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April 18, 2014 / 18 Nisan, 5774
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Photo Essay

Yishai Visits Beilis and the Baal Shem Tov in the Ukraine

The hook that finally got me to Ukraine was a conference about antisemitism. Yes, it is ironic, and maybe bold: a conference about antisemitism in Ukraine.

Ukrainian-Dolls-with-Jewish-theme

Photo Credit: Yishai Fleisher

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When the call came in to do a media junket in Kiev I could hardly believe it. Generally, I try to avoid leaving the land of Israel, except to do kiruv work, but I had been chalashing to go to the Ukraine for a few years and finally my opportunity had arrived. Two catalysts caused my yearning to visit Ukraine:  family roots in Kiev and Odessa, and a wish to see the graves of the righteous, especially the Baal Shem Tov’s tomb. I guess you could say that I was seeking my physical and spiritual forefathers in the Ukraine.

But the hook that finally got me there was a conference about antisemitism. Yes, it is ironic, and maybe bold: a conference about antisemitism in Ukraine, home of places like Babi Yar, events like the Khmelnysky Massacre, and modern-day neo-Nazism in the form of the Svoboda Party.

In fact, the whole conference was premised on canonical piece of antisemitism – the 100 year anniversary of the infamous blood libel trial of Mendel Beilis. The following are some of the images that caught my eye and which, I hope, tell the story and the spirit of the Ukraine:

Mendel Beilis was a father of five and a clerk and dispatcher in a brick factory that was run for charitable purposes owned by the Zaitsev family who were beet sugar magnates. All the factory profits went to support a hospital for the indigent of the city of all faiths. The saga began in March of 1911 when the mutilated body of 13-year-old Andrei Yushchinsky was discovered in a cave not far from the Jewish-owned brick factory on the outskirts of Kiev, where the 39-year-old Beilis worked. Beilis was arrested in July of 1911 in the middle of the night and they also took his son who was 8 years old. They put him in the secret police prison and kept him and the boy for a few days and then let the boy go but held Beilis for over two years in the horrible conditions. Beilis told a Yiddish newspaper that he considered suicide but he remembered the Torah injunction to be a hero and resist the evil inclination. If the authorities would find him dead, he thought, it would be a proof of his personal guilt, and would substantiate the accusation of the blood libel against the Jews at-large.

Mendel Beilis was a father of five and a clerk and dispatcher in a brick factory that was run for charitable purposes owned by the Zaitsev family who were beet sugar magnates. All the factory profits went to support a hospital for the indigent of the city of all faiths. The saga began in March of 1911 when the mutilated body of 13-year-old Andrei Yushchinsky was discovered in a cave not far from the Jewish-owned brick factory on the outskirts of Kiev, where the 39-year-old Beilis worked. Beilis was arrested in July of 1911 in the middle of the night and they also took his son who was 8 years old.
They put him in the secret police prison and kept him and the boy for a few days and then let the boy go but held Beilis for over two years in the horrible conditions. Beilis told a Yiddish newspaper that he considered suicide but he remembered the Torah injunction to be a hero and resist the evil inclination. If the authorities would find him dead, he thought, it would be a proof of his personal guilt, and would substantiate the accusation of the blood libel against the Jews at-large. In the end, Beilis was exonerated, but the murder was still deemed to be of a Jewish ritual nature.

 

Jay Beilis, the grandson of Mendel Beilis, was on hand at the conference. In his talk he remarked that over the years, many have told him that their grandparents were motivated to leave antisemitic environments, like Ukraine, due to the Beilis Trial and in this way he had actually saved their lives. As he finished speaking, a man came up to him and confirmed that assertion - his grandfather had told him that it was the Beilis Trial that changed the course of his life.

Jay Beilis, the grandson of Mendel Beilis, was on hand at the conference. In his talk he remarked that over the years, many have told him that their grandparents were motivated to leave antisemitic environments, like Ukraine, due to the Beilis Trial and in this way he had actually saved their lives. As he finished speaking, a man came up to him and confirmed that assertion – his grandfather had told him that it was the Beilis Trial that changed the course of his life.

