A Ghost of Shtetl Future

For Congregation Ner Shalom ~ Feb. 6, 2015

I took some walks over the last week or two; not here in green Sonoma County, but walks through my family's ancestral shtetl. Well, one of them. A place called Krynki in Polish; the Jews called it Krinek. It is next to the Belarus border, not far from Bialystok, in what was once Grodno Gubernya. I walked there on a Sunday afternoon, then the next day at bed, and a few more times this week. It was a beautiful sunny day in Krinek each time I visited. In fact, it was the same beautiful sunny day each time I visited.

You might not even have noticed me missing, because technically I wasn't. I first visited Krinek eight years ago with my mother and sister, and strolled it on 2 consecutive March days, one similarly sunny and one full of dark, regretful rain. But this time I wasn't there in the flesh. My visit was virtual and I was a kind of cyberghost.

I have always felt drawn to the places of our collective Jewish past, including my family's specific past, and of late I've found myself using high-tech means to maintain my arguably masochistic connection to those places. My iPhone clock tells me the time in Warsaw and the weather app lets me know when it's snowing in Vilna. And sometimes when I want to check in visually, I do so from the sky, using satellite images on Google Earth.

And that's what I'd intended to do last week: a little look-down, look-over, of Krinek. And in that process, I saw for the first time that Google Streetview was now available for Poland.

If you don't know about Streetview, the idea is this. Drivers, hired by Google, roam every street in the world that they can get access to, with a 360-degree multi-directional camera thingy that works with sensors and a rolling shutter. This is mounted on a tower on the roof of the car. As they drive, imagery is taken in from all directions - forward, backward, sides, up and down, the camera's gaze waving like a lulav. Then the massive Google brain stitches these shots together to create, arguably, the world's largest photo - a navigable photo that includes every street, every highway, every publicly accessible house in the world.

And while most people use this function in mundane ways, like seeing what the restaurant looks like that they're trying to find, and maybe the more adventurous among us explore the streets of Rome or Rio, I choose the shtetl.

I can't say why this connection to the Old Country is so important to me. Most American Jews don't remember where the last stop across the ocean was. They might know the country or region even but not the town. Two generations ago, the town continued to be an important marker of identity, even in America. Our grandparents belonged to fraternal organizations, landsmanshaftn, organized to help others from their own shtetl. My great-grandparents were lynchpins in Chicago's Krinker Fareyn, the group for immigrants from Krinek, and my great-grandfather headed the Chevra Kadisha, or burial society. The members of the Fareyn bought and walled off a section of Chicago's monumental Waldheim Cemetery. My great-grandparents are buried there, flanked by Krinker luminaries, such as they are, including Studs Terkel's parents on one side of them, and the Shure Brothers, founders of the pro audio equipment company, on the other.

The generation of Jews who could freely talk about their Eastern European towns and villages is gone. But I like to be an aberration in my generation. Sometimes it's meaningless. Mentioning Krinek has never gotten me a discount or even a smile at Shure Audio, and Lord knows I've tried. But once in a while I do meet someone like me. At Oliver's one day I was sampling coffee from the Bella Rosa people. Ari was with me and there were sugar cubes on the sampling table and Ari joked I should put a cube between my teeth, like my great-grandfather did. I was pleased he'd remembered my story, but I said that he did that not with coffee but with a glezl tey - a glass of tea. David, the owner of Bella Rosa looked up and said, "He was Russian?" I said, "Well, between Bialystok and Grodno." And to my delight, he said, "My family comes from a shtetl between Bialystok and Grodno too." It wasn't the same one, but nearby, and suddenly we were neighbors. Landsman. And now I drink Bella Rosa when I can, because isn't that the job of landsman, to help each other get a leg up in this golden land of opportunity?

So back to my walks. Over these last couple weeks I've gone back to Krinek, with the help of Google Streetview. I move around in the village, navigating using the keys of my laptop. Forward, right, stop. Turn around. Look at the houses in all directions. I can transport myself any direction at will, as long as I don't try to go where the Google car couldn't reach. And so I feel like a ghost, bound by the kind of arbitrary rules that bind ghosts in every legend and every horror film. I can go toward the houses but I can't go in. I can float down a street but not a footpath or a blind alley. I can't go in the water. I am invisible. I am stuck in the same day all the time. My sight is impaired: there are places that are distorted, pixelated; houses sometimes bend or bulge on the periphery.

(Ruins of the Slonimer Yeshivah)

But being a ghost here seems fitting. This was a town that in its heyday had a population of 4000; 80% of them were Jews. There were synagogues, a mikveh, a Slonimer yeshivah. It was a town of labor unrest, where striking tannery workers managed to win a more humane workday of a mere twelve hours. There were reprisals by the Russian Army against the town's Jews for leading those strikes, beginning around 1902, prompting masses of Krinkers to leave for North and South America — my ancestors among them.

