Beggars of Berdichev

What can one do when the Ukraine, cradle of Hasidism and fertile soil for the Haskalah movement, has beckoned for so many years? How can one resist visiting a place that was the backdrop for a great Jewish drama that unfolded over 1,000 years?

Rabbi Levi Isaac of Berdichev "once said before the sounding of the shofar: Lord of the Universe, you said let it be a day of shofar-blowing and in honor of that one commandment we blow the shofar 100 times. Multitudes of Jews have been blowing the shofar for thousands of years, and we multitudes of Jews have been shouting and praying and begging you for centuries: Sound just one great blast of the shofar and set us free - and still you have not done so!" ("Kedushat Levi").

Almost 200 years later, there is no one left in Berdichev to wait for that great blast of the shofar signifying our freedom. The Jews who waited for it have been gone for 60 years and more, and those who still live here lost their faith in any kind of redemption long ago.

And so we, a group of teachers and students sharing an interest in Jewish history and the history of the Ukraine in particular, did not expect to find kin here. After a few days in the Ukraine, we grew accustomed to seeing synagogues lying in ruins or turned into graveyards, and that is how we envisaged it in our mind's eye before we ever set foot on Ukrainian soil.

As in other towns in the Ukraine whose names resonate with Jewish history - Bratslav, Buczacz, Brody, Vishnitz, Sadigora - we arrived in Berdichev expecting to find only scattered remnants of Jewish life. We did not anticipate causing any stir and ultimately had no intention of disturbing anyone, alive or dead. After all, what could we do for them? We were not even "lovers of ruins," as Dov Sadan puts it in his memoir of Brody - referring to people who went back to Europe between the two world wars to restore the old cemetery for the sake of the coming generations. We were just visiting the country on a whirlwind tour, as if it were a museum.

But what can one do when the Ukraine, the cradle of Hasidism and fertile soil for the Haskalah movement, has beckoned for so many years? How can one resist visiting a place that was the backdrop for a great Jewish drama that unfolded over 1,000 years?

And so we did not expect our arrival in Berdichev this summer to be greeted with any fanfare. We knew that it was no longer the second most important center of commerce in the Ukraine, as it had been in the 18th century, before Poland was divided up and annexed to Russia, and that the population had slowly dwindled from that time on, until the famine in the 20th century and the onset of World War II. Jews were always in the majority: They accounted for 80 percent of the population at the end of the 19th century (out of a total of 80,000 residents), and over half the population in 1926, under Soviet rule.

Paying the price

We knew that we would not be seeing the kind of Jewish Berdichev encountered by the Sholem Aleichem character Yossele Solovey (Yiddish for "nightingale"), the handsome cantor who falls into the clutches of Madame Perele: "Before him lay a big city, grim, frantic and dirty. Jews - men and women - raced here and there. He heard the cries of the wagoners, the incessant patter of the shopkeepers, the cussing of the fishwives in the marketplace. The mud and filth gave off such a stench, he was forced to hold his nose. Where was he? In Berdichev."

In short, for anyone who is used to chanting "Alas! Lonely sits the city / Once great with people" from the Book of Lamentations and is accustomed to seeing cities in Europe empty of Jews - and especially for those who have sought consolation in building up Israel as a kind of compensation and replacement for the Diaspora - the fact that Berdichev has become a Ukrainian city should come as no surprise.

Berdichev today looks like a provincial Ukrainian town, devoid of any special charm. The inhabitants walk around sullen-faced, bowed by hardship. That, too, we expected, with a kind of gloating at the thought that the city never recovered after the disappearance of the Jews.

Other minority groups have also disappeared, especially the Poles, who once ruled the roost. In 1850, for example, the Polish countess Evelina Hanska married Honore de Balzac at the local Catholic church. But today, all that means as much as last year's snow. One would have to search long and hard to find "The Human Comedy" in any of the bookstores.

The Ukraine has had its wish come true: It is primarily a one-nation country, but it is paying a price (like Israel, basically). The marketplace is relatively empty, and the stands have little to offer. Unlike Kiev, which enjoys the abundance of a Western city (although not many can afford to buy), the shortage of goods is palpable. At the kiosks that dot the city center, the vendors serve customers through tiny peepholes.

The tourist bus let us off at the entrance to an old synagogue which, contrary to the norm, continued to operate under Soviet rule. It was recently renovated and like many buildings in the Ukraine, catches the eye with its colorful facade. The local rabbi is an American Hasid who has managed, with a bit of philanthropy, to assemble a regular minyan [prayer quorum]. Most of the Jews here are elderly, he says. Any young people who take an interest in Judaism usually pack their bags and head out.

