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Taking My First Trip to Ukraine, Under the Watchful Eyes of Jesus

A visit to Lviv for my brother’s wedding showed that for some Jews with Eastern European roots, you can’t go home again

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(Malina Saval)
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Vodka bottles, different sizes bearing a variety of labels in Ukrainian, were arranged in a crescent on a picnic table, alongside several cans of lukewarm Coke, a tray of sliced cucumbers and beets, a plate of mashed whitefish garnished with dill, and little porcelain teacups filled with hot borscht. This was the rehearsal barbecue for my brother’s wedding this summer, set up in the backyard of his fiancée’s sister’s house on a muddy stretch of farmland outside Lviv. Or, to be more precise, it was the rehearsal for his weddings, because he was having two ceremonies: one Jewish, one Catholic.

I was yawning, jet-lagged after traveling for 18 hours on three airplanes to get there. My kids, aged 4 and 6, napped on lawn chairs. My husband picked at a plate of radishes, staying out of the way while my aunt screamed—about Obama, which is what she usually screams about—at the Jewish Humanist officiant my brother had flown over from London. My incorrigibly inappropriate dad flirted with the bride’s best friend while my mom was sipping cognac, carrying around a squished roll of American toilet paper in a Ziploc bag.

Then it started to rain. There was a mad dash to cover the food with a tent and move the chairs inside. Lightning struck. Then came the thunder. Then it started to hail.

We all ran into the house as golf-ball-sized chunks of ice pounded against the roof. We flew up the stairs and huddled inside the carpeted attic, where a giant painting of Jesus loomed large above the fireplace. My head spinning a bit—I hadn’t slept since we left Los Angeles—I sat down on the sofa just as a bolt of lightning flashed bright through the window. The entire house shook.

This was not the wedding experience that I had envisioned for my brother. More important, as a Jew with Ukrainian roots, this is not how I envisioned my first trip to the country where my maternal grandmother was born in 1902 in a small town near Odessa, and from where she and her entire family fled during pogroms. Chased from her childhood home, my grandmother was 8 years old when she crossed the Atlantic with two older brothers on a ship bound for Ellis Island. On my visit to Ukraine, I wanted to reconnect with my ancestral heritage. I wanted a Steven Spielberg remake of the whole shtetl experience. I wanted Fiddler on the Roof. I wanted Yentl. I wanted my brother to have a real Jewish wedding, with a real rabbi and salty kosher chicken and Hasidic bottle dancers. Where was Mandy Patinkin? Where was Topol? Where, exactly, was I?

Prior to WWII, Lviv had a flourishing Jewish community; with over 200,000 Jews, the Ukrainian city had one of the biggest communities in Eastern Europe. Today, about 5,000 Jews live in the city, and there is one functioning Orthodox synagogue. But, for the most part, all that’s left of Lviv’s vibrant Jewish past are the dilapidated remains of the Golden Rose synagogue, which the Nazis burned down in 1942, a few overgrown cemeteries, and a plaque marking the spot where the Reform synagogue, built in the 17th century, once stood.

The rest of Lviv was left unscathed by the Nazi invasion, and today the cobblestone streets of the Old Jewish Quarter are lined with brick buildings painted mint green and lemon yellow. There are coffee shops and cafés on every corner, and local women in floral-printed dresses selling heart-shaped lollipops and chocolate bars. At night, with its soft pink sunsets and twinkling lights, Lviv is magical. But there’s also an eeriness that lurks throughout its stone and brick walls. Lviv, to me, felt like a city of ghosts.

***

When I was growing up in Boston, we never actually referred to ourselves as “Ukrainian Jews.” For starters, when my grandmother was born, Odessa was part of Russia, so if anything we were “Russian Jews.” But when I went to Hebrew high school, I met a bunch of Jewish girls who had emigrated from Kiev and Odessa. They had accents like Bond girls, long black hair, and bright blue eyes. Listening to their stories of Soviet Russia and descriptions of the Black Sea in winter, I decided I wanted to more deeply explore my Ukrainian side. They were impossibly cool in their green-glitter eye-shadow and fake leather miniskirts from Express, and because I happened to have a Slavic name (Malina means “raspberry” in Russian), I somehow finagled my way into their über-exclusive clique. Suddenly I was a Ukrainian Jew!

As I became an adult, I felt like Ukraine was a place where I might someday find a connection, a piece of my family or even a piece of myself. Until I actually visited.

The day after the rehearsal barbecue, as our Soviet-era van ascended the hill to the church where the Catholic ceremony was being held, it occurred to me that there was a strange sort of symmetry to my brother marrying a Ukrainian girl, but it was a warped symmetry, like that Jesus painting on the wall.

It’s not that I didn’t like my brother’s new bride—I’d only met her on two separate occasions, so I didn’t know her well, but she seemed sweet and highly intelligent. Still, her presence seemed to threaten the very spirit of my American Jewish identity. She never got any references to Woody Allen movies, and my jokes about Hebrew school fell completely flat. I knew that none of this was her fault, but I resented her nonetheless.

During the church service—which the priest conducted entirely in Ukrainian—my dad stood slouching in a back corner pew, behind the hired string quartet, his eyes darting confusedly around the room and his hands dug deep in his suit pant pockets, taking one out every few minutes to smooth his pepper-gray, hairsprayed comb-over. While the priest sang passages from a white leather-bound Bible, my dad and my other brother whispered Seinfeld jokes—“Your brother has the kavorka!”—back and forth, in an attempt to add a bit of levity. I stood in front of them, a bit closer to the action. My daughter was the ring bearer and held a small satin pillow on which two gold wedding bands were hooked around fake diamond studs stitched into the fabric. I helped her hold it upright as my brother and his fiancée entered the church holding hands.

