Friday, June 23, 2006

empty seats

Had an interesting moment at Baba Daria’s funeral. I was given the wrong time for when the batke (priest) was to come to begin the funeral service. I was told it was to be at 1:30 but the priest showed up at 1:00. I was at the synagogue talking to the boy’s camp councilors and thought I had more time than I did. I came back at 1:25 but by then everybody was already outside with the body; I had missed all of the prayers.

My appearance was greeted with a lot of staring from the mourners and especially from the two priests. I didn’t know what they wanted from me until Nina told me that I needed to take off my hat. I was wearing a yellow cotton cap; I don’t know what it is called, maybe a golf hat. I had planned on changing clothes but hadn’t had the chance. I thought for a second and whispered back to her that I couldn’t do it.

“I’m Jewish. I can’t take my hat off for this.”

“Take your hat off!” She hissed.

“Nina, I am not Christian. I don’t have to take my hat off.”


“Listen, I am Jewish, get it? We don’t do this. It is not our custom. I am not taking my hat off.”

“Then go upstairs.” She said sharply.

Now, I wanted to go to the cemetery with them and had no interest in disrespecting the moment, but I was also not going to take my hat off. But rather than arguing further, I just ran upstairs and changed from the Addida’s t-shirt and shower shoes I was wearing to a nicer shirt and some regular shoes. I also grabbed a kippa (Yarmulke) for my head and then went back downstairs and joined the group. When I got back downstairs, the Yarmulke and the upgraded clothes seemed to do the trick for everyone and the group became solid and solemn again. Nina nodded to me that the Kippa was OK.

The graveside service and the filling in of the grave went quickly. After, the bus brought us all a nearby restaurant for the Pominki. After eating and toasting Daria’s memory, we walked back home. I did cry at the funeral, I liked Baba Daria a lot, but it was when I saw the bench in front of our garden space that I really lost it. I was walking with Baba Masha from the restaurant and I had my hand on her shoulder and when I saw the empty bench, I saw that Baba Masha is now very much alone. She and Baba Daria really loved that bench and the two spent many hours on that seat during the summers. The Red woman and Stepan stay to themselves in their own part of the garden and the rest of us are younger- Those two sat on that bench as if it were their throne. I sat with her for a few minutes on that bench and we talked tomatoes. I made a promise to myself to try and make better friends with Sergei, her grandson who also lives with us here in the house.

We had left Anya with Nina's daughter while we were at the cemetery. When I walked into Nina’s house, she was in the middle of telling a story to Tanya. That incident over that cap had gotten her to remembering about the old days. Nina had been a party member (Communist Party) and was 22 years old and working when her father died. Though not particularly religious during his life, one of his last requests was to have his funeral service held at the church and to have a priest bless him and consecrate the grave where he would lay. They did this for him at the Orthodox Church that is just around the corner from our house. Nina went to the church for the service and then went with her family to the grave site.

However, when she went back to work she was called into the director’s office and told that she needed to go and speak to the party heads straight away. She wasn’t told why they wanted to see her, only that she needed to go over there straight away. At the meeting with the local party heads, she was told that she was seen going into the church and asked why this was so. She explained to them that it was for the funeral of her father and that this is what he wanted so they had honored his request. They explained to her that this was a very bad thing that she had done and asked if she understood this. She said that she did. They asked her if she had any plans to go back to the church and she said that she didn’t. They talked about this amongst themselves for a moment, made some notations in a book and then and then told her that she could go.

“They didn’t do anything to me,” She said after, “but this is what it was like for us.”


I have been thinking about this incident at the synagogue a lot over the last few weeks and I thought that I needed to add in one more story about this situation. I mentioned writing about this two or three times, but for some reason I never wanted to speak about it. But now that I have opened the door, maybe I should tell this story and be done with this issue for once and for all.

