It’s amazing what Facebook can throw up. The other day this photo appeared in my news feed, showing the grave of Vevrik Rabinovich (1864-1939), the brother of the great Jewish storyteller and creator of Fiddler on the Roof, Sholem Aleichem. In the background is the burial chamber of Shlomo BenZion Twersky (1870-1939) of the Chernobyl Rabbinical dynasty. The picture was taken in the Kurenevka Jewish cemetery in Kiev.
I have a connection to both of these men. I have been led to believe that Sholem Aleichem and his brother were the nephews of my great-great-great grandfather, Menachem Mendl Rabinovich – his sister’s children. Her name was Chaya Esther Rabinovich. It confuses me that these siblings have the same surname even after Chaya Esther’s marriage, to Menachem Nukhem Rabinovich. Perhaps Chaya Esther married a member of her own family, or perhaps my information is incorrect.
Sholem Aleichem was most famous for his short stories featuring Tevye the dairyman, which became the basis for the musical and subsequent film of Fiddler. Aleichem’s first story was published in 1883, when he was 23 years old, and he went on to write over 40 volumes, novels, stories and plays. He also performed his stories at packed public buildings across the Jewish lands of present-day Ukraine.
Sholem Aleichem often spent his holidays at a dacha in the countryside about an hour from Kiev. One summer’s day, he was lounging with a book when a woman of almost exactly the same age as him passed carrying bowls of soup. “That smells good!” he called out. Later, she returned and offered him some of her soup. That lady was Pessy Shnier, nee Rabinovich, my great-great grandmother. The two of them chatted for hours and worked out how they were related.
If any of Sholem Aleichem’s descendants come across this article, I’d be delighted if they could get in touch, and perhaps we can try to clear up any confusion about how we may be related!
The other grave in the photo is that of Rabbi Shlomo BenZion Twersky. The Twerksys were a Hassidic Rabbinical dynasty founded by Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twersky (1730-1787), a disciple of the founder of Hassidism, the Baal Shem Tov. My family has a strong connection to another of the Twersky Grand Rabbis – Rabbi David, or Reb Dovidl, Twersky of Talne (1808-1882). Another of my great-great-great grandfathers, this time on my grandmother’s paternal side, was Velvl Shapira – known as Velvele Tallner – Reb Dovidl’s chief advisor. Reb Dovidl took Velvele Tallner with him when he left his home town of Vasilkov in 1854 to become the great Rabbi of Talne.
Reb Dovidl was also the subject of a popular Jewish folk song: Reb Dovidl Reb Dovidl der Vasilkover, voynt shoyn yetst in Talne, which my father was taught to sing as a child. It’s still popular today as a YouTube search will testify. Here’s just one of the many performances available.
Keeping stories alive
This blog aims to discuss historical events relating to the Jewish communities of Ukraine, and of Eastern Europe more widely. As a storyteller, I hope to keep alive stories of the past and remember those who told or experienced them. Like so many others, I am deeply troubled by the war in Ukraine and for the foreseeable future, most articles published here will focus on the war, with an emphasis on parallels with other tumultuous periods in Ukraine's tragic history.