyn.

I took the L train to the J train, which I rode for a hot, sweaty hour until the end of the line at Jamaica Center.  I waited there for a bus, which I took to a stop where I waited for another bus, which finally dropped me off about a quarter mile's walk from the cemetery.  

I suspect that when Rabbi Shimon Finkelstein buried his aged and beloved father here, this working class Queens neighborhood was home to many Jews, much like the Brownsville section of Brooklyn where Rabbi Shimon lived with his family.  `Today the neighborhood is multicultural and eclectic--predominantly African-American, with sizable Hispanic, Filipino and East African communities.  But after the white flight of the late 20th century, there are not many Jews living here.

But there are myriads of dead ones--over 150,000 Jews buried in Montefiore cemetery.  It's a virtual city of the dead, with street signs enumerating the lanes that crisscross this vast expanse of headstones: 1st through 10th streets, and Abraham, Benjamin, Carmel, Montefiore, Ezra, David, Gideon, and Herzl Avenues.  I stopped by the office, built into the large square entranceway, where the receptionist handed me a map with directions to Judel Finkelstein's grave: block 88, row 20R, grave 20, section 2, near the intersection of 6th Street and Benjamin Avenue.  

Alas, this location looks much clearer on the map than it is in reality, on the ground.  I walked over to the designated gate, 148N, into the United Hebrew Community section--and found hundreds of graves, with no clue to my great-great-grandfather's whereabouts.  So I started to walk, row by row, over and around the stones, searching through the sea of Hebrew and Yiddish inscriptions.  It was like seeking a needle in a haystack.  
 
 
Then three of the groundskeepers, in neon green shirts, approached me and asked, in broken English, what was I looking for?  I told them: "Judel Finkelstein" and handed them the map.  They began to speak amongst themselves in their native Spanish, then started counting off rows and paces.  In short order, they led me right to the granite headstone marking my great-great-grandfather's gravesite.  I don't think I would have found it without their assistance. So I thanked them profusely, in my very poor Spanish, then shook their hands, and took their picture by the marker.

 Then I spent some time alone.  Before leaving Boise, I'd packed a bag of pebbles that I collected along the banks of the Boise River, right below the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial.  I set one of those stones atop the headstone, now over a century old.  Yehuda Tzvi (Judel) Finkelstein died on the first day of Pesach, 15 Nisan, 5678/1916.  I pondered the events of the intervening century, joyous and immeasurably tragic: the utter destruction of his homeland and culture, the birth of the state of Israel (which he, as an observant Orthodox Jewish man, prayed for three times every day), the flowering and challenges of the American Jewish community that he joined in the final decade of his long life.  I chanted "El Malei Rachamim", the traditional prayer asking the Holy One  to mercifully grant perfect rest to his soul.  And I read the Hebrew words engraved on the marker: "Here lies Rabbi Yehuda Tzvi, son of Rabbi Shimon HaLevi Finkelstein.  Great in Torah, Godfearing in truth and righteousness."  I wondered--and still wonder--what this pious Old World rabbi would have made of his great-great-grandson, a Reform rabbi in Boise, Idaho.  I want to believe that despite the years and differences that divide us, he would have offered me his blessing.
 On my way out, I wandered through the cemetery, passing the final resting places of so many Jews, mostly ordinary men and women, and also a few famous--and infamous--ones.  Among those buried here: actor Fyvush Finkel, songwriter Shalom Secunda, anthropologist Oscar Lewis, and the great modernist painter Barnett Newman, whose headstone, fittingly, resembles on of his momental color squares.
 
Montefiore is the burial place of Solomon Blumgarten, better known by his pen name, Yehoash.  He was a Yiddish literary giant, renowned as a poet, raconteur, short story writer, and translator (into Yiddish) of both the Hebrew Bible and Longfellow's Hiawatha.  Like my great-great-grandfather, he was born in Lithuania.  They share this sacred earth with the boxer Al "Bummy" Davis, New York State assemblymen Sidney Fine, Philip Kleinfeld and Irwin Steingart--and Prohibition-era mobsters Jacob Shapiro and the Amberg brothers, Hyman, Joseph and Louis.  And perhaps most notably, for many, there is the grave of the seventh--and last--Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who many Chabadniks still believe to have been the Messiah.  His stone, and that of his wife, Mushke, sit on the outskirts of the cemetery in a large, tent-like structure known as the "Ohel".  It is a pilgrimage site for Lubavitchers and quite a few others, too; Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump came here shortly before Election Day to offer a prayer for Donald.  

 

I didn't go into the Ohel.  My Litvak ancestors, including Yehuda Tzvi Finkelstein, were proud misnagdim, strict rationalists and ardent opponents of Hasidism, which spread like wildfire through the Ukraine and Poland but never took much root in the Lithuanian Jewish culture.  Their blood runs strong in me.  I walked past, respectfully, then went out the exit and caught the bus back to the other bus to the two long subway rides back to Brooklyn.

On the return trip, I had plenty of time to reflect and found myself thinking a great deal about the diversity of 21st century America.  My Old World ancestors lived in shtetls and impoverished, entirely Jewish pockets of cities, dwelling, markedly, amongst their own people.  They interacted relatively rarely--and not always by choice--with the wider, non-Jewish world.  I, by contrast, ride the bus and the subway in New York City with people from every corner of the earth--and find the gravesite of my great-great-grandfather by the grace of the Hispanic groundskeepers who lovingly tend to it. Who knows what kind of worlds--Jewish and beyond--my descendants will inherit.  I hope and pray for the best of both, in which they might live proud, knowledgeable and committed Jewish lives while also deeply engaged with their neighbors, of all nations, creeds, and colors.

Later that evening, Rosa and I went uptown, to Broadway, where we watched Paula Vogel's extraordinary new play, "Indecent."  It's a masterpiece, and it fits perfectly with the journey that I'm now embarked upon.  It is a play within a play, telling the story of Sholem Asch's revolutionary drama Gott fun Nekoma, "God of Vengeance."  The narrative is both old and new, a tale of history and memory, tradition and radicalism, art and responsibility, Old World literature and the first lesbian love scene to play on Broadway, back in 1923--which resulted in the entire cast being put on trial for obscenity.
It is tragic and hopeful, raising more questions than answers.  And it's incredibly timely.  As the curtain fell, the entire audience applauded--and wept.
 