This happened several months ago during the time when I first led a couple of services for the minion at the synagogue. I guess I need to explain the situation of how I came to read for them in the first place. Normally, we have one of the three rabbis who are in Pinsk to lead the services. But in situations when they are not available, the job usually falls to Chaim, a 90 year-old retired painter. According to the story told to me by Marat, Chaim was one of five original temple members who understood the services and could read Hebrew. This was from either 1991 when the Soviet Union first ended or a few years later when the first rabbi’s showed up. There were others, but they had never learned Hebrew or studied and so the minion allowed one of these five to do the readings when there was no rabbi present to do so. In the interceding years four of those original five men have since died leaving only Chaim. None of the others have ever tried to learn the language or even how to read it.

At this moment though, Chiam had been ill and therefore not available and, with the encouragement of the others, I picked up the book and pinch hit for him, reading the services in English. At first, I didn’t mind reading; you read the whole service anyway whether you are a leader or not and if I was doing a favor than this was ok with me. However, as I mentioned the other day, these old guys can be pretty rude and after the first few times, I found the job rather miserable because with the interruptions I had a hard time both concentrating and containing my anger. So one day, I simply stopped in the middle and asked them to please keep quiet. Again, this is not just for me; they do this to the rabbis as well. They of course told me to shut up and get back to my reading.

“Why should I read for you if you are not going to at least let me read in peace?” I was shouted down for this and told I was disturbing their conversation. I closed the book and explained: There is no need for Chaim or anyone to have to carry the burden exclusively. If there is no rabbi, you just have to read the service yourself. Though preferable in Hebrew, the minion has the right to do it in Russian and any Jew over the age of 13 can be hazzan. “You see this when the boys from the school are here. They take turns reading. You don’t need me; you are free to do this yourselves. In fact, I shouldn’t even be doing this in English. It is wrong.”

There were a lot of angry faces and voices at me, but I held my ground. I told them I was not going to do this if they were going to continue to be rude. More rudeness ensued so I decided it was time to simply pass the book.

The first person I went to, and this is important for the story, was Lieberman the president. I actually do not and probably will never understand what happened here with him, but as he is the temple president, I thought he would be the best choice to hand the ball to. Reading is not that big of a deal, he had a Russian/Hebrew siddur, he gets to sit in a special “president’s chair”, he gfets to sit at the head of the table when we eat and he uses his executive privilege by being late for temple every week. Lieberman should be the one to read when Chaim is sick.

“I will not do it.” He said out of hand and stared straight ahead. I understood that this was a tense moment, but again and again and again, in my mind All I was asking for was for him to lead the prayers in Russian. This was about prayers not games.

“Just say the prayers, Lieberman.”

“I will not read.” My head was spinning over this, really. Why wouldn’t he read? Was he dyslexic? Myopic? Illiterate? No, I had seen him read and write so this was not the case? Was he afraid of being a poor reader and therefore having his “presidential power” somehow diminished by a bad exhibition? Was he afraid that he would be exposed as a less than religious man? Was this about image?

“Just read the book.”

“I will not.” So be it.

Of all of the guys that we had, I figured that the only real choice from who remained was Marat, a retired dentist and the Synagogue Gabby (sort of like the sergeant at arms, if this was a court.) Marat is a very intelligent man and one who prides himself on fighting for the details about things. For sure he could do it.

“Why me?” He asked.

“Look around. You tell me.” The only other guy who might have been a good enough reader was Simon Shapiro, but he had recently started chemotherapy and had been quite out of it. So if Lieberman was just going to refuse out of hand, the job was logically his.

“I don’t know how. Do you understand? I don’t know how.” I opened the book for him.

“You know how; you have been listening to it for years. Look: The pages go from right to left but you read in Russian normally.” I showed him where in the book the services were. “You see; here in weekday Mincha… and here is Ma-arive. And here…” I shuffled through the pages, “Here is the start of Kabalos Shabbos. You see. It is easy: Just start from here and go from right to left until the end of the service. It is all clearly marked.”

