THE WEDDING IN KFAR CHABAD
This is a short story about a small wedding that took place last week in K’far Chabad. If you like, it is a big story, which enfolds the essence of Jewish destiny in this generation.
You might begin this story with the wedding invitation we received last week from our Russian relatives. You can also start from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986.
Pogrom in Kapetkevich
Actually, it is more appropriate to open the story with the pogrom that took place on June 10, 1921 in Kapetkevich, a town in Byelorussia. The pogrom is described in the local newspaper “Bolshevik”: “The Polish hooligans heartlessly attacked anyone who fell into their clutches. They spared neither the elderly, nor women, nor children. In the streets of the Shtetl, dozens of corpses were strewn, among them, entire families that had been murdered. Blood flowed in the streets like water. Before murdering their victims, the rioters tormented the Jews by lopping off their limbs. Some of the victims were forced to swallow sulfuric acid, and the murderers rejoiced at the sight of their death throes. On that day, 120 Jews were murdered and 35 more seriously wounded. Only the Jews who had fled the town survived”.
Among the survivors was a young lad, Litman Tzenter, then 18 years of age. His sister, Michla, who had given birth to a son several days earlier, was among the dead. The rioters abused the newborn, smashing his legs. He survived, but remained a cripple for life.
New Life in the Land
After the pogrom, Litman decided to leave everything behind and make Aliyah to Eretz Yisrael. He studied Hebrew, [an offense] for which he sat in jail, wandered from place to place and reached Eretz Yisrael in 1927, settling in ‘Little Tel-Aviv’.
Here he began life anew. He changed his name from Tzenter to Merkazi, married Rivka, a young new arrival like himself, who stemmed from Bendery, Moldavia. Litman purposely detached himself from anything related to his past. He spoke Hebrew, sang songs of Eretz Yisrael, and told his four children almost nothing about the ravaged world he had left behind. Perhaps, it was because of the great pain, or the pangs of conscience at having escaped while leaving behind his mother, sister and brothers, uncles, aunts and cousins. Perhaps it was because he had lost hope that he would ever see anyone from his family again. Until his death in 1978, he had not the good fortune to see any of them.
The Call from Chernobyl
Twelve years after Litman’s death, the phone rang in the Merkazi home in Tel Aviv. The widow, Rivka, picked up the phone. On the line she heard an excited voice speaking in Yiddish. “This is Lisa calling. My grandchildren are in Israel at K’far Chabad. They are among the Chernobyl children. We are very concerned about their welfare. Perhaps you can help”. The line disconnected.
At that time the Young Chabad Organization had initiated the project to bring Jewish children from the Chernobyl region to Israel. The region was dangerously radioactive as a result of the explosion of the nuclear reactor in 1986. The radiation was particularly dangerous for children.
The Encounter in K’far Chabad
Rivka Merkazi approached me (and here is the appropriate place to reveal that she is my wife’s mother) and asked me to help. She had no inkling who that Lisa was or her grandchildren.
I picked up the phone and called Menachem Brod, the Young Chabad spokesman, and on that very day, my wife and I drove to K’far Chabad and met the two children – Slava and Marina. Slava was then 13, with noble features, as handsome as a model, but extremely thin and looked like a ten-year old. Marina, his cousin, was 12 and looked more developed and very pretty. They looked tired and sad. We didn’t know a word of Russian, and they didn’t understand a word of Hebrew. They didn’t know who we were, and we didn’t know who they were. In spite of it all, there developed an emotional bond from the first moment. Perhaps it was because of the great similarity we became aware of in comparing their faces to those of my wife’s family, and maybe because they sensed our warm approach to them.
The Post-Progrom Genealogy
We brought them to mother who spoke with them in fluent Russian, as if she were a grandmother talking to her grandchildren after a short separation. Very quickly the riddle of their identity was resolved. Lisa, their grandmother, was Litman’s niece. One might say that from that moment on a new era began in the life of the Israeli Merkazis, as well as in the lives of the other branches of the family that began to arrive in Israel.
We brought Marina and Slava back to K’far Chabad, visited them several times, and invited them to our home. Four months later their parents arrived, and the families were reunited with their children. After their families, more and more family members came, as well as those from Mother Rivka’s side. The small Tel Aviv Merkazi nuclear family of two parents and four children suddenly turned into a multi-generational clan of first, second, and third-cousins in several directions.
The generational sequence can be defined by the date of the pogrom. Litman and his brothers and sisters were the first generation. Lisa, like my wife and her siblings are the second after the pogrom. Slava’s and Marina’s parents are the third generation, and Slava and Marina are the fourth generation.
The integration process of the extended family began with showing each other old photographs in which the children who had been photographed a generation or more previously, wondrously resembled our grandchildren. It was a process in which we discovered inherited talents that reminded us of mother’s saying “Blood is not water”. It didn’t take long until we all felt as if we had known each other a lifetime. The family integration was accompanied by a return to Judaism. The members of the first generation had been religious, spoke Yiddish, and were Jews through and through. The second generation (who survived the horrors of the World War [II]), knew a little Yiddish, knew what it meant to be a Jew, but they could only circumcise their children secretly and at the risk to their lives. It was forbidden to mention a Jewish holiday or study Hebrew. The third generation had already gone though the process of suppression of identity as practiced by the Stalinist regime. They are all talented, educated, and intelligent, but were totally without any Jewish content – like a formatted disk, or like a person who had undergone a prefrontal lobotomy. The fourth generation, represented by Marina and Slava, were the generation of “captive children”. [Captive children is a Talmudic concept describing the phenomenon of Jewish children who were brought up in a non-Jewish environment].
