Friday, July 6, 2012

July 4, 2012 Lviv, Ukraine

July 4, 2012               L’viv, Ukraine

In honor of American independence day, Shayna is wearing her red, white, and blue shirt and Marci has her all-American socks.  Rebecca and I are going local!

After a wonderfully deep sleep, we headed down to breakfast within minutes of its end time (on purpose).  We met Svitlana for a tour of Jewish L’vov.  It was, basically, a tour of places that once were Jewish buildings, places where Jews were ghetto-ized, places where Jews were moved, and, in one case, the place where they were killed.

Ahead of this trip, we talked as a family about whether we would visit a concentration camp.  Rebecca was in favor as she has been working with survivors and is interested in participating in a JFCS survivor program for high school youth.  Shayna is not interested at all as the very idea of what happened there, and seeing the buildings and places that it did, would bring pain, anguish, nightmares, and profound sadness.

Thanks to conversations with Zvi, who as a Jewish educator and March of the Living leader, we decided that we would go to Treblinka.  It was a camp but its current state is not as pronounced as others, namely Auschwitz.  It’s more of a park-like setting without having to see ovens (as I did on a visit to Dachau) or the yard where Jews were lined up and shot (as we did on a visit to Terezin).

While we won’t know until we get to Treblinka next week, it is seeming as if it won’t be as traumatic as we feared.  Unfortunately, this is because we are now getting in touch with how many Jews were killed outside of camps.  In every single town we’ve visited, we have heard the same story of Jews forced into ghettos and then the “liquidation” of the ghetto, then, we visit the site of the grave where 10,000 or 50,000 or 100,000 Jews were buried.  In fact, as I prep the photos for the blog, I give each one a quick little title so I can easily know what photo to put where.  This afternoon, I got an error message from my Mac.  It rejected the title “massgrave” because it was already taken.  Too many mass graves.

Sign at L'viv synagogue

Shayna has already borne witness to the death, and death fields, of hundreds of thousands of Jews.  It can’t be avoided because it’s everywhere.  And while Rebecca was complaining that she wanted the opportunity to visit a concentration camp as part of learning more about the survivors she would meet next year, we hopped back in the van for the next site…which just happened to be a concentration (death) camp in L’viv itself.  Rebecca had decided to stay in the air conditioned van.  I came back and told her she should come out….the death camp was here. 

Sign outside the concentration camp in L'viv

This memorial sits opposite the train station that sent Jews to the death camps.

Here's the view from the memorial.  Every sixth Jew killed in a death camp passed over that bridge.

The train station..

WWII era box cars... (that's code)

another view of the memorial

On a brighter note, we saw the one-time residence of Shalom Aleichem and learned that many scholars believe that he formed the inspiration for his story of Tevye, the Milkman, (which inspired Fiddler on the Roof) on a visit to Trochinbrod.

Here's Shalom Aleichem's former residence.

Here's Shayna with the remnant of a mezuzah.

Another hot cream break...

We visited the current synagogue of L’viv, met the rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife), who has spent 19 years in L’viv (originally from Brooklyn), has 11 children and basically keeps the community together, while finding new members to bring in.

In the synagogue

the synagogue interior...

We learned that our guide, Svitlana, led a tour of L’viv for Hilary Clinton, who stayed at the same hotel as us (though I am sure not in the same size room).  She brought Mrs. Clinton to tour the synagogue.

Maybe she sat here?

We learned that most Jews in L’viv are newcomers to the city.  That few are “indigenous Jews” and many L’viv residents might be Jewish but just don’t know it.  (This is much the same story in Poland). 

Ode to Rabbi Darren Kleinberg: I’ve been thinking a great deal about what it is to lead Jewish communities that are remote, or small, or hardly identified.  Listening to the rebbetzin talk about her work, I realized that L’viv Jews are certainly small in number..and even remote…yet there is a great infrastructure set up to serve them.  This trip is reinforcing the fact that outside of major urban areas, most every Jewish community is similar to L’viv, or Phoenix or San Francisco in the demographic challenges it faces and amount of effort it takes to lead.