It was a day of weeping, for loss and discovery and love and beauty, endings and beginnings.


Posted: May 19, 2017, 11:43 am
The last member of my family to set foot in Lithuania was my great-great-grandfather, Rabbi Yehuda Tzvi (Judel) Finkelstein, who left in the spring of 1906.  He was 82 years old when he departed on the passenger ship "Barcelona" out of Hamburg, accompanied by his daughter Reise, son-in-law Solomon Lasdon, and their seven young children.  He settled in New York, where his oldest son, Shimon, was established as a prominent rabbi and teacher, living in Brooklyn with his wife Hannah and their children.

Neither Yehuda nor Shimon ever returned to the Old Country.  Neither did Yehudah's younger son, my great-grandfather Rabbi Mendel Finkelstein and his wife, Taube Kagan Finkelstein--or any of their six daughters.  Their one son, my grandfather, Joseph Fink (who changed his name upon the advice of a professor while in Reform rabbinical school) was a worldly man, but he never went back either.  And although my father, Rabbi Arnold Fink, did the lion's share of the genealogical research from which I am drawing in these entires, he, too, did not make the journey.  So when we touch down in Vilnius, my daughter Rosa and I will be the first people in our branch of the Finkelstein/Fink family to stand on Lithuanian soil in 111 years.

I am, of course, profoundly grateful to those who left. Surely they could not have foreseen the extent of thei horror that lay ahead, consuming nearly all who stayed behind.  Yet they saw more than their share of desperate poverty, raging anti-Semitism and personal suffering.  Yehuda Tzvi  buried his first wife, Feige Rivke Cohen when she was just 39 years old, then married--and later buried--her younger sister, Lieb.  At any rate, something moved them to cast their lot with the millions of immigrants who came to America in search of a better life for their children and grandchildren.  We are the beneficiaries of the sacrifices of the immigrant generation.  How difficult it must have been for them to leave behind all they'd known, despite the difficulties.  They walked away from their homeland, their language, the place of their memories, the proud history of centuries of Lithuanian Jewry--to become greenhorns--strangers in a strange land.  I can't even imagine how Yehuda Tzvi made this passage at age 82, especially as the documents from Ellis Island note that he suffered from "hernia" and "senility."

I'm dubious about the senility.  Whose mental state would be determined as good in a six-second medical examination conducted by alien American doctors in a foreign language at the end of a long sea passage?  At any rate, as Yehuda's grandson, Rabbi Louis Finkelstein--who would serve for many decades as the president and chancellor of the flagship Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary--tells the story, Yehuda got to kvell at his son's success:

"As I remember, my grandfather (Yehuda Tzvi Finkelstein) of blessed memory arrived in New York just before Passover. . . Since until then he had only known his son as a young man who suffered from stage fright, he was very impressed by the honor that was given to my father by the members of his synagogue, and by his position in the [Brownsville, New York] community.  On Shabbat Ha-Gadol, the first Shabbat that grandfather spent in the United States, he heard my father preach.  Grandfather was very moved by what he saw and heard.  He was amazed at the enormous audience who had come to hear his son, and he was surprised by my father's talent, and that he was able to endgame the audience for three or four hours in everything that he spoke about. . . . When he saw the feelings of his father, who was sitting in front of him in the congregation, my father was also much moved.  And so my father tried even harder than he usually did to enchant the audience and to arouse them.  He cried and the audience cried with him, he laughed and the audience laughed with him."  (from Louis Finkelstein's introduction to his father Shimon Finkelstein's commentary to the prayer book, Siach Yitzchak, translation by Joseph Davis)

Most of what I know about my last ancestor to leave Lithuania, I have learned from the memoirs of his son, Shimon.   He describes his father as a learned, quiet, pious and witty man, who enjoyed sharing his wisdom with his children.  He and his wife, Feige Rivke, presided over memorable and beloved Shabbat observances each week.  Shimon writes: "On the Sabbath day, our table offered a foretaste of Paradise.  My father, free from the anxieties of the weekdays, was no longer a poor teacher of children, but a prince of the Torah.  My mother, decked in her finest habiliments, poor and simple, yet beautiful, was a princess.  The angels, whom the ancient Rabbinic sages describe as accompanying one home from synagogue on the Sabbath eve, were visibly present.  our song of welcome to them was sincere and literal. . . . To this day, whenever I sing the Sabbath table hymns to the melodies of my childhood home, I feel a singular thrill; I am suddenly transferred to the fields and meadows of long ago, to the presence of my mother and my father, to a world in which nothing mattered save the fulfillment of the Divine Will as reflected in the Torah."

But lest one overly idealize the scene, Shimon goes on to note that his parents home was not free of interpersonal challenges: 
"I know that there was a cloud over the brightness of our home. . . My grandmother, who loved my father, her only child, with especial passion and my mother were almost always at odds.  My grandmother thought my father was being neglected; she considered my mother selfish; perhaps she resented my mother's unusual beauty and my father's evident delight in it. . . . Because of this friction, my grandmother decided that she would not sit at the family table on the Sabbath, but prepared her own.  I was seven years old when this happened; while I loved my mother and silently sided with her in the controversy, I could not bear to watch my aged grandmother alone, deserted as it were, on the festive Sabbath eve."

In the end, of course, Shimon's mother, Soreh, and his wife, Feige Rivke, were both buried Kovno.  Yehuda Tzvi is the lone member of his generation to be buried in America.

On Tuesday, I went to visit his grave.

(Continued in part 3)




Posted: May 18, 2017, 10:15 pm
To follow a river upstream is to go back in time.  Rivers flatten and age as they approach their inevitable rendezvous with the sea.  To return to the headwaters, then, is to turn back the clock, to embark upon a journey into history, in search of origins.

This is the nature of the pilgrimage I'm commencing this week with my daughter, Rosa.  We will soon be kayaking through my ancestral homeland of Lithuania, paddling along the Neris/Vilija, Leuvo, Nevezis, Nemunas, and Minija rivers from Vilna to the Baltic Sea.  Along the way, we will pass by cities, towns and shtetls populated for centuries by a proud and ancient Jewish community.  We'll experience the beautiful streams and dense forests where Litvaks worked, prayed and played--and where, starting in the summer of 1941, over 90% were brutally murdered and buried in mass graves by some of their own longtime neighbors working in concert with the Nazi occupiers.  

