Proudly secular, S.F. man finds sacred surprise in Old Country

Alvin Gross grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home in the Washington Heights section of New York City. It was a home where they were proud to be Jewish, but they were equally proud to be non-observant.

But there was one story his grandmother and great-aunt talked about more than any other: In 1919, there was a terrible pogrom in the Ukraine city of Proskurov.

“More than 1,600 Jews were annihilated in one afternoon,” said Gross, now 72 and a resident of San Francisco. Four of them were aunts and uncles he would never get to know. His mother and her nine remaining siblings came to the United States the following year.

When Gross voiced his desire to visit Proskurov, his mother always tried to dissuade him. But something nagged at him. Two years ago, the retired architectural designer and gallery owner visited Moscow and St. Petersburg, becoming “fascinated with the entire Russian world.”

And his mother’s warnings “never succeeded in dousing that little bit of a flame,” he said.

With the help of friends, Gross arranged his trip earlier this year. He was invited to stay with a Jewish couple and their friend in Proskurov. Highest on his list was the grave of his great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Rabbi Ze’ev Wolf Kitzis.

Gross knew that his ancestor was a lost disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidism.

In Khmelnytskii, which used to be Proskurov, he was in for a surprise. Actually, two.

“We had gone to visit the home of my father, and we looked for an older person who might know of the family,” Gross recalled. “My father had an elder brother who was a communist and did not migrate from Russia.”

In talking about the family with villagers, they indeed met an elderly man who knew his 104-year-old uncle, who had recently passed away.

But the bigger surprise still awaited him. The first place they went to find the grave of Kitzis was the town’s Jewish cemetery.

“We were stepping over graves, lifting up fallen stones, unable to find the grave,” he said. “I even had a picture of it, from a book published in 1989 of all the graves of the tzadikim (sages), but it was nowhere to be found.”

They also visited a wooden synagogue, and a mikveh, still in use.

Finally, they went to visit the tomb of the Ba’al Shem Tov.

“I entered the tomb and I literally stopped dead in my tracks, almost turning to stone,” said Gross. Right next to the tomb of the Ba’al Shem Tov was that of Kitzis.

“I almost had a feeling of being apologetic for not having been a better or religious Jew all of my life,” he said. “It was the last thing I expected.”

Adding to the experience was Gross encountering some Chassidic yeshiva students from Israel.

They spoke English, so Gross told them why he had come. When they learned he was a descendant of Kitzis, they insisted he join them for afternoon prayers. He politely declined.

“I said, ‘We’ve already said our prayers.’ I didn’t want to offend them.”

But the truth was, he didn’t know how.

Now back at home, Gross admits he still thinks about the trip, and its meaning for someone who has spent his entire life a secular Jew.

“It was almost euphoric, really,” he said. “I’d hate to say that a transformation came over me, because it didn’t, but it’s a very humbling experience to know that this was my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather and wonder: Was this man disappointed in us?”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."