I’m finding it hard to gather all the thoughts and memories in a way they can be shared coherently and with measning. I was truly overwhelmed. Averaging 120 kilometers an hour, our driver covered the trip to Medzheboz on 3 hours, not including the hour-long stop in Breslov, on the way. The trip is a journey back through time in more ways than one. The unending gray expanse of the Ukrainian steppes is as breathtaking as it is bleak. The only signs of modernity are the gas stations and inexplicably they are ultra-futuristic. The highways of America would be envious. They are an absurd counterpoint to the naked stands of beets, onions, cabbage and potatoes, staffed by heavy set and bundled old Ukrainian babushkas. The contrast is mind numbing.

Their was only one relatively modern town on the way, Nemerov and it contained the only three traffic lights we encountered on the way. On the sides of the roads you would pass a settlement of 10 to 30 humble homes crowded together and surrounded by a fence. There were no stores or shops in evidence in any of these settlements. Then there would be nothing for crazy distances; either acres and acres of plowed fields or pine, cedar and birch woods. As 90 percent of the traffic was extended trucks, you wondered how anyone got from one place to another and what crazy effort it took to shop for even the most basic of needs. The sense of poverty and backwardness was, again, mind-numbing.

Through all of this, decades of Shlomo stories rang in my head. I tried to imagine what it took for a chossid to travel from one place to another; what determination, dedication and bravery it took to make a pilgrimage to be with his rebbe or journey on a mission. We take so much for granted with our relative ease of material life and freedom to travel.

The flight from Tel Aviv to Kiev is three hours. To journey from Uman to Medzheboz back in the day took days. And it was dangerous. Almost everywhere we stopped, the cold stares of hatred we received from the locals upon realizing we were Jews chilled me to the bone. I couldn’t imagine how Yidden survived ANYTHING back then!

I became profoundly ashamed my own life’s complaints and tribulations. To survive in this unredeeming freezing hell, let alone strive for holiness, holding fast to their Yiddishkeit, was more than I could contain, And tears flowed.

They flowed in pain for the martyrs and a suffering I have never known and they flowed in the swelling pride of their capacity to celebrate being Jewish and Judaism in the most unforgiving of places. They flowed in the humbling suggestion from Heaven of the responsibilities imposed on me as a Jew that could never be shirked for long. And they flowed in the awesome realization of the Jewish journey that spans space and time as no other people have known or lived.

In my mind’s eye, I saw Yankele the water carrier and Avrumi the wood cutter and Yossele the blacksmith. I saw Sarale with her little stand of onions and potatoes and Rochele caring for her children. I saw the one room wooden shacks with mud floors with a candle or two lighting a bleak, below zero winter Shabbat. And I saw the single pot of impoverished Shabbat cholent, mostly water and a few potatoes and onions and maybe if they were lucky, some bones for a meaty flavor. And I saw the humble cheder where for hundreds of years, children learned the holy books in an unbroken chain from antiquity.

Indeed, I saw who we were before that was all destroyed. I saw who we were before the privelges of wealth, freedom and modernity became our assumptions. And I saw who we were before we returned to the Land after the most bitter of exiles. And I will never be the same because of this. And I pray never to forget. And I pray to always remember.

I pray to remember that whatever I thought I knew or understood from my father’s profound teaching of our history or Shlomo’s stories, I knew nothing until I came to the Ukraine. And I still know nothing. I can only remember my imagining. This is my poverty. And I heard the Voice. It told me that I was brought here as much for this remembering and imagining, as much as for any other reason or purpose.

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