My hope is to follow the river back, as much as possible, to the past, to recall the horrors of the Shoah but also to reclaim and better understand the achievements that preceded it. I want to celebrate the phenomenal culture of Jewish learning and living that my Litvak ancestors and their peers created and enjoyed.  The challenge is to fully acknowledge the tragic ending without letting it consume all that came before.  I want to go back to the headwaters, to celebrate the extraordinary creativity of Jewish Lithuania, which gave us rigorous yeshivot and secular Yiddish art and literature, Zionism and socialism and communism, tradition and Enlightenment.  I want to listen to the rivers, which witnessed it all.

But I am getting ahead of--or maybe behind--myself.  Let me begin, midstream, in Syracuse, NewYork. I have come to town for Rosa's graduation from the SUNY School of Environmental Science and Forestry, class of 2017.  Over a century ago, Rabbi Shimon Yitzchak Finkelstein arrived here in the city's heyday to take a position as the rabbi of Syracuse's then-growing Orthodox community, which he would serve from 1896-1902.

Finkelstein was born in Slabodka, the densely-settled and direly poor Jewish neighborhood on the outskirts of Kovno, Lithuania.  As he later wrote in a short memoir, "When a citizen of Slabodka became rich, he moved to Kovno; when a citizen of Kovno was impoverished, he moved to Slabodka."  Young Shimon grew up in a one-room hut with an earthen floor, together with his parents, paternal grandmother, three sisters, and one younger brother.  Food was sometimes scarce, but learning was always abundant.  Shimon's father, Rabbi Yehuda Tzvi Finkelstein (or Judel Girsch, in Yiddish) was a teacher of Torah and Talmud, descended from a long line of rabbinic sages from the nearby city of Keidan.  Shimon followed in his footsteps, studying with some of the most renowned sages of the time: Kovno's chief rabbi, Yitzchak Elchanan Spector, who confirmed his ordination, and Rabbis Yitzchak Blazer and Yosef Yozel Horowitz, the two primary disciples of Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin Salanter, the founder of the Mussar movement.  [More on all of this in the days and weeks to come]

Upon completing his yeshiva study, Rabbi Shimon Finkelstein married Hannah Brager and proposed a move to Germany, where he might continue his studies at a secular university.  The new rebbetzin had other plans.  As Finkelstein tells the story: " 'It cannot be,' my wife said.  'You will emerge from the university a German, while I will remain a Lithuanian Jewess.  We will cease to be a pair.  If you feel life here too restricted, let us go to America.' "

So. . . the young couple arrived in the United States in 1886.  Rabbi Finkelstein served a congregation in Baltimore until 1890, then moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he befriended Isaac Mayer Wise, the father of American Reform Judaism and founder of my alma mater, the Reform rabbinical seminary Hebrew Union College.  Rabbi Wise offered his younger Orthodox colleague a teaching position on the HUC faculty.  Rabbi Finkelstein later recalled: "I could not reconcile my religious views with those taught at the Hebrew Union College and while I would have liked to be a student and a teacher, I was compelled to decline the invitation.  Despite our differences, Dr. Wise and I remained fast friends during the years of my stay in Cincinnati. . . I recognized, even at the time, his remarkable generosity and greatness of spirit, particularly the assistance he gave to visiting [Orthodox] scholars from abroad, despite his awareness of their basic antagonism to his teachings and his activities."

A few years later, Rabbi Finkelstein accepted a call to Syracuse, which he described rather surprisingly as "that beautiful city, whose climate is so much superior to that of either of the cities in which I had been located before."  (Given that snowy Syracuse is, in fact, the least sunny city in America, I suppose the grey, wintry weather must have reminded Finkelstein of his boyhood home in Lithuania). At any rate, during his time in Syracuse, he became dear friends with the city's most prominent Jewish resident, Louis Marshall, at the time a promising young lawyer--and Reform Jew.  Marshall would later become the preeminent Jewish lay leader and philanthropist in early twentieth century America.  He worked closely with Louis Brandeis to mediate labor disputes in the garment industry, organized the American Jewish Committee, and gave generously to countless Jewish organizations, helping to establish and fund both Hebrew Union College and the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary.  Marshall was also an ardent conservationist.  His sons, Bob and George Marshall would found the Wilderness Society and Louis, himself, was the primary creator and first board president of the New York State College of Forestry--the academic institution that would become the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, where my daughter, Rosa, graduated this weekend.

In 1902, Rabbi Finkelstein left Syracuse for Brownsville, New York, a heavily Jewish section of Brooklyn.  He remained there, as rabbi of Congregation Ohev Shalom, until his death in 1947.  But his time with Louis Marshall in Syracuse, coupled with his friendship with Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise in Cincinnati, left a lasting mark--different from, yet scarcely less significant than, the influence of his teachers back in Slabodka.  In his elderly years, Rabbi Finkelstein pondered the future of American Judaism and noted:

"My acquaintance with Wise and Marshall, the one destined to be the leading Reform rabbi, the other the leading Reform layman of American Jewry, convinced me of the sincerity and devotion of these men who so fundamentally disagreed with me.  I could not accept their views even in a slight measure.  I developed a high respect for them as persons, however, and respected that while their therapy for the ailments of American Jewry was futile, they might be partially right in their criticism of some of our ways as orthodox rabbis.  The conviction grew in me that neither they nor we were able to establish any effective Jewish community in America, in which the spiritual power of ancient Slabodka would be combined with the broad understanding characteristic of America.  Despite their good intentions, the Reform Jews were too little aware of the remarkable joy and beauty of traditional Judaism; while some of us failed to appreciate sufficiently the extent to which America was a fulfillment of our moral teaching.  I wished that I could have consulted Rabbi Israel Salanter regarding this dilemma, feeling that he, with his remarkable spiritual insight and love of man, would have found some means for retaining these great men to traditional Judaism, and yet retain their outlooks, which could be so useful to our faith."

I believe this challenge endures.  Seventy-five years after Rabbi Shimon Finkelstein wrote these words, Jewish leaders--myself included--still struggle to combine Old World piety and New World freedom.  How do we bring the Litvak experience, so rich in tradition and learning, to our American communities?  Perhaps here, too, the rivers might have something to teach me.

