“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.”

Residents enjoy a hot summer afternoon on the banks of the Uzh River. Tens of thousands of Jews lived in Uzhhorod before the war, crowding the promenades by the river during the shabbat. When asked how many synagogues there were before the war, one resident said there “were simply too many to remember.”
Residents enjoy a hot summer afternoon on the banks of the Uzh River. Tens of thousands of Jews lived in Uzhhorod before the war, crowding the promenades by the river during the shabbat. When asked how many synagogues there were before the war, one resident said there “were simply too many to remember.”

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.

Levitz and Shimon, his only employee, start work in the early hours of the morning, at the bakery’s workshop in a dilapidated former industrial section of Uzhhorod. “Rent is definitely very cheap and so are the bills,” says Levitz, who adds that Ukraine is a good place to start a business, or at least it was before the Maidan revolution and the ensuing civil war led to a drastic devaluation of the gryvna, the Ukrainian currency. “I liked the revolution,” says Shimon, Levitz’ only employee at the bakery, “but I need financial stability, I need to be able to feed myself. And since the Maidan it’s all a mess, and everything is more expensive.”
Levitz and Shimon, his only employee, start work in the early hours of the morning, at the bakery’s workshop in a dilapidated former industrial section of Uzhhorod. “Rent is definitely very cheap and so are the bills,” says Levitz, who adds that Ukraine is a good place to start a business, or at least it was before the Maidan revolution and the ensuing civil war led to a drastic devaluation of the gryvna, the Ukrainian currency. “I liked the revolution,” says Shimon, Levitz’ only employee at the bakery, “but I need financial stability, I need to be able to feed myself. And since the Maidan it’s all a mess, and everything is more expensive.”

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.

Levitz is a practicing Orthodox Jew, and the Brooklyn Bakery is strictly kosher. There aren’t too many other practicing Jews in town, so Levitz tries his best to appeal to a wider audience, sharing his space with a coffee shop and offering American specialties such as muffins. “We try to sell new products, which is quite unusual here.”
Levitz is a practicing Orthodox Jew, and the Brooklyn Bakery is strictly kosher. There aren’t too many other practicing Jews in town, so Levitz tries his best to appeal to a wider audience, sharing his space with a coffee shop and offering American specialties such as muffins. “We try to sell new products, which is quite unusual here.”

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.”

Fresh challah bread comes out of the oven. Traditionally eaten by Jews on shabbat and religious holidays, this salted bread is now commonly eaten in Ukraine, and can be found in the market on most days.
Fresh challah bread comes out of the oven. Traditionally eaten by Jews on shabbat and religious holidays, this salted bread is now commonly eaten in Ukraine, and can be found in the market on most days.

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.”

A youth crew performs Jewish-themed dances at a cultural event held in the historical museum of Kolochava, a community up in the mountains above Uzhhorod. The town is home to a partial reconstruction of a Jewish shtetl (village).
A youth crew performs Jewish-themed dances at a cultural event held in the historical museum of Kolochava, a community up in the mountains above Uzhhorod. The town is home to a partial reconstruction of a Jewish shtetl (village).
Uzhhorod's former main synagogue, as seen from across the Uzh River. Built in 1910, the synagogue can host hundreds of faithful, but was left empty after the majority of the Jewish community was deported to death camps during WWII. The new Soviet authorities took over the synagogue and converted it into a music hall, after removing any visible sign of its Jewish past.
Uzhhorod’s former main synagogue, as seen from across the Uzh River. Built in 1910, the synagogue can host hundreds of faithful, but was left empty after the majority of the Jewish community was deported to death camps during WWII. The new Soviet authorities took over the synagogue and converted it into a music hall, after removing any visible sign of its Jewish past.
The rabbi of Uzhhorod, sent from the Chabad organization to run the synagogue, helps a visiting Jew to pray.
The rabbi of Uzhhorod, sent from the Chabad organization to run the synagogue, helps a visiting Jew to pray.
A social gathering at the Hesed Shapira community center. Funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Hesed Shapira is a charity that mostly focuses on supporting elderly Jews and runs programs such as “Window to the World,” which provides laptops and Skype accounts to keep in touch with relatives who have emigrated abroad, mostly to Israel and North America.
A social gathering at the Hesed Shapira community center. Funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Hesed Shapira is a charity that mostly focuses on supporting elderly Jews and runs programs such as “Window to the World,” which provides laptops and Skype accounts to keep in touch with relatives who have emigrated abroad, mostly to Israel and North America.
Shimon during his morning prayers after returning home from a night of baking bread.
Shimon during his morning prayers after returning home from a night of baking bread.
Levitz drops freshly-baked biscuits and bread at the bakery in central Uzhhorod. The clientele is slowly growing, and he is trying his best to keep the bakery profitable. “My presence here has two sides: to help the Jewish community and to run a successful business. If I don't manage to make a living, I would have to leave.”
Levitz drops freshly-baked biscuits and bread at the bakery in central Uzhhorod. The clientele is slowly growing, and he is trying his best to keep the bakery profitable. “My presence here has two sides: to help the Jewish community and to run a successful business. If I don’t manage to make a living, I would have to leave.”
Levitz and Shimon buy fresh milk at a small farm in the mountains above Uzhhorod, after arriving at seven o’clock and having a quick glass of vodka to mark the sunrise.
Levitz and Shimon buy fresh milk at a small farm in the mountains above Uzhhorod, after arriving at seven o’clock and having a quick glass of vodka to mark the sunrise.
Levitz pulls fresh challah bread from the oven. Running a bakery is not an easy job, and it involves waking up around two o' clock in the morning. Levitz’s wife is at the shop during the day, allowing him to get some sleep after spending most of the night baking bread.
Levitz pulls fresh challah bread from the oven. Running a bakery is not an easy job, and it involves waking up around two o’ clock in the morning. Levitz’s wife is at the shop during the day, allowing him to get some sleep after spending most of the night baking bread.

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János Chialá, Tali Mayer and Ilya Ginzburg met in the streets of Jerusalem a long time ago, and have been wandering from the Middle East to Ukraine ever since.