 

This is a political poster of Oleksandr Feldman, 53, who is serving his fourth term in the Ukrainian parliament. An industrialist Oligarch, he is founder-president of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee and chairman of a national association of minorities, which defends the rights of over 200 ethnic member organizations in the country. He also wears his kipa in the government and in the poster. On October 15-16, MP Feldman, along with the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) and the Government of Ukraine convened the International Conference on antisemitism on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Beilis Trial.

This is a political poster of Oleksandr Feldman, 53, who is serving his fourth term in the Ukrainian parliament. An industrialist and real-estate mogul, he is founder-president of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee and chairman of a national association of minorities, which defends the rights of over 200 ethnic member organizations in the country. He also wears his kipa in the government and in the poster.
On October 15-16, MP Feldman, along with the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) and the Government of Ukraine convened the International Conference on antisemitism on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Beilis Trial.

 

While commemorating the Beilis Trial on the 100th anniversary gave the backdrop to the conference, there was another purpose to the event: a gathering of the Ukraine's Jewish leadership to discuss problems and solutions of Ukrainian Jewry. This effort was led by conference organizer Oleksander Feldman (sitting in front), an Orthodox, kipa-wearing, wealthy member of Ukrainian Parliament and President of Ukrainian Jewish Communities Council. Watching him relate to the other leaders of the Ukrainian Jewish community gave me a new understanding of the Aramaic term Reish Geluta - the head of Exile, or Exilrach.

While the commemoration of 100th anniversary of the Beilis Trial gave the backdrop to the conference, there was another purpose to the event: a gathering of the Ukraine’s Jewish leadership to discuss problems and solutions of Ukrainian Jewry. This effort was led by conference organizer Oleksander Feldman (sitting at the head). Watching him relate to the other leaders of the Ukrainian Jewish community gave me a new understanding of the Aramaic term Reish Geluta – the head of Exile, or Exilarch.

 

Along with my colleagues, Cnaan Liphshiz of JTA, and Zvika Klein of Maariv/NRG and Makor Rishon, I got an opportunity to get to know Oleksandr Feldman (see above) and Eduard Dolinsky (the Director General of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee). Feldman is a proud Ukrainian, but he is also a proud Jew and strongly pro-Israel. He told us that every Ukrainian Jew should find a way to serve or contribute to the growth of Israel. At the same time, he believes, that today you don't have to give up your Ukrainian identity to love Israel. With globalism, you can be doing morning business in Kiev and be in Jerusalem by night.

Along with my colleagues (from left), Cnaan Liphshiz of JTA, and Zvika Klein of Maariv/NRG and Makor Rishon, I  (the one with the microphone) got an opportunity to get to know Feldman (see above) and Eduard Dolinsky (the Director General of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee). Feldman is a proud Ukrainian, but he is also a proud Jew and strongly pro-Israel. He told us that every Ukrainian Jew should find a way to serve or contribute to the growth of Israel. At the same time, he believes that today you don’t have to give up your Ukrainian identity to love Israel. With globalism, you can be doing morning business in Kiev and be in Jerusalem by night.

 

 On the last day of the conference we were invited to the Ukrainian Parliament and we sat in the special honorary conference room, right below the main debate floor. Again, the power of change was evident; here was a whole gathering of Jews and non-Jews speaking of the evils of antisemitism under the auspices of the Ukrainian government. On the right of the picture is Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman (Chief Rabbi of Kiev) and Reuven Din El (Israel Ambassador to Ukraine). Later, Israeli MK Rina Frenkel from Yesh Atid addressed the forum.

On the last day of the conference, we were invited to the Ukrainian Parliament and we sat in the special honorary conference room, right below the main debate floor. Again, the power of change was evident; here was a whole gathering of Jews and non-Jews speaking of the evils of antisemitism under the auspices of the Ukrainian government. On the right of the picture is Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman (Chief Rabbi of Kiev) and Reuven Din El (Israel Ambassador to Ukraine). Later, Israeli MK Rina Frenkel from Yesh Atid addressed the forum.

