What was our 23-year old son, Eliyahu Yeshaya, doing in a private cab driven by a Ukranian non-Jew at 3 a.m. on a frigid morning? His story actually begins long ago.
Hanging in our living room, next to our Shabbat candlesticks, is a vertical row of three photos. The uppermost one is a photo of a very frum-looking man and his teenage granddaughter. It is a photo of Eliyahu Yeshaya’s great-great-great grandfather Yehuda Leib and his granddaughter Anna. The middle photo is of Yehuda Leib’s son Abraham and the bottom photo is of his grandson Hyman (Chaim) and his wife. During his teen years, my husband Abe, named for his great-great paternal grandfather Abraham Hershberg, started working on a family tree. Throughout the years, Abe has spoken to us about his previous generations, and so it has made various impressions on our children. Abe is the first frum descendent since Yehuda Leib.
One night during a wedding, a friend of Eliyahu Yeshaya’s told him that he was planning to leave for Uman in a few days. His friend asked if he was interested in joining him on an organized trip to Uman and Mezhibush. A well-known Israeli rav, Rabbi Micky Yosefi, and the well-known singer/musician Evyatar Banai would be accompanying the group. Our son mulled it over, and within a day or so, he decided to travel to Uman. Abe and I were a bit surprised that Eliyahu Yeshaya would spend over a $1,000 on a half-week trip to the Ukraine. We didn’t know that he had his own itinerary in mind.
With the permission of the group organizer, our son decided that he would leave the group while they were in Uman, and would take a three-hour taxi ride at 3 a.m. in order to arrive in Berdichev on Erev Shabbat. His goal was to look for the grave of his great-great-great grandfather Yehuda Leib. My husband had been told by his father that Yehuda Leib’s father’s name began with the letter “shin.” Abe did not know the year of Yehuda Leib’s death, nor where he was buried. But from various pieces of information about family members, he figured that Yehuda Leib had probably died in the 1920s, and that he had probably been buried in Berdichev.
Eliyahu Yeshaya also wanted to find out more about the town that Yehuda Leib’s son Abraham, and possibly other relatives, had lived in. Abe thought that the town was called something like Yaneshpola. Eliyahu Yeshaya looked unsuccessfully for the name on the Internet. When he asked various tour guides in Israel who take groups to the Ukraine, none of them had ever heard of it. It was suggested that perhaps the name of the village had changed.
How could our son accomplish these two goals? Soon after, on the way back home from Yerushalayim, Eliyahu Yeshaya, who is always picking up people who need rides, gave a ride to an older man. They spoke about different topics, and then our son mentioned that he would be going to Uman and hoped to find his great-great-great grandfather’s grave in Berdichev. The hitchhiker told him that a friend of his had also gone to Berdichev to find graves of relatives. Before the man left the car, he gave his friend’s contact information to our son.
Eliyahu Yeshaya called the man’s friend and received the name and contact information of the Chabad emissary in Berdichev who had aided him. Our son contacted the Chabad rabbi, and within a day, the rav sent him info that there is one Yehuda Leib, the son of Shemuel, who passed away in 1923, in the database of the cemetery’s gravestones. (Over the years, approximately one-third of the information on the tombstones in the Berdichev cemetery had been put into a database.) Eliyahu Yeshaya became very enthusiastic, but the rav told him that the name Yehuda Leib was a very popular one at the time. Moreover, it was not customary to engrave the family name on the tombstone. He added that finding the grave would be almost impossible because of the very poor condition of the tombstones. Eliyahu Yeshaya advised the rav of his travel plans and that he would arrive in Berdichev on Erev Shabbat.
Eliyahu Yeshaya flew with the group to the Ukraine in the wee hours of Wednesday morning. They then took the long bus ride to Uman, where everyone had an inspiring time. Thursday night Eliyahu Yeshaya did not go to sleep. He had reserved a cab for 3 a.m. to take him from Uman to Berdichev. He paid the driver $100 for the ride. At about 5:30 a.m., the driver awakened our son from his slumber. They had arrived at the Berdichev Cemetery.
The two of them approached the cemetery entrance, but the gate was locked. The driver called up the guard and told him that someone wanted to enter the cemetery to go to the grave of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev. The guard told the cab driver that he wasn’t going to bother himself to open up for one person. Eliyahu Yeshaya said that he would pay the guard $10 and the guard changed his tune.
Grisha, the elderly Jewish guard, arrived and unlocked the gate. Before the driver drove off, suddenly Eliyahu Yeshaya remembered that he had wanted to solve the enigma concerning the village where Yehuda Leib’s son Abraham had once lived. He asked the Ukrainian driver to ask Grisha if he had ever heard of the town of Yaneshpola. The guard thought for a while and said that there used to be a nearby town called Yanushpol, but the name had since been changed to Ivanopol. So that’s why our son’s Internet search and asking tour guides who are familiar with the Ukraine had not come up with any information about Yaneshpola.
Our son told us, “I davened at the grave of the Rebbe from Berdichev, and asked Hashem to illuminate my way and my eyes so that I would find the grave of Yehuda Leib. After about an hour, the guard said various thing in Russian, and from his body language I understood that he wants me to leave so that he could go back to sleep.” The guard brought our son to the visitors’ center that supplies hot drinks and refreshments. Eliyahu Yeshaya sat down and there and tried to figure out what his next steps should be. While there, he davened shacharit. The sun only rose at about 7:45 a.m.
Eliyahu Yeshaya took a cab to the Chabad House in Berdichev. The rabbi told him that only after shacharit would he be able to accompany him to the cemetery. Davening only began at 9:30 a.m. and it was also Rosh Chodesh. Eliyahu Yeshaya had to leave Berdichiv by 12:30 p.m. by the latest in order to meet his group in Mezhibush in time for Shabbat. He was on pins and needles. The minyan, comprised of elderly Jews, only completed davening at 11:30 a.m.!
Only then did the rav and our son travel by cab to the cemetery. The rav had brought a map of the cemetery and had jotted down the section where Yehuda Leib was buried. The two of them walked for several minutes on narrow, earthen paths and grass. They traversed more paths and reached a large area. The rav said, “This is the section.”
It was almost noon, and Eliyahu Yeshaya didn’t know what to do. The section was big and there must have been over a hundred gravestones. Some of them were broken, and the ones that were whole were unreadable due to the damage of a century of weather conditions. Moreover, even if he were to find the grave, in his heart nibbled the rabbi’s statement that perhaps it was another Yehuda Leib and not his ancestor.
Eliyahu Yeshaya wrote in his WhatsApp message to us, “I davened from the depth of my heart that I would succeed in finding my great-great-great grandfather’s grave. I started to wander between the gravestones. Suddenly, for no logical reason, one gravestone caught my eye. I approached it, bent down and knelt by the tombstone. I started tracing the letters engraved on it with my finger. It was sort of like reading Braille. The inscription in Hebrew read, ‘Here is buried the honored man Yehuda Leib the son of Shemuel died in 1923.’”
Eliyahu Yeshaya felt very strongly that this was his Yehuda Leib. He davened Tehillim for a while. Suddenly, he felt a hand on his shoulder. It was the Chabad rav reminding him that they must leave if he wanted to spend Shabbat in the town of the Ba’al Shem Tov, Mezhibush.
It was a two-hour cab ride to Mezhibush, and Eliyahu Yeshaya arrived at 2:30 p.m. He had approximately 45 minutes to get ready for Shabbat. An exhilarated Eliyahu Yeshaya rejoined his group with quite a tale to tell.