Ukrainian Jewish Heritage: Tu Bishvat

On January 16th, 2014 Jews in Ukraine and around the world will observe Tu Bishvat …traditionally known as the new year of the trees.

According to the tradition of the Hasidim, on Tu Bishvat the Almighty decides the fate of trees and their fruits in the upcoming year’s harvest.

As on all Jewish holidays and the weekly shabbat, Jews enjoy a celebratory meal called the seder. Some seders require following strict rituals. Others are more flexible, such as the Tu Bishvat seder. Some Jewish families like to eat meat on Tu Bishvat, others prefer a vegetarian lasagna or a noodle casserole called kugel.

However there are some common elements in a Tu Bishvat Seder. These are drinking four different types of wine and eating four different types of fruit.

In Ukraine Tu Bishvat is also a time to celebrate one the most famous Jewish sages – Rabbi Sholom Mordechai Shvadron, let the memory of him be blessed – also known as Maharsham of Berezhany.

He was appointed Rabbi of the Berezhany district in 1882 and continued to serve in that position until his death in 1911. Physically he was short and skinny, but in everything else he was a giant of impossible comparison.

Rabbi Shvadron was a genius in learning, a gifted teacher, and an invaluable advisor to the Jewish community in Galicia and around the world. Every day he received a large bag of mail …and he answered every single letter.

Rabbi Shvadron published many books and commentaries. He was involved in the ordination of Rabbis outside his community, and established a small local Yeshiva, where young men could study canonical texts and traditions.

Three years ago, on January 21, 2011, more than a hundred pilgrims, all Rabbi Shvadron’s descendants, came to Ukraine from around the world to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his death.

The festivities took place in Berezhany, where Rabbi Shvadron rests in an ancient Jewish cemetery. Emotions were high, especially in discussions of the importance of preserving Jewish memory and local Jewish history as part of the Ukrainian State’s heritage.

The festive group then traveled to Kuty, another historical town in the Karpaty – the Carpathian mountains – to celebrate Shabbat and share stories about their grandparents, Ukraine’s thriving Jewish life in times past, and the revival of Jewish life here today.

This pilgrimage has become an annual event, as the location has taken on added significance.

Next to the ancient Jewish cemetery in Berezhany where Rav Shvadron was buried, is a mass grave of Holocaust victims. For decades, this unmarked burial site lay under a school playground adjacent to the cemetery.

For many years, Meylakh Sheykhet begged the school official to move the playground so the grave site could be fenced. It was only after the school children themselves intervened that the official agreed. The children attributed the deaths of several classmates to the location of their playground.

Later, when Meylakh wanted to establish a memorial to Rav Shvadron, those same children, now young adults, again offered to help. They will tell you that the mysterious deaths of their classmates stopped after the playground was moved. And that the school official had a change in heart.

So, in the year 2000 [Meylakh, please confirm the year] the memorial to Rav Shvadron was established at the Berezhany cemetery.

Wherever you live, may you enjoy all the beauty that nature unfolds with the approach of the Tu Bishvat celebration and the coming of Spring.

This is Renata Hanynets in Lviv, Ukraine.

Until next time, Shalom!

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