Oh, and one more detail. . . A few years after Rabbi Shimon Finkelstein arrived in America, his younger brother, Rabbi Mendel Finkelstein, followed him.  Like Shimon, Mendel was educated in the renowned yeshivot of Lithuania.  He, too, got married as a young man, to Toba Nakka Kagen, from the shtetl of Srednik on the banks of the Nemunas River.  And undoubtedly influenced and inspired by his older sibling, Rabbi Mendel and Toba Nakka Finkelstein emigrated to America.  They settled in Dayton, Ohio, where he served as the rabbi of the Orthodox synagogue, Beth Jacob, until he, like his brother, died in 1947.  Rabbi Mendel and Toba Nakka (later known as Tillie) had six daughters: Fannie, Leah, Helen, Sarah, Clara, and Rosella.  Their only son, Joseph, left home immediately after his Bar Mitzvah.  He headed south, to Cincinnati, where he enrolled in the same school where his uncle had declined Rabbi Wise's proffered appointment, the Reform rabbinical seminary, Hebrew Union College.  During his time there, at a professor's recommendation, he changed his name from Finkelstein to Fink.  He went on to an illustrious career as a Reform rabbi, mostly in Buffalo, New York.  His son--my father, Rabbi Arnold Fink--never met his grandfather, Mendel.  Perhaps for this reason, Dad developed a lifelong interest in genealogy.  He spent countless hours researching the family history, especially the years in Lithuania.  But he never went there.

I'm going for him.















Posted: May 16, 2017, 1:13 am

Two weeks ago.  I'm sitting in a pub in El Chalten, a tiny frontier town on the border between Argentina and Chile.  My daughter, Tanya, and I have just finished eight days of trekking and camping in Argentina's Glaciares National Park and Chile's Torres del Paine.  The hikes were astounding: immense landscapes of mountains, glaciers and rivers, twisted Nothofagus trees, fields of heather and endless rocks.  Patagonia is an elemental place: Stone.  Ice.  Sky.  Water.  And earth, tinged with early autumn's red and gold fire.  We've climbed to the base of FitzRoy, named after the captain of the Beagle on Darwin's famous Patagonian journey.  We've walked along roaring rivers, pitched our tent at the foot of ice fields, forded swollen creeks.  We're both content and exhausted.

And we're deeply grateful for our wine and cheese plate, which would be delicious anywhere but tastes even better after many nights of freeze-dried camping cuisine.  We're enjoying the whole scene so much, when a song playing over the pub's stereo system catches my ear.  It's nothing fancy--straight up rock and roll, like most of my favorite music, as elemental as the local terrain: Bass lines, rising and falling.  Swell of the keyboard.  Great guitar grooves.  And the drums, strong and steady, driving it all along.  

I tell Tanya: "Listen.  It sounds like Bruce Springsteen meets Eddie Vedder, with a bit of Latin flair around the edges.  I love it."  Then I ask our server, who is sweet, earnest, and blessedly good in English: "Who is that band we're hearing?"  

He responds: "Mancha de Rolando." He writes this name on a small piece of paper and I tuck it into my shirt pocket.

Fast forward.  I'm back in Buenos Aires, showered and laundered and with good internet access.  I go to Apple Music and search for Mancha de Rolando.  I download a bunch of their tunes and love them all.  Just as I remember from the pub in El Chalten, it is great, no-frills rock and roll, sung with honesty and integrity that somehow comes through even though I can't understand a word.  I learn that the song I first heard is one of their biggest hits, a standard called "Arde la ciudad"--"Burn the City."  I listen, again and again, to two different versions, one from their 2001 album Caballo Loco and the other from their 2010 live record, Vivire Vianjando.  I'm not sure which I like more!

Two days later, I'm walking down the street in the Colegiales neighborhood of BA and look up at a big screen atop an office building.  It's advertising a bunch of stuff: wine, depilatories, cell phones--and a Mancha de Rolando concert at La Trastienda Samsung, a venue in the old Buenos Aires neighborhood of San Telmo!  If there are tickets, I'm going!

Saturday night, April 1.  We show up at the venue at 6 pm and get general admission tickets for the 9 pm show.  When we arrive, we somehow find terrific seats in the balcony, just to the left of the stage.  The place reminds me a lot of Boise's Knitting Factory.  The band comes on at 9:10, and the music, live, is even better than what I've heard on recordings.  Way better.  The crowd is young and passionate.  They know the words to every song--and they sing along.  They sing and surge back and forth and dance and chant and toss red and black balloons and spray confetti everywhere.  The band plays for two hours, all cylinders firing on every tune.  It's one of the best shows that I have ever seen.  I didn't understand a word.  And I understood a lot, beyond the words, because that's how it is with music.
I still can't believe it.  Sitting in a tiny bar in an outpost town in Argentine Patagonia, I serendipitously caught a song by a band that I had never heard of before.  Two weeks later, I'm marveling at their show.  

Of course they ended the set with  "Arde la ciudad". 

It rocked.  All of it.  
Posted: April 5, 2017, 1:14 am
I'm in Buffalo, New York, for a few days, visiting family.  I haven't been here since my grandmother's funeral in late 2002, which is way too long.  Although I never lived here, it's a kind of second home to me.  Both of my parents grew up here, and as a child, I spent lots of time here with grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins--my whole extended family, really.  I'm staying with my Aunt Toby and Uncle John in their beautiful contemporary home that my uncle--a very accomplished architect--designed, and it is a real pleasure.

My aunt and I begin the morning with a short driving tour of the city.  A lot has happened since I've last been here.  Like many Rust Belt cities, Buffalo has been down for a long time.  Even when I came as a boy, there were lots of abandoned warehouses, decaying infrastructure, dilapidated neighborhoods.  The steel mills and other heavy industry left in the late '60s and early '70s and the bottom fell out of the economy.  Folks moved away, largely to warmer sun belt cities.  Young people departed in droves.  When my grandfather, Joseph Fink, was a rabbi here, Buffalo was a major American city, in the nation's top ten most populous urban areas.  Today it doesn't crack the top fifty.

But the city is experiencing a renaissance.  As we drive through the streets of downtown, I see some of those abandoned warehouses being transformed into urban condos, where young people want to live.  There are micro-brew pubs on many corners and a renewed sense of civic pride.

