(By Rabbi Lavey Y. Derby – Director of Jewish Life – Foster City – CA – USA)
In Berdichev, the wind whispers prayers as it rustles through the trees. in Berdichev, words of Torah drip like the dew onto green grass in the early morning sun. In Berdichev, the air smells sweet, except in tanner’s alley where the air always stinks of hides and skins and chemicals and death. I remember the smell, and the green of the countryside, and the twisty roads making their way between the houses. All this I remember, and more.
What is Berdichev, you may ask, that I speak of it so fondly? Just a town, a small city, in fact, located in Southern Ukraine just 75 miles West of Kiev and a few hundred miles north of Odessa. As it happens, it was the town where my father was born, and his mother before him, and her father before her. It was the place where my father’s ancestors took up residence in the year 1785. It was the home of the tzaddik, Reb Levi Yitzchak, son of Meir and Sarah.
Let me confess that I have never seen Berdichev, let alone set foot in it. My father left the town when he was seven years old, together with his mother and older sister, to set out for America and a reunion with his father, who had settled in Boston. It was a journey much like the journey that so many of our grandparents took: a journey from persecution to safety, from exile to redemption, from darkness to light, from poverty to “the goldine medina”.
And yet, though I have never been there, Berdichev has been my home, my spiritual center. Berdichev fills my dreams, together with my mythic ancestors who roam her streets, larger than life. When I close my eyes, I see her shops, her shuls, her people, the plum tree outside my father’s bedroom window. I have never been to Berdichev, but Berdichev is constantly with me.
The streets of Berdichev are dusty. Main thoroughfares of tailor shops and cloth stores, carpenters and bakers, narrow into side streets and alley ways twisting between small houses and courtyards. There are dozens of shtieblach, little prayer rooms, every few blocks. The tailors only pray with other tailors; the tanners, too, keep to their own.
There is a wagon-driver who greases the wheels of his wagon while wearing his tallit and teffilin; he is either too busy or too pious to take them off. There are the businessmen, hurrying along the street to their next deal, “chasing a living”, as if you could catch one. There are the many beggars, and widows, and the “Enlightened Ones”, the non-believers who smoke on Shabbat in public and challenge the rebbe to debate.
Berdichev has its wealthy and its poor, mostly its poor. At times there is so little to eat that people make believe that potatoes are a green vegetable. The synagogue Board voted to put a charity box outside the courtyard of the synagogue so that the poor would not come into the synagogue to ask for tzedakkah. The Rebbe forbade such a plan, saying that part of giving tzedakkah is looking the poor in the eyes, recognizing them to be the creatures of God and being taught compassion from their presence. Berdichev is a merciful place, and those who need most to receive can always count on someone to give, out of ahavat habriot -love of one’s fellow man.
IIn Berdichev, the “Yiddishe neshama”, the Jewish soul, glows warmly and brightly, like the glow of Shabbos candles in a darkened room. Life is not easy and hardship spreads a pall over her inhabitants, yet the town is alight with piety and joy.
There is the Great Synagogue, where Reb Levi Yitzchak teaches and preaches, and where, if you go to pray you need to be careful not to laugh because the rebbe jumps and gyrates so much during prayer from the sheer joy of being in God’s presence. And the yeshiva, where promising young men bend their minds around pages of Talmud, as if trying to wrap them and seal them so that they will stay fresh for them forever.
Shabbat in Berdichev is always sweet as kiddush wine, even when there is little to eat, and people walking home from shul wish each other “a gut shabbos” with radiant smiles. Except the tailors and the tanners–they rarely speak to each other, and they never pray in each other’s shuls.
