‘What is kasher?’: Experiencing Jewish Ukraine under Soviet rule

Summer 1989. Mikhail Gorbachev had become the prime minister of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in May. He was opening the USSR to the West with “Glasnost” and “Perestroika.” My family and I visited the USSR and took a side trip to Lviv, the Ukrainian city that is now in the headlines with war ranging in the Ukraine. 

I had been very active in the movement to free Soviet Jewry in the Seventies and early Eighties. As President of Greater Washington’s Jewish Community Relations Council I had dedicated lunch hours to the protests across the street from the Soviet Embassy on Sixteenth Street and had spoken at community rallies. But unlike many of my contemporary Jewish activists, I had never been recruited to make an expense-paid trip to the Soviet Union to meet with Jewish refuseniks.

Rikki (that’s my wife), who has all the original ideas in our family, suggested that it was time for us to experience personally what was happening to Jews under Soviet rule and to help on the scene, even if we had to finance the trip ourselves. We arranged for the family – our daughters Alyza and Na’ama, my mother-in-law Rebbetzin Tzivia Gordon, a”h, Rikki, and I — to travel from mid-July to mid-August to what was then known as Leningrad (now renamed again St. Petersburg) and Moscow. 

If we were headed there, said my father Isaac Lewin, why not also visit Lemberg, now known to the world as Lviv (also occasionally identified with a change in its one vowel as Lvov). It had been a center of Jewish life in pre-war Poland. My grandfather, Rabbi Aaron Lewin, the chief rabbi of Rzeszow (“Reisha”), who had been elected twice to the Polish parliament (“Sejm”), had fled to Lemberg when the Nazis marched into Western Poland. In July 1941, he and his brother Rabbi Yechezkel Lewin, were murdered there by a Ukrainian mob. Maybe, my father said, you could find the handwritten manuscript of his highly acclaimed Torah commentary HaDrash ve-HaIyun that had only been partially published (in four of an anticipated six or seven volumes) when Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939. So in making arrangements through Intourist (mandatory for visitors to the USSR in those days), we included a side visit to the then-Soviet city.

I had solicited from various Soviet Jewry organizations the names and phone numbers of Jews who we should contact on our trip (To avoid detection by the authorities, the information was stored on my Casio watch – then a novelty – which recorded names and phone numbers). All the organizations told me that in Lviv there was only one contact – a young man named Elimelech Shochet – who was an observant Jew. I was given his phone number.

We arrived in Lviv on Thursday, July 20. After checking in to the deluxe Holiday Inn hotel assigned us by Intourist, I dialed Elimelech’s number. I heard several rings and then an answering machine spewed out a message in incomprehensible Ukrainian. I replied in Yiddish, “Shalom. My name is Lewin from Washington, DC. We arrived today and are at the Holiday Inn” with the room number. I expected a return call all afternoon, but got none. I attributed this silence to the fact that it was the Seventeenth of Tammuz, a fast day. He’s probably at the synagogue, I speculated. 

We slept uneasily, hearing noise from a linen closet adjacent to our room that sounded like the insertion of an eavesdropping device by Soviet police. Early the next morning there was a knock on our door. We opened it to see a tall clean-shaven youth wearing a beret. He said, in accented English, “I am Elimelech Shochet. Happy to see you here. How can I help?”

Elimelech now writes his name as Meylakh Shekhet. He now has a full-sized white beard. Although we had been urging him for many years to make Aliyah to Israel, Meylakh stayed in Lviv to maintain a Jewish presence and preserve Jewish history, particularly by arousing opposition to, and initiating litigation against, any effort to eradicate Jewish cemeteries. After maintaining bachelorhood for decades, he finally married and recently celebrated the birth of a child. He travels occasionally to the US to study aerial maps to locate the precise location of Jewish cemeteries.

