«Jewish Observer»
July 2002
5762 Av

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There were times when every Jewish settlement-shtetl had a synagogue Jews attended. A multitude of synagogue buildings have survived in Ukraine till now: the majority of stone ones built in the XIX century correspond to typical buildings of those times. Synagogue of the XVI - XVII centuries are unique architectural constructions taking a particular position in an urban landscape. These synagogues served to defend a Jewish population as well as the whole settlement. Beginning with the XVI till the early XIX century wooden synagogues of a rather modest exterior architecture and unusually rich in decoration interiors were built. Wooden synagogues on the territory of Ukraine have almost all disappeared. A reconstructed Khodorov wooden synagogue can only be seen in the Museum of Diaspora in Tel-Aviv. A great number of defense-type synagogues have turned to ruins. Many small-inhabited areas within the former Pale of Settlement are now being reconstructed beyond recognition; old houses are destroyed. Only a small number of synagogues in comparison with what used to be on the territory of entire Eastern Europe are well-preserved: many of them were destroyed during the fascist occupation, many - in the period of a campaign against religious cults. Cemeteries were often simply wiped off and synagogues - destroyed or turned into storehouses, plants etc. For instance, a defense - type synagogue in Shargorod (XVI century), in any case, an exterior part of the building, has not been destroyed and preserved well only due to the community's decision to turn it into a wine plant. Attempts if not no preserve then, at least, to somehow record a decaying life of shtetls have been undertaken since long ago: a famous ethnographer Semen An-sky tried this in early XX century, and expeditions of Saint-Petersburg (then still Leningrad) Jewish university - in 1990s. A trip to the places along the route of An-sky's expeditions was organized two years ago. Art historians and painters from Israel, Russia, Ukraine took part in it.

The trip, which became possible owing to Rabbi Mordekhai Raikhinshtein in early June this year, is unlikely to be called a scientific one. Several persons headed by Rabbi visited a tsadik's grave in Gadyach, and in Poltava they tried to discover buildings of old synagogues that have long ceased being them. Frankly speaking, there is hardly somebody to attend them.

On their way they dropped at Zenkov once known for its rather big Jewish community with only several Jews nowadays. They managed to meet one of them. A Zenkov Jew informed it is impossible to find something Jewish there and left in an "Ambulance" car as he appeared a local doctor. They also caught sight of a signboard "Lawyer Pasternak". They presumed to have discovered another Jew and continued their way to Gadyach.

In Gadyach a synagogue has long been turned into a metal ware plant. Ends and interior of the building have changed their looks, but the front is almost fully preserved, and particular architectural features can identify a former synagogue. In Gadyach Jews might have called at the synagogue should it had not been turned into a plant for there still are Jews there, but predominantly the elderly - young ones have left to different places. Nonetheless, there is a place near the town attended even by Jews from faraway corners - this is a grave of Shneur-Zalman, a famous author of "Tanja" and founder of a Lubavichi school. A great scientist and philosopher Shneur-Zalman was a pupil of Maggid from Mezhirich, whose teacher was Baal Shem-Tov himself. Shneur-Zalman was buried next to his daughter in 1813, and since then the grave has been looked after by the family of Dudnichenko whose ancestors had settled in Gadyach as early as in 1630. Sergei Dudnichenko is highly conscientious in fulfilling undertaken commitments: he sees to the construction of an ohel (tent) over graves and of a path to the building. Hasids of KhaBaD and from Bratslav frequently attend the grave. Dudnichenko was telling with indignation how one of those willing to pray dared to approach the ohel by car. Sergei made him return and repeat a rather long descent on foot, and then walk on the hill. He rigorously demands respect for the burial of a tsadik and himself puts on a kipa entering the ohel, though he, obviously, does not profess Judaism. The house not far from the burial has quite recently belonged to Dudnichenko's family - now this is a small synagogue with a mikva installed according to the tradition. Sergei Dudnichenko respects history of Gadyach, his compatriots, guests, Jewish tsadiks. Such attitude to both alive and dead does honor to this man.

To all appearances, matsevot (tombstones) on old Jewish graves have not been preserved in either Zenkov, Gadyach or Poltava. What could be seen were tombstones dating late XIX - early XX century.

One of the ways to preserve Tradition is to awaken memory in Jews. The trip to Gadyach and Poltava brought no discoveries, but it enabled to touch on a disappearing history of Jews in Ukraine.

This is not the first trip for Rabbi Mordekhai. He goes much about Western and Eastern Europe in general, and about Ukrainian shtetls in particular. He uses every opportunity to make photos of Jewish objects. Through this he has created a wonderful photo-collection. He is now an Israeli, but some ten years ago he was a Byelorussian Jew, that's why the culture of Yiddish is close and clear to him. With fervour of a historian-researcher he sets out to travel about former Jewish settlements, though he got his first education not at a historical department, but at the Leningrad naval institute (speciality - applied mathematics). When he became an Israeli, he went to study at Jerusalem polytechnic institute (study there was as if a continuation of his years at "Korabelka" but with one substantial difference: secular education at the Jerusalem institute was combined with a religious one in the morning hours). One can receive a serious religious education at this technical higher institution. Besides, Rabbi Mordekhai took courses at several Israeli yeshivas. For the forth year running he lives in Kiev with his wife and two sons as he heads a Ukrainian department of the international Jewish educational organization "Esh a-Torah" (in Hebrew - "Fire of Torah"). The Kiev branch was founded in 1994.

Jews like visiting the center "Esh a-Torah". For instance, there were barely enough seats for everybody who came to mark the feast of Purim. I would like to give an excerpt from the booklet advertising the center. "Trying to be worthy of its "fire" name, "Esh a-Torah" brings light of Torah to people, brings them knowledge and spirituality: The main aim "Esh a-Torah" puts before itself is to acquaint modern society with a spiritual heritage of the Jewish people, to enable Ukrainian Jews feel themselves part of a centuries-old spiritual and cultural Jewish Tradition.

And, finally, the crucial thing - everybody can find in "Esh a-Torah" what can't be bought for any money and what a man badly lacks nowadays: live communication, friends, common cause.


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© 2002 Jewish Confederation of Ukraine - www.jewukr.org