From (Former) Russia, With Love

Toby and I have participated in the Jewish Federation’s Peoplehood Project for most of the past two years, knowing it would culminate in a trip to Ukraine and Israel, tracing our family’s lives from the very first roots of persecution in the pale of Jewish settlement to celebrating Israel Independence Day, in Israel, with our new friends and adopted families. It’s taken me close to two weeks to write even 1,500 sensical words about a trip that veered into the non-sensical at times – whether it was pillows that had the supple feel of depleted uranium, 7 hour bus rides over roads left unimproved through a half century of Russian winters, or trying to grasp how entire communities could be eradicated.

This is what I learned.

Leaving my host Ronit’s house in Mabuim, Israel, she pointed out her olive tree named Adi. Pomelo, lemon, and almond trees are known anonymously by their fruits; her olive tree has a name and so called it gets a touch more love from the family. When we know or assign names, we breathe life into their stories.

Our Greater Metrowest Federation Peoplehood trip to Ukraine and Israel began, for me, with the story and assembly of a differently branched tree. Cobbling together hopelessly short anecdotes shared by my grandmother’s generation, I traced my family tree five generations back to the Ukraine. They emigrated to the United States to escape pogroms and a rising German power that had already pushed the family east into Galicia. Piecing together the family history was an exercise in transliteration and trying to fathom what happened to those relatives noted only with a first name and a question mark. The further back I went, the less of a beginning there was to my story.

Window in the Odessa synagogue, converted into a basketball gymnasium during the Soviet era.

Window in the Odessa synagogue, converted into a basketball gymnasium during the Soviet era.


“We have to tell the story from the middle” said Misha, the docent at the Jewish Museum at our first stop in Odessa, Ukraine. “It’s a bubbemeise” was his usual introduction for each group of cultural artifacts, the remnants of vibrant Jewish life that largely vanished during the Second World War. Today, Odessa is home to a small but rebuilding Jewish community, a fitting first stop for our journey of discovery. Jews accounted for nearly 40% of Odessa’s population before 1941, but public massacres by Romanian and German troops and the ensuing Soviet era eradicated nearly all traces of Jewish life. Ina, our guide, told us that she and some friends took turns cooking each other dinner, and upon sharing her favorite dishes with them, she was asked “Are you Jewish? These are Jewish foods.” For two generations, her peoplehood existed only in steganographic form; recipes handed down encoding her Jewish heritage that avoided unwanted attention. When we discover the middle, we can look for the beginnings, and move forward. The Joint Distribution Committee and Federation are investing in giving voices to the Jewish community, and to providing community care for the growing number of social orphans, their parents taken by the realities of post-Soviet economics where vodka costs less than soda.

I found more subtle cultural clues about my family: An exhibit card in the Jewish museum shows “HaKohayn” spelled “KAGAN” in Ukrainian, and the spelling of a great-grandmother’s name comes into sharp focus. A plaque in the wonderful community center thanks a Rabbi Ezekiel, transliterated into Ukranian as “YE-KOZIEL,” and suddenly I know the answer to the 100-year old riddle of my great grandfather’s first name. He was known as “Koziel”, a diminuitive of that name. At the Odessa community center, we meet a dozen young Jewish people, a collection of Toumas and Katias who invite us into the private fold of their familiar, diminutive names, as we are part of the same, larger family.

From Odessa, it’s almost 500 kilometers north to Kiev, passing through alternating forests and farms. Most of the trees are the institial growth between cultivated land or small villages, but every so often we pass a rectilinear plot – a tree farm. I can see backwards three generations, the handiwork of men like great-grandfather Koziel, a treecutter who was forced to sharecrop because he could not own land in Yarmolints. The beginning of my story is there, too, carefuly encoded.

Memorial to the Jews massacred at Babi Yar, in the ravine just behind this menorah

Memorial to the Jews massacred at Babi Yar, in the ravine just behind this menorah


Our morning in Kiev begins with Anna, our guide, telling us about the events that led to the Babi Yar massacre. Anna’s grandmother related the story to her, and even the passing of nearly 70 years can’t prevent Anna from choking up as she describes both the horror and the nearly twenty years of political pressure needed to get a monument erected to the Jewish victims of that brutality. We walk, as a group, down a long path into a public park, where we see mothers with strollers, and people jogging, until we come to a 2-meter high menorah in front of a ravine. There is snow on the ground, in April, and we gather overlooking the site where 33,000 Jews were killed in a single day, their stories abruptly ended, erased, leaving no trace. My grandparents’ refusal to discuss life before their immigration made sense; how can you give voice to something that culiminates in a horror so abject, so deeply personal, that 40 years of Yom Kippur martyrology do nothing to prepare you for the overwhelming sense of loss?

We left Babi Yar as a group, walking away from the ravine, moved, saddened, and prepared to tell this story, too, from our vantage point in the middle. Despite a growing a sizeable Nazi Party, democracy in the former Soviet republic means that “Jew,” “Jewish” and “Judaism” are names that can be said aloud, no longer passed along through secret family recipes below the threshold of detection. As difficult as visiting Babi Yar was, it was empowering to leave, to walk away, with a Jewish tour group. Regrouping around the bus, I compared notes on small Ukranian villages with Jeremy, our Joint representative in Kiev, and it turns out he knows the archivist for Yaromlints. A century and a half, 7,000 miles by air and 12 hours in a bus, and yet playing Jewish geography still produces results.

Children's Ukranian (from Hebrew) transliteration of daily prayers.  Note the English "h" for the voiced "h" in "Ha-Olam".

Children’s Ukranian (from Hebrew) transliteration of daily prayers. Note the English “h” for the voiced “h” in “Ha-Olam”.


From Kiev, it was another bus ride paralleling the Dniepro River down to Cherkassy, a Greater MetroWest partner community, where again we saw the public, outward signs of Jewish rebirth. It’s exciting and fascinating to see these inclusive Jewish communities find their feet and emerge back into the light. From the Hesed center providing needed community care to the Chabad synagogue where we joyfully and loudly welcomed Shabbat, we saw the power of a different kind of 1% – Cherkassy’s 2,500 Jews in a city of 300,000. In each of the three cities of Ukraine, we found a Jewish community taking care of those forced to the edges, putting deep roots into soil stained by decades of hate and bloodshed. As our daughter told us after returning from Rwanda, the positive, successful post-genocide cultures simply celebrate life in the “after”; you define the beginning as now and live in a growing, robust series of middles.

We left Ukraine for Israel to observe Yom HaZikaron, the day commemorating fallen soldiers and victims of terror attacks. Each ceremony mentioned “Am Yisroel” – the people of Israel – as the state is the place that is defended, but the people are what make it worth defending. Having seen the resurgence, and equally fragile nature, of the Jewish people in Ukraine over the preceding week, my personal sense of responsibility was amplified. Knowing Israeli officers who visit the families of their fallen soldiers makes the day more emotionally intense, building on the sense of community responsibility. We caught up with Ronit’s husband, an Army medical officer, later in the day. Ronit explained that he had led a ceremony, and then gone to see the family of one of his soldiers killed in the line of duty. There was no more discussion needed; we had spent a week understanding how sometimes the story cannot – and should not – be softened with explanation.

The soldier’s name was Adi and the olive tree is in his memory.

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