He eventually refused and when the argument really got hot, I left and went home. And I know for a fact that there was no service there that night.

Rabbi Fhima was there the next morning and asked me what the problem had been. I told him my story and his thought was that I should simply take it easy on the old men and not to take any of this so personally. I protested that really, in the end it was wrong for me to lead the services because I didn’t have enough Hebrew to do it right. Doing the prayers in English was wrong also because none of the old men spoke English. I showed him where it stated the rules about reading a service in another language in the siddur. He frowned at me and said that I should know better.

So this is where we left it until couple of weeks later when we had a another no-rabbi situation: Moshe was out of town, David was in Israel and Chaim had again been quite ill; No Hazzan, no reader. I sat in the back row and thumbed through my siddur. Regardless what kind of brick-like hints were dropped I wouldn’t take the bima and read.

Finally after we were some 20 minutes late I got up, went to a corner of the synagogue and started davening silently. When I did this, all got the message that there really would be no English language service this evening. After a minute or two, Marat came over with his prayer book and asked me to show him again where the reading needed to start. I waived him off until I finished the prayer I was reading and then went with him to the bima and showed him again where everything was.

Marat was pretty nervous actually, but to be honest, his nervousness was kind of charming. This is probably the time to write that the primary excuse all of our old guys have used for not knowing something is that they are from the Soviet Union. Time after time after time they would explain with a sincere and steady voice that during the time of the Soviet Union being a Jew was against the rules (not allowed- the word in Russian is “nilsea”). They had never forgotten that they were Jewish of course, but they were not allowed to practice or to follow the religion in any way.

"But how had Chaim come to know Hebrew and speak Yiddish?" I would ask. Several of them speak Yiddish or at least a little. How could he and those original five have found a way to know?

"Well, Chaim is special" is what they say.

Pinsk was a Jewish town before the war. 35,000 of the 60,000 people who lived here were Jewish. But then the Nazis came in June of 1941 they wiped them all out. Very few original Pinskers were left alive and from our group, only a few were amongst those who had escaped and then had come back afterwards.

And then there was the Soviet Union with its official state sanctioned policy of atheism. Serious stuff I know. Very serious.

But has been 15 years since those policies were let go of and these guys have been here, putting on their kippas and tallissot since then. Why then hadn’t they even picked up on the inherent obligation that it is a job for all to keep the faith going? Why had they just sat there passively rather than at least trying to get into it? Why hadn’t they let themselves even try understand?

Yet, now here was Marat agreeing to open the book and read for us. Like I said, he was nervous but you could also see that there was some pride in him at taking the position at the head of the congregation. Normally the rabbi reads with his back to those in attendance, but Marat chose a half in and half out stance. He looked back at the congregation and counted to see if we had a minion of ten. Lieberman was not there, he was late again of course, but there was enough. He then asked if all were ready to proceed.

At first I could see that everybody was as nervous as Marat was. I don’t know what they were nervous about. Maybe they feared that the government would come crashing in and they would have to answer for themselves. Actually, this is probably exactly what they were afraid of, but in any case, there was Marat asking if he could continue: it was going to happen. All heads nodded in agreement and this was Marat’s signal to proceed.

And it was beautiful actually, those first prayers. Marat read in a quiet and gentle voice. Because of his half open stance we could see in his face the concentration he was employing to do the reading. His stance I realized was out of respect for the others who he could not forget; his ears were open for any distraction but amazingly there was none. Not a sound came from the minion and what is more, when you looked, you could see that each and every one of them had their eyes glued either to their books or to him.

About two or three prayers after Lecha Doidi, a Shabbos song, all were really into it as Marat and the congregation began to get into the words; prayers are poems and when read with love, they come to life. I don’t know that I could say with any authority that this was the first time that this group had ever heard these words, but certainly they acted as if it was. And what is more, they were listening, I mean they really listened. They listened to the words with reverence and with melting hearts and awe. You could feel the energy was thick and tangible- Maybe I am over stating things here but it certainly seemed to me as though you could. And Marat, well, picking up on the energy that was building from his service began, but without raising his voice, to allow the words to take on depth and breadth. He was imparting meaning into what he was reading; he was teaching us now, telling us about it with his inflection and tone. He glanced in my direction to see if he was on it or not and I nodded that he was doing more than fine.

