Rabbi Marc Soloway shares stories from his journey to find the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples, and what is left of Jewish life, in Ukraine.

A Journey into the Heart of Ukraine

May 5th – 13th 2011

nullI have just returned from the amazing city of Kiev after an incredible Ukrainian adventure through lost worlds and new dreams, connecting to holy souls, eating too much starch and drinking very good vodka. What a place and what a journey.

This trip was born out of my involvement in a documentary film project tracing the life and legacy of the great and mystical figure of the Baal Shem Tov and our desire to visit his grave, but there have been so many rich dimensions to the few days here, beyond what we could have imagined. Ukraine has been such an important center of Jewish life for centuries and yet, of course, the history of the community has been punctuated with horrible tragedy and much spilling of Jewish blood at the hands of the Cossacks, the communists and the Nazis. There were one and half million Jews in Ukraine before the war and now there are maybe 200,000. We visited many towns and villages that had once been vibrant centers of Jewish life, but now it is the old cemeteries, including the graves of some of the most famous Hassidic rabbis, that are the main sites of Jewish interest. The town of Berditchev, once the home of the legendary Rebbe Levi Yitzhak, had 50,000 Jews before the war, making it the second largest Jewish population in Eastern Europe. 38,000 of those Jews were massacred in one day, many fled and today, there are 250 Jews living in Berditchev. We also visited the memorial at Babi Yar, that dark ravine in a forest on the outskirts of Kiev, where over 33,000 Jews were killed in just 2 days in 1941 and then many, many more Jews, communists, gypsies and Catholics killed in the following months. In spite of all of this horror, our trip was certainly not one focused on destruction and tragedy. We went in search of some of the personalities whose stories of wonders and miracles, deep teachings and spiritual melodies have captured the imagination of Jews and non-Jews for over two hundred years.

After a cold and wet beginning in Kiev, our driver Yuri met us and our journey began south to Uman, the burial place of Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, the great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov. He has many followers today and there is a massive pilgrimage every Rosh Hashanah to Uman – this year they are expecting some 30,000 Jews, mostly from Israel, to show up and celebrate the New Year with their Rebbe. Because of this phenomenon, there is a growing infrastructure of kosher food and some basic accommodation, as well as a population of Jews living there year round. Chuck Davis, the director and producer of the film, Antony Cooper, the camera man and editor and me, the film’s narrator, spent a slightly bizarre, cold Shabbat in Uman. One of us is not Jewish, one Jewish and not very observant and one observant and none of us see ourselves as Bratslover Hassidim, yet we certainly met some interesting characters. We also discovered Nemiroff, a very pure Ukrainian vodka, which kept us warm in our unheated, Spartan dwelling. After Shabbat we went with the camera to find some action and met a group of Sefardi Jews from Israel who explained the difference between Sefardim and Ashkenazim based on the climates from which they emerge and also their own attachment to Rebbe Nachman and other Ashkenazi spiritual leaders. We also met Lipa Schmeltzer, a famous, young Hassidic pop singer, who sang for us and shared some insights and feelings for the camera after his first Shabbat in Uman.

On a much brighter Sunday, after a wonderful walk and horse and carriage ride through Sofia Park in Uman, we headed for Bratslav, where Rebbe Nachman had spent most of his life as a rabbi and where his primary student and scribe, Rabbi Natan, is buried in a beautiful hillside cemetery overlooking a magnificent river. From there we headed for Meziboz in search of the holy Baal Shem Tov, after a short stop in Nemiroff, where the vodka is made!

nullMeziboz is a stirringly powerful place, a pretty small, pastoral town with a tranquil and enchanting graveyard in which an Ohel, a kind of sanctuary, houses the graves of Baal Shem Tov and others, including his grandsons, Baruch of Meziboz and the Degel Machane Ephraim, Reb Wolf Kitzes and the Ohev Yisrael, Rav Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apt, grandfather of the great 20th century Heschel. Walking into this place was immensely powerful and moving for me, and for all of us. The Baal Shem Tov, Yisrael ben Eliezer, has been so alive in my spiritual imagination for years and hearing and telling the stories about him and his followers has been a significant part of my own Jewish journey and was the bridge for me from actor to rabbi. And here we were standing by a gravestone inscribed with the words, “Here lies the holy Baal Shem Tov. May his merit protect us. Amen.” Suddenly, this great charismatic figure became more real and tangible and somehow made all the tales of mystery and wonder feel within the realm of possibility, more accessible to us if we chose to find them.

