JOURNEY TO JERUSALEM
A tale by Johny Noer
THE JEWISH RABBI
"Two thousand years we have now been exiled, the days and months, who can number them? Therefore beloved, let’s pray together: Next year, next year in Jerusalem!
I softly touched the papers with poetry lying in front of me behind the windscreen of the Mercedes bus. God knows, who wrote these meaningful verses on the Jewish rabbi in Russia. They are sung in certain circles in the Western World, and somewhere I must have picked them up and put them together with other notes in my Bible. I never intended to bring these papers through a Russian border post, and I was happy that a kind border officer had understood this.
We had 400 miles to do to reach Kiev, which was the main target of our journey. We had time enough and while beautiful fields with waving people were passing by outside, I started to have a better look at the roads. Would our convoy or large, old fashioned wagons and farmer tractors be able to pass here? Would we at all be allowed to continue our pilgrimage through Kiev?
Over the centuries Kiev has been considered by pilgrims as ‘the holy city’ of Russia. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from all over the world have been travelling for generations towards the golden-doomed buildings of Kiev-Pechersk Laura spread over the high, steep hills of the city.
Pilgrims have never political intentions. The learned Russian historical writer, V.A. Shideko stresses this fact in a small booklet on Laura. He writes: "Pilgrims from all parts of the Russian Empire have been flocking to the Laura seeking grace. To this mass of uneducated, socially oppressed, politically deprived people, peasants for the most part, the Laura only seemed an amazing, magnificent temple."
As one of the results of the October Socialist Revolution, this ‘magnificent temple’ has been preserved and even restored for the generations to come, and by Soviet law it has been declared ‘an integral part of world cultural heritage’, that means that these ‘holy places’ belong to us all! This place of pilgrimage is gracious gift from the Soviet people to the world…
These were the reasons why I was now passing through the Ukraine towards the so called ‘Jerusalem of Russia’, where exactly 1000 years before, in the blessed year of the Lord: 988, Prince Vladimir Suzatoslavich adopted Christianity. According to Karl Marx this period (980-1015) was the ‘culminating point’ in the history of the ancient Russian state.
"You must go to Russia to see whether they will allow us to go there on a pilgrimage", the elders of our convoy said to me, "you must find out whether we one day may be allowed to kneel down under the huge cross on Vladimir Hill in Kiev looking down on the river Dnepr, where our Christian brothers 1000 years ago baptised the first people of ‘holy Russia’ – you must go and find out, if the international laws permitting pilgrims of all religions access to the holy places are also respected in the Soviet Union?"
And with prayer from the pilgrim families we were sent with the old Mercedes bus on the 4000 miles journey to Kiev.
With almost no problems we had now passed the first border post. The only thing we were questioned about was the papers with the poetry on the Russian rabbi. And these papers were delivered back to us with an apology.
While we were driving along, I silently started to sing the first verse of the Jewish rabbi-song:
In holy Russia, in Ukraine, there is a rabbi with hair as snow. He sings his prayers, and reads the Torah; before the Almighty he silently bows.
His heart is longing for Zions Mountains; his eyes are dimly observing them. His lips are trembling each time he mentions the holy name of Jerusalem.
"What connection is there between you and the Jew?" I was asked at the Russian border post. I really didn’t think before the answer burst from my lips: "The Bible!" With a thoughtful smile, the officer nodded. "Of course", he said.
I placed the poetry-papers behind the windscreen, so that I could continue my silent solo-singing, while I was rumbling over the Russian highways:
"In holy Russia, in Ukraine, one day the rabbi stands up and prays. He mentions once more the Holy City; the congregation will hear him say: ‘Two thousand years we have been exiled; the days and months, who can number them? Therefore beloved, let’s pray together: Next year – next year in Jerusalem!"
"We have no exiled Jews in our Soviet state", the officer had said. For a moment he probably didn’t realise that all the 2,7 million Jewish men, women and children, who live and die on Soviet soil are to be considered as ‘exiled’ – viewed from Jerusalem!
I turned the paper on the windscreen: There was no more poetry! Only half of the song had been in my Bible. The rest of the rabbi story must have been forgotten somewhere in the West. While I was still humming the tune, I tried to remember the text of the next two verses.
In holy Russia, in Ukraine, they took the rabbi – arrested him. They broke his heart, his mind was wounded, his thoughts were heavy, and his sight grew dim. When they released him the congregation silently weeping, hiding in caves, and they erected early one morning a Hebrew tombstone upon his grave.
"If this song is a true story, there are reasons to be anxious for the Russian people", I said to Gisèle.
"What do you mean by that?"
"Well, if Jews are not only ‘exiled’ but arrested and persecuted, that might very well be the beginning to the end of the Soviet empire. I know of no nation in world history, who dared to lie hand upon God’s chosen people and survived! Do you remember the last verse of the Jewish rabbi song?