 

While Kiev seems like a fun modern city, there is a darker side lurking underneath the capital of Ukraine. In the 2012 parliamentary elections, the All-Ukrainian Union "Svoboda", translated as Freedom Party, garnered 10.44% of the popular vote - this transposed into 37 parliamentary seats. Many international sources have accused Svoboda of harboring strong Nazi elements in its politics. In 2004 Tyahnybok, the party leader, spoke of the "the Moscow-Jewish mafia which today runs Ukraine." This sounds a lot like the words of Ukrainian national hero Bohdan Chmielicki who led the Cossacks in a murderous rampage against Jews killing tens of thousands in the years 1648-1649. Chmielicki told people that the Poles had sold them as slaves “into the hands of the accursed Jews.”

While Kiev seems like a fun, modern city, there is a darker side lurking underneath the capital of Ukraine. In the 2012 parliamentary elections, the All-Ukrainian Union “Svoboda”, translated as “Freedom Party”, garnered 10.44% of the popular vote – this transposed into 37 parliamentary seats. Many international sources have accused Svoboda of harboring strong Nazi elements in its politics. In 2004 Oleh Tyahnybok, the party leader, spoke of the “the Moscow-Jewish mafia which today runs Ukraine.”
This sounds a lot like the words of Ukrainian national hero Bohdan Khmelnysky who led the Cossacks in a murderous rampage against Jews, killing tens of thousands in the years 1648-1649. Khmelnysky told people that the Poles had sold them as slaves “into the hands of the accursed Jews.”

 

This was one of the most amazing and ironic sights I have ever seen. The picture here only shows one poster in this metro stop, but really the whole station was covered with posters of Israel with words like: "Eilat" "Dead Sea" and this poster: "Jerusalem". Is it possible that only 70 years after Babi Yar Ukranians pass by ads for Jerusalem and hope to save enough money up to visit the Jewish State? The no-visa regime, that is, the ability to travel between Ukraine and Israel with no need for a visa certainly makes the 3 hour flight more attractive for people flying both ways. Feldman and the Ukrainian Jewish Committee claim the no-visa regime as one of their great policy successes.

This was one of the most amazing and ironic sights I have ever seen. The picture here only shows one poster in this metro stop, but really the whole station was covered with posters of Israel with words like: “Eilat” “Dead Sea” and this poster: “Jerusalem”. Is it possible that only 70 years after Babi Yar Ukranians pass by ads for Jerusalem and hope to save enough money up to visit the Jewish State?
The no-visa regime, that is, the ability to travel between Ukraine and Israel with no need for a visa, certainly makes the 3 hour flight more attractive for people flying either way. Feldman and the Ukrainian Jewish Committee claim the no-visa regime as one of their great policy successes.

 

On my first day in Kiev, I was in need of a prayer minyan and kosher food and I was directed to Kiev's Central Synagogue, also knows as the Brodsky Shul, because it was built in 1898 by eminent Kyiv philanthropist Lazar Brodsky. The striking architectural monument served as a Jewish religious center for nearly thirty years until it was seized by the Soviet Union in 1926. For a short time it hosted a handicraft club, after which it was turned into a doll theater. During the Nazi occupation, Germans used the synagogue as a stable for Wermacht horses. The building was returned to the Jewish community after the fall of the Soviet Union.

On my first day in Kiev, I was in need of a prayer minyan and kosher food and I was directed to Kiev’s Central Synagogue, also knows as the Brodsky Shul, because it was built in 1898 by eminent Kyiv philanthropist Lazar Brodsky. The striking architectural monument served as a Jewish religious center for nearly thirty years until it was seized by the Soviet Union in 1926. For a short time it hosted a handicraft club, after which it was turned into a doll theater. During the Nazi occupation, Germans used the synagogue as a stable for Wermacht horses. The building was returned to the Jewish community after the fall of the Soviet Union.

 

The Brodsky Shul is now a massive Chabad operation with a wonderful mikva (ritual immersion bath), a kosher supermarket with tons of Israeli products, a very tasty cafeteria, and an upscale restaurant. This is a picture of Rabbi Yosef Yitchak Azman (the Chief Rabbi's son). I saw him sitting with an old woman in the synagogue and she was showing him old photographs, probably trying to find her Jewish roots.

The Brodsky Shul is now a massive Chabad operation with a wonderful mikva (ritual immersion bath), a kosher supermarket with tons of Israeli products, a very tasty cafeteria, and an upscale restaurant. This is a picture of Rabbi Yosef Yitchak Azman (the Chief Rabbi’s son). I saw him sitting with an old woman in the synagogue and she was showing him old photographs, probably trying to find her Jewish roots.

