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Grigory Kanovich, born 1929, is one of the most prominent modern Lithuanian Jewish writers, winner of Lithuanian National Prize for Culture and Arts. Kanovich was born into a traditional Jewish family in the Lithuanian town of Jonava. He has written more than ten novels – a virtual epic saga – dealing with the vicissitudes of the history of Eastern European Jewry from the 19th century to the present day.
His novel Shtetl Love Song won the Liudo Dovydeno Prize awarded by the Lithuanian Writers’ Union.

Today, Kanovich is the only writer in the entire world capable of depicting the life of the pre-war Jewish shtetl with the documentary precision of an immediate witness and the deep emotional passion of a lover mourning his loss – Mikhail Krutikov, Professor of Slavic and Judaic Studies, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

(biography and quote from noirpress.co.uk)

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Art by Mark Kanovich

 

An excerpt from the novel Shtetl Love Song

 

The Great Synagogue was filled with light. It seemed like the April morning sun had suddenly moved to illuminate the grand vaults of the holy prayer house.

“Do you like this?” Grandma Rokha asked, bending over and whispering into my ear.

“Yes, I do,” I said truthfully.

“Will you tell that to your papa and mama?”

“Oh yes!”

Grandma listened to the Tilsit-born Rabbi Eliezer, who was wearing a white silk talis and a velvet yarmulke embroidered with gold thread, as if she knew ahead of time what he would say. She was bothered by the German accent that he had not succeeded in losing. But when he began to recite some of the blessings, the old woman paid complete attention. Her face began to shine and, as if hoping that the One Above would hear, she shouted loudly, “Omein!” the Ashkenazi Amen. Then she instructed me, her Hirshele, to repeat the word after her.

Omein! Omein!” I repeated twice, imitating her, wishing to please her, with such a strange enthusiasm that our neighbours in the balcony turned toward us, frightened.

The reading of the Torah, it seemed to me, lasted far too long and, beginning to get bored, I began to fidget on the bench. I looked down on the men’s section, paying no attention to what Rabbi Eliezer in his black yarmulke was explaining. The Rabbi, in his black trousers that could be glimpsed beneath his white talis and sharp pointed shoes, resembled a heron standing on one leg next to his nest. I expected him to pronounce once more the magic “Omein”, spread his wings and fly up to heaven to join our Gotenu.

Below there was a noise as if someone had stirred up a beehive. After hearing the Rabbi say “Omein,” all the worshippers rose together, like soldiers, and recited a prayer. Candles were burning around the bimah and the smell of wax hung like an invisible haze over the densely packed prayer house. The service would soon be over, I thought, and the people would disperse and I would be able to go home, where Grandma’s delicacies were awaiting me, but the Rabbi just continued to talk and talk.

“Don’t fidget,” Grandma said. “You’re bothering the people who want to listen. The Rabbi is speaking about our troubles, about how no one in the world loves us and about how we Jews have to live in harmony with each other because we are still living in slavery to others.”

Again, I understood very little of what she said but, for some reason, I piped, “But I love everyone: you, Grandma Sheyne, Papa, Mama. Everyone!” Then I quietened down. My attention was drawn to a butterfly that had somehow entered the synagogue and was circling around the top row, above the women who were yawning from lack of sleep. The creature was as bright as their holiday dresses and scarves.

I was totally captivated by its flight above the heads of the worshippers and the ark in which, my grandma explained to me, were kept the holy scrolls brought from Jerusalem itself. I followed the butterfly, not taking my eyes off it. The beautiful creature that had flown into the Beit Knesset hagadol rose sometimes toward the mighty vaults that smelled of holiness and then descended and landed on the rail of the bimah. I was fascinated by its light wings spotted with dark dots and, with great interest, observed its desperate flight, forgetting completely about the sermon of Rabbi Eliezer, about Passover and even about the fact that no one in the world loved us. I was overcome by the fear that some worshipper or other would swat the butterfly with their calloused palm. One blow and it would fall dead on the well-trodden rug that covered the floor.

“What are you staring at, Hirshele? Haven’t you ever seen a butterfly before?”

“Yes, yes, I have.”

“There’s no reason to stare! Is that butterfly really so wonderful?” Grandmother chided. “We came here to pray, not to gaze at the ceiling. God forbid you should grow up to be a heretic like your Uncle Shmulik!”

However, I didn’t listen to her or take my eyes off the butterfly.

“In our yard we have some like that and lots of other kinds. You’ll have the chance to look at them later.”

