At Home and On the Road
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.
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.
Songs of the River
A chorus of small voices
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?
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…”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.