“People back in America say that Jewish life in Ukraine is finished. I don’t look at it this way. Ukraine was always a Jewish place, with a Jewish history and a Jewish identity, and will always be.”
We are in Uzhhorod, the regional capital of the western Ukrainian province of Zakarpattia, and these are the words of Aaron Levitz, who knows a great deal about what people say in America, and about Jewish life in Ukraine. Born and raised in Long Island, he is now the proud owner of the Brooklyn Bakery, the first kosher bakery to open in Uzhhorod in decades.
Zakarpattia has always been a borderland: In the twentieth century alone, it went from being part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to part of Czechoslovakia, then the Soviet Union, and now Ukraine. Today it borders Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. Many different peoples have called it home over the years: Ukrainians, Russians, Germans, Hungarians and Jews — lots of Jews at one point — perhaps some found themselves at home in such a diverse place. Over time and under the rule of benevolent nobles who allowed them to own and farm land, the Jews of Zakarpattia created flourishing communities that counted thousands of members, built magnificent synagogues and gave birth to great thinkers and teachers. All that came to an end with the Holocaust, when, during the German occupation of Hungary, more than 100,000 Carpathian Jews were deported to death camps over a few weeks in May 1944. Few survived. Only about 4,000 Jews were still in the region by 1948. Today there are probably less than a thousand. The Soviet Union did not exactly encourage public Jewish life, and very few of the Jews who stayed here continued to practice Judaism. The religion’s traditions and practice are “almost something entirely alien to them,” says Levitz.
After growing up what he calls “a very Jewish community” in New York, Levitz was always interested in Hasidism, a branch of Orthodox Judiasm focused on spirituality and mysticism, and spent much of his youth online, learning about the great Hasidic sages and memorizing their dynasties, many of which had their roots in Ukraine. He studied in yeshivas (Jewish religious schools) all around the world, but eventually realized he didn’t want to become a rabbi. Instead, he was drawn to Chabad, an ultra-orthodox Jewish movement whose main aim is to bring Jews closer to Judaism, no matter what their denomination or level of religious observance.
Chabad also invests great efforts in sustaining Jewish communities around the world. “There was this brother who was involved in organizing summer camps for Jewish youth in Ukraine,” Levitz recalls. “So one day I told him that I was coming with him, no matter what.” He made his way to Ukraine and discovered a world very different from the one he had grown up in.
“It really makes you appreciate the good life we have in America,” Levitz says of life in Ukraine. After the Holocaust and half a century of state Communism, Jewish community life in Ukraine is a shadow of what it used to be. “There are so many Jews there, but they don’t have any opportunities to be Jews,” says Levitz. “There is no food, let alone Jewish books. Then we come, and the reaction is mind-blowing. Lots of kids got into religion through these camps, and some even moved to Israel after that.”
He kept coming back for a few years, and made some friends. Then, one day, a rabbi in nearby Zhytomir told Levitz that the rabbi of Uzhhorod was desperately looking for somebody like him, to help with the minyan (the minimum of ten Jews required for certain prayers), the religious holidays and the community in general. “So I took a flight and went straight [there]. The plan was to stay only a year but that was it. I was assisting Rabbi Taichmann, and he really was the first rabbi in the region after decades.”
The rabbi was known to be very dedicated, but a year later, he left. Levitz was somewhat shocked, and found himself spending the summer of 2012 as a sort of interim rabbi for the town. “I was reading the Bible and saying kaddish at funerals. It wasn’t easy, I was twenty years old and had no money to pay bills and stuff.” After a few months, a new rabbi was finally appointed and Levitz returned to New York, where he took a course in baking.
“People are always going to need food, especially bread,” he notes. “I thought it was a good profession to get into.” While in the U.S. he met his wife, who is from Eastern Ukraine and was studying at a religious program for Russian-speaking Jewish girls. “I basically told her, ‘If you want to marry me you have to come to Uzhhorod with me.’” She didn’t exactly like the thought of it at first, but in the end she accepted and they both moved to Zakarpattia. Last June, they opened the Brooklyn Bakery.
“Do I miss living in big, Jewish New York? Yeah, of course,” says Levitz. “There is a minyan at every block, and kosher fast food. But here it’s more special; here I feel more Jewish. There, I’d be just another drop in the bucket, while here I feel it has a purpose, and it makes me strive to be a better Jew.”
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