 

On the road to Uman from Kiev there are a few signs in English. My trip to Uman, Medzhybizh and Berdichev was 800 Kilometers in 13 hours. I had a Ukrainian gentile cab driver who was very knowledgeable and knew his way to Jewish sites - but even then they were hard to find and we had to backtrack a few times.

On the road to Uman from Kiev there are a few signs in English. My trip to Uman, Medzhybizh and Berdichev was 800 Kilometers in 13 hours. I had a Ukrainian gentile cab driver who was very knowledgeable and knew his way to Jewish sites – but even then they were hard to find and we had to backtrack a few times.

 

Outside of the capital Kiev, the countryside seems quite poor. The young people with whom I spoke, Jews and gentiles, complained about rampant corruption and a system of bribery that permeated Ukrainian life from paying-off police when caught speeding, to slipping a few Hryvnia(Ukrainian currency) to a nurse when a shot is needed. Ukraine has had only a few short years of independence in its long history. From the 14 century onward various parts of the Ukraine were under Polish and Lithuanian, control, then split between the Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Under Soviet domination, Ukrainians fought against the German invasion. Ukraine officially declared itself an independent state on August 24, 1991, when the communist Supreme Soviet (parliament) of Ukraine proclaimed that Ukraine will no longer follow the laws of USSR and only the laws of the Ukrainian SSR, de facto declaring Ukraine's independence from the Soviet Union.

Outside of the capital Kiev, the countryside seems quite poor. The young people with whom I spoke, Jews and gentiles, complained about rampant corruption and a system of bribery that permeated Ukrainian life from paying-off police when caught speeding, to slipping a few Hryvnia(Ukrainian currency) to a nurse when a shot is needed.
Ukraine has had only a few short years of independence in its long history. From the 14 century onward, various parts of Ukraine were under Polish and Lithuanian, control, then split between Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Under Soviet domination, Ukrainians fought against the German invasion. Ukraine officially declared itself an independent state on August 24, 1991, when the communist Supreme Soviet (parliament) of Ukraine proclaimed that Ukraine will no longer follow the laws of USSR and only the laws of the Ukrainian SSR, de facto declaring Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union.

 

 I met Marat Shkolnick in Uman at the complex which houses the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. Marat is Jewish artist whose work is being shown at a gallery in town. He told me that his grandfather hosted and maintained an underground shul which operated at the time of the communists. Marat has lived in Uman all his life, and comes often to the tomb of Rabbi Nachman, but he shook his head with tears in his eyes when I asked him if he had ever been in the land of Israel.

I met Marat Shkolnick in Uman at the complex which houses the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. Marat is a Jewish artist whose work is being shown at a gallery in town. He told me that his grandfather hosted and maintained an underground shul which operated at the time of the communists. Marat has lived in Uman all his life, and comes often to the tomb of Rabbi Nachman, but he shook his head with tears in his eyes when I asked him if he had ever been in the land of Israel.

 

In the town of Medzhybizh is the tomb of the Baal Shem Tov - Rabbi Yisroel (Israel) ben Eliezer (18 Elul 5458/1698- 6 Sivan 5520/1760). The Baal Shem Tov or Besht, is the founder of the Hasidic movement in Judaism which stresses, among other things, a personal relationship with the Almighty, joy, and the importance of the Tzadick, that is, the righteous Rabbi who leads his flock. The building housing the tomb encompasses many of the Besht's top students and is considered by Hassidim as if it is actually a part of the land of Israel.

In the town of Medzhybizh is the tomb of the Baal Shem Tov – Rabbi Yisroel (Israel) ben Eliezer (18 Elul 5458/1698- 6 Sivan 5520/1760). The Baal Shem Tov or Besht, is the founder of the Hasidic movement in Judaism which stresses, among other things, a personal relationship with the Almighty, joy, and the importance of the Tzaddik, that is, the righteous Rabbi who leads his flock. The building housing the tomb encompasses many of the Besht’s top students and is considered by Hassidim as if it is actually a part of the land of Israel.