Even though my brother wasn’t converting to Catholicism or renouncing his Judaism—he made a point of assuring us that he was still Jewish, and he would still fast on Yom Kippur and post Facebook photos of his cats playing with dreidels— a wave of emptiness and sadness washed over me. I was no perfect Jew by any stretch of the imagination, so this wasn’t a commentary on my brother’s level of observance. He’d told us numerous times leading up to the wedding that the church service didn’t even mean anything to him, that he was just going along with it for the sake of his fiancée’s family, for whom it was important. But of course it meant something. One of the main thrusts of Catholicism is that symbols mean things. And if getting married in a church didn’t mean anything to my brother, then how could Judaism—or our ancestral Jewish roots— mean anything, either? If it was true that the Catholic ceremony was meaningless, then why even bother having a Jewish ceremony at all?

Had my brother chosen to marry say, a Methodist girl from Minnesota, would I have felt so strongly the sting of religious rejection, the betrayal of our familial past? Was it because we were standing in a place with such deep personal meaning, a place from where our relatives were carted off like cattle to meet their horrific end, that I was so bunched up in shame? Then again, if my brother hadn’t married a Ukrainian girl, I might never have even gotten to Ukraine—not that I was seeing the parts of Ukraine I had always wanted to see, or at least the bits that remained of the parts that once existed. As these thoughts raced through my mind, I kept reminding myself that this wasn’t about me, that this wedding had nothing to do with my cultural identity, and that it would all be over in an hour (or two, or three) and that would be that.

Then I felt something wet hit my forehead.

The priest was shaking his aspergillum in the air, sprinkling holy water on my daughter. Suddenly, the entirety of my children’s nascent Jewish education flashed before my eyes: Jewish preschool, Hebrew school on Sunday mornings, not to mention all those Shalom Sesame DVDs I that I’d “borrowed” a year and half ago and still needed to return to the synagogue library. I did my best to act composed and suffer the spritz in silence, but my hand had other plans: Reaching out, as if by reflex, it swatted the priest’s hand away from my daughter, a light rainfall of holy water landing on the head of the person standing next to me.

As I dug around my purse for a tissue, the priest led my brother and his beautiful flaxen-haired bride around the church, stopping at various focal points along the way: a shrine with flickering red votive candles in front of which my brother’s fiancée knelt and made the sign of the cross; icons of saints; the altar, which the couple circled three times (symbolizing the Holy Trinity); and the pulpit, where the priest placed their hands, wrapped together in a rushnyk, a traditional Ukrainian wedding towel, atop a big wooden cross. At one point the priest had my brother and his betrothed stand facing one another and placed giant gold crowns atop their heads, a Ukrainian custom, as they exchanged vows. My brother (the King) and his wife (the Queen) were now officially married in the eyes of the church.

By the time we got to the Jewish ceremony, held outside in a woodsy park next to the restaurant where the reception would be, my kids were completely tuckered out, nodding off on the laps of my parents. My brother and his bride linked hands under the chuppah as a crowd gathered around the outer edge of the grassy area, watching the wedding unfold in a state of rapt fascination. Clearly, they had never seen a Jewish wedding before (my brother and his wife had to get special permission from the city to erect the chuppah on public property), and by their quiet stillness and steady stares, you could tell they beheld it with a mix of curiosity and confusion. We were a spectacle, like a species once thought extinct by scientists and now on open display for the world. And while it was actually cool that the locals were interested in what was going on, and so deeply respectful you could not hear a pin drop as I recited one of the sheva brachot, it still felt strange and weird. It wasn’t that aspects of it weren’t beautiful—the rabbi’s words were heartfelt and pure; the ketubah, with its golden font and warm yellow and orange colors, was a stirring work of art—but it just just didn’t feel authentic. The rabbi wasn’t really a rabbi. The bride wasn’t Jewish. My kid had just been sprinkled with holy water. It felt like a theatrical performance, or an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

My brother stepped on the glass and everybody—including the spectators—broke out in applause. There were a few shouts of Mazel tov! but most of the guests were unfamiliar with Jewish traditions and so what is usually the big finish to a Jewish simcha felt a bit empty and dull. But everybody around me looked so joyous, so festive in their summer sundresses and colorful Ukrainian garb, I wondered if maybe I was missing something in this whole experience that everybody but me understood. After all, my brother’s wife was embracing (at least in part) a culture and religion that her country once sought to annihilate. That could not have been a simple process for her, but she did it with great enthusiasm, as did her family. Her mother was the one who hired a Ukrainian wedding band that knew how to play “Hava Nagila” (which they played as we hoisted my brother and his bride up in the air). My brother’s wife was the one who picked out the ketubah and convinced my brother that they needed 50 suede yarmulkes (even though only five people wound up wearing them). And yes, in the end, theirs was a Jewish Humanist wedding watered down by drops of holy water, and maybe it was a little sad, but it was also reality, and the reality of modern Jewish life. And it was neither my responsibility nor even in my power to change. And then it occurred to me: Wasn’t it ultimately better that I encourage my brother’s Ukrainian wife to learn more about Judaism than cast her good intentions aside simply because she wasn’t one of us?

Because this summer she became part of our family, so in a way, she was one of us. And as she and my brother walked away from the chuppah and down the aisle together, married twice in one day in two separate religions, they were beaming, they were laughing. They were happy.

***

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Taking My First Trip to Ukraine, Under the Watchful Eyes of Jesus

A visit to Lviv for my brother’s wedding showed that for some Jews with Eastern European roots, you can’t go home again