“Youth is happy because it has the capacity to see beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.” ―Franz Kafka, 20th century Jewish Writer

Monday, July 27, 2015

400 Years of Sustaining Life

From Tuesday, July 14: Bykhaw, Belarus

I took the first step into the majestic 400-year old stone synagogue in Bykhaw, Belarus. Sickening smells of death filled my nostrils. Feeling drawn to the center of the ancient house of prayer, I lifted my head to look at the top of the synagogue. I was startled by a pigeon that descended down from the dome. There were dozens of pigeons and sparrows living in this abandoned stone fortress! Although Jews no longer seek protection in this building for prayer or shelter, I felt comforted knowing that the structure was still sustaining life.

Standing inside the stone synagogue. 
After testing the acoustics of the synagogue with my group mates, I wandered outside to view the exterior. At first I thought the synagogue looked more like a former castle than a synagogue, but then I noticed a faded Star of David outline on a cement window and counted 12 total windows (a symbolic number in Judaism). These observations led me to the realization that the Jews in Bykhaw had once used this structure for protection in both a spiritual and physical sense.

Standing underneath the cement window with the faded Star of David.
I felt a deep connection to the synagogue. Although my connection felt natural because of my Jewish background, the connection ran deeper than that. The building served as a symbol for the strength of the Jewish people. Despite threats, such as war or demolition, the 400-year old structure is still a synagogue in its true form. I feel rooted. The stones are still standing

Outside view of the synagogue. 

Friday, July 24, 2015

Traveling Líte Updates

Dear readers,
I apologize for my lack of blog posts this week. The Yiddishkayt Helix trip around Belarus, Latvia, and Lithuania has sadly come to an end. Overall the trip was phenomenal and I cannot wait to share more about my experience when I return home next week. Despite this part of my trip being over, I will still be blogging about my experience on Helix and the places I traveled to. Please check back over the next few days for these posts and my reflections on the overall trip.

I have now started the final leg of my European journey, in Italy! I will be in Italy for the next week with my childhood best friend Leah. We have managed to survive our first two days in Rome with only a few blisters. Tomorrow morning we are off to Florence! I will post updates and pictures of our trip on this blog. 


Leah and I at the Colosseum in Rome, Italy

Monday, July 20, 2015

Everything Eventually Resurfaces: Hidden Treasures in Uzda

The Earth is like a bag of trail mix. In trail mix, the little things like the sunflower seeds sink to the bottom of the bag while the larger nuts and dried fruit remain on the surface. So, when I eat the trail mix, my fingers usually reach the almonds, m&m’s, and dried fruit first. But when I shake up the bag, the sunflower seeds and raisins resurface. Eventually everything comes to the surface. The Earth’s surface works in a similar way. If someone drops a coin on dirt, it will most likely be forgotten and become covered with soil. As the Earth rotates and the land shifts, it can be buried even deeper. However, everything eventually resurfaces. This is what I experienced in Uzda, Belarus.

The old Uzda Mikvah (Jewish ritual bathhouse)
We were exploring the outside of the old mikvah (ritual bathhouse) when one of the Helix artist in residence, Benny, found a coin from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that dated back to 1616! This coin had most likely been buried for 400 years in the dirt, and Benny just happened to be in the right place at the right time to find it. When we examined the Polish coin in present day Belarus, I was reminded of the fluidity of borders in this part of the world. This made me wonder what life was like for the former owner of the coin under the rule of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. What was their job? How did they earn the coin? How did daily life change with shifting political borders in this region? I pondered about what items from my life someone will find in my backyard 400 years from now.

17th century coin from the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth 

Shortly after finding the coin, we discovered hundreds of broken white shells on the side of the mikvah. Among the broken shells, there were a few smooth, round, white objects. They were unfinished buttons! The local historian told us that before World War II, many of the Jews in Uzda were artisans and produced small things like buttons. These unfinished buttons were probably the last things the Jewish button-maker had made before their lives were turned upside down by Nazism. The buttons connect me to the former Jewish button-maker; our lives are now interwoven because we have shared the experience of these buttons.

I am grateful that I was able to find the coin and the unfinished buttons in the trail mix of Uzda. These treasures were covered up by dirt for many years, and I am thankful that the soil just happened to reveal these treasures to me and my friends on the right day.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Say, What Does it Mean?

Children’s laughter interrupted my thoughts while searching for the Jewish cemetery in Smarhon. I had been handed a map of what Smarhon once looked like before WWII according to the Jews from the city. This type of map is called a Yizkor Buch (memorial book) map.  The feeling of looking for a place even though I knew I was in the right location and yet I just found a park felt so eery to me. At the time I felt frustrated, like we were chasing after the “ghosts” of people that once lived here. However, after processing the experience I have embraced my discomfort and realized that even though we only found a few signs of the huge Jewish community that had once made up the majority of the city, we were honoring those who had once lived in this city by visiting it. It made me think about what it means to have physical objects.