 

The Jewish motif is not far from the surface of Ukraine. Sometimes it is antisemitic, and other times it is portrayed as an intersection between the Russian/Ukrainian culture and the Jewish culture that grew there. These are matryoshka dolls, also known as Russian nesting/nested dolls, that is, a set of wooden dolls of decreasing size placed one inside the other. They are sometimes referred to as "babushka dolls" (grandmother doll). They can come in many themes, including this Jewish set.

The Jewish motif is not far from the surface of Ukraine. Sometimes it is antisemitic, and other times it is portrayed as an intersection between the Russian/Ukrainian culture and the Jewish culture that grew there. These are matryoshka dolls, also known as Russian nesting/nested dolls, that is, a set of wooden dolls of decreasing size placed one inside the other. They are sometimes referred to as “babushka dolls” (grandmother doll). They can come in many themes, including this Jewish set.

 

The hotel I was staying {at}, and where the conference was help, was top notch and in the heart of Kiev. Around the corner from the hotel was this Jewish-themed kosher-style restaurant called Tzimmes, named for a traditional Ashkenazi sweet stew typically made from carrots and dried fruits. The caricature at the front of the establishment clearly depicts a Jewish man with stacks of money using an abacus to count it all. I was appalled by the blatant stereotype, but Ukrainians flatly denied it saying that no harm was meant. What do you think?

The hotel I was staying at, and where the conference was held, was top notch and in the heart of Kiev. Around the corner from the hotel was this Jewish-themed kosher-style restaurant called Tzimmes, named for a traditional Ashkenazi sweet stew typically made from carrots and dried fruits. The caricature at the front of the establishment clearly depicts a Jewish man with stacks of money and an abacus to count it all. I was appalled by the blatant stereotype, but Ukrainians flatly denied it saying that no harm was meant. What do you think?

 

At the conference plenum, we enjoyed the sounds of a large ensemble band, wearing traditional Ukrainian clothing, as they played a mix of traditional and Jewish music. The is a picture of the Bandura player -  Ukraine's national instrument. When they played "If I were a rich man" from Fiddler on the Roof, it all came together. The musical Fiddler on the Roof, based on Sholem Aleichem's stories about Tevye the Dairyman, was the first commercially successful English-language stage production about Jewish life in Eastern Europe.  Sholem Aleichem (1859 - 1916) was a leading Yiddish author and playwright from Ukraine and the Tevye tales still reflect a lot about the ambivalence and duality of Jewish/Ukrainian life. The Fiddler song that really came to my mind that evening was "Lechaim - To Life!" in the great bar scene where the Jews and gentiles dance together: "Za Vashe Zdorovie - Heaven bless you both Na Zdrovie - To your health and may we live together in peace!"

At the conference plenum, we enjoyed the sounds of a large ensemble band, wearing traditional Ukrainian clothing, as they played a mix of traditional and Jewish music. The is a picture of the Bandura player – Ukraine’s national instrument. When they played “If I were a rich man” from ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, it all came together. The musical ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, based on Sholem Aleichem’s stories about Tevye the Dairyman, was the first commercially successful English-language stage production about Jewish life in Eastern Europe. Sholem Aleichem (1859 – 1916) was a leading Yiddish author and playwright from Ukraine and the Tevye tales still reflect a lot about the ambivalence and duality of Jewish/Ukrainian life. The Fiddler song that really came to my mind that evening was “Lechaim – To Life!” in the great bar scene where the Jews and gentiles dance together:
“Za Vashe Zdorovie – Heaven bless you both Na Zdrovie – To your health and may we live together in peace!”

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About the Author: Yishai Fleisher is the Contributing Editor and PR manager at the JewishPress.com, and Israel's only English language broadcast radio show host (Galey Yisrael 106.5FM). Yishai is an Israeli Paratrooper, a graduate of Cardozo Law School, and the founder of Kumah ("Arise" in Hebrew), an NGO dedicated to promoting Zionism and strengthening Israel's national character. Yishai is married to Malkah, they have two children, and they live on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.


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3 Responses to “Yishai Visits Beilis and the Baal Shem Tov in the Ukraine”

  1. Momenameen Hanani says:

    h want to work at them

  2. Momenameen Hanani says:

    h want to work at them

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