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Sabbath Evening in Kiev During the Orange Revolution
By Senator Jerry S. Grafstein, Q.C.
During the “Orange Revolution”, in the heart of Kiev, the ancient capital of Ukraine, a rejuvenated Jewish Community, now composed of over 100,00, actively participated, as they have, in every Ukrainian political movement and every Jewish movement that periodically swept across Ukraine over the past 1,000 years.
In 987, after the Princes of Kiev, leaders of “Kievan Rus” who earlier had conquered Muscovy, only later to be pushed back by the Tartar invasion, under Prince Vladimir, during the 8th Century, transformed Kiev, then the largest City in Europe, (larger than London and Paris) into an early beacon of liberal ideas. The great Vladimir chose to adopt the Eastern Rites of Christianity after weighing competing information presented by his messengers about the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths.
Jews had settled in Ukrainian lands even before the beginning of the Common Era. Before World War II, the Jewish community had reached over 2,000,000, the largest non-Slavic minority in Ukraine. While Jews had suffered for centuries under periodic waves of pogroms, inspired in turn by religious zealots, Czarist and domestic nationalist leaders, they continued to play a pivotal role in every aspect of the life of Ukraine.
The Great Central Kiev Synagogue, squat and balustraded, bulges along bustling Rognedinskaya Street facing east onto Asplanadnaya in the traditional manner while on Shota Rustavella, a colonnaded broad stairway leads to the heavily carved ornate entrance, festooned with Byzantine style lattice borders, and high, graceful, glass and wooden carved doors that open to a brightly lit marbled vaulted foyer, built just before the turn of the 20th Century, and witness to the travails and remarkable revival of the life of the Jewish community in the 20th Century.
Ukraine was a centre of a robust multifaceted colourful Jewish life that stretches back through the mist of time. Jews established roots in Ukrainian land shortly after the common era in larger numbers along the broad right bank of the Dnieper River.
When the Khazars in the 7th Century, came to dominate a broad swath of lands from the Caspian to the Black Sea, they were torn between Christian and Muslim entreaties. The Khazars turned to Judaism and transformed themselves into a Jewish statlet – only to be dispersed by the Tartars starting in the 11th Century across the face of Eastern Europe after nearly three centuries of peaceful existence. Finally many settled in waves in communities across Ukraine and joined their other, older established, co-religionists living in Kiev since in the 8th Century under the Great Prince Vladimir.
The descendants of these earlier settlers located in every corner of Ukraine, in small villages, crossroads, and urban centres clustered in such cities as Odessa, on the Black Sea in the south, Kharkov in the east and of course, in historic Kiev itself.
Powerful Jewish personalities arose and were involved in the earliest Ukrainian nationalist movements wishing, in turn, to break the Tartar’s grip, Polish hegemony, Austro-Hungarian imperialism and finally the Czarist yoke. Jews were visible in all aspects of Ukrainian life from politics to business, to arts and music. Ukraine also gave birth to dynamic Jewish movements ranging from the Orthodox revival of Jewish experience led by the famous Rabbi and teacher, Baal Shem Tov, to secular socialists movements based on the idea of the return to Zion. It was Menachem Ushisskin, founder of “Lovers of Zion” that predated “Zionism,” who early advanced the need for democratic elections amongst the growing Jewish residents in the Holy Land in 1903 to ensure the foundation of a democratic state.
Jewish leaders occupied the political and cultural spectrum from Golda Meir, whose stone profile marks her birthplace on a busy street in Kiev, to Shalom Aleichem considered the greatest Yiddish story teller who authored “Fiddler on the Roof” to Nahum Bialik, a poet and writer, and Achad Ha’Am who were catalysts in the rebirth of ancient Hebrew as a living modern language. Isaac Babel, considered by some as the finest short story writer of the 20th Century, Vladimir Jabotinsky, founder of Herut, the “Truth”, predecessor to the Likud movement in Israel, and some of the modern world’s greatest classical musicians, such as pianist Vladimir Horowitz born and trained in Kiev, violinists Nathan Milstein and Misha Elman were all inspired by the dynamic cultural cosmopolitan life of Odessa and Kiev.
The same seeds of oppression that initially galvanized the Russian Revolution also inspired the idea of the return to Zion. Zionist ideology can be traced to N. Krochmal from Tarnapol who wrote “A Guide to the Perplexed” in 1851 and “Auto-emancipation” written by Dr. Leo Pinsker from Odessa in 1882. “Auto-emancipation” is said to have influenced the origin of President Wilson’s ideas of “self determination” following WWI.
Kiev born teacher, Golda Meir, left for America and then the Holy Land to become Israel’s first woman Prime Minister while Chaim Weizman, an internationally renowned chemist from nearby Pinsk led the Zionist movement in the 1st part of the 20th Century to become Israel’s first President. And it was Vladimir Jabotinsky, later known as “Zev,” newsman, writer and soldier who inspired the formation of the Jewish Brigade in World War I that later formed the nucleus of the Haganah, the Israeli Army.
