A Synagogue Held Up By History

On the way home from Obodivka, Dmitriy and I resolved to make one more stop.

We would be driving through the neighboring town of Bershad, and the helpful article I had read about Obodivka noted that there was an old synagogue still existing in Bershad.   As there wasn't a synagogue to see in Obodivka, we agreed to drive around in the hope that I could at least see a shul from that era and in that region.

Amazingly, the article, written in 2012, not only listed the name of the then leader of the Bershad Jewish community but also listed his phone number, indicating that he - Yafim being his name - spoke only Yiddish ("Iddish" the article said) and Russian.

Inasmuch as I only know about two dozen words in Yiddish (and probably 50% of those are not appropriate for polite conversation), I was grateful once again to have Dmitriy in the driver's seat.  

Dmitriy called the number, Yafim answered, and, after a few minutes of conversation from which I was sure the tone of Dmitriy's voice indicated "sorry, but not today," my expert translator said, "Okay, he told me where to pick him up, and he will take us to the synagogue."

Yafim appeared about 10 minutes later and hopped in the backseat of the Avenger.  I would guess Yafim to be in his mid-80's.  After five minutes on a combination of paved, brick, and dirt roads, we arrived at what, from the outside, simply looked like a rudimentary one story building.

Yafim opened the door, and we walked into a time capsule.  The still operating synagogue, now over 200 years old, is in a building constructed of wood and clay; Yafim called it the only such synagogue structure in the world.  The wooden floors, while they may have been flat two centuries ago, have now taken on angles that would send a marble racing across the sanctuary.

An old freestanding wooden ark stands at the front, with about sixteen two sided pews, with a long narrow table in the middle of each, surrounding a centrally located bimah with four columns around it.  Yafim was proud to point out how the four columns were symbolic of the tent of meeting.  Above the bimah, on the ceiling, are painted the opening words of Ma Tovu.

I smiled to see how the pews were each labeled with seat numbers.  While the entire Bershad Jewish community now totals approximately 40 people, at some time those seat numbers were likely of great value. 

Yafim showed us a Torah sitting on the bimah; not kosher, he said it was just to show to visitors.  The kosher Torah, he explained, was kept at someone's home.  He was proud for us to see their copy of the Talmud, with a special stamp showing it had been inspected and certified by a notable sect of Hasidim.  There was even an old pushke - a tzedakah box - into which I dropped a few hryvnia.

He set up a plate of cookies on one of the pew tables and offered us tea and coffee, pulling a stack of old photos out of a plastic bag to give us a lesson on Jewish life in Ukraine.  As we still had a four hour drive ahead of us, after we finished our tea and coffee, Dmitriy explained that we had to sadly cut the lesson short.

We had enough of a lesson simply by walking through the doors and soaking in the holy essence of the Bershad Synagogue, a building whose walls seem as much held up by history as by wood and crumbling clay.

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