In Berdichev, life pulsates with a pure, intense spirituality. The rebbe pounds his hand on the table and announces from the bimah “Know that there is a God in the universe” and the people quiver, not from fear or even awe, but from something more akin to the feeling you have when you are about to be reunited with your beloved after a long absence. The townspeople of Berdichev know this to be true, not because they are philosophers but because they live in constant relationship to the divine. Even the unlearned. Like the tailor who cannot pray, cannot read, but who recites the aleph bet over and over like a mystical chant, hoping God will take the letters and make from them prayers. And the wood carrier, on the edge of town, who remembers that it’s forbidden to drink brandy during Pesach, so he drinks enough brandy the day before Pesach to last all eight days and falls into a drunken sleep.
When he awakes it’s time for the seder and not knowing how to make one he lifts his wine glass and speaks to God saying, I do not know what to do; but see, here: I drink this cup to you. And some day you will free us from this exile too.
And the widow who is late for Kol Nidre but finds that the community has waited for her and whose heart bursts with such thankfulness that she blesses God, hoping God will have as much naches. And the baker whose whole family was killed in the pogrom who comes to Kol Nidre tearfully to offer God forgiveness.
In Berdichev, the rebbe sang a constant refrain:
Where I wander You Where I ponder You Sky is You. Earth is You You above, You below.
Only You, You again, always You. You! You! You! In Berdichev, people know that God is real. Some are religious and some are not. Some are learned and some are not. But Judaism is alive and passionate and joyous. In Berdichev, souls dance to a melody you cannot hear with your ears, and spirits soar, and sing.
The rebbe, the baker, the widow, the tailor — that whole world -is now gone. They have long since passed away. All of Berdichev has passed away.
On September 14th and 15th, 1941, the Nazis liquidated the Jewish population of Berdichev, shooting 30,000 men, women and children and dumping their bodies into open pits. Jewish Berdichev, the glory of the Ukraine, once home to 80 prayer houses, was reduced to rubble. So was Kiev, and Rhizin, and Zhitomir, and Mezrytch, and Lvov, and Vilna, and the village your ancestors lived in. Pulsating Jewish life, snuffed out.
But when I close my eyes, Berdichev lives. These people live, my ancestors live, in me. Their goodness and wisdom are in my every cell, their love of God flows in my bloodstream, the lives they lived beat within me with the throbbing rhythm of my own heart. It is not mere memory, but their life that I carry. It is their ineffable gift to me and my inheritance.
Each of us carries our ancestors with us as constant companions. We are their biological continuation, and they are the fertile spiritual soil from which we grow. These hands, these eyes, this heart, are given me by someone who came before. Once upon a time, my mother put her cool hand on my forehead to gauge my fever. Now I put my hand on my child’s forehead. It is my mother’s hand I see.
From our ancestor’s we draw strength, goodness, beauty. We have their experience ingrained in us: their trials, their suffering, their triumph, their joys, all flow within us, moving us. We also draw bitterness and burden from them. Not all they gave us was sweet and light. For some of us, our parental inheritance has been a source of pain and sadness. This is our truth. What is hurtful from our parents and our ancestors we give back to the cosmos, we release it to God, and we practice embracing the gift of life which they gave.
Perhaps we will even learn to move beyond hurt, beyond anger, to a place where our ancestors, and all people, are seen in the light of compassion. We see that our ancestors were struggling, too, with what had been bequeathed to them by those who came before. With a compassionate heart, we can be grateful for the gift of their lives.
We grow deeper and fuller and more human and even more richly Jewish from our connection to our ancestors, as we come to cherish all they are, or were. Consciously or unconsciously, purposefully or not, our ancestors gave us a way to make our spiritual journey, in the way we now make it. Our ancestors brought us to this sanctuary this morning, and are here, now, with us. My parents and yours, my ancestors and yours, my Berdichev and yours. And we embrace them.
Mi she-berach avoteinu, mekor ha-berachah le-imoteinu
May the Source of Life, who blessed the ones before us,
help us find the courage, to make our lives a blessing,
And let us say, Amen.
This sermon is dedicated to
the memory of Rabbi Milton Steinberg,
who inspired it,
and to my parents
who gave me the gift of Berdichev.