Where to begin? This past Shabbes was a fantastic experience in every way!! Lighting Shabbat candles in the synagogue in Chelm, where there has not been a service for 80 years, was a humbling experience. As I explained the meaning of lighting Shabbat candles, the metaphor of bringing light again into this space was profoundly moving. The service/concert I did with Marcin re-created the Shabbat service. I selected pieces that were both old and newly composed, including a nigun that Marcin wrote. We started with this beautiful nigun, and everyone caught on to the melody, filling the room with song.
The Shabbat meal that followed was alive with conversations about Jewish life in Poland, and one of our honored guests was a member of the Polish Parliament! This esteemed government member showed up at all three of the events sponsored by the Jewish community.
Shabbos morning, I slept in, and then we traveled to Wojsławice, where there is a newly restored synagogue. I walked in feeling sad, thinking about shuls that are now museums or restaurants. With no Jews to fill them, they are a memorial. I walked in, and it was a beautiful building. I stood on the bima and sang the Shema, and the sound was fantastic as the synagogues of Europe were acoustically beautiful. I started to walk around the display cases, and then I saw a book with photos of Jews who lived in the area. The museum’s caretaker was a lovely man who, when he knew I was coming, set the photo book to a picture of the family Sztajn. I saw that picture and realized that I am only miles from the Ukraine border, where my father was born in Volyches’k. Could they be relatives?
I don’t know. But when I realized that I needed a siddur for the first section of Havdalah, which I can never seem to memorize, there was a siddur written in Hebrew and Polish sitting on the stand that the Shaliach Tzibbur might have stood. I opened it up, the pages reflected the universal character of the Jewish prayer book, and there, where it was supposed to be, was the Havdalah service. The siddur did not turn my sadness to joy, but a spiritual feeling of familiarity, of being home, and my tears turned to the deep Jewish soul that, baruch Hashem, will always connect with the Holy One. That inspiration made the Havdalah ceremony and concert the best one yet. The President of the town (really the Mayor) made an excellent introduction and emphasized the importance of understanding and working with all faiths. I was surprised to hear his words, but in a sense, he does what I do in my world–work to bring people together. The evening was not a show, but a gathering meant to create understanding. Each year the Mayor presents a program that involves the Catholic Church, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and the synagogue. People go from one house of worship to another, and then they have an outdoor music festival. Of course, Marcin and I received an invitation to be part of the festival in July.
I returned to my Chelm hotel and got on a Zoom conference with all of my children, grandchildren, and my darling wife. Although it was not yet my birthday, we spent an hour together laughing and singing. Jared wrote a hilarious song and captured the 70 years, almost unbelievable doings of his father. It was the perfect birthday present. Funny note–one of my sons asked, “So what are you doing on your birthday?” I replied, “I am singing in a cemetery.” That got a good laugh. But it is true. I sang at the anniversary of the clearing of the Chelm Ghetto, where 15,000 Jewish people met their death. The surnames of the families were read, including the name Sztejn. It was a moving moment. I then sang the Eil Malei Rachamim and said in English the words that I was saying in Hebrew. “Men, women, children–strangled, burned, murdered Kiddushat HaShem in the name of God.” It was my birthday–but wasn’t it poignant that 80 years after the horror, Am Yisrael Chai–the people of Israel live and thrive and make the world a better place. No better statement to make on my 70th birthday!!!!
Then we drove to Lublin to do a program at a shtieble shul on the second floor of a building that had survived the war. I had been there before, several years ago, and there did a little program there. The members and President of the Jewish Historical Society were there, and Hania, Professor Spiewak, Iza (Rivka), and people from Slupsk where I am performing a concert on the first night of Hanukkah. They had all come to celebrate my birthday with me, and Marcin brought a cake. It was a great evening, and the cake was delicious. The program was like a parlor concert and very intimate. People felt deeply moved by the music and stories of Jewish life.
What a weekend!! I am off to Warsaw tomorrow and then to Krakov for the Shabbat. I am a little tired, but I am getting the opportunity to sleep in and take care of myself. Thanks for listening, Mike