We bid farewell to Svitlana..

Some more Paul Harvey..

After yesterday’s intense heat, we all but decided that we could scale down our full day of touring in L’viv, a city with a fascinating history but one that is not connected to any of our family histories.  We figured we could manage the two hour morning tour and lunch.  The afternoon, though, would be a good one to shorten to give the girls (and us) some much-needed down time to relax, sleep, do homework (yes!), and just generally get rested.

OK. So we started late at 11 am or let the girls sleep in.  We didn’t get back to the hotel until 6:30 pm…so much for a shortened day.

During our tour of L’viv’s historic district, we walked through a Jewish restaurant built overlooking the remains of L’viv’s Great Synagogue.  The synagogue was named for the daughter-in-law of Rabbi Nachman and the only way to get access was to walk across the patio of the restaurant, through a gate they built around the patio, and then into the ruins of what was the synagogue.

The only remaining wall of the Great Synagogue.  You are looking at the interior.

Marci wanted to make reservations right then for dinner.  Not me.  Let’s just see how we are all doing (translation: not a chance we’re going to hire a cab to drive us back into town, have a very late dinner, get ourselves back and then get the girls up in the morning for an all-day drive to Krakow, Poland).

Marci fell asleep in minutes upon our return.  The girls watched movies on the iPad.  I wrote a blog entry for July 2.  By 8 pm, I suggested that we go down to the concierge to see about places to eat near our hotel. 

There in the lobby sat Jakub, who asked us if we wanted a ride into town for dinner.  Wow.  Marci won.  We’re going to the Jewish restaurant for dinner.  I only asked that we get back ASAP so the girls can sleep.

The Golden Rose Restaurant is decorated with old black and white photographs of pre-war L’viv Jewish life, street scenes, portraits, some classic scenes of Hasidic looking Jews.  Inside, they run a DVD of pre-war Jewish L’viv movies in a continuous loop. 

Here's the movie..

There is klezmer music playing in the background and a fiddle hanging on the wall in the bathroom (ode to Fiddler on the Roof). They have a little gift shop that sells Jewish themed-handicraft, and even kipot.

Hebrew writing remains on some of the walls of the restaurant; other Hebrew has been worn away by time or destruction.  An amazing place to be.

The restaurant entrance...

Jewish art on the walls.

My favorite old LP (er vinyl)

A mizrach in case you need to know the direction of Jerusalem

The menu

Hebrew left on the old walls

We chose to sit at the corner table, outside, overlooking the remains of the Great Synagogue.  While we ate, we could see what was the synagogue interior as well as a memorial plaque to its destruction.

There's the synagogue behind us...

It was kind of cute when we showed up and the server welcomed us by saying “shalom.” 

Good news: they have an English menu…and an English-speaking server.  We were happy.  Within minutes, they had changed around their servers so that we could have an English-speaking experience.

The English menu told the story of the restaurant: a Ukrainian owner and his family who have been torn by the fighting between Ukrainians…political differences, especially during the time of the Soviet occupation…friendships ending because people were so angry at one another over whether they were collaborators with the Soviets or true (enough) Ukrainian patriots.

He opened the restaurant, with a Jewish theme, as a way to encourage love between people and to bring to life some of L’viv’s proud…and now destroyed history.  The menu offers a story of two L’viv residents of different religions who fall in love, only to have their Catholic priest reject them.  The restaurant owner wants to know why any leader would get in the way of love.

Sounds good, no?

The owner also offered another novelty: a menu with no prices.

Chicken liver is back!

Our guide had mentioned briefly during the afternoon walk that this restaurant had no prices on the menu, that you had to negotiate that after you ate.  It seemed rather odd to me.  Rebecca was immediately repulsed.  “I’m not going to bargain for my food,” I believe was her statement.

Slow, Dad, slow.  It did take me a little while…OK until after I saw the menus and really did see no prices..that I began to wonder about the motivation for this oddity. 

