With only 3,000 Jews in Vilna it probably should not be surprising that I would meet someone more than once. Tonight Vilna’s Jewish community came together at Chabad House to celebrate Simchat Torah. Finding where was easy thanks to Google. My challenge was when: the exact date and time. I know the irony of me going to talk with Jews and yet not knowing Jewish holidays. But maybe the importance for this unobservant Jew who easily lets holidays and rituals slip by is to be proud of the strenght of these rituals that have survived and endured time and challenges. Thanks to those who do NOT take them for granted.
At 6:30p.m. the sun had settled in for the night (and Jewish holidays begin at sundown) and there I was at the bus station just returned from a day trip to Trekei. My plan was to attend the Simchat Torah celebration and though I had the address, I didn’t know how to get there. Honestly I was tired, so I thought if I couldn’t get directions, I’d just go back to my hostel. Not being shy about asking directions and breaking the language barrier, a young man drew me a picture. So simple! I only needed two more sets of directions to get me through the gate of the old city, past a few massive chuches, past the line of the elite waiting to get into the Philharmonic and down a narrow cobblestoned arched street that reminded me of the old city of Jerusalem.
I thought I was going in the right direction as I passed people getting out of a taxi, laughing and going into a glass front building. In front of me was a man in a yarmulke certainly also going to Chabad who was able to point me back to the hotel looking builidng which is the new home for Chabad.
The lobby was packed! People milling about greeting each other in Lithuanian. I hate to stereotype but nobody looked like they spoke English yet I managed to make my way to the women’s section, in the reception hall, the Rabbi’s wife was teaching about 75 women the prayer for lighting the candles. Only minutes later, the Rabbi attempted to quiet everyone down to enter the hall for kiddush – wine and food. I must have missed the service!
As the Rabbi said the prayer over the wine, I recognized the Russian man from the old synagogue standing next to him. I realized that this must be the place for people to come together and pray. For the most part, people looked secular – women in pants though all the men had on yarmulkes. If you’re wondering if I went to speak to him, remember we didn’t do so well communicating the first time. As I looked at him my imagination transported me 100 years into the past where I could picture him there, opening the door of the synagogue.
As plates of food disappeared, the Rabbi attempted to get everyone back into the synagogue for the dancing and the carrying of the Torah. Replacing frustration with good nature, he took up a whiskey bottle and circled the room greeting everyone and pouring them a shot. The Rabbitzan, Dinah, from Crown Heights in Brooklyn said they’ve seen tremendous change over the last 17 years in the city and especially the congregation. When they first arrived and started finding Jews, no-one knew anything. They had to start at the beginning teaching prayers and everything about Judaism. There were about 200 people at the center that night and regarless of what people understood I could feel the sense of community.
The reason the center looked like it was a hotel is because it was. It had been gifted to Chabad and was now also a boarding school for about 60 children from smaller towns.
Lilly an English tutor made her way to me and took me under her wing introducing me to others and telling me part of her story which I’ll write about tomorrow since we are meeting at 3:00 today. I wasn’t the only guest. I had the chance to meet a family from Copenhagen. (Many Eastern Europeans fled to Scandinavia). Noomi, who with her father and brother, were going to trace her Grandmother’s roots. Noomi said she’d share the experience on the blog, so I hope we all get to read about their trip.
Finally reassembled in the sanctuary, for an hour as the men carried the Torah and sang, we women danced to Hava Nagila, Tumbalalika, and other songs. Little girls grabbed hands and twirled. The Rabbitzan grabbed various women, pulling them into the circle to be danced around. We formed conga lines and snaked through our small area. Working up a sweat there were refreshments of beer, gin, vodka, and a few glasses of coke. There was also this tasty plum wine (?) that Lilly brought me.
The community is growing as more people uncover their Jewish roots. And the thing that is most interesting, is that so many do want to learn, are drawn back to the religion, the culture, the feeling of what it all means to be Jewish. Certainly I found attraction in the warmth of this small joyous community.