Chabad family milks most of rural life

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sumy, ukraine | Most people buy milk in a store. But the Levitanskys get theirs straight from the cow.

Unlike the first Chabad families who arrived in Ukraine 15 years ago, Rabbi Yechiel and Rochi Levitansky have a choice: They could have Lubavitch-certified milk shipped to them in boxes. That’s what Yechiel Levitansky’s sister, a Chabad emissary in Kharkov, does, as does Rochi Levitansky’s brother, the Chabad rabbi in Chelyabinsk, Russia.

But when the young couple moved here from Santa Monica, in September 2004, they figured they were putting their three kids through enough, shlepping them to this ends-of-the-earth industrial city on the Russian border where they’d be the only Orthodox kids in town, and where most of their food would have to be flown or trucked in.

Boxed milk, too? Not on your life.

So twice a week, Yechiel, 31, and Rochi, 28, pile the children in the car and drive a half hour outside Sumy to a barn in the countryside, where Yechiel watches a friendly Ukrainian farmer milk his cow. If they’re late and the farmer starts without them, they can’t take the milk he’s already got foaming in buckets — Lubavitch-kosher milk must be watched by a rabbi from the time it leaves the udder.

“They don’t really understand why I have to watch, but they respect it,” Yechiel Levitansky says.

It’s not his first experience with milk fresh from the cow.

He remembers doing his same thing with his father 30 years ago in Santa Monica, before milk that met their standard of kashrut was readily available in California.

As the old car bumps its way along pot-holed country roads in a mad dash to make it to the barn in time, Yechiel recounts how, last fall, he spent two weeks going door-to-door in this rural neighborhood asking farmers whether they’d mind if he watched them milk. He didn’t understand why a few slammed doors until he found out about an old Ukrainian superstition: A cow watched during milking will dry up.

The locals might also have been put off by his black hat, prayer fringes and American accent. Finally Levitansky knocked at the door of Galina and Mikhail Fisatidye, an older couple who agreed to help him.

“We’re from Zhitomir province; we had lots of Jewish friends,” Galina says.

As the car pulls into the muddy driveway, Galina’s broad, red-cheeked face breaks into a huge, semi-toothless grin. She holds out her arms to the three Levitansky children, hugs and kisses them, then takes them behind the barn to pet the rabbits.

What began last fall as a twice-weekly business transaction has become something much warmer.

Starved for fresh, California-style produce, the Levitanskys began bringing the Fisatidyes celery, asparagus, sweet pea and other seeds — “things we like to eat,” Rochi Levitansky says — for them to plant.

Most of the seeds failed to take hold. The only crop that flourished was romaine lettuce, and the Fisatidyes now have a greenhouse full of the stuff.

“You can’t find this in the bazaar downtown,” Mikhail Fisatidye boasts.

But the biggest benefit of all stands in a small enclosure at the back of the barn: two gleaming black-and-white calves, twins born this spring to the Fisatidyes’ cow.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].