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Khotyn – Cultural Longing and Identification

I returned again to Khotyn yesterday evening. I’m not exactly certain as to why, but perhaps that will unfold as I am here. The excuse I told myself in planning to come here was that I wanted to photograph more of the remaining Jewish people here in town. I’ve been itching to put together images and words from this journey into a book of some form, so while I’m here and have the chance, I thought I’d collect a little bit more material.

Last night, I came here by bus with a friend named Lidia I met in Chernivtsi who is acting as interpreter for me. She’s never been to this town before or seen it’s historic fortress (above you can see me reclaiming the family castle), so she was also interested in coming here as an adventure of sorts. We had been invited to Sacha and Faina’s so we arrived, bearing a snack and also a gift which I had bought for them in the synagogue in Kiev. It’s hard to describe how sweet it is to be with them in their home. It has such a warm family feeling for me. I didn’t have many questions to ask, but rather, it was simply about being with them. Lidia had a very sweet way with them and they talked of a mutual friend they had. There were also several simple laughs that they shared. Of course, we were fed much more than simply the tea which we had accepted.

I truly miss my Jewish grandparents, not just in the obvious way of wishing to spend time with them again, but also in a more “cultural” way. There were ways in which they behaved, spoke, gestured, and entertained, even fought, that captured much more for me than just their individual selves. Those things, combined with food, card games (Kalukie), humor, gambling, and conversation all made up a sense of personal cultural history for me. With their passing, the “jewishness: of my life has largely passed as well. Back home, I adopted my friend Irv to be my cousin, because his “jewishness,” heart and humor makes him feel very much like family to me, and helps me to feel as if this “personal cultural history” I’m writing about here is still alive.

People seem to have many different ways of being/feeling/understanding jewishness. For me, it’s always been a more cultural thing (for those of you who don’t really know the american Jewish culture of my grandparents generation, here’s a link to a little Jackie Mason comedy video to watch to give you a better sense). For others, being Jewish is a religious identification which revolves around synagogue, the Sabbath, following religious practices etc. Others still, I’m learning, see it more as a “nationality,” a collective group of people with a shared history. Nationality is a strange word in this context since Jews have not had a nation around which to be literally nationalistic. I know that now there is Israel, but even those who don’t live in Israel, like the people I’m meeting here in Ukraine, articulate feelings of collective identification – they tell me that they feel not Ukrainian or Russian, but Jewish.

The force drawing me back here, then, appears to be the magnet of cultural history which attracts a longing which seems to be very particular to my soul. It’s a longing to belong, to be part of, to be connected to a part of my past which seems to have slipped away.

Walking the park in Khotyn last night, I noticed many young people out and about as it was a Saturday night. Until then, I hadn’t really pictured my grandfather living here. I only know my grandfather as an older man, but when he lived in Khotyn, he was a young man, leaving there by the time he was 20. His experience of this town was from the perspective of a young man. These kids I saw milling about could easily have been him in another day and age. Perhaps he had a girlfriend (I would imaging he did since he was quite handsome) and they sat on the same old bench in the main park we did tonight, or perhaps he threw stones into the river from the same spot along the river under the fortress which I did this afternoon.

Today we went to the synagogue (sign says Khotynska Synagoga), where I had gone a couple of weeks ago. The same people were there. I told them that although it hadn’t been long, that it was nice being home again. They seemed to appreciate the sentiment and also our presence. I had a nice internal laugh which threatened to break out during the service. At one point, Sacha had been standing for awhile reading a long passage from the Torah, while my friend Lidia appropriately said nothing to interpret. The reading and prayer went on and on and on, and as it did, I started to laugh imagining that the translation of the entirety of the passage, once he would finally stop, would simply be ’Let’s eat.’

We asked a few things, shared more food together and then walked through the local Saturday market to Chiam’s (one of the synagogue members) apartment which is in one of the buildings which had once been a synagogue. Apparently there had once been 24 active synagogues in this town supporting a vibrant Jewish community, and now there is but one synagogue operating with just a handful of active members. Chiam’s building was fairly dilapidated and you could see various exterior repair jobs all in view from decades of shoring up the structure. There isn’t necessarily a lot of money to go around in these parts. There are new homes being built too so some are sufficiently wealthy, but in general, it seems like a fairly poor part of the world.

One reply on “Khotyn – Cultural Longing and Identification”

Hey, I am checking this blog using the phone and this appears to be kind of odd. Thought you'd wish to know. This is a great write-up nevertheless, did not mess that up.

– David

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