In Belarus, Finding A Dwindling Jewish Community

VITEBSK, Belarus — Vitebsk, the original home of world-renowned artist Marc Chagall, is an apologetic city.

On everyone’s face is written a different variation of “nu, so we live here.” As they walk on the slushy sidewalks in the biting winter wind, going about their business under overcast grey skies that sometimes open for a pleasant sunset, the city reflects much the same thought.

“Nu,” it seemed to say to me, “I guess I live here too.”

To be fair, maybe I’m the one who is apologetic. I traveled for a few hours on a train from Minsk to find myself in the middle of Belarus, in a rented one-person apartment, and largely doing…well, nothing. Vitebsk is the place I chose to finally relax, to take some time reflecting on a previous year and a half of changes. From 0-60, from calling myself an “independent writer” to proudly referring to myself as “a journalist” when strangers ask what I do.

And so, “a journalist” went all the way to Vitebsk just to sleep, watch Doctor Who, read Amos Oz, and alternately brood and laugh to myself.

So how do I know this is an apologetic city?

On Friday night, in a fit of curiosity, I walked the 30 minutes to the active synagogue, completed only a few years ago. The gate and door were open, and I walked into a lit building that was very, very empty. So I began singing Yedid Nefesh in the sanctuary until others showed up. And after a few minutes, the trickle began.

A man who lives just up the road, who remembered his mother was Jewish when the synagogue was built. “I decided someone in the family has to go,” he said, “so it might as well be me.” In a fit of comfort or arrogance – I still can’t decide which – I told the man “rightly so.” And others came, amused by this 21-year-old who had come from Minnesota (they all knew the state, apparently from watching movies) speaking Russian well enough and defending the right of women to wear tallit, tefillin, and a kipah.

This is where the conversation went when the rabbi, an orthodox and bearded Winnie-the-Pooh character, heard that I was at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. “What does it mean, Conservative,” he wondered, as I alternated between trying to explain, and then giving up to say “look, I’m not a Conservative rabbi.”

There were roughly six men and three women, and the Friday evening service flashed to an end in under 10 minutes. Right before it, I had taken a Hebrew-Russian prayerbook and an older man looked at me in surprise. “You can read the Hebrew letters?” he asked me, and I said yes. I think he, and most of the other men, were doing the prayers in Russian while the rabbi quickly mumbled his way, almost inaudibly, through them in Ashkenazi-accented Hebrew.

Afterwards, I asked the rabbi what Vitebsk Jewish life will be like in 50 years with such a meager showing on Friday night. “That’s a good question…we’ll see in the future,” he said, and bluntly explained he isn’t an optimist. This rabbi is a straightforward guy, born and raised in Eastern Europe.

And around me, in a city that was at one point 50 percent Jewish, I felt a moment of apology. I had come to find the Jews, those like me, but there was just this little pocket and emptiness the rest of the way around. “Sorry,” Vitebsk whispered in my ear.

I preferred to stay in my rented apartment.

But, mandated by curiosity and promises to family, I went on Sunday to the Marc Chagall museum. In a quiet back-end neighborhood nearby the train station, I saw a statue of the man and a sign that said the museum was down the road, 350 meters away. On the walls of the street were written quotes, presumably Chagall’s, in Russian. I stumbled past them as my feet continued trudging and sliding through the swampy snow of the sidewalk.

All in all, it took less than 25 minutes for me to see the museum. Simply put: Marc Chagall’s childhood 5-room brick house still stands, having survived the years and the wars of the region, filled with copies of family photos and some of his rough drawings. In the house is a smattering of original furniture and three plates that belonged to the Chagall family. And then it is populated by artifacts of the time, so to speak. Plates, drawers, mirrors, a Hannukiah, a samovar, and quite a few kettles.

The remains of Vitebsk’s Jewish life in this little house. A cute collection. Nice, and significant due to having housed a great person of our time, but also very flat. “Go to Vitebsk,” I’d been told by family members. “It’s a great city, were many great Jews came from.”

And once again Vitebsk whispered in my ear. “Sorry,” it said apologetically. “To Chagall I may have been alive in every sense – even Jewishly – but now, all I have to show for it is this museum, housed in a random brick survivor of World War Two.”

It’s okay, I thought to myself. I didn’t expect much else.