Our first stop is Forest Lawn Cemetery.  It's a huge place, a city of the dead, including quite a few historical figures of note.  I go to my paternal grandparents' gravesite and leave two stones.  My grandfather, Rabbi Joseph Fink, died when I was a small boy and I have only the dimmest memories of him.   Yet many folks here still remember him fondly and vividly, and I like to think that some of his spirit lives on in me.  I hope that I have some of his gifts as a rabbi and a teacher.   By contrast, my grandmother, my Oma, was a powerful force in my life.  She was the unquestioned matriarch of our family: incredibly smart, tough, gracious, loyal.  She encouraged me to be a writer, to stand tall in my beliefs, to speak my mind.  It is a great honor to visit their graves.

My maternal grandparents, Ray and Inez Hoffman, are also in Forest Lawn.  But they are not buried.  My grandfather hated the thought of being in the earth, so he bought vaults in the mausoleum or, as he called it, "The Condo."  I went there, too, but did not take a picture, as it felt weird taking pictures indoors in the mausoleum.  They were both enormously influential people in life.  My Papa owned a prominent printing press in town.  He was quite the character: strong, opinionated, sometimes prickly but a very loving grandfather, and a master story teller.  We loved hearing his tall tales and I like to think that some of that wore off on me.  My grandmother was the hostess par excellence, a superb cook and baker, generous and kind.  A good friend, a wonderful listener.

All of my grandparents gave me extraordinary gifts.

After the cemetery, we go to the Albright-Knox Gallery.  One wouldn't know, from the neo-classical exterior, that it is one of the finest contemporary art galleries in the country.  Aunt Toby and I have lunch in their very hip cafe and then take in the collection: Jackson Pollack, Rothko, Calder, etc.  I see a lot that I like but my favorite is the piece outside, made up entirely of old aluminum canoes.  The first boat I ever owned as a Grumman, which I bought for $50 from a suite-mate my freshman year of college.  There's nowhere I'd rather be than on a river, but this was pretty close: a kind of wild flowering of canoes!




In the afternoon, I go for a walk down Elmwood Ave, which is at the heart of Buffalo's urban renewal, a strip that features old houses, new boutiques, restaurants, and parks.  It feels to me like the heart of this city, the combination of old grandeur from its urban heyday at the turn of the 20th century and the grit that has sustained it through more difficult times.  There's a kind of beauty in the decay, too--and I've always been drawn to that kind of beauty.

I pass the house where my mother's parents lived just before she got married to my dad.  It's still pretty grand.

Then I walk by so many classic Buffalo vistas, houses and pubs and grungy streets and elegant avenues.






Dinner is back at Toby and John's, with my cousin Lynn Hirsch and the new rabbi at Beth Zion and his wife, who is an accomplished ketubah artist.  It's a great evening of conversation, laughter, shared memories, new perspectives, fabulous food and thought-provoking discussion.

It's good to be back here.





Posted: February 22, 2017, 1:53 pm
Thursday, February 16

I arrive in the sleek Raleigh-Durham airport after a long flight from Boise and my mom picks me up outside.  It's good to be here.  It has been too long since I've last visited.  Great to see Mom and nice to experience the lovely early spring weather here.


Friday, February 17

We start the day attending a classical music class at Mom's synagogue, Judea Reform, here in Chapel Hill.  The congregation's new music director teaches the class, and it's terrific.  He focuses on pieces that composers have based on earlier composers' works: Brahms' variations on Paganini and Elgar's Enigma Variations.   He has a great time playing clips and sharing stories, and he's superb at offering non-musicians some basic music theory that helps us appreciate the works.  It's a reminder of how much I love music, of all kinds, and learning more about it.


Mom and I have a lovely lunch together, I work out at the gym, and then Charlie joins us for Shabbat dinner at Mom's house.  It is such a pleasure to have Shabbat dinner with my mother, and to not have to worry about running off to lead services myself!  I think it's important for clergy to have opportunities to sit in the pews, to be part of the congregation.  The service looks and feels so different from here than it does on the bimah.  And yet it's the perspective that everyone except us shares all the time!

The service itself features a guest artist, Cantor Linda Hirschhorn.  So between her and the music director from the shul, there is a lot of wonderful music.  I've always thought the ideal service is sung from beginning to start, without any reading (which, in my view, always diminishes the energy level).  This one is pretty close.  Cantor Hirschorn tells a terrific story about growing up in an Orthodox shul in New York, how hearing the cohanim (those descending from the ancient priests) offering their blessings awakened a sense of mystery and awe and musicality for her as a little girl watching from the women's section upstairs.  And the rabbi, Larry Bach, offers a short, inspiring and insightful d'var Torah.  I really like the physical space, which is open, light, contemporary, accessible and egalitarian, and surprisingly warm.  It's a peaceful and joyful night, a Shabbat full of shalom.

Saturday, February 18

I drive out to Durham to attend Shabbat morning services at the Conservative Beth El congregation.  More often than not, when I'm out of town, I prefer the Conservative service on Shabbat morning.  The place is very different from Judea Reform.  The building is kind of ramshackle, but the way everything--from the paint on the walls to the wood paneling to the old editions of the Siddur Sim Shalom--is a little worn is comforting to me.  It shows the abundant use that comes of love.  The service itself is much the same: long, rambling, heimish.  The congregants seem like a real community, shmoozing and genuinely happy to see one another.  And the rabbi is like the head of the family, sharing little bits of midrash here and there throughout the morning, imparting his wisdom without any arrogance or pretension.  It's a nice place to be.  The Torah portion, Yitro, is my Bar Mitzvah portion, and to my surprise, unlike many Conservative congregations that follow the triennial cycle, this one reads the entire parshah.  The rabbi's brief d'var focuses on the opening, on why Moses' father-in-law, Yitro (Jethro) joins the Jewish people.  He quotes different commentators who note that he was drawn to join us because of our history, our love of Torah, and his familial connection.  And how different things bind us all to Judaism.  For some it is first and foremost an ethnic (familial) tie, for others it is about learning, and for some it is about the history of being strangers and the social justice mandate that flows from this.  It was a new take on a portion that I've been reading for many years!

After shul, I took a nap, then helped Mom prepare for a party that we are hosting in the evening.  We pick up food at the Mediterranean Deli and it's all delicious: falafel, hummus, pita, kebabs, rice.  The guests are great, too.  We start with havdallah, then settle in for a beautiful evening.  Mom's friends are all smart, thoughtful, politically-engaged.  I'm reminded of how much I admire the life that my mother has built here.  She came to Chapel Hill almost twenty-five years ago, when she retired.  When she arrived, she knew no one.  And during the years that followed, on her own, she built a fabulous life for herself, filled with friendships and learning and entertaining.  She is always gracious and loyal and remains intellectually curious, learning new things daily as she approaches her 80th birthday.  I am a lucky person to have her as my Mom.

