Sunday, August 23, 2009

Farewell Vilnius

Friday was our graduation from the Vilnius Yiddish Institute and our last day in Vilnius. We have grown attached to our friends, our apartment and the many cafes which we frequent as well as the wait staff whom we have gotten to know well. At one of the restaurants which we go to often, I was reading aloud to my companions from a book of Lithuanian folk tales. Our waitress listened in until she had to attend to other customers. The next time we were in she stopped by our table to see how the story ended. We learned a little of her story as well and Fran stopped back with a gift of a children’s book for her daughter. She was very surprised and touched and shared a picture of her daughter.

As yesterday was Shabbat we decided we should attend the synagogue before departing the city. We arrived at the synagogue where other congregants had gathered and greeted them with a Shabbat Shalom. They responded in Russian and Hebrew and that was the end of that conversation.

It is an orthodox synagogue where the women sit separately from the men. Women have two choices where they sit. There is an area on the ground floor cordoned off by curtains. Alternatively there is the balcony where one has a good view of the activities, but it feels very isolated from the proceedings below. It felt very exclusionary to both of us coming from a Reform Jewish background. We headed up the stairs to the balcony where we saw Ruta, the woman who had shown us around the synagogue earlier in the week. It felt like being greeted by a warm friend.

Once Shabbat starts you are not supposed to take photographs, but as we had arrived early, we had a short window for our usual picture taking. The cantor from the Fifth Avenue Synagogue in New York was the special guest. There is a Litvak conference beginning next week which is what brought him to Vilnius.

The service seemed somewhat incoherent to us. Several different people spoke or chanted, but with their back to the congregation most of the time. From the balcony I could easily count the number of people and saw 29 men and 14 women. I was curious as to what proportion of the men were elderly. My very scientific test determined that seventy percent of the men had grey hair. Finally the guest cantor went through the ritual of arranging his tallis. After the ritual prayer, he pulled it completely over his head, then he expertly flipped a portion on each side over his shoulder. It made me think of a bullfighter with his cape. He stood in the center of the synagogue facing the front and began to sing the prayers in a beautiful voice. Much of it seemed very foreign to us. I leafed through the prayer book with Russian on one side and Hebrew on the other. With my limited grasp of Russian I determined that the Hebrew was actually translated into Russian, not transliterated. Interestingly it was not in Lithuanian. I assume with an older congregation, Russian was their second language outside of Yiddish. I was pleased when I found the Sh’ma in the prayer book. Of the prayers, the only ones I recognized were the Sh’ma, the Kiddish and the Kaddish. There was no blessing of the Sabbath lights, most likely because a woman usually performs that ritual.

We had heard that the service would be about 45 minutes, leaving us time to attend the alternative Shabbat Tish ( a gathering at one of our classmate’s apartment). After about an hour, we decided to quietly exit and go on our way. I was grateful for the anonymity of being in the balcony to facilitate our departure. However, we were surprised to discover that the gate which was locked from the outside for security was also locked from the inside. Luckily the service soon concluded and we were released.

We found our friend’s location and joined the party in progress. We always find it interesting to see the apartments of other students. While smaller than ours it seemed more modern and very comfortable. It was a festive and friendly atmosphere and a little bit sad as we thought about how we would soon be leaving our friends. We had missed the lighting of the Shabbat candles, but a beautiful array had been created and was still burning brightly.

It was a very poignant ending to a wonderful experience. We hugged our friends goodbye with promises to stay connected and meet again in the future.
We walked down our familiar streets one last time and I took a picture of each of the five streets that radiate out from in front of our apartment.

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