As my friend, Howard Simon, would have channeled if he were there: you won’t know if you don’t ask…   So, when our server returned, I asked about why we were asked to bargain for our food.  She smiled and said she didn’t know.  Hum…  What do you think?  Don’t go there!  OK, go there!!!

We became uncomfortable at this point.  We began talking about whether this really was anti-Semitic.  We started trying to figure out how to reconcile all the information listed in the opening to this section with this reality of having to bargain for your food price.  I was respectful and courteous with our server but I wanted to press her.  The next time she came, I asked her if she was Jewish.  She said, “yes, I am.  I am a Ukranian Jew.”  “What’s a Ukranian Jew,” I responded.  She said she was a Ukranian Jew because she works at that restaurant.  I asked how long she’d been a Ukranian Jew and she said “three months.”  Oy.  Double Oy.

The five of us continued to process this.  We relied on Jakub to tell us about Ukrainian cultural attitudes towards Jews.  The server came back…  “How did you learn English?”  “Where did you study?”  “What did you study?”  Anything to learn more about her.

Then….the internet…

They provided free wifi so, channeling Larry Stadtner, I figured that I could find the Yelp reviews and see if our worst fears were true.  While I didn’t find Yelp (and I know Larry is looking it up as he reads this), I did find a news story about the restaurant.  There, at the table, I began reading about the owner, a Ukranian apologist for the Communist occupation who owns three different restaurants in L’viv, each one playing on negative stereotypes of different peoples.  The article said that the Jewish restaurant was the most offensive of all.

I read on…

They give customers black Hasidic hats with peyes taped on the edges to wear during their meal.  NO WAY!  Then, Rebecca reminded us that she saw someone wearing one during our walk-through on the tour.

They put a plate of matzah on the table when you arrive and tell you “it’s traditional Jewish bread.”

The server came around with a pitcher of water and told us that it is traditional for Jews to wash their hands before eating and then has each of us wash our hands. Believe it!  As our server explained, “The Jews have men wash first” (before walking over to me).

And I did recite the appropriate blessing!

Surreal moment…Jewish identity test..humanity test…what, on earth, would you do at this point?  We were so shocked, so offended, we didn’t know what to do.  Our main response was humor, playing out each of these facts with each other in comedic disbelief.

I immediately remembered that if a Jewish person eats pork but didn’t know they were eating it, it is accepted and understood.  We were only hoping that we would be understood, if not forgiven for eating there because we had no idea.

One reaction would be to storm out (and I can only imagine many of you are wondering why we were still there).

Another would be to play along as “good Jews.”

We picked door #3. 

Speaking for myself, I am on this trip to learn…and what an incredible learning moment this presented.  First and foremost, I wanted to understand…to figure out how and why this was happening.  My own reaction would come later….

I told Marci that I didn’t even want to go out for dinner, that this was the most offensive meal I had ever had….and I thanked her for bringing us there.  This was one EPIC moment and I intended on playing it out as best I could.

(One moment of comedy: the hummus they served was AWFUL.  Marci and Jakub started remembering the hummus each had enjoyed at the restaurant Abu Gosh, outside Jerusalem.  “Abu Gosh,” I said pointing to the East.  “Abu GROSS,” I said, pointing to the table.  It may not be funny but at that moment, the five of us were roaring with laughter…  Nerves, I suppose).

Rebecca dubbed us the “undercover Jews, finding our roots”, a new Ukrainian reality show we are sure would win us millions of Ukranian crowns!

Another moment of comedy, and an attempt to speak more with the server… I called her over and told her that normally I would ask for a check…but with no prices, what do you do?  (smile, laughs).

She said that she talks to the chef, Mrs. Sonja, who gives a price and then we haggle.  She left to speak to Mrs. Sonja.

I asked the group how we should proceed with this.  (We were channeling Debbie and Zvi here…wondering….OY…..what this moment would have been with you!)  We decided that we would be respectful of her and let it play out.