There are no more Jews in Krinek. Not a single one, as far as anyone knows. In 1941 they were corralled into a long, narrow ghetto running along the river from the town center to Gabarska Street, where the Jewish tanneries stood. And a year later the Jews were gone altogether and Krynki became a ghost town.

(The path of the Krynki Ghetto.)

How does one live in a ghost town? I don't know. The 800 Poles who remained somehow managed it. They spent the Communist Era and beyond slowly occupying the empty space. It took 65 years for the population count to return to 4000, 65 years of pushing back the ghost town, street by street, house by house.

And my mind gets stuck on what this process looked like. I can't help but think that for every one of those houses, there was a moment when someone pried a mezuzah off a doorpost. Maybe they did it grieving, maybe they did it gloating. But it was a thing, a real thing, a real and symbolic thing that happened, for each of those houses.

Roaming the streets of Krynki, invisible, propelled not by legs on pavement but by fingers on a keyboard thousands of miles away, I look at those houses, at the unevenness of the paint on the doorposts revealing where mezuzot had once, and for generations, been affixed. The town still feels empty. And though I call it a ghost town, I am the only ghost there. The Bashevis Singer-style phantoms you would expect decamped half a century ago, boarding ships to who knows where.

Still, my own odd, ghostly presence allows me to see somehow between the pixels and perceive the celestial beings that have not quite given up on this broken place.

This very week, we read a haftarah from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah has a terrifying vision of God's throne. Above it hover seraphim, fiery beings. Each one has six wings - two hiding its face, two around its legs and the middle two keep it aloft. The seraphim famously cry to each other kadosh kadosh kadosh Adonai tz'vaot; holy holy holy is the Lord of Hosts. And at that cry, Isaiah says,

וינעו אמות הספים מקול הקורא

the doorposts shook from the crier's voice...

And sure enough, it was the doorposts in Krynki where I too saw the celestial beings. Visible only to ghosts like me, there were three at every doorpost of every house. Their upper wings enfolded their heads like turbans. Their lower wings wrapped their bodies like a gabardine. Their middle wings did not beat but instead draped over their shoulders like a tallit, feathers dangling like fringe. They looked like Jews, they looked like my grandparents, but on second thought they didn't look human at all. They looked like all people and all creatures. They were of all genders, each of them, and their eyes were aflame. They were seraphim - fiery angels, determined to burn off the pain, the trauma, of the past.

Standing in their threesomes, they faced the indentation in the paint, the spot where the mezuzah once hung, where the violence of the crowbar took place. I could see the creatures clearly, even while the house itself blurred and the street buckled from too many camera angles. I could see them standing steady, facing the mezuzah, rising up and down on their toes saying kadosh kadosh kadosh, although I couldn't tell if it was in fact aloud that they said it.

(He sees the Google car, but he can't see me.)

They went about their work with singular focus, undistracted by cars or kids on bicycles. They were unfazed by people coming and going out of those very doors. Unlike in Isaiah's vision, the doorposts did not shake at the sound of their voices. Still, if you looked with a different kind of eye, you could perceive that the angels' words were exciting the atoms, animating the molecules. A kind of light, not quite light as we know it, was pooling on the doorpost in the shape of a mezuzah. It was clear that through the angels' steady labor, the house would be restored and the Jews of the house would come to be recreated too, in some spectral way, in their Shabbos finery, with their songs and cigarettes and political arguments and sentimental poems. Parents kissing their children, making kugel, making kiddush, bentshing likht. All of this, re-forged in light.

I do not know to what end the angels' project was undertaken. It seemed to be a tikkun, a healing. If so, was it for the sake of the Jews who were lost? Or for the Polish children living, unaware, in the house? Or for God's own sake, God, whose hands are voluntarily tied and kept from tampering with history, but who wishes forgiveness anyway?

Or maybe the seraphim are teaching us a lesson: that there is healing for all our broken places. Slow healing. Maybe the first step is envisioning those places, both inside and out, as healed, as holy. Imagining them glowing, wondrous. And then our task is to do the work that will, as philosopher Jean Houston has said, "make the wonderful probable."

So perhaps I speculated about this for a moment, but in my ghostly condition I could not have asked, and the seraphim would not have answered. Still, whatever its cosmic purpose, I was suddenly able to see what the angels were aiming at. They were crafting an angle, a facet, of Olam Haba, the World to Come. And there it now was, flickering before me. A glowing Shabbos shtetl, a hubbub of light under a starry Chagall sky. This vision of brokenness healed and life reignited filled my mind and coursed through my veins like fiery brandy. I breathed in the familiar Polish air, catching a hint of pine trees and candlewax and challos baking. It was now Shabbos in the village. The sounds of khasidishe niggunim drifted out of one nearby window; revolutionary anthems out of another. I closed my eyes, a whisper of kadosh kadosh kadosh emerging from my lips as I sighed and closed my laptop.