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In frozen Ukraine, warming up to my Jewish forefathers

I am not a Jew. My father’s family was, however, and part of this trip was about connecting to my distant paternal heritage

When we pray in the synagogue of the Baal Shem Tov, it’s like we’re connected to the supernal Beit Hamikdash and to the perfected version of our own selves.

So said Yehuda Berg, a director of the Kabbalah Centre and the man I consider “my rabbi.” On a freezing January Shabbat morning, 200 students of Kabbalah from 15 different countries prayed and danced and sang in the historic (many would say holy) city of Medzhybizh, Ukraine. As I put on my tallit and recited the Shacharit prayers, I let myself ride on the waves of spiritual excitement that seemed to shake the tiny, crowded room. I felt a long way from California, and an even longer way from the Anglican vestryman I was not so long ago.

The Kabbalah Centre, originally founded by Yehuda Ashlag in Jerusalem in 1922, is often represented in American and Israeli media as a money-grubbing cult, shamelessly peddling for profit a watered-down version of a complex mystical tradition. That media misrepresentation (the charges of financial impropriety have been consistently disproven after multiple investigations in several countries) is rooted in both a fascination with the Centre’s celebrity students (Madonna, Ashton Kutcher, Donna Karan) and in a specific hostility to the way in which the Centre teaches something long seen as solely for married Jewish men to anyone who wishes to learn.

That controversial and radical openness was on full display in the Ukraine last week, as busloads of Jews and non-Jews alike toured the birthplaces of the Hassidic movement, praying at the tombs of tzaddikim like the Baal Shem Tov, Israel Friedman of Ruzhyn, and Meir Hagadol of Premishlan. Tramping through the snow and slipping on the ice (I bruised my shoulder nicely with one spectacular tumble in Lvov), students from around the globe came to draw spiritual sustenance from the souls of the righteous.

The synagogue of the Baal Shem Tov in Medzhybizh, Ukraine (photo credit: Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
The synagogue of the Baal Shem Tov in Medzhybizh, Ukraine (photo credit: Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

Like most “energy” trips organized by the Kabbalah Centre (we’ve done similar tours in Israel on an annual basis), the pace was frenetic. Most of us arrived late Thursday night in the Ukrainian capital after long journeys from the USA, Israel, Brazil, and a dozen other nations. We left Kiev on a Friday morning, driving as quickly as we could on slick and pot-holed roads to reach Medzhybizh before Shabbat came in. After an emotion-driven 25 hours, we loaded back onto our buses on Saturday night. For the next 32 hours – until 3:00 a.m. on Monday morning – we drove from gravesite to gravesite to petrol station restroom.

Ukraine is surprisingly well-equipped with clean 24-hour gas stations, most of which were happy to sell cheap coffee and vodka to exuberant and punchy pilgrims. A former smoker given to the occasional slip, I treated myself to a pack of Marlboro Reds, puffing away at each stop, even as the temperature dropped to -7 Celsius. It wasn’t just the caffeine and nicotine that kept sleep at bay; it was the excitement of making both a tactile and spiritual connection to the source of the Kabbalistic tradition.

I am not a Jew. My father’s family was, however, and part of this trip was about connecting to my distant paternal heritage. Go back far enough on his side, and it’s all Ashkenazim from small villages in what are now Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Ukraine. One great-great-great- grandfather was a rabbi’s son named Shimon, and he served as a judge on a beit din in his little shtetl. Something happened to Shimon, however: late in life, he fathered four sons, to whom he gave decidedly non-Jewish names: Heinrich, Berthold, Ludwig and Rudolf. Heinrich, my ancestor, moved to Vienna and lived a thoroughly secular life. His son, the Hugo for whom I’m named, converted to Catholicism. That conversion didn’t protect the family from Hitler, who cared about “race” more than creed; my uncircumcised and baptized father grew up a war refugee in England. He wasn’t even told the family was Jewish; his parents explained they’d fled Austria for “political reasons.” My dad only discovered his heritage when he was in college. He remained reluctant to talk about it for the rest of his life.

I was looking for that hidden heritage in Medzhybizh and the other sites we visited. Not in a genealogical sense, but in a spiritual one. As I listened to Yehuda Berg read Parashat Bo in the Baal Shem Tov’s synagogue, I felt my father beside me, saying – in his good-natured, understated English way – “this is us, Hugo my boy, and we never knew it.” At the heart of the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching, we heard was the idea that God is everywhere and in everything. At the heart of the Kabbalah Centre’s teaching is the idea that those insights are for all human beings, not just for the children of Abraham.

And so when it came time to say Kaddish, I put aside my fears of cultural appropriation (should only a true Jew do this?) and recited it for my abba, and for all my ancestors, known and unknown. I thought of Shimon Schwitzer and his father, who really was an Abraham, up with my own sweet papa in that supernal Beit Hamikdash. I wept.

About the Author
Hugo Schwyzer is a freelance writer and editor and father of two, living in Los Angeles