She came back to tell us it costs 800 crowns.  We haven’t been in the country long enough to figure out how fair that was but I knew that our lunch was much less.  I told her I thought that was too high.  She then dropped it to 700 crowns but told us that if we all danced the hora for her, she would drop it to 600 crowns.

Between my identity as a Jew, a father, a teacher, and a Jewish Studies professor, for goodness sake, that was it.

I reached my limit..mostly because I wanted to puke.

I told her, in a rather clear and stern voice, that we would not be dancing the hora for 100 crowns.  She smiled and urged me to do it.

I asked her if she knew the English word “stereotype.”  She had not.  The game was over.  This was not fun.

I explained to her that Jews were often blamed for being cheap with money; that it was a terrible stereotype, that it was not true; that it was hurtful to Jews.

I told her that asking us to dance for 100 crowns was insulting to us and that we would not do it.

I told her that we would happy to pay the extra 100 crowns before we would dance for her.

Her response: “If you have a gift for Mrs. Sonya, she may take the price down to 500 crowns.”  Oy.

None of us had anything to give her….nor anything that we would even consider appropriate.

Then, I found my business card…the one that said I was a Jewish Studies professor.  I whispered to Marci that I was a little nervous sharing my name and address with her but we both agreed to move forward.

I handed her my card, told her that I was Jewish, that I was a university professor, and that I am an expert in Jewish history.  I told her that what this restaurant was doing was very offensive and I invited her to give my card to Mrs. Sonja and tell her that, in exchange for 100 crowns, I would help her get her Jewish history correct.

She said that with the gift, she was able to give us a discount to 500 crowns. 

She left with the credit card, met with Mrs. Sonja, and came back to the table….

While she was gone, we all talked about the fact that this server has no idea…absolutely no idea…  She is so divorced from knowledge about Jews and Jewish life that she’s working at this restaurant without knowing how offensive it is.  As Rebecca pointed out, the restaurant was doing the business..  “This would never happen in the U.S,” she pointed out.  Jakub told us that this could never happen in Warsaw.  What a great moment for us to show the girls about different cultures, what they would allow to happen, what would never happen, how, and why… 

Shayna spent much of the time watching my moves, asking me what I was going to do and why.  It was, for me, a moment when I knew that I was “on” as a dad, that I was teaching at every moment, and that she would watch how I handled it and, I hope, internalize it.

The server returned:

“Good news,” she said, “Mrs. Sonja will only charge you 400 crowns.” (which, I will tell you, is $50, a very reasonable price for dinner and drinks for 5.).  I paid the bill but held back the tip money. I told the family and Jakub that I wanted to speak privately with the server before leaving. (and Shayna did ask what I said).

I walked up to her, I thanked her for her service, I handed her the tip, and I told her that I understood that she’s only worked there 3 months and she’s not aware of the stereotypes.  Then, I told her that what she was doing was very hurtful and that Jewish people are very offended by it.  I told her that I needed her to know how bad it was.  I told her I knew that her boss had several other restaurants, that there has been criticism in L’viv about what he’s doing.  I told her that I wasn’t asking her to challenge her boss…but I did want her to know so she could think about it.

Her response:  (with a big smile) “Come back again, please.”

As we left, a server near the door smiled, “Shalom.”

You bet.

..and now you know, the rest of the story…

We took the girls for gourmet chocolate to finish the night with a better taste in our mouths.

Thinking about Rabbi Lezak...

white chocolate hot chocolate with Rebecca's right hand

PS Other than the hummus, the food was really good.

PPS Jakub turned on his cel phone video camera and captured my conversation with the server about dancing the hora.  

It's been a long day!

1 comment:

  1. Surreal...absolutely surreal Mosh. I'm literally speechless. Who does this guy think he's catering to other than unsuspecting tourists or Ukrainian anti-Semites out for a good laugh on the town? I don't suppose it could have been handled any better so kudos to you and your family. Definitely an attempt at a teachable moment.