The integration into Israel and the family aroused Jewish sparks that had long lain dormant. Suddenly they remembered the Kiddush Cup and the Shabbes Candles. Suddenly they discovered that Marina’s and Slava’s parents who were called Shura and Dyma in Russia, actually had Jewish names – Shlomo-Pinchas and Dovid.
A short time before the marriage ceremony in K’far Chabad, several members of the extended family – the Russian and Israeli – traveled to Kapetkevich in order to do family research. There they found only one Jewish woman aged 84, who barely remembered anything. The town had been destroyed several times since the first pogrom. There were not even ashes left of the synagogue. The cemetery where our great-grandfather had been buried had already been plowed over. Yet, after a comprehensive tour of Byelorussia, they returned more Jewish than ever before. They were more aware of their identity, familial and Jewish. In every corner they had found remnants and signs and live Jews who sang in Yiddish, and kept the Sabbath. Also documents were found that suddenly unlocked the family branches and the generational connections. Traces were found of those who are no longer with us, as well as the very many who are alive and can be found in all corners of the earth. With the help of the wonders of technology and the internet, the roots of the family were uncovered, even those of generations preceding the pogrom.
A Surrealistic Scene
Slava, the boy – who meanwhile had changed his name to Sa’ar, was drafted and joined a select reconnaissance group and has become a tall, well-built man – continued to keep in touch with K’far Chabad. He didn’t become religious as a result of his short stay there, but has kept up a strong relationship with those who cared for him. When he decided to marry he had in mind to have a modest ceremony in the Rabbinate but wanted to invite the people he had come to know in the K’far. When he came to invite them they told him: “Come, let us make you a wedding as it should be”.
The ceremony took place on Tishre 27, 5764 [October 23, 2003], 82 years and four months after the pogrom in Kapetkevich. The bride and groom stood in the large square facing the setting sun, dressed in white under a large Chuppa [canopy]. The parents of the bride and groom walked in a circle around them holding candles, surrounded by bearded Chabadniks dressed in black suits, and, in the background two Klezmer were making music. This was a surrealistic scene that resembled a Fellini film (forgive me if these words sound sacrilegious).
The Klezmer made this more than just another Jewish wedding. This was a Shtetl type wedding. This is how their great-grandfather and great-grandmother had been married, the first generation of the pogrom, and many generations before them. The second and third generation after the pogrom had not the good fortune to be married that way.
Now, surrounding them stand the young people, friends of the couple, the fourth generation after the pogrom, wonderfully beautiful, chatting in a mixture of Israeli Hebrew and Russian, and we, of the second generation, regard them with teary eyes and think about Jewish destiny. I look at Slava, whose great-grandfather is the great-grandfather of my grandchildren. I thought to myself how my grandson will look when he reaches his age. Now the Rabbi of K’far Chabad, Rabbi Mordechai Ashkenazi, holds the cup of wine and chants the ‘Seven Blessings’. Not all those present understood all the words, but in their shining eyes we could see the ‘joy and gladness, delight and cheer’.
And when they all danced to the rhythm of the Klezmer and sang “may there soon be heard in the cities of Judah, in the streets of Jerusalem”, I thought to myself that this story, in effect, begins in Jerusalem, passes through Kapetkevich and Chernobyl, and returns to Jerusalem.
As Agnon said at the Nobel Prize ceremony: ”Due to that historic catastrophe, when the Roman Emperor Titus destroyed Jerusalem and exiled Israel from its land, I was born in one of the cities of the Diaspora, but at all times it seemed to me that I was born in Jerusalem”.
The Chernobyl Children
Since 1990 and to date, more than 2300 children came in this program. Today, too, children continue to arrive and there are between 150 and 200 of them regularly housed in K’far Chabad. The average stay is about one year to a year and a half, and in most instances the parents make Aliyah following the children. On arrival, the children undergo thorough medical examinations that generally reveal significant signs of a deterioration of the immune system. During the entire period, there was one case of a child who died. A growth was discovered in the brain of another, but he underwent surgery and survived. A major proportion of the children arrive as orphans.
Of those who came only several dozen became Chabadniks, but most continue to be connected to the K’far even after having grown up, and even if they are not religiously observant. More than a few are without family in Israel and they regard the K’far as their only home. Young Chabad has already organized several weddings of the Chernobyl graduates. Several months ago there was a wedding in the K’far of a couple, both of whom had been Chernobyl children.
The Logic in Madness
Column of October 31, 2003
Makor Rishon [Primary Source – An Israeli Weekly]
[Tr. from the Hebrew by Joseph Schachter – September 27, 2006 – words in brackets added for comprehension]