Sunday, February 19

Mom and I work out at the gym in the morning.  I'm trying hard to do my exercising regularly, so that I'm in decent shape for my forthcoming trek in Patagonia.  I've put on too many extra pounds and they come off slowly at my age.  Day by day, bit by bit.

We spend the afternoon at the North Carolina Museum of Art.  It's a surprisingly large and impressive gallery.  The Judaica section is terrific, and there's a visiting exhibit of photos by Ansel Adams.  I've seen most of these pictures before; they are iconic.  Yet it's different to see all of them in one place, beautifully mounted and framed, and larger than I'd expected.  Such a glorious window to the American landscape, and to the range of light that a master's eye and camera take in.





We have dinner at a Thai restaurant, where I order my usual, Pad Prik King with tofu.  I get it pretty much every time I eat Thai food, so I'm kind of the King of Pad Prik King.  This one is good, and Mom and Charlie also enjoy their dinner.  Then home and to bed and off in the morning to my next stop, Buffalo.

I'm so thankful to Mom for her hospitality, and for the warmth of spring and the promise of new life blooming around us.

Posted: February 21, 2017, 2:18 am
Sunday, February 5


I get up relatively early (at least for this Alaskan sojourn)—9 am—to teach Sunday school at 9:30.  There are about  twenty kids, from kindergarten to sixth grade, and they’re a lovely bunch.  The teacher is a good story teller and she recounts the tale of Isaac and Rebecca with love and patience.  She’s clearly grown up with a Chabad background, as there are lots of references to HaShem  and frequent interjections of bli neder.  But there’s the Alaskan twist—she wears her long skirt with heavy mukluk boots and has that hardy, independent streak that brings folks here.  I lead the morning tefillah with the kids, show them how to put on tallit and tefillin and share a song for Tu B’Shevat, which arrives next week, in the thick of the Alaskan winter. 

In the afternoon, I take my longest drive of my stay, to Chena Hot Springs, sixty miles out from Fairbanks.  It’s a gorgeous trip, mostly following the frozen river and snow-blanketed forest.  The place is a big complex, with a couple of lodges where many folks stay the night (remember—Chinese couples trying to get pregnant under the aurora).  I soak for about an hour and a half in their outdoor pool.  It’s amazing to be in 104 degree water while it’s -6 outside.  The rocks around the pool are all covered with snow and ice, and the steam is so thick in the cold air that it’s hard to see anything.  But the water is soft and sulfurous and feels fabulous. 











I drive back to Fairbanks, listening to the end of the Super Bowl.  Of course the Patriots win.  It’s that kind of year—a Trumpian team for a Trumpian season.  But out here, the Super Bowl feels small and far away and pretty damn insignificant—which, despite all the hoopla, is exactly what it is.  I enjoy dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant, rest for a bit, and go back out for one last night on Clearly Summit.

There are far fewer cars up there on a Sunday night, and no busses at all.  Just me, a few young Chinese students and a middle-aged Texan tourist.  We wait.  And wait.  And wait.  For three hours.  But nothing materializes other than a faint glow.  At 2:00 am, we all head home.  Surprisingly, I’m not disappointed.  Yes, I’d have liked to have seen the aurora one last time.  But in a way, this only makes me feel more fortunate to have seen the show I did on Saturday night.  Rarity is part of what makes things beautiful.  If the northern lights played on cue, they wouldn’t be as special.  Besides, even without the lights, I love being out in the bracing cold and dark.  I think to myself: sabbatical is off to a good start.




Monday, February 6


I sleep late, waking around 11 am, after getting to bed at four last night.  Tonight, I head back to Seattle.  I call Janet and talk with her.  The challenging part about this sabbatical is being away from her and the kids so much.  I miss them dearly.  My time apart from them only makes me more aware of how extraordinarily lucky I am to have them in my life. 

I work out at the student rec building at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.  I’ve managed to do this almost every day of this trip.  It’s a little like the Boise YMCA: quirky, a tad ragged at the edges, friendly, warm.  A place of community.

Then back to pack.  I gather up my things, do some laundry, head to the airport, return my rental car.  My flight is delayed again and again and again and we finally leave around 9 pm, arriving in Seattle around 1:30 am.  More late night hours.  Check in at the Belltown Inn, finally to sleep before my day with Tanya at Bastyr.  Then home to Boise.


Posted: February 7, 2017, 11:56 pm
Friday, February 3


I sleep in after getting to bed around 2:00 or so.  This is easy, given the late sunrise, and my room is very dark.  Then I enjoy a quiet morning, reading Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union.  Time to read is one of the great luxuries of being on sabbatical.  I have a lot of books on my list for the coming months: on pilgrimage, and Lithuania, and Jewish life, and a  host of other matters.  But I love reading books set in the location I’m visiting and so it is a pleasure to pick up Chabon’s quirky novel about a fictional Jewish state in Alaska.


At noon I head back out Chena Hot Springs Road, past the farm where I did yesterday’s wedding, to a place called “Just Like Magic” that offers dog sled rides.   Once again, I arrive to find it’s me and a busload of Chinese tourists.  I bundle up and meet Heidi, my musher.  Then I settle into the sled for the one hour, seven mile ride.








It’s so fun!  Heidi leads the team of eight dogs through gorgeous forest, first pine and then birch.  It isn’t light for all that long up here in February, but when the sun is shining, the light is golden and gorgeous.  The sun never rises very high over the horizon, so it’s always that guilded quality of illumination that seems to glow from within all it strikes.  And the sky is cerulean blue.  So we slide along the paths in the sub-zero sunlight and Heidi tells stories of mushing.  She did the Iditirod last year, and loved being out with the dogs, sledding through the wilderness in the long Alaskan nights, the auroras dancing overhead, and sleeping by day on straw beds with her dogs providing warmth.  The dogs clearly love to run and she loves to run them, and our hour goes by too quickly.






On my way back to town, I’m cruising down the road when I stop for a crossing moose.  Quite the sight!





I spend the afternoon doing some Shabbat prep, and schmoozing with Beth, the synagogue’s office manager and only paid employee (she’s also a member),  and her granddaughter, who has the day off from school.  Beth makes a few copies for me, and I listen to her stories of Alaskan Jewish life.


