Recreating the shtetl
Following a trip to Poland in August, I wrote about the revival of the Jewish quarter of Krakow, with its Jewish restaurants, Jewish festival and synagogue renovations. Now attempts are under way to undertake a yet more unlikely revival across the border in Ukraine.
The town of Mezhbizh in western Ukraine is famous as the home of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hassidic movement in the 18th century. Mezhbizh has become something of a pilgrimage site for tourists, mostly Hassidic Jews, visiting from Israel. Some are even returning to the town to live, and renovating the shtetl that was home to around a third of the town’s population before pogroms, emigration and the Holocaust wiped the Jews from this part of the map.
The shtetls of Eastern Europe were once vibrant communities, home to millions of Yiddish-speakers, as I describe in my historical work A Forgotten Land. Numerous writers of the time wrote of the world of the shtetl – brothers Isaac Bashevis and Israel Joshua Singer, Sholem Aleichem (apparently a distant relative of mine, but I am yet to discover our common ancestor), Bella (wife of artist Marc) Chagall and Elie Wiesel to name but a few.
In the Russian empire, pogroms from 1881 onwards prompted waves of emigration that began to decimate the population of the shtetl, a process that culminated, of course, in the Holocaust when the remaining Jewish inhabitants were exterminated en masse. In this part of the world, the process generally involved mass shootings rather than deportation to concentration camps, the most famous being at Babi Yar, a ravine on the outskirts of Kiev where 34,000 Jews were killed in 1941 (see my blog post of 27 January 2017 for more about Babi Yar).
Today Mezhbizh is a small town of 2,000 inhabitants, down from as many as 10,000 during the era of the Baal Shem Tov. In those days it was a regional centre and a third of its residents were Jewish. Their numbers swelled every Sabbath and Jewish holiday as devotees travelled from miles around to worship at the Rebbe’s synagogue and express their devotion to the famous Rabbi and subsequent Hassidic Rebbes.
A Hassidic cemetery was built near the Baal Shem Tov’s grave. The illustrious Rebbe’s remains now reside in a white marble tomb inscribed in Hebrew script, which draws thousands of Hassidic pilgrims each year. To accommodate the tourists, infrastructure has been built including a large hotel catering for Orthodox Jewish customs, a kosher restaurant, a yeshiva and Torah institution.
And now an initiative has developed to recreate the Mizhbizh shtetl, renovating old Jewish homes abandoned three-quarters of a century ago. Numerous single-storey houses built of mud and brick or straw stand derelict on the site of the old shtetl, and around a dozen are currently under reconstruction aimed at becoming homes for Jewish families wanting to return to live in the town. Some members of the Hassidic community have already left Israel and set up home in Mezhbizh. In two-to-three years, entrepreneurs claim, the shtetl will have a Jewish-Israeli street with up to three renovated synagogues.
Mezhbizh is not the only Ukrainian town to attract Jewish visitors from overseas. Famously Uman, in central Ukraine, draws tens of thousands of tourists each year for the High Holy Days to visit the grave of Rabbi Nachman, the founder of the Breslov Hassidic movement, and a great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov. Not all are Hassidic believers, for according to tradition, the rabbi promised to intercede on behalf of anybody praying at his grave on Rosh Hashanah.
In Uman too, the rabbi’s grave has been renovated, with funds donated by Jewish tycoons from around the world. Hotels and hostels have popped up and locals have carried out house renovations to provide accommodation for the visitors. A few hundred Israelis have made Uman their home and the annual pilgrimage has become the town’s major source of income.
In 2005 I visited Berdichev, once known as Russia’s Jewish capital with a population of over 50,000, some four-fifths of whom were Jewish. The large Jewish cemetery is impressive, with acre upon acre of beautiful old graves overgrown with vegetation. A path between the graves leads to a new mausoleum built above the grave of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, a prominent Hassidic leader. The tomb has become another pilgrimage site for Jewish tourists.
The cemetery is also home to the rabbis Moshe Mordechai Twersky and Tsvi Arye Twersky of Makarov, in whose rabbinical court my great-grandfather Meyer grew up and hoped to stay forever. Thanks to money sent from abroad, their graves are topped with newly hewn gravestones of slate and marble and housed in a small, painted mausoleum.
Meyer’s own grandfather – my great, great, great grandfather – was advisor to the famous Reb Dovidl Twersky of Talna. Reb Dovidl was the grandson of Rabbi Nochum Twersky of Chernobyl, a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov. When I visited Talna, now known as Talnoye, we found Reb Dovidl’s grave in a dirty concrete box housed in an old shack covered with graffiti. It lay at the end of a dingy alley that smelt of urine, on the edge of what was once a Jewish cemetery but had become an overgrown wasteland littered with old tyres.
The site has since been renovated, thanks to the editor of the local newspaper who spearheaded a fundraising effort to have the rabbi’s remains interred in surroundings more appropriate to the founder of one of the most revered of Hassidic dynasties.
The story of the renovation of the Mezhbizh shtetl comes from an article on ynet.news.com by Dr Yoel Rappel. To read the full article, please click here https://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-5443742,00.html
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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.