Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The wedding of Boris and Chana...

Chana and Boris Storogovitch have got remarried in the Jewish tradtion on their 48th anniversary
If you read the current BHTimes, you might have seen the item relating to Boris and Chana Storogovitch's wedding ceremony. The wedding was held last night at the Beis Aharon Synagogue here in Pinsk. Basically everyone from the Jewish community came to see and be a part of it all. It was really quite an event.

The story of how this wedding came to be was that one of the students at the new Peer Yisroel Yeshiva, Mathis Gilbert, came up with the idea that Boris and Chana had never been married in a religious ceremony, but only in the administrative way as per the style of the Soviet Union. Boris has recently been expanding his Jewish consciousness; he comes to prayers daily, puts on tefillin and has even taken to wearing tzitzis under his clothes. Much of this has been at the prompting of Gilbert who is gaining a rather large reputation for being a mover and shaker for the Jewish community. Mathis has had a number of other ideas for lifting the bar of the Jewish presence here in Pinsk; he personally raised about $35,000 for a new torah for the synagogue- (You can see the original story behind this HERE)this so that the boys could have a nice torah to travel with for their outreach missions. He has also brought many of the pensioners into the synagogue for morning prayers and putting on tefillin and was recently responsible for a mission to make the kitchens of Jewish families here kosher. Mattis, as you can imagine is an amazingly energetic and charismatic man. He is also only 19 years-old.

Boris the hassen, being escorted to the hoopa by a crowd of happy Hasidim
Boris and Chana were first married 48 years ago and this re-marriage was held on their anniversary. During the ceremony both of them took in stride the attentions of a phalanx of rabbis, yeshiva students and Jewish school boys and girls, as well as their peers from the temple minion, the name given to the group of pensioners who make a regular attendance at the synagogue. Chana cried when Boris' foot came crashing down on the cup, probably the one symbol everyone knows to be at the center of a Jewish marriage.

After the service we all ate and danced and drank, some of us, and I am not speaking of the Belarusians here, drank a little too much but hey, it was a wedding! I made friends with an Israeli who has come to teach at the yeshiva and we talked politics and Belarusian culture in a corner of the room. Boris showed energy unexpected of a
The yeshiva boys dancing while carrying Boris in a chair
man his age and danced until the very end of the evening when his bride, not without difficulty, managed to get his attention and asked if they could finally go home.

It should be said even having a Jewish community in Pinsk is not a given. Being Jewish in the USSR was basically against the law and most all forms of religion were basically frowned upon; no doubt being Jewish was exceptionally bad, but basically atheism was the accepted form. Folks like Boris, who speaks reasonable Yiddish by the way, basically did without any connection to Judaism for the best part of their lives. It was not until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 that the right to practice one's faith was even possible, at least publicly. We have many stories from some of the more determined of our temple members of clandestine prayer meetings in basements and private apartments. And we also have as well stories of consequential arrests made at these affairs and fines handed out when visitors from the local authorities arrived to break things up.

Reb Chaim: One of the few remaining members of the original Jewish community of Pinsk
There is almost no one left from what was once, during the days before the Second World War and the Holocaust, a thriving Jewish community in Pinsk. Belarus is located in the area where once was the Pale of Settlement, the area designated by Catherine the Great of Russia as the only legal place where Jews could live after their expulsion from Russia in the late 1700's. Pinsk's prewar population of around 60,000 was more than half Jewish, but now only a lucky few such as Boris and 90-year-old Chaim Krasilski remains.

As an aside, I talked to Chaim about his "three birthdays" at the party last night. I mentioned about this in yesterday's blog that Chaim, because he was born before the change of the Russian calendar in 1918, has the same situation as with Russian New Years and Christmas and has two birthdays from the Russian calendar and another from the Jewish calendar. Chaim's response was pretty typical for him?

"What do I need three birthdays for? At my age even one is more than I want."

R' Fhima working out the details of the marriage contract
But if Pinsk is unusual in terms of its "Yiddishkite", it is singularly because of the efforts of R Moshe Fhima. R' Fhima, only 31 and originally from Manchester, took on the task of working in the former Soviet Union about 11 years ago, when he was invited to be a counselor at a Jewish camp near Kiev. The way he tells the story he was completely un-desirous of leaving his yeshiva and it took an amazing amount of guile and subterfuge on the part of several rabbis to get him to come out. But once here, he took on the responsibility of fundraising for the Jewish school there and since, has found probably in the nature of $6-8 million for that project and the projects he has going on in and around Pinsk. These local projects include both a girl's and boy's school, both of which will have brand new modern campuses by next September; the new yeshiva, a nursery school, a kosher store, the financing of several social organizations and projects and of course the rebuilding of the Reb Aharon Synagogue, one the original Hasidic houses of worship. It is possible to say that Minsk might have more people involved in its Jewish community, but per capita, Pinsk probably sits next to Jerusalem as being the most Jewish town in the world because of R' Fhima. An amazing man.

I always have a hard time suppressing cynical thoughts. I love Boris; everyone does. He is such a nice man, thoroughly honest and has always, always been a friend to me. But even though this situation last night had great potential for farce, in the end it was Boris himself that made it as real and satisfying an event as any wedding featuring a young couple ever could have been. You could see this in how he
A gentle glance to see that his bride was doing well...
graciously (and properly) stood to receive the kind words and prayers from the guests, how he danced and played with us throughout the night and especially in how he treated his wife, whose eyes often went to him asking if all of this was really necessary. Always he gave her a warm and reassuring smile that all would be ok, just as I imagine he has been doing for the last half century or so. It was in fact a beautiful night.

One of the boys told me that they had decided to make this re-marriage because there are very few opportunities for such things at the moment. There are not that many young people here and the Jewish Schools send their older students out of Belarus to Schools and Yeshivas in Europe and America. The only other wedding that has taken place was two years ago and as of the moment, with the exception of the families of the teachers who have come to Pinsk from abroad, they are the only specifically Jewish young family the community has.

...and then a ring on her finger; She cried as he broke the cup
But nevertheless the wedding of Boris and Chana was a fine affair. I know for a fact that people enjoyed it a lot and that it really meant something to all of us that were there. It is very interesting for me to be around the Jewish community of Pinsk. They always seem to come up with something interesting, something that reminds people that they are there or who we are; or at least something that shows an element of the faith or Jewish traditions and culture. It's quite a special thing really and Pinsk is quite lucky to have it.

So in the end, I suppose all I can say really is that I would like to wish Boris and Chana 120 years of happiness and to say that it was an honor and a pleasure to have been there for their special day.

More soon…