Marat made it all the way through Koballos Shabbos and was about to begin Shabbos Ma-ariv when the door to the temple burst open. It was not the KGB though we all jumped as if it was. Instead it was a wild-eyed Lieberman, late as usual but with something more to give today. Lieberman threw open the swinging doors and leading a red-eyed Chaim with a hand on his shoulder he shouted a winning cry: Hey everybody, Chaim is here!

The expression on his face showed a mixture of simple heroism and a hip thrust at his coup. By showing up with Chaim he had overcome “Adam’s burden”. This was a winning moment for Lieberman: He had solved the problem of having to deal with the American’s refusal to accept rude indifference in the right way, the real way and the way they all knew it had to be done. Don’t worry folks, I have the answer to our problems right here! We win, the good guys have triumphed and those stupid westerners can go climb trees. Chiam isn’t dead yet, we still have hope and none of us will have to be humiliated by having to do anything!

It took him only a second though to register that he had not been greeted with cheers. He did not see anyone yelling nor looks of exasperation on anyone’s faces. What he saw was Marat at the bima, book in hand, cheeks red and full of life and the whole of the congregation being shocked out of the reverie of a rather splendid moment by an unnecessarily loud entrance; a quiet synagogue amidst prayer on a Shabbos eve.

Lieberman knew he was nailed. You could see it in the change of expression on his face that he knew he had messed up big. That’s the problem with feeling a little holy now and then, it makes mundane cheapness seem rather ugly.

Chaim was of course welcomed though for sure, and absolutely, I don’t think anyone was happy that Lieberman had gotten him out of bed at this moment. I mean, they had it in hand, didn’t they? They were doing ok by themselves, weren’t they? But nevertheless Chaim read the last 20 minutes or so well as usual; He read in Hebrew of course and at the end we all said amen.

So the minion had an experience. Was that high they had going on there from the prayers? Maybe it was from the prayers. They do say that you are closest to G-d when you pray so maybe it was just that everybody was feeling just a little more holy, a little more clean and a little more alive. Or maybe it was simply from having agreed to be responsible for the continuation of the collective heritage for a while. But regardless of what the rationale, Lieberman knew that his game of dragging a sick old man out of bed and using him as a political football had just been lost. He knew that he had just been shown, as clearly as it is possible for these things to be shown, that for whatever his reasons for obstructing progress had been, he had just been proven wrong.

Or perhaps dragging poor Chaim out of bed was good for him; the good ones like to get the call and having a chance to play the hero probably did a lot for him. But Marat took a hit when he had to step down from the bima and ever last one of the minion had to take that step back down right along with him; everybody in that room lost a great big piece of a really good Jewish experience when Lieberman reminded them who they were (supposed to be). Yes, possibly that lost moment was rare and precious and it is a shame to have lost it, but then again, maybe Lieberman was only doing his job as he felt the job needed to be done: He is after all, from the Soviet Union. In any case, it was quite a moment.

So what is done is done: This was not the first beautiful thing to get broken and will not be the last. I wrote a play about that thought one time, about how beautiful things tend to get trampled in our world. In any case, this was one more temple story to go along with the one from earlier this week. I don’t know why I didn’t write about it until now. I wanted to but never did. It might be that I have been consciously trying to leave the religion out of these pages. I don’t want to be labeled this or that. Or maybe I thought that I didn’t need to tell a story on Lieberman. But I have had it on my mind to say these things and now I have. It was part of the other story and now it is done and I can put all of this behind me.

Such a life we have here back in the former Soviet Union.

More soon…


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