Tour of Ukraine towns reveals remnants of Yiddish life

KHMELNITSKI, Ukraine — Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz knows a lot about Jewish life in Ukraine.

But on a recent trip to Jewish communities and sites in southwestern Ukraine, the acclaimed translator and commentator on the Talmud still found a few surprises — one being that a large number of Jews here speak Yiddish.

In the small town of Shargorod, Steinsaltz spoke in Yiddish with Jewish passers-by in the old part of town. The town once had a thriving Jewish community; now there are only about 100 Jews here.

Steinsaltz, who usually lectures in Hebrew, spoke to the communities he met this time in Yiddish as well.

While some of the Jews in their 40s and 50s here understand Yiddish, most of the speakers of that language in Podolia, as this region is known, are older.

For Steinsaltz, the lesson is clear: "The fact that Yiddish is widely understood here means that the process of assimilation in Ukraine is one generation behind" the process in most of the former Soviet Union, he said.

Steinsaltz, a 61-year-old Jerusalem rabbi and talmudic scholar who has served as a spiritual leader for Jews in the former Soviet Union since 1995, traveled through the region last month with a group of 20 Jewish community leaders from the former Soviet Union.

The group, known as Chaverim, Hebrew for friends, consists of individuals who take part in Steinsaltz-led seminars throughout Russia and Ukraine.

This time, most of the seminar was conducted on the bus, while the group was traveling between the cities.

Steinsaltz told the students — whose ages ranged between 25 and 52 — about the life and writings of the Chassidic leaders who once lived in the area. The students also studied parts of the Talmud.

Faculty members from the St. Petersburg Jewish University lectured about Jewish culture and architecture in the area, which was first home to Jews in the 15th century.

The region's Jewish population is now less than 5,000.

Since most younger Ukrainian Jews have emigrated during the past decade, Jewish communities here are mostly elderly.

Indeed, pensioners make up more than 60 percent of Jews in smaller Ukrainian communities. Most of them are living under extremely harsh conditions as a result of the economic deterioration that has taken place since Ukraine became independent after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The Jews who live here are not religious. Few go to synagogue — if there is one in their town. And even fewer know Hebrew prayers.

For example in Khmelnitski, whose Jewish population numbers more than 1,000, there are only three men in their 70s and 80s who know how to pray in Hebrew.

"It's never too late to start with what a small Jewish boy starts," Steinsaltz told the attendees who gathered in a synagogue that was recently returned to the Jewish community.

"Even when a man is very limited in means, this does not excuse him from not being a Jew," he said, responding to the claim that the younger generation should lead the Jewish revival.

"I didn't expect that the rabbi would say such things," said a woman in her 70s after the lecture. She added that now she intends to light Shabbat candles in her home — something she had never done in her life.

Some of the sites the group visited are places whose memory still sears Jewish consciousness.

Never before had Steinsaltz visited the Jewish community in the town that bears the name of Bogdan Chmielnicki, who led the 1648 rebellion against Polish rule during which tens of thousands of Jews were killed.

Steinsaltz still refers to the city as Proskurov — the original name of the town that was changed to Khmelnitski in the 1950s to honor the man who is still revered in Ukraine as a pioneer of that country's movement for national liberation.

But Steinsaltz used the fact that the Jews rebuilt their lives here after the Chmielnicki massacre to provide an inspirational message.

"In percentage, that massacre was like the Holocaust. It was a disaster. But it was not the end of Jewish life here," he said. Indeed, less than 100 years after the massacre, the community's spiritual quest spurred a new entity: Chassidism. Steinsaltz made stops in several towns and shtetls to visit the graves of some of the most revered Chassidic leaders of the early generations.

Among them was the Ba'al Shem Tov, Hebrew for the master of the good name. The Ba'al Shem Tov was one of the founders of Chassidism, the populist, charismatic movement founded in the 18th century.

His grave — inside a small ascetic white-brick mausoleum — stands in the middle of a nearly destroyed Jewish cemetery in a town of Medzibezh, where he spent his most creative years and where he died in 1760.

During the Nazi occupation of World War II, a German artillery battalion stood at the cemetery. Only a couple of dozen graves survived, including those of the Ba'al Shem Tov and some of his family.

Today, Medzibezh, a site of pilgrimage for Chassidic Jews since the last century, has only one Jewish family.

A new synagogue for pilgrims — a very modest looking building — is being built next to the cemetery with funds donated by a Chassidic family from France.

The group also visited graves of Chassidic leaders in Uman, Anopol and Berdichev.

"We experienced living history on this trip," said Natalia Gutkina, a Jewish teacher from the Russian town of Nizhny Novgorod who participated. "It's amazing that one can still feel the spirit of life that has long gone."