This area was once a Jewish cemetery in Smarhon. Today it is a playground.
Later in the day, we went to the Valoyzn Yeshiva, which was in another Belarusian city that had once been the home of a large Jewish community. Although the yeshiva building was well preserved, it still felt like something was missing, similar to Smarhon. I think that this emptiness was partially a result of my naive expectations of what this trip would be like. Although I knew going into the trip that most of the Jews in the towns that we are visiting were killed or had left, I was still expecting to feel more fulfilled by visiting these places.

Inside of the Valozyn Yeshiva
There was one moment while sitting in the Valozyn Yeshiva, that I felt the spirits of the people who had once studied and prayed inside the yeshiva come alive. Small tea candles burned brightly on one of the tables that we found inside the yeshiva as we sang "May-Ko Mashmo Lon" (which means, "Say, What Does it Mean"). Hearing the acoustics of the building was magnificent. When the song came to an end, we remained silent as the words echoed in our minds. The yeshiva was alive again.

I encourage you to listen to the song here https://soundcloud.com/yiddishkayt/maykomashmelon. Close your eyes and let the words take over you.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Lowest of the Low

Quote from the memorial inside the forest, "
To our fellow-believers--Jews, Christians
and the Muslims-- the victims of
Stalinism"- from the Belarusian Jews.
The cold rain fell on me as I sat motionless in the Kurapaty Forest, on the outskirts of Minsk, surrounded by hundreds of crosses and pine trees. The thought that each erect cross represented the remains of someone whose body was found in the forest sent shivers down my spine. An estimated 7,000 to 250,000 people were murdered in this forest by the Stalin regime in the 1930's during the Great Purge. The thing that sickened me the most was that the people who were killed in this forest were shot by their own government. They were killed because Stalin feared that these individuals were rebellious, had criticized the government, or were spies. Many of those killed, however, actually supported the Soviet Union and had fought for the their country. Sitting in the forest, listening to the echoing silence of the trees that were once witnesses to the horror's of the forest, all I can think is how can humanity sink this low... My mind wandered back to my morning when I was at the Minsk Yama Holocaust Memorial (Yama means "pit" in English). I had felt so low physically and mentally standing in the pit where 5,000 Jews were killed in one day alone and thousands more were killedon the spot throughout the Holocaust. In a city that was once 50% Jewish, I felt scared and uneasy. I wasn't scared because I am Jewish. I felt scared seeing humanity's ability to destroy everything it has built and the realization that this horror happened less than 75 years ago.
The view from the bottom of the pit. This statue represents those who were forced to descend into this pit and never left it. 

The stone obelisk monument at the site of the Yama is in
Yiddish and Russian because these were once the two main
languages of Belarusian Jews. It was erected in 1947
and is one of the first Holocaust memorials in Europe.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

First Impressions of Minsk, Belarus

We took the Minsk Metro! It costs only 4,000 Belarusian Rubles (equivalent to 26 cents). 
On Friday afternoon, after over 24 hours of traveling, we finally made it Minsk, the capital of Belarus! My first impressions included some disappointment because three of our group members' luggage did not arrive when we landed because there was insufficient room on the plane. I was also surprised at how small the airport was since Minsk is the capitol of the country.

Despite my initial impression of the country, I was in awe of the beauty of the seemingly endless white birch trees along the highway from the airport to Minsk. Apparently one of the reasons why people believe that Belarus (aka White Russia) has its name is because of the white birch trees. After seeing millions of birch trees I now understand that legend.

The most positive impression and best experience that day was when two of my group mates and I were walking from a grocery store to our hotel and two Belarusian girls stopped us and asked us, while giggling to themselves, where we were from. When we told them that we were form the United States of America they got extremely excited. They were 17 and told us that we were the first Americans they had spoken to in English. I felt excited to be part of this cultural exchange, which for both of us was a rare cultural exchange. I thought it was interesting that tourism, let alone American tourism, is so rare in Belarus. It reminded me that my experience here is exceptional and unique because it is so difficult to enter Belarus. To get a Belarusian visa one must be "invited" to the country.  

Overall, my first day in Minsk was positive. I am excited to explore more of the city. Minsk was once home to a vibrant Yiddish culture; it had been 50% Jewish before WWII and now Jews constitute less than 1% of the population.

Friday, July 3, 2015

The Journey Begins!

I am traveling "light" this month!
Today, after much anticipation and little sleep, I boarded the first of seven airplanes that I will fly on this month as I travel around Europe. Currently, I am at 38,005 feet above sea level (I guess you can get Wi-Fi anywhere now) and on my way to L.A. for the first leg of my journey.

You may wonder, why am I flying to L.A. when I wrote that I am headed to Europe? Well, my program, the Helix Project, begins in L.A. this Sunday morning. Once we are all together in L.A., we will travel to Ojai, CA for a few days of group bonding and an intensive crash course in the history, languages, and culture of Eastern Europe.

I am excited that my trip has finally begun and eager to meet all of the other "Helixers" on Sunday. Right now, I imagine that this trip will be unlike any other program that I have participated in before because of the unique location and the strong emphasis on art, culture, history, and Yiddish culture.