In the evening, I lead services at Or HaTzafon, the northernmost synagogue in the world.  They have a good sense of humor, calling themselves the “frozen chosen.”  About twenty-five people show up for Shabbat evening, which is, as everyone notes,  a great turnout for the winter season.  During the summer, when Fairbanks is full of tourists, they have a rabbinic intern from HUC who stays for a couple of months.  But they are not accustomed to having a rabbi in the winter.  They appreciate my being here—and I’m grateful to be here, too.  I lead; they point me to the melodies that they know.  The portion is Bo, which recounts the final three plagues.  I focus my d’var Torah on darkness, which is the common tie between those plagues: locust so numerous that their swarms darken the sun; arafelet, the thick darkness that descends upon the Egyptians’ dwellings; and the slaying of the first born, which happens at midnight, the darkest hour of the day.  I note that these are also dark days for America, with the Trump administration’s cruel orders against refugees and immigrants and venomous attitude toward the free press.  Then I remind them—and myself—that darkness is also the place where life is born and nurtured, where seeds germinate, and roots do the quiet but essential labor to feed what blooms above the earth.  As Sue Monk Kidd teaches, the darkness that we fear as a tomb can also be a womb.  It’s not a new message for me, but here in Alaska, in February, when the days are so short, in a season of political peril unmatched in my lifespan, it feels poignant and timely.


The community reminds me a bit of my own.  They are unpretentious, hardy, haimish.  Lots of mixed marriages, almost all moved here from somewhere else.  They express gratitude, they represent the “do it yourself” Judaism of smaller Jewish populations, they love the outdoors and are proud of who they are.  Being with them reminds me of how much I love my congregation, how lucky I am to be the rabbi of my community.  After services, I go out for a late Shabbat dinner with two congregants, including the president, at a sushi restaurant.  And then to bed.






Saturday, February 4


I lead a “Bagels and Torah” study session for a small but enthusiastic group at Or HaTzafon.  We focus on Pharaoh’s hardened heart—and our own hearts' hardenings.  It’s a lovely discussion, a joyful learning together.  How lucky we are, as Jews, to have this Torah, which instructs and inspires us.  We approach it so differently, in so many ways.  Yet wherever we are, it goes with us, it guides us.


I enjoy a Shabbat nap, then plan to go to a tribal potlatch with a friend I know from Boise who is living here.  But when we show up, it’s already filled beyond capacity, so I enjoy another quiet Thai meal and then head back out to Cleary Summit for another chance to see the aurora.


I arrive around 11 pm and this time it’s much more crowded than on Thursday night.  The lot is packed with cars and tour busses.  But not much is happening.  For two hours, there’s just a very pale band across the center of the sky, running through the north star, Polaris, which is almost directly overhead at this latitude.  We sit in our cars, get out and walk around a bit, set  our cameras on our tripods, then get back in the cars to warm up.  So it goes for a couple of hours.  By 1 am, I am getting tired and prepare to leave.





And then the sky explodes in light!  But "explodes" is the wrong verb, really, because it’s nothing like fireworks, which are beautiful but also loud and violent and war-like—the rockets’ red glare.  This is soft, feminine, shimmery.  The lights move—astoundingly!—like a group of female Motown singers from the ‘60s, sashaying with utmost grace in their elegant gowns.  Curtains of green and yellow and red undulate across the sky.  I say the blessing again, this time with astonishment and wonder and awe.  The Holy One really does renew the work of creation, all the time, sometimes—most often—with real subtlety, but on rare occasion, such as this, with miraculous exuberance.  This is what I’ve wanted to see all my life, and I am immensely grateful for the show.  Then, just as quickly as it began, the show ends, around 1:30 am, and I head home to Fairbanks, filled with wonder and gratitude.


Posted: February 7, 2017, 11:44 pm
Wednesday, February 1


My sabbatical begins well, with a lot of walking.  I arrive at the Seattle airport mid-morning, catch the light rail into town, and stroll around the city center for a few hours.  The weather is crisp blue skies and surprisingly cold—which is a relief since I am wearing my super heavy-duty Alaska down coat, lent by a friend, which was way too bulky to pack.  It feels good to be on sabbatical, though I suspect it will take me a significant chunk of time to settle into the new routine of no set work routine. 


I meet for lunch with a friend and former CABI member who now lives in Seattle.  We enjoy a terrific falafel—maybe the best I’ve had outside of Israel—and I notice that I don’t mind the incredibly slow service, as don’t have anywhere I have to be any time too soon.  What a luxury. 


After more walking—cranes everywhere in the downtown core of this booming city—I meet Tanya at the Capitol Hill light rail station around 3:45, after she finishes her classes at Bastyr.  It’s great to see her, as she picks me up in her still-newish car I bought for her last summer.  I think how blessed I am to have a grown up daughter who is driving me around her city.  We go out for a delicious early vegan dinner and ice cream and then she drops me back at the light rail, where I catch the train back to the airport for my flight to Fairbanks.


The flight is happily uneventful and I arrive around 10:30 pm.  I remember the airport here from my last visit, back in 2009.  It’s surprisingly large and lovely for this small and rather ramshackle town—no doubt a bit of political pork barrel.  Then I get my rental car and drive to the synagogue, Or HaTzafon, the Light of the North. 





When I pull into the synagogue, Charles and his family are waiting to let me in.  I’m amazed that his young daughter is up this late but they’re all in great spirits and so welcoming!  I unpack, settle in, and go to sleep.

Thursday, February 2

I start my sojourn in Alaska with a wedding.


Michael and Shi Yi were hoping to get married under the aurora but the aurora didn’t cooperate.  So instead, they ask if I’ll marry them at 10:30 am (just as the sun is rising) in a field at Arctic Roots, the farm where they are staying outside of town.

I drive out there—about 25 minutes down the snowy Chena Hot Springs Road—and do the wedding, knee deep in snow in front of a small herd of yaks.  The only witnesses are the couple who own the farm—a hardy pair who previously lived in a cabin they built together, off the grid, with no plumbing or electricity.  Michael and Shi Yi exchange their rings and vows, I chant the sheva brachot, the yaks nod “Amen” and he breaks the glass on a wooden board atop a patch of hard-packed snow.