Jews experienced domestic pograms, both communist purges and Nazi massacres, most recently memorialized in a moving statute at Babi Yar in a wooded Park in Kiev. Babi Yar nourished the roots of the dissident movement across the Soviet empire.
The birth and growth of the Soviet dissident movement can be traced, in part, to early efforts of the Lubavitch who, at the onset of the Russian Revolution of 1917, immediately recreated an underground network of Jewish schools and synagogues when these were banned by the Communists.
Now in the refurbished Central Synagogue, freshly painted and carpeted, now housing Hebrew school rooms and a cultural centre the leader is a Toronto trained Orthodox Lubavitch bearded, soft spoken, dark eyed Rabbi Moishe Azman, a Russian born devout biblical scholar who has helped to revitalize Jewish life in Kiev through communal events and Jewish education. Many Jews, secularized by the communist experience, like Christians are returning to their religious roots.
A week before the last Presidential election last December, Presidential Candidate Yushenko visited the Central Synagogue to campaign and combat concerns in the Jewish community, sensitive to discriminatory outbursts, about the extremist elements in Yushenko’s broad opposition parliamentary coalition.
The Synagogue itself was constructed by Brodsky, a sugar magnet, who also built the Bessarabian Market, a central market place in Kiev whose rental income was to be devoted to Jewish charities. The other large Kiev synagogue, led by the Chief Rabbi of Ukraine, was built by Brodsky’s brother. Both synagogues, were built before the turn of the Century and the Bessarabian Market, has been recently refurbished. The Central Synagogue itself had been turned into a puppet theatre by Communists after the Soviet Revolution. The Nazis turned the Synagogue into a stable during World War II.
With the return of the Communists, it became once again a tattered theatre, until 1991 when newly independent Ukraine turned the run down structure to the loving care of Lubavitch movement, itself founded in a small village in the Ukraine over 200 years before.
After a traditional Sabbath evening service with women sitting in the graceful curved balcony, the quietly charismatic Rabbi invited all strangers, and almost a dozen single young Kievan men and women across Shotas Rustavelly Street to his spacious high ceiling top floor apartment in an old renovated building. There the impressive Rabbi is met by his kerchief-covered attractive and gracious wife and a sprawling family of a dozen or so kids to welcome visitors to a long, glistening white clothed table, shining with Sabbath candles, brimmed with delicious dishes of chopped fish, vegetable salads, hot and cold old fashioned puddings, and potato pancakes, steaming soups and hot chicken finished with platters of freshly baked cake, cookies and stewed fruit.
After traditional blessings, over sweet wine and chunks of still warm Challah, the Rabbi, assisted by his young sons and daughters, who helped serve a dinner of traditional recipes of rich food. Table talk evolved from the weekly Torah portion into a boisterous political debate over the consequences of Yushenko vs. Yanukovich victory. The impact of change in the Ukraine, on the east, the economy, and external relations especially with Israel, Europe and America were hotly argued. And, of course the sensitivity to “special relationship” with Russia was reiterated, noting Russia and Ukraine are each other’s largest trading partners and Russia’s historic concerns for Ukraine’s market and security issues.
The east, the Russian speaking region of Ukraine, we are told is also the engine of Ukraine’s technological and economic growth. We were reminded too of massive Russian investments and Ukraine’s emerging dependence on Russia. We were reminded too of the Soviet’s heavy investment in the aero industry and nuclear energy and high tech in Ukraine all initially instigated by Communist leaders Kruschev and then Brezhnev both raised in the Ukraine.
Change was the dominant theme throughout the lively evening and the immediate fallout of change. As young people stole furtive glances and quick smiles at each other, the Sabbath table resounded with Sabbath songs, fueled by copious rounds of Ukrainian Kosher Brandy. Hot tea is served in tall steamy glasses with delicate cakes and desserts as the repast concludes with joyously sung final blessings. Embraces and effusive thanks for the traditional Sabbath evening in Kiev surround the gracious hosts of as the guests regretfully take their leave. Some of the young people pair outside to return to their homes, strolling gaily through the dark shivering cold winter night.
Resilience of Jewish life combined with an awakening democratic Ukraine is a moment to savour. It is also a moment of quiet reflection, as one wanders alone near midnight, along the brightly lit, windswept streets in the heart of bustling Kiev, still alive with late traffic and blinking neon lights as fur clad pedestrians quickly move through the winter’s cold darkness.
Hon. Jerry S. Grafstein, Q.C.
Tel: (613) 992-2642
Fax: (613) 996-2632
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|Print article||This entry was posted by Barbara Kingstone on January 18, 2011 at 1:04 am, and is filed under Europe. Follow any responses to this post through RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback from your own site.|