That evening, we sat with Yuri, our driver, a Russian Orthodox resident of Uman, who takes many Jewish pilgrims on these journeys, and has developed some strong relationships over the years. With the camera filming our vodka-inspired conversation, we asked Yuri what he thought of the Baal Shem Tov. He told us that he was a very holy man and a miracle worker and that he felt his power in Meziboz, that he was important not only for the Jews. Many Ukrainians, even before the growth of the pilgrimage industry, know stories of the Baal Shem and the role he played in this region.

After spending the night in another pretty basic guest house right near the grave and some more time in the Baal Shem Tov’s presence the next morning, we continued our journey. There is a larger than life Hassidic rabbi called Yisrael Meir Gabbai, a real character, whose life’s work is to preserve and beautify these holy sites, as well as create hospitality around them, building these “hotels.” He has also been responsible for a wonderful reconstruction of the Baal Shem Tov’s old synagogue in the village of Meziboz, which we visited later that morning along with Bug River, which was probably where the Baal Shem would go every day for his mikveh, or ritual immersion.

We left Meziboz for Anipoli, a very quiet, rural and stunning little village, the burial place of Reb Dov Ber, the great Maggid of Mezeritch, who was, according to hassidic history, the successor of the Baal Shem and the one who systematically organized all of the other disciples. Reb Zuzya of Anipoli is also buried there in the same Ohel and, once again, as I told stories that I have been telling for years for the camera, in this place where their last physical form remains, I felt as if I was connecting to them in a more tangible way. The idea behind a pilgrimage to the grave of a Tzaddik, a righteous one, is that the purest essence of who they are remains at the place where they are buried and that we can somehow connect to this power and attach ourselves to their souls. I do not know for certain if I believe this in a literal way, but I do know that I felt something in these places.

On the way to our fifth night of lodging in Berditchev, we stopped briefly in Shepitovka, to greet Reb Pinchas of Koretz and in Polnoye to see Reb Yaakov Yosef, both important disciples of the Baal Shem Tov. Along the road, there are thick forests, the landscape that is in so many of the stories, and we filmed some scenes among those trees, whose branches may still remember. We also stopped at a simple road side memorial in Ganatovka, a mass grave of 800 Jews killed in the forest by the Ukrainian collaborators with the Nazis in 1941. It is a very different kind of experience to visit the sites of great spiritual masters who have died, for the most part, in their time after years of teaching and inspiration, to these other silent places, where lives were so brutally and cruelly cut off in their prime.

Berditchev, which I mentioned above, is a much larger town than the other places we had visited and we stayed the night in a hotel in the town and ate Ukranian food, which feels so Jewish. The pickles, latkes, gefilte fish, blintzes and way too much sour cream are all foods that our ancestors ate and many Ukranians eat today and it makes so much more sense now.

The following morning, we were met by Hershel who looks after the cemetery in Berditchev where the Kedushat Levi, Reb Levi Yitzhak is buried. Hershel was born in 1940 and is one of the last surviving Jews in this town. He speaks Yiddish, Russian and Ukrainian but no English or Hebrew and we wanted to film an interview with him, so with my broken German and a bit of improvised Yiddish, we managed to understand each other and we were able to hear his stories, inherited memories of a lost world. Levi Yitzhak is yet another wonderful figure in Hassidic folklore, with his great love of all Jews no matter what they did or who they were. We started the day early and I prayed my morning prayers, with tallit and teffillin, by his grave and it felt so good to be in his presence. His is the only grave that we saw that has his name listed as son of his mother, Sarah. Many people pray for healing and other help to the God of Levi Yitzhak son of Sarah. The Ohel that houses this holy grave is the only refurbished part of a huge, old Jewish cemetery. Hershel took us to a large park that was once another Jewish cemetery, but was destroyed by the communists in 1925 and we also saw the one remaining synagogue built in 1886, where there are not enough people to have regular services.

From Berditchev, we started our three-hour journey back to Kiev, stopping in Gnatovka, the burial place of Reb Mordechai of Chernobyl, whose grave stands in a dome like building, the only structure in a huge field in this village just 14 kilometers south of Kiev. As we left, we were greeted by two little local girls and pitchers of water for us to wash our hands in a exchange for a dollar. A reflective, filmed walk by a river was our last stop before Babi Yar and a couple of days of being tourists in Kiev.