For lunch, I have the first of several Thai meals, as Fairbanks seems full of Thai and Vietnamese restaurants.  There seems to be a significant Asian population here.  In fact, I noticed that Fairbanks is far more diverse than I’d expected.  I suppose some of this comes from the large military population, and the tribal community, too.  Many mixed race couples.  I learn a bit more about the history at the Morris Thompson Cultural Center downtown, on the banks of the frozen Chena River.  Then I go shopping at Safeway, to stock the refrigerator and pantry back at the synagogue.  One of my goals for this sabbatical is to eat healthily and lose some way, so having a good supply of fruit and vegetables and healthy snacks is important.  Of course everything costs twice as much as at home.  It’s expensive to live in Alaska, given the cost of transporting stuff up here to the far north.


I rest and read and study the map of the city.  I really want to get a feel for the lay of the land.  One of the hazards of Google maps and GPS is that you can get around a city without ever orienting yourself.  You just go where the technology tells you, with no sense of direction.  I don’t want to do that.  And Fairbanks is small, so I can learn it pretty quickly.  I want to be mindful, to know where I’m going.


And where I’m going tonight is Cleary Summit, a suggested spot for watching the aurora.  It’s about 25 miles out of town, down the Steese Highway.  It’s mostly pretty easy driving, then gets a little tougher the last few miles as we climb up the mountain and the road becomes icier.  But when I arrive, around 11 pm, there are quite a few cars and a couple busses full of Chinese tourists.


We all sit and stand around in the flat lot atop Cleary Summit.  I’ve heard that for many Asian couples, coming to Fairbanks for the northern lights is a kind of pilgrimage.  It’s said to be especially propitious to make love under the lights—a path for previously infertile couples to be pregnant.  Nobody is making love up here.  Most are sitting in their cars, a few get out to set out cameras on tripods.  It’s around -10 degrees, the sky is crystal clear.  I find it bracing and love walking around in the cold. 


And then others start coming out of their vehicles and the busses empty out—the aurora arrives.  Sort of.  It’s a faint, greenish band stretching low across the northwestern sky.  I take a picture using the “starry sky” setting on my new camera.  The long exposure—thirty seconds—yields an image that is, in fact, way more vivid than what we see with our naked eyes.  It’s beautiful on the camera screen.  In person, it’s lovely, too.  Not amazing, but lovely.  And I get to say the blessing over astronomical phenomena: Baruch atah. . . oseh ma’aseh b’reishit—Praised are You, Holy One, who makes the work of creation.  I’ve waited a long time and come a far piece to have this opportunity and I treasure it.  We all watch, and wait, and then, around 1:00 or so, the lights fade and we head home.






Posted: February 7, 2017, 11:22 pm

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Vaera, God tells Moses, “I appeared to your ancestors. . . but I did not make myself known to them by my name, YHVH. “  As Rabbi David Cooper notes, this sacred (and unpronounceable) name is, in fact, a verb, implying “being”—or, better yet, “becoming.”  Moses is the first to experience God as God truly exists—not as a noun, but a verb, an eternally unfolding process.


This wisdom has radical—and beautiful—implications for humanity.  For if, as Torah teaches, we are created in the divine image, then we, too, are verbs.  Perhaps this is at the root of the term “human being.”  As Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen notes, “Each of us is unfinished, a work in progress. Perhaps it would be most accurate to add the word ‘yet’ to all our assessments of ourselves and each other . . . If life is process, all judgments are provisional, we can't judge something until it is finished. No one has won or lost until the race is over . . .”


I love this notion that we, like God, are always becoming.  Life never stops offering up obstacles, challenges, and opportunities to grow.  As my favorite musician, and recent Nobel Laureate, Bob Dylan notes: “He not busy being born is busy dying.” 


This is my last e-Torah before I start my sabbatical.  From February 1 through August 1, I will be away: traveling, reading, renewing family ties, exploring my roots, and re-tooling for the future.  During this time, at home and away, I hope to learn new skills, discover new strengths, seek new wisdom, and push myself to grow as a rabbi and as a person.  My goal is to return to you reinvigorated and re-inspired as I enter the final years of this congregational-rabbinic journey that we share together.


I know that during my time away, you, too, will grow.  New leaders will step up in my absence, and experienced leaders will find new callings.  The congregation is in good hands—all of your hands—during this season.   CABI will flourish in the months ahead.


I am deeply grateful to the CABI board and staff, and the entire leadership team that has made it possible for me to enjoy this extraordinary opportunity, and I look forward to sharing many new stories together come August.  Meanwhile, you can follow my travels on my blog at: http://rabbidanfink.blogspot.com



May our journeys—our becomings—individual and collective, bring blessing to us all. 


Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek—Let us be strong and let us strengthen one another.



Rabbi Dan

Posted: January 22, 2017, 6:46 am

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shifra and the other Puah,  “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.”  But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.                         (Exodus 1:15-17)


The king used all sorts of devices to render the midwives amenable to his wishes.  He approached them with amorous proposals, which they both repelled, and then he threatened them with death by fire.  But they resisted.  Indeed, instead of murdering the babies, they supplied all their needs.  If a mother that had given birth to a child lacked food and drink, the midwives went to well-to-do women and took up a collection, so the poor infant might not suffer want.

                                    (Midrash cited in Legends of the Jews)


Our Torah portion, Shemot—which opens the book of Exodus—feels incredibly timely this Inauguration week, as it describes the world’s first recorded act of civil disobedience.  When an immoral tyrant—in this case, Pharaoh—issues an unjust decree, the midwives Shifra and Puah actively resist, bravely refusing to kill the Hebrews’ baby boys.  The midrash goes even farther, suggesting that they continued to actively aid the babies and their families after the births.


This is a bold—and essential—text.  Under ordinary circumstances, our tradition calls us to show utmost respect for the civil authorities.  As the Talmud notes: Dina d’malchuta dina—the law of the land is binding on the Jewish community.  To which Rabbi Chanina added: “Pray for the welfare of the government, for without the fear of it, people would swallow each other alive.”  Yet the Rabbis recognized that this principle of dina d’malchuta dina does not apply in the case of unjust laws and authorities.  When rulers and policies undermine the Torah’s core ethical teachings, we are morally bound to resist them—as Shifra and Puah taught us.



I suspect that in the coming weeks and months, we will need to draw on their courage and resolve.  May the Holy One of Justice and Compassion guide us on the forthcoming journey.

Posted: January 16, 2017, 5:10 am