Thursday, July 7, 2011

Secret Prayer Meetings in Teplik

Regular followers of the AHEYM blog will know that one of the ways in which many Jews of Ukrainian small towns express their Jewish identity is through food customs.  They often associate holidays with food and speak of sharp distinctions between Jewish and non-Jewish modes of eating.  Today's clip looks at a couple of the other ways that Jews expressed their identity in the 1930s—through prayer and pilgrimage to the graves of Hasidic rebbes.  

Many synagogues were closed during the anti-religious campaigns of the 1920s and 1930s, forcing those who continued to practice to do so outside of the official synagogue.  Judaism does not require a formal structure, such as a synagogue, for prayer; it only requires a prayer quorum, or minyan, for the recitation of certain prayers.  Thus, those who continued to practice could do so in private homes.  Believers established minyans that met clandestinely when there was no synagogue available.   Reports from local authorities indicate that they were aware of the presence of minyans, but for the most part chose not to act against them, so long as the members were predominantly elderly and were not attracting the youth away from Communism.   

In this clip, Maria Yakuta, who was born in Teplik in 1921, recalls how her father would go to a minyan to pray.  She also discusses how her father would make pilgrimages to the graves of Hasidic rebbes, particularly Nahman of Bratslav (also known as Nahman of Uman).  Largely neglected in the postwar period, the graves of Hasidic rebbes have once again become popular sites of pilgrimage both for Hasidic Jews from around the world and for the local Ukrainian population—Jewish and Christian—who sometimes ascribe supernatural properties to the graves.  

In the selected clip, the viewer also sees Dov-Ber's interest in the linguistic properties of the Yiddish language.  Dov-Ber asks Yakuta to repeat certain phrases in order to hear her dialect precisely, and he is very interested in the terminology she uses to describe the rebbe.  Whereas she describes him as a "pious Jew," Dov-Ber is curious to see whether the archaic term for a Hasidic rebbe, "a good Jew," still has any resonance.

--Jeffrey Veidlinger

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