In holy Russia in Ukraine, the words are living the rabbi spoke; it is as if yet the white haired shepherd once more is speaking from death awoke, "No thousand years we now have been exiled, the days and months, who can number them? Therefore beloved let’s pray together: Next year, next year in Jerusalem!"
We arrived late in Kiev.
As soon as we stepped into our hotel room, two years old Jonathan fell upon a sharp corner of a piece of furniture and cut a deep wound in the forehead. While we tried to stop the blood pouring from the little boy’s head, I was surprised to see how quickly a doctor and a nurse arrived. An ambulance rushed us to the hospital, where a smiling woman doctor took the weeping boy out of my arms. I was not allowed to follow into the surgery, but I didn’t mind. I had confidence: There was something efficient about the whole atmosphere; I just knew everything would be alright! A few minutes later the doctor returned with Jonathan; he was calm and had a small stitch in the brow. "We will check him in a couple of days", she said. "Please, don’t let your holiday be disturbed by this little accident."
"How much do I have to pay you?" I asked.
She looked at my astonishment with a warm and proud smile. "You are not in America, Sir", she added, "You are in the Soviet Union!"
From that moment on little Jonathan with the large bandage around his head was the ‘hero‘ at the hotel. It seemed as if everybody knew his story; everywhere he went in the long elegant corridors, eager hands of young and elderly ‘Soviet mothers’ were stretching out to grab him, and unknown words in Russian were whispered with soft kisses in his ears; he received a lot of sweets in those days, - to him anyhow this part of the world was a paradise…
Some hours later I was brought into a Russian-Jewish home with the kind help of the Soviet Intourist service. We could hardly understand each other, and only a few words of Yiddish were spoken. I was moved by the hospitality and kindness of these people, and I shall never forget that lovely evening in the heart of the Ukraine; something very important happened in my life that night.
During the meal an elderly Jewish lady, who might have had problems with her legs, came rocking towards me. She had a large yellow envelope in her hand. With a firm regard, she looked at me for a long time. Her black eyes penetrated into my innermost being. She spoke some Russian words, which I didn’t understand. Or did I? A young son in law interpreted, what she said. "She wants to show you something" he said. I nodded and gave her an encouraging smile.
She did not smile back. Her eyes were sinking even deeper into my heart. It was as if she would tell me something in a language, which both of us understood.
"She wants to show you a picture", the young man interpreted.
"With shaking hands the old woman opened the yellow envelope. While she opened the envelope and took out a picture, black and white of the size of a book, she never stopped gazing into my eyes.
Suddenly I felt the same invisible presence of a person, which I had experienced 25 years ago as a young journalist, when I spoke to a Jewish writer in the Danish town of Kolding. "What is that?" I asked. I heard my own voice trembling. The old woman didn’t answer. The young man explained. "It’s a picture of her father."
She handed me the picture. When I took it in my hand, I was shaken like that day 25 years ago; I was about to weep.
The picture showed an old, white-bearded Jewish rabbi. His hair was white as snow, and his eyes were like dimly observing something glorious in a very far distance.
The old woman closed her eyes as if she was in great pain. Small pearls of tears were creeping down her cheeks. The young man had stopped translating. He looked at us with breathless attention. The Jewish woman and I were speaking to each other without any words, in a language, which is not of this earth.
Then still in this secret inner language of heaven, I heard a voice speaking in my own heart. The voice said, "I have brought you here for this very moment. There is a connection between you and this, my faithful shepherd of my people. I have heard his prayers." There was a moment of silence in my heart. Then a Bible verse was projected very vividly into my mind.
"I have also heard the groaning of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in bondage; and I have remembered my covenant. Wherefore say unto the children of Israel, I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will rid you out of their bondage, and I will redeem you with a stretched out arm, and with great judgments" (Exodus 6:5-6).
The old woman opened her eyes. For the first time she smiled to me. It was like a beam of sunshine spreading over her face. Her old hands were trembling, seeking mine.
For a moment I looked at the picture of the white-bearded rabbi. Then I gave it back to the old ‘Yiddisha mama’, who carefully wrapped it into the yellow envelope. Then she slowly hobbled into another room.
When I shortly after was on my way to the hotel, I stopped for a moment under the high, black October sky. Way up there a few stars were beaming through the swiftly moving clouds. The tunes of a beautiful melody were singing to me from heaven. I joined in with my own voice:
"In holy Russia, in Ukraine, the words are living, the rabbi spoke; it is as if yet the white-bearded shepherd once more is speaking, from death awoke: ‘Two thousand years we now have been exiled, the days and months, who can number them! Therefore beloved, let’s pray together: Next year, next year in Jerusalem’!"