In 1970, there were 15,000 Jews in Berdichev. Today, according to a report in the Jewish Observer, there are less than 800. Perhaps because he has no younger generation to worry about, the rabbi allowed one of our party to take a book from the geniza (repository of old religious texts), which had been published by his family in Vilna. Books published by the famous Berdichev press are hard to find. Most of the printed material comes from Israel or the United States. The sense of victory is tempered by sadness.

Dance of the beggars

Outside, in the summer rain, a surprise awaited us. Rumors that a group of Jewish tourists was visiting had made the rounds and Jews from all over Berdichev came to greet us, their palms extended. How could one turn down a Jew begging for alms in broken Yiddish? How could one be tightfisted when confronted by a poor old woman who said that she, too, needed a little something for Shabbos? The swarm of beggars widened, each newcomer asking why others got and he or she didn't.

In my imagination, I saw the dance of the beggars in "The Dybbuk," a film based on the play by S. Ansky, in which beggars, each with a different handicap, perform a grotesque dance around Leahleh the bride at her wedding. We felt increasingly uncomfortable. How had we, hardly more than beggars ourselves, become lords of the manor - and in Berdichev, of all places?

Thanks to the rain, we managed to escape our predicament, hurrying back to the bus. There we could reflect, with considerable relief, that things had always been this way in the "beggarvilles" of the Diaspora (Mendele Mocher Seforim's nickname for Berdichev is "Kabtsansk," a play on the Hebrew word "kabstan" or beggar). The Hebrew Encyclopedia, for example, points out that in the late 19th century, as many as 20 percent of all the Jews there lived on charity.

It was unfortunate Jews like these that Rabbi Levi Isaac of Berdichev rose up to defend 200 years ago. Born in Galicia sometime around 1740, he became the rabbi of Berdichev in 1785 and lived there until he died in 1810. He is mainly known as one of the early proponents of Hasidism in the Ukraine and the champion of the Jewish people in the divine courtroom.

In the biography of Rabbi Levi Isaac appended to his book of teachings, "Kedushat Levi," he is said to have addressed God on Rosh Hashanah as follows: "Why, Lord of the Universe, do you not act toward us like a simple Jew? If a simple Jew sees that his tefillin [phylacteries] have fallen on the ground, he will immediately pick them up and kiss them. The Jewish people are your tefillin, your source of pride. As it is written: `And who is like Your people Israel, a unique nation on earth.' For nearly 2,000 years, the Jews have fallen from a high roof to a deep pit. Why do you not lift them up and restore their glory?"

Rabbi Levi Isaac's love of the Jews has endeared him to the Jewish people until today. Based on the verse in Numbers, "No harm is in sight for Jacob, No woe in view for Israel, The Lord their God is with them," he taught that those who look favorably on the people of Israel have God on their side. Rabbi Levi Isaac appreciated the Jewish masses in a way few others did, and they, in turn, have lovingly preserved his memory. Many of the incantations and special prayers attributed to him are in Yiddish, the language of the people. In times of trouble, Jews have recited them, in the same way that they have clung to the amulets he left behind. In modern times, poets like Zalman Shneur, Uri Zvi Greenberg and Itzik Manger have called upon Rabbi Levi Isaac of Berdichev to save the Jewish people from the wrath of God.

Tribute to the rabbi

I may not always agree that the Jews are as deserving as Rabbi Levi Isaac makes them out to be, but I have always found his enigmatic character intriguing and hoped against hope that he would forgive even a sinner like me. Rabbi Levi Isaac took the family name "Derbarmdiger" (Yiddish for "merciful one") in an attempt to come closer to the virtues of the divine, but as a child, I used to pray for God to be a little more like Rabbi Levi Isaac. As a kind of tribute to him, or at least to his memory, I made the trip to Berdichev.

From the synagogue, the bus drove a short distance to the "new" cemetery. Here, as in other Jewish cemeteries in the Ukraine, we found that the "bais hayim" ("house of life"), the Yiddish euphemism for a cemetery, is the best preserver of life as it was once lived. Whereas the renovated synagogues here often feel mummified and soulless, in the cemetery - as in literature and art - Jews who lived hundreds of years ago spring to life. Each of the Jewish cemeteries are special and distinctive in some way. In one town, the tombstones are rounded, and in another they are tall. In Berdichev, for some inexplicable reason, most are boot-shaped. It looks like a field strewn with shoes left behind by a band of giants.