Visiting Babi Yar was so stirring as you look over the ridge of this large ravine and the imagination is able to create pictures of the horrific scenes and screams of this deathly valley. There is little there in the way of memorial and explanation and it is quite a beautiful and public place, now within the city, and we could not help wondering what locals really knew of its significance. It is hard to take in what really happened here.

Apart from seeing some of the sites of what is a very beautiful city, we met and filmed Kiev’s two chief rabbis, one of whom was an old friend, a final year rabbinic student when I started my training in London in the late 1990s. Rabbi Alex Dukhovny carries the official title of “Chief Rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine of the Progressive Jewish Congregations.” He was born and raised in Kiev and is now responsible for 47 communities and 13,000 Jews as a liberal rabbi who is a controversial figure for the Orthodox establishment. His grandfather was a Hassidic rabbi from the Rizyner line and he grew up hearing stories and melodies of the Baal Shem Tov and others, but in Soviet Russia, he never imagined being a rabbi of any kind. I asked him where I could wash a few of my clothes and we learned that Ukraine doesn’t really have places where you pay others to do your laundry, or even pay to do it yourself, so Alex, Rabbi Dukhovny, offered to take it home with him and wash it and bring it back later that evening when we were meeting for dinner. I have to say that I got quite a kick out of the fact that the Chief Rabbi of Ukraine, or at least one of them, did my laundry for me!

American born, Rabbi Yaakov Bleich was the first rabbi in post-Soviet Ukraine and is a Starliner Hassid with the title “Chief Rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine” and based at the late 19th century Podol Synagogue, which is very active. He is seen as the official chief rabbi, but was not representing any of the non-Orthodox Jews of Ukraine, which was why the other position was created. Ah, Jewish politics. So here in Ukraine’s capital we met two very different rabbis, telling very different stories and yet each of them with a strong link in the broken, unbroken chain of a joyful, open-hearted Judaism started with that elusive figure, the Baal Shem Tov. When we asked Rabbi Bleich in his interview if he had a favorite Baal Shem Tov story, his response was that the most miraculous story of all is that we are still telling the story 250 years later.

Hopefully the film will be released by the end of this year for some living images of some of this journey.

I am not sure if this journey into Ukraine has brought me any closer to knowing who this so-called founder of Hassidic Judaism really was, but I am convinced that a long time ago he lit a holy fire in a deep forest, whose flames are still burning in Jewish hearts and souls today.

About Rabbi Marc Soloway

Marc is a native of London, England where he was an actor and practitioner of complimentary medicine before training as a rabbi in London, Jerusalem and Los Angeles. He was ordained at the Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies at the American Jewish University in 2004 and has been the the spiritual leader at Bonai Shalom in Boulder ever since. Marc was a close student of Rabbi Zalman Schechter Shalomi and received an additional smicha (rabbinic ordination) from him in 2014, just two months before he died. He has been the host and narrator of two documentary films shown on PBS; A Fire in the Forest: In Search of the Baal Shem Tov and Treasure under the Bridge: Pilgrimage to the Hasidic Masters of Ukraine. Marc is a graduate of the Institute of Jewish Spirituality, a fellow of Rabbis Without Borders, has traveled to Ghana in a rabbinic delegation with American Jewish World Service and co-chair of the Rabbinical Council and national board member of Hazon, which strives to create more sustainable Jewish communities. In 2015, Marc was among a group of 12 faith leaders honored at The White House as “Champions of Change” for work on the climate. Marc is a proud member of Beit Izim, Boulder’s Jewish goat milking co-op.

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  1. Thank you, Reb Marc, for sharing this! I am loving hearing Chuck's stories, but you have filled out the pictures in my mind of this holy and amazing journey. I'm also laughing because you both definitely mentioned the vodka!! Lots of love–

  2. Amazing journey, Rabbi Marc! Thanks so much for writing this beautiful piece.

  3. You wrote that you aren't Hassidic, yet you stressed the importance of the local vodka. Are you sure that the two aren't connected ?

  4. Mark Loewenstein

    Loved the "book" and can't wait for the film.

  5. Welcome back, I enjoyed your description of your trip! Thanks for giving us a taste of the shtetl!

  6. Very nice but how on earth did the author manage to avoid Chabad – or at least the MENTION of Chabad – during his entire trip to the Urkraine. Chabad Rabbis (alive and deceased/buried) are all over the place there.