Elimelech guided us around Lviv over the next five days. He invited me to his apartment which, he said, had not been visited by other Jews who had come to the city and contacted him for assistance. On the wall were photos of his parents, both deceased, who were natives of Belarus. His father was wearing tefillin for the picture. Elimelech told me that he was trying to revive Jewish life in what had been a Jewish metropolis. He had gathered a number of young Jews into a song-and-dance troupe that met and rehearsed weekly. He posted signs on the streets of Lviv inviting all to a Purim party that year at which the troupe performed. He gave me a poster, and it now adorns a wall in our home. It has Hebrew lettering but, following the Soviet policy of suppressing Jews’ religious identity, the words “Yom Tov” are deliberately secularized. A surprisingly large crowd had turned up for the Purim celebration but there was no reading of the Megillah or religious service. 

Elimelech explained that when I had called his home he was away rehearsing with the dance troupe. He was surprised to hear that it was a fast day on the Jewish calendar and admitted he had never heard of the Seventeenth of Tammuz.

Shabbat was approaching, and I asked Elimelech how we could get to the synagogue for services. He replied that Lemberg’s historic synagogue had been shuttered since 1962 because the Soviet authorities claimed that its president was dealing illegally in gold (When we returned to the US, I contacted Richard Schifter and others in the State Department and on Capitol Hill to press the Soviets to reopen the synagogue. It was reopened for Rosh Hashanah). 

A few Jews assembled on Saturday mornings at an apartment in Lviv for prayer. The minyan included two converts, and they were in the small group when we came on Shabbat morning. When the prayers ended, Elimelech told me then that we were invited to a birthday party that afternoon for a member of the dance team who was also teaching them Hebrew. It would be a great opportunity to meet his friends and convey support from America’s Jews. The teacher’s home was a short walk from our hotel, and Elimelech assured me that we could come without violating any rule of Shabbat observance (We had brought kosher packaged food for the trip to Lviv).

There were already several troupe members at the apartment when we arrived, and more came after us. The Hebrew teacher’s mother was busy in the kitchen preparing a dish of meat and potatoes. We were invited to sit on a sofa facing a platter of neatly arranged fresh fruit. The crowd knew virtually no English, and I was able to converse with them only by speaking Hebrew, translated instantaneously by the young man who was their teacher. 

When everyone was settled and we had nibbled on our fruit while the main course was served, Elimelech called on them to show the visitors what they had been rehearsing. They sang several Hebrew tunes, including the popular “Ve-Karev Pezureinu” (translated by ArtScroll as “draw our scattered ones near”). Elimelech then asked me to respond. I spoke in Hebrew, and the teacher translated. The translation proceeded fluently until I noted that one of the songs they had performed was a part of the “tefilah” (prayer) recited on major Jewish holidays like Pesach and Sukkot. The teacher stopped, looked puzzled, and said to me in Hebrew, “What is ‘tefilah?’” I tried to explain in simple Hebrew that it was the recitation we did in the synagogue.

The party ended and the celebrants had left when the Hebrew teacher approached me and said he had a question. I invited him to reveal it. “Elimelech told us that you were ‘kasher’ and we should put out fruit for you. We’ve done that, but I don’t understand. What is ‘kasher?’”

These gaps in Hebrew comprehension mystified me until I learned that the teacher’s basic text, from which he taught himself Hebrew and taught others, was Elef Milim, a lexicon of one thousand Hebrew words. It was a Hebrew-language volume that the Soviet authorities tolerated. Neither “tefilah” nor “kasher” is included in the thousand. The Jewish community in this once thriving citadel of Jewish learning had been reduced to Jewish illiteracy by Soviet oppression.

We also witnessed an echo of Ukraine’s historic mistreatment of Jews. On Sunday Elimelech brought us to a demonstration for Ukrainian independence. The marchers on a Lviv thoroughfare chanted a Ukrainian ditty that we had heard from a bar in our hotel. It had a catchy cadence. I parroted it and asked Elimelech what it meant. He replied, “They are saying, ‘We will drown the Russians in Jewish blood.’”

About the Author
Nathan Lewin is a Washington, D.C., attorney who specializes in religious freedom cases before the US Supreme Court.
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