“But it’s such a beauty!” I persisted.

“So what if it’s beautiful?” Grandma Rokha remarked. “We’re not in a field, or a garden, or a yard! Why are you filling your head with nonsense? A butterfly is a thing of a day, while our Gotenu is forever. Hirshele, think about Him.”

I did not reply.

“Think, my dear, about us Jews who, as Rabbi Eliezer said, have been wandering in foreign lands as if we were still in the desert. And not just for forty years, but for thousands.”

No matter how hard Grandma Rokha tried to get me to think about Him, no matter how she tried to explain about the Jews who wandered in a foreign land, all my thoughts were focused on the butterfly, which had disappeared somewhere. Since the doors and windows of the house where our Gotenu lived were firmly closed and the butterfly could not have flown out of the prayer house, I was certain that someone must have swatted her so that the worshippers’ attention was not distracted. My sorrow was somewhat alleviated by the faint hope that the butterfly had perhaps hidden in some corner or other, or landed on the door of the ark, where the holy scrolls were kept. When the doors opened, she would burst out into the street and fly off to some field or land on a bush by the roadside.

After Rabbi Eliezer had once more blessed everyone and wished them a Happy Passover, the people slowly began to depart.

As soon as we left the Great Synagogue, I began to look around in search of my butterfly but, under the cloudless sky and above the fragrant chestnut trees there flew only the swift, free swallows, which turned the blue sky black with their wings. Avigdor Perelman was still standing in the front garden at the exit of the synagogue and, violating the sanctity of the festival, begging for donations from his fellow shtetl dwellers, who would be more generous leaving, he hoped, because of the parting words of Rabbi Elierzer.

“Have you forgotten that it is forbidden to either give or receive charity on the Shabbat and festivals?”

“I can accept it. I am an atheist, an apostate, and whoever is generous will give. The Lord will look the other way rather than blame those who give.”

“You should come to us this evening,” Rokha said. “You can try some honey liqueur. I remember when you were young, you were quite good-looking then, a real handsome fellow! You had dark curls to your shoulders, so long that you could braid them. You were an imp with light blue eyes. The girls used to melt at the sight of you. I too, it’s no sin to admit it, had my eye on you.”

“You, Rokha? On me?”

“On you. Who else do you think I mean?”

“You must be confusing me with somebody else. It wasn’t me. I never had curls down to my shoulders and my eyes weren’t blue. I was weak-sighted from birth,” the pauper wheezed. “As for my best day, it’s not in the past, but rather in the future.” For a moment he stopped speaking, chewed his lip, and then added, “My best day will be when the gravedigger, Hatzkel Berman, covers my woes and my shame with his shovel.”

“Come.” Grandma Rokha repeated her invitation. “When Hennie had her misfortune, you came to us to share our grief. Now we would like to share our joy with you. Nobody should be alone, either in good fortune or in misfortune.”

“Thank you for the invitation, Rokha, you are a marvellous woman, one who is often misunderstood. Excuse me for my directness, but sometimes you are a witch and sometimes an angel in a skirt,” Avigdor said, shaking his head. “Still, I might come. At least to sit in a warm place and drink with you like a human being. And who is this here? Shleimke’s son? Your first little grandchild?”

“Yes.”

“He’s a cute little fellow. What is your name, you little urchin?” he asked me.

Grandma Rokha answered for me. “Today was Hirshele’s first time in the synagogue,” she boasted before the atheist Perelman.

“Rokha, isn’t it too early to drag him there?” Avigdor couldn’t resist asking. “You might have waited a year or two before going to bow down before the One on High. Hirshele, if it’s not a secret, what did you ask God for?”

I felt embarrassed.

“I didn’t ask. Grandma always asks for me.”

“That’s what a grandma is for! After all, she and the Lord are old friends and everyone is always glad to do something for an old friend. But still, you must have some wish. Everyone wants something from the Lord. What would you like from Him?”

“I want... I want...” I babbled. “I want him to open the synagogue doors and let the butterfly go free!”

“Butterfly? What butterfly? Butterflies don’t fly around in synagogues.”

“They do!” I said.

“They fly, they don’t fly! Hirshele, you are talking nonsense! Let’s go home, we have already chattered too much,” said Grandma, taking me by the hand and pulling me after her. “Grandpa must be worried already. You, Avigdor, I am inviting once more to our seder.”

 

 

Translated from Russian by Yisrael Elliot Cohen

 

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