We meet the Hasids of Uzhgorod for Sukkot

Trip Start Oct 02, 2011
Trip End Oct 27, 2011

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Flag of Ukraine  ,
Wednesday, October 19, 2011

We had just shaken hands with Mikhail Galin, the director of Hesed Shpira, when we heard a yelp, followed by wild clapping and raucous singing. Soon four black-clad Hasids came crashing up the stairs, brandishing a lulav and an etrog.  Oblivious to our presence, they careened around the hallway where we stood, with full-tilt singing and dancing.  Mikhail shrugged, and smiled sheepishly.

This was the last day of Sukkot, The Festival of Booths, sometimes called The Feast of  Ingathering.  During Sukkot we give thanks to God for the harvest.   A special holiday ceremony involves "The taking of the four species."  Who knew that we would be taking the four species with Hasids in Uzhgorod? 

Our guide was Monika, a university student who also taught English to children at the guest house.  She had led us to Hesed Shpira, the Transcarpathian Charitable Foundation, where we hoped to find more information about the Klein family.  The mission of Hesed Shpira is to support the sparse Jewish population in Transcarpathia, especially the few remaining Holocaust survivors.  They provide food and clothing, and educate children in things Jewish.  They also help Diaspora Jews find information about their ancestors. 

Eventually the quartet quieted down.  Their leader, a Rabbi who had come to Uzhgorod from Jerusalem, asked me in Yiddish if I were Jewish.  He also spoke Russian, so Mikhail was able to translate.  Ascertaining that I was qualified to take the four species, he handed me the etrog—a special citrus fruit grown in Israel.  I held it in my left hand and pressed it against a bouquet of palm, myrtle, and willow branches that the Rabbi gave me to hold in my right (collectively these branches are called the lulav).  Reciting the prayer after the Rabbi, I moved the four species in the required six directions: forward, to the right, to the back, to the left, up, and down.  Carol was next.  Since Annie wasn't Jewish, the Rabbi apologized, she wasn’t able to take the four species. 

After all the staff members had taken the four species the rabbi and his entourage began yelping and clapping again, and charged off.  Mikhail then took us on a little tour of the Foundation.  He showed us the puppets used to teach the children Bible stories—we met Noah, Moses, and the characters from the Book of Esther, including the evil Haman with his big ears.  Then Mikhail proudly displayed an enormous shofar, the color of milk and chestnuts, which he blew for us. 

In his office we told him about our experience in Shalanki and wondered if he had access to records of the Klein family.  We were especially eager to confirm that Grandpa indeed had a half brother Samuel who came to America.  Mikhail opened a big book—a compilation of genealogical information about the Jews of Transcarpathia.  Once again, I held my breath.  He opened to “Клейн,” and counted.  There were at least ten pages of Kleins, each page with at least twenty names.  My family name was the Smith of Transcarpathia! 

Mikhail said that to do a proper search it was necessary to dig into the archives, which, confirming what the Berehove ladies had told us, were right here in Uzhgorod.  But the search could be done only if we could supply Grandpa Klein’s exact birth date.  We agreed that I would find it and send it to Mikhail.  Once he got it he would consult the archives if I would fill out a government form giving him permission to search on our behalf.  That night I sent an email to Carole’s sister, Dianne, who found Grandpa’s birthday on his social security card, which miraculously she had.  I’ve emailed this information to Mikhail. 

After fond farewells to Mikhail as well as to Queen Esther and King Ahasuerus, Monika led us on a tour of Uzhgorod.   Of special interest, she pointed out a semi-hidden Star of David framing a high window in an old brick house (see photo).  She said that during Soviet times all religious symbols were forbidden. But to demonstrate their faith, Jewish people secretly built six-pointed stars or menorahs into the cobblestone pavement or hid them in the architecture of buildings.

On our return to the guest house we experienced Sukkot, Part II!  Some Dutch people had driven several vans full of food, clothing, books, and other supplies from Holland for donation to Jewish people in the region, particularly for Holocaust survivors.  So in the guest house auditorium they were all celebrating Sukkot.  There was vigorous singing and dancing.   Things reached near-Hasidic intensity with Hava Nagila, a song that seemed to have followed us from that Italian restaurant in Budapest.
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julie on

You will be processing this for some time! What an adventure. Guts, determination, patience, faith, a sense of humor, and imagination. All here in spades.

Julie on

Oh yes. What's that Yiddish word? Maybe a little Chutzpah thrown in.

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