At the edge of this field of shoes stands the new pavilion built over the tomb of Rabbi Levi Isaac (and several of his relatives and disciples). Such pavilions are being erected at the gravesites of tzaddikim all over the Ukraine by the same people who are putting them up in Israel: old and new followers, male and female, and the newly religious, Ashkenazi and Sephardi.

In Uman, near the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, and in Medzhibezh, near the tomb of the Baal Shem Tov, hotels have sprung up to accommodate the tens of thousands who make pilgrimages to the site on holidays and memorial days. The pavilion over Rabbi Levi Isaac's tomb is more modest and less foreign to its surroundings: It is painted green and white, and the architecture is typical of the region. Over the graves are shelves for lighting candles, and on the walls hang some of the prayers and incantations ascribed to Rabbi Levi Isaac.

One of them is "Gott fun Avrum" ("God of Abraham"), the prayer intoned in a whisper by women at the end of the Sabbath, fearful of the evils that the new week might bring and pleading for health and prosperity. And as they prayed, what they feared came true. Who could have imagined that this was how all the troubles of the Diaspora would end?

"Lord of the Universe," said Rabbi Levi Isaac once on Rosh Hashanah. "If you inscribe the Jewish people in the book of righteousness, that is good. It will not desecrate the holiday. Saving a life takes precedence even over the strict prohibitions of the Sabbath. But if, God forbid, you do not intend to do so, then I, Levi-Yitzchok of Berdichev, say: `It is forbidden by the Torah to write on a holiday'" ("Kedushat Levi").

Perhaps there is a personal lesson to be learned here. If the words of a tzaddik were ignored, who am I to add my supplication? Perhaps it is best for me to walk silently past the framed prayers at the tomb of Rabbi Levi Isaac, to photograph them and walk out, leaving the pavilion - and Berdichev itself. For it is not here, I try to remind myself, but in my memory that Rabbi Levi Isaac is buried, together with all the Jews who were swallowed up by the earth. Yet even if nothing else tangible had remained of them, apart from this site, I would have come here. But not to convert the surviving remnant or to drag it back to Israel, and not to challenge Rabbi Levi Isaac in the manner of Uri Zvi Greenberg: "We do not want to lie rotting in fields the world over / Our graves destined to follow the fate of our corpses / ... We do not want to become the dust of the field."

In the final reckoning, what good did it do that Rabbi Levi Isaac loved the Jewish people? Maybe a reprimand was what the Jews needed at the time. Or maybe fate was indifferent either way. One wonders what could help now. Is it at all possible to love Israel today?

Here comes the Day of Judgment, and we pass before God like sheep, preceded by the beggars of Berdichev, Rabbi Levi Isaac and his Jews, generations of sinners. Even a tzaddik sins. But ordinary folk usually end up paying double, for their sins and those of others.

Those who are capable of protest are thus very precious. Like Honi the Rainmaker, who declared: `Master of the Universe! I swear by your great name that I shall not move from here until you have mercy on your sons." Or like Rabbi Levi Isaac, who addressed God in simple, down-to-earth Yiddish in the middle of the Rosh Hashanah service. Rabbi Levi Isaac's "Kaddish" has since been set to music, and among the many who have sung it is the black vocalist, Paul Robeson. When he performed it, after World War II, he dedicated it to all the Jews who had no one left to remember their names.

This is what Rabbi Levi Isaac said:

"Good morning to you, Lord of the Universe.

I, Levi-Yitzchok, son of Sarah, of Berdichev

Have come to you in a lawsuit

On behalf of your people Israel.

What have you against your people Israel?

And why do you oppress your people Israel?

No matter what happens, it is:

`Command the Children of Israel!'

No matter what happens, it is:

`Say to the Children of Israel!'

No matter what happens, it is:

`Speak to the Children of Israel!'

Father dear! How many other peoples are there in the world?

Babylonians, Persians and Edomites!

The Germans - what do they say?

`Our king is a king!'

The English - what do they say?

`Our sovereign is a sovereign!'

And I, Levi-Yitzchok, son of Sarah, of Berdichev, say:

`Hallowed and magnified be the name of God.'

And I, Levi-Yitzchok, son of Sarah, of Berdichev, say:

`I will not stir from here!

An end there must be to this.

It must all